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2013 MLB Draft: Does drafting pitchers early really payoff?

2013 MLB Draft: Does drafting pitchers early really payoff?
April 19, 2013
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As the 2013 MLB Draft approaches, I have been a bit surprised by the amount of fans who want to push the draft in a certain direction based on need. I would say at this point 90% of the questions I field are based on pitching and how the Indians have to draft pitching because they lack impact pitching in the system.

The two big pitching names in this draft are Mark Appel of Stanford and Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma. The issue is neither of those players will be on the board for the Tribe. Anyone who says otherwise is just dreaming as it just won't happen.  Most experts expect them to go one and two in this draft. The only other pitcher who I would even consider near the top five is prep right handed pitcher Kohl Stewart.  He is a guy who if drafted is years and years away, and fans want someone RIGHT NOW.

All this talk led me to think about the old saying that "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect" and I decided there was only one way to really judge the truth of this. I took 16 years of draft data from 1988 to 2003, for a total of 16 drafts and 240 players. I figured this would give enough years and players to give a solid sample size. I went with the first 15 prospects figuring those would typically also be the top players in each draft, the guys who teams thought had the best chance to excel. These are the guys teams scout the most and have the most upside with the least risk.

The final break down was of those 240 players selected, 116 were pitchers which equals about 48%, while there were 124 hitters taken which equals of course 52%. So over that time there was just about a 50-50 spilt for pitchers and hitters taken over that period.

The big question is how do you judge players who have been successful in the majors while comparing players across multiple positions. I finally settled on using WAR as I have used it on other draft pieces and it does allow for direct comparison of players regardless of position.

The next question was to decide what players counted as successes and who counted as busts. After some time I settled on a player who had a WAR of 10 or better would be a success.  The thought being to be a 10 WAR player a guy must have had at least four good years.

A guy who fell under this total for instance was former Twins lefty and journeymen pitcher Mark Redman. A guy who made a single all star team yet never played three full seasons with any team.  On the other side would be Adam Everett who was mostly known for his defense but was a pretty solid shortstop for four years before turning into a reliable utility guy.

I mentioned earlier that over those 16 drafts there were 124 hitters taken. Of those 124 players only 49 of them became 10 WAR players for their careers. This was about 40% of the hitters taken went on to be solid regulars or better.   This might seem like a low pay off on value, but this is nothing when compared to the pitchers.

As mentioned before there were 116 pitchers taken over the same 16 years, and of those only 30 became 10 WAR players. This came out to only 26%, so roughly one in every four pitchers taken in the top half of the first round become even useful players. This is a pretty high difference between hitters and pitchers.

This led me to think a team might be smart to never draft pitchers early. The rationale is, the payoff is much more likely when you draft a hitter. Then a team could always trade this talent later on for pitching.  The idea being to get the best talent possible, as it is always best to maximize the talent in the system.  Look at it like a business transaction; hitters have a better payoff,  so why take the risk on a worse investment which is pitching?

When you look at the numbers the chances of a pitcher becoming successful versus a hitter is basically 15%. Over this 16 year period a team that drafted only hitters would have produced two more contributors than a team that drafted only pitchers.

For those who might be wondering, the Indians' last 30 picks in the top 15 have produced exactly three players who met or exceeded the 10 WAR  value. Those players are Kelly Gruber, Greg Swindell, and Manny Ramirez. This timeframe takes the Indians from 2007 with Beau Mills all the way to John Bonnet in 1979. If you think that is depressing, if you take every first rounder since 1965 - over 50 players - only eight have managed to be 10 WAR or better players and two never played for the Tribe for extended periods.

When it comes to the draft the idea is to take the best talent, then either the player will fit in later or be traded to fill a need. Even a college players takes two to three years to develop and by that time a lot can change. Teams will sign free agents, make trades, and draft more players, so this is why you never look for a need.

This data made me think that if you are a team that you should always lean towards drafting hitters. The flameout rate of pitching is so very high.  Look at it another way that over 16 years 74% of pitchers drafted in the first half of the first round failed to become even solid contributors. These are the most scouted, most seen, and best known players every year and the overwhelming majority of them will fail.

How this all relates to this year's draft is that there is absolutely no reason to ever take a lesser talent just because they are a pitcher. The Indians desperately need pitching but drafting one does not mean the pitcher will succeed. The high failure rate means that for a team picking high and who needs to cash in on their pick, all things being equal they should consider avoiding taking an arm. I am still going to trust my eyes and what I see scouting, but if an arm and a bat carry an equal grade or near even, then I for one would lean hitter.

In the end, drafting pitching early just doesn't pay off.  They seem to be the scratch off ticket of the baseball world. You dream big and imagine what winnings are coming your way, but end up a few dollars poorer with nothing to show for it.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at

User Comments

October 1, 2013 - 11:55 PM EDT
umm first thing is even if there were more hitters who made a difference with their games....... pitchers even if there is less who become successful can change the game way more significantly if they do make it...... like for example say you could take fernandez or manny machado i know how good many machado is but hey fernandez is going to effect the game 10X more thats the thought process in taking a pitcher this is why they get paid more
April 20, 2013 - 9:10 PM EDT
adam I do not have it off the top of my head but follow this link its rather easy to find from there
April 20, 2013 - 11:10 AM EDT
CC was a 1st round pick although not in the "top half". Future HOFer isn't bad. You can't be dogmatic about the draft. How does it go? Past performance doesn't guarantee future performance? You can hardly base anything relating to unique individuals on statistical analysis, IMO. The only things that I'd say for sure is that I wouldn't draft based on pure projection (Austin Meadows) or mere safety (Dillon Overton). Scouting is extremely important.

As an exercise, try to figure out the '06 draft. Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow, and Andrew Miller were taken in order before Kershaw, Lincecum, and Scherzer. Add to the mix that Longoria was taken third behind Hochevar & Reynolds. Lots of talent in that draft & some big misses.
April 20, 2013 - 10:57 AM EDT
Jeff, thank you for the article. Do you have the list of 30 pitchers with a 10+ WAR to their name?
April 19, 2013 - 7:27 PM EDT
As always thanks for the comments, love to see that what I write is read and generates thought. Will have a big board by next week for people to look over
April 19, 2013 - 6:42 PM EDT
Common Cents-

That's an interesting point, the reward of taking pitchers. The author says:
"As mentioned before there were 116 pitchers taken over the same 16 years, and of those only 30 became 10 WAR players. This came out to only 26%, so roughly one in every four pitchers taken in the top half of the first round become even useful players. This is a pretty high difference between hitters and pitchers."

I would be interested to see...of those 30 pitchers who did end up as 10 WAR or better players...what was their career WAR? What was their peak WAR? Something tells me that a good number of those pitchers end up as 40+ WAR players over the course of their career, which would indicate that if you do get it right, you're finding yourself an incredibly valuable commodity.
Common Cents
April 19, 2013 - 6:19 PM EDT
Does supply/demand not figure into this? Seems to me that this suggests when you do have a successful young pitcher that he'd be worth even more than a hitter due to the pitcher being more of a scarce resource.

OK, drafting pitchers is risky, but considering the REWARD it may still make sense when considering their scarcity. The payoff is likely to be far greater when you hit on a pitcher.

I'm not so sure this as such an inefficient market where teams stupidly keep drafting SP's and failing. When you look at risk alone it may appear so, but reward is just as important of a variable.
April 19, 2013 - 2:17 PM EDT
I think it has more to do with the way teams develop the drafted pitchers - many teams try to force pitchers to conform to a prescribed work-out, arm-care, and conditioning regimen, and to change everything about their form and delivery. Why do so many pitchers lose velo once they are drafted?
April 19, 2013 - 2:01 PM EDT
The characterization that it's Gray & Appel then some guys followed by Kohl Stewart is misguided at best. Kohl Stewart would be the fifth or sixth pitcher taken behind Gray, Appel, Anderson, Manea, & Stanek.. Your article points out the pitfalls of the MLB draft. Overall, a 17 % success rate for first round talent over many years (not just the small window you've used and the subjective criteria for evaluation) seems to say that it's not just the Indians front office that misses.. Everyone misses (six out of seven times on average) when it comes to first round picks..
April 19, 2013 - 1:36 PM EDT
This is a good analysis, but a deeper look needs to be done to really understand what should be done with the first round pick this year. On the whole, yes, college hitters are the least risky type of player to draft. And yes, theoretically teams could draft a more "sure thing" in the first round by taking a bat and then draft a few young arms in rounds 2-5 to maximize their chances of success. However, the Indians have never, ever shown an ability to develop starting pitchers who aren't considered top-15 talents.

Even if drafting a pitcher in the top half of the draft is more risky overall, a player drafted in the first round has a significantly better chance of reaching the majors than one drafted in the second round or later. Research supports that.

So as is always the case, it comes down to a risk-reward analysis. What's the risk of taking a college pitcher #5 overall vs. the risk of waiting until #79 overall to draft one? One way or another, we have to infuse this system with impact pitching talent and your chances of doing that go down substantially if you don't take one at #5.

It's very likely that Gray and Appel are gone before we draft, but Stanek and Manaea are both very good pitching prospects who I would be glad to see us take. Any of those 4 would instantly be one of our top 2 prospects overall, assuming Bauer graduates from prospect status in the near future.
April 19, 2013 - 12:46 PM EDT
This front office is totally inept when it comes to identifying and developing starting pitchers. They always have been and always will be......

They simply cannot do it; they fail time and time again. When was the last time the Indians have developed a homegrown starting pitcher? I'm being serious, I can't think of the last homegrown pitcher was who made a start; let alone one of significance. How embarrassing.....

It's the most important position in baseball, yet it seems they're happy with the status quo. Best teams in baseball have the most starting pitching depth.
April 19, 2013 - 12:29 PM EDT
Well, not drafting a pitcher early still hasn't really worked for the Indians either......
April 19, 2013 - 12:08 PM EDT
The only way I'd take a pitcher in the first round was if he was supposed to be a dominant #1 SP and was projected to be in the majors in 1 or 2 years (i.e. college starter)....never guys like Denham, Sowers, Huff, JD Martin, or Alan Horne....
April 19, 2013 - 11:34 AM EDT
I was just discussing this exact topic with people the last few days haha

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