MLB and the Draft: A 20 year look
I have been working on draft information at Indians Baseball Insider for a few years. I first started writing just about the upcoming drafts, but of late I have focused quite a bit on the historical side of the draft and how the Indians have done.
The common refrain when I work on these past draft pieces is the Indians have really struggled at drafting, and it has been a major handicap to the team. I myself believed this as I went in depth looking at every pick in the Indians draft history for my Ultimate Draft series.
I knew about the Indians and while they had not drafted well I did not know if other teams were as bad. I mean the draft is a crap shoot - that’s what you always hear - so maybe the Indians were an average drafting team. So I decided I needed to figure out a system to compare every team in Major League Baseball. I took a 20 year period from 1992-2012 and added up the total WAR value of each draft. It was the easiest way to determine total value.
Now it is not a perfect approach as WAR totals for many of these drafts are going to change. The 2012 draft has only had a handful of players make the majors, but there have been some big contributions form players like Michael Wacha amongst others.
The other nice feature of setting up the timeline as I did was the 20 years encapsulate the entire run of John Hart and Mark Shapiro. The last two years are Chris Antonetti, but the first 18 years during the Hart and Shapiro eras are were the majority of the total value came from. Basically, by the end of this research my hope was that we could finally see if the belief the Indians have struggled with the draft is true or not. People tend to give Hart a free pass, but he and Shapiro both ran the organization for nine years and neither had a good reputation for drafting.
One last thing before I get into the graphs, figures, and numbers. I included all draft value, which means players who were not signed. I figured it was easier for me and as long as it was equally applied it should balance out. I can tell you every team let more than a few good players slip through their grasp over the years by not signing them.
In this first graph the average WAR value over 20 years totaled 395 or an average of about 20 points a year. This first graph shows every team in the majors and has them ordered based on how they did in the draft.
The first thing I am sure everyone noticed is that, yes, the Indians have struggled even worse in the draft than thought. They have been the second worst over the last 20 years - and Ohio in general has been a wasteland of rough drafts as only three teams had a score under 300: the Cubs, Indians, and the Reds. The three have been significantly worse than every other team in baseball. The Yankees at fourth worst have over 30 more wins than the Cubs.
I had always believed that all teams struggle and that the Indians just struggled a little more, but this was surprising to me to see how far below the other teams they are in tearms of success with the draft. If you want to point to a reason why the Indians have been unable to sustain periods of success and have had to constantly rebuild, look no further than at the supply of talent coming from within and drafts that have not produced enough players. Cleveland is a small and constantly shrinking market, so if they don’t build via the draft they are not going to consistently win. End of story.
On the other side of things, the Athletics blow everyone out of the water in the draft. Over the last 20 years only two teams managed to never have a negative value draft: the Athletics and the White Sox. The Athletics don’t have the budget that teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, and Yankees have, yet they had a score that was 50 points higher than anyone. They dominate the draft. The difference between the Athletics' value and the Reds or Indians is greater than either the Reds or Indians total value. The Athletics have never had a top five draft class, but have been consistently excellent. They tend to find one very good player in every draft, and when they don’t they find at least a solid backup. It is beyond amazing as no team does more with less.
The top draft class of the last 20 years is the Expos draft in 2000 and the second is the Mariners draft in1993. The Mariners class that year was worth 117.4 wins - 115.8 of those wins thanks to Alex Rodriquez. The top class for the Expos saw them draft Justin Wayne with their first pick who has a negative value, and on top of that the Expos did not have a second rounder that year. Next they drafted two star players in Grady Sizemore in the round third and Cliff Lee in the fifth round. They drafted Fred Lewis and Russell Martin who they failed to sign; both picks were after round 20. They found one more gem in round 22, when they added a future all-star in Jason Bay. The total value for this draft is 129.7, or roughly 47% of the total value the Indians would get over their entire 20 year period. In 2000 the Indians had two first round picks and and two second round picks - yet the best player they drafted was Ryan Church. The total value for their draft was 23.4 - their fourth best in the last 20 years.
Two teams that get short changed but still perform well, the Rays and Diamondbacks, only had 16 drafts over the last 20 years since they were expansion teams. Neither team is a bottom five drafting team, but this issue led me to do an average system so I could fairly compare them to other teams.
The average value per draft is 20.04. The A’s have a high value of 28.26 while on the low end are the Reds at 12.63. The Indians average a value of 13.92. The only teams less than 15 points per draft are the Cubs, Indians, and Reds. The A’s are 30% percent better than the average and 10% better than even the second place team. This shows again just how much the Reds and Indians have fallen short as they both average less than half of the A’s total average value.
The two teams who only had 16 drafts take some pretty major jumps with this new system. If you take the averages instead of totals then the Diamondbacks jump from 22 to 12 and the Rays from 16 to 9 in the ranks. This means the Indians are giving up seven wins a year because of their draft struggles. This is almost a Miguel Cabrera-like value difference between the Indians drafts and just being an average team in the draft.
What this also shows is the economic disparity of baseball, which is only going to get much worse with the new television contracts. The Yankees have been a terrible drafting team; just a step above the Reds, Indians, and Cubs. Yet the Yankees can still contend because they have the money to buy players to fill needs. Heck, the Cubs have been more successful than they should have been for the same reason.
The one anomaly in the top 10 seems to be the Blue Jays who have not made the playoffs since 1993, but that might be in large part because they are in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Other than them every team in the top 10 has had a solid run of success. Some teams in the bottom like the Giants will see an increase in value because of players like Buster Posey who should continue to generate a ton of value.
If you don’t have huge money in baseball the only way to succeed is through the draft. The top teams are still largely the ones who draft well, and thanks to the new draft spending rules small market teams can’t spend the way they used to. Now teams have to be smarter and spend better. The results of the Indians draft during the entire Hart and Shapiro eras are indefensible. People like to talk and say the Indians are drafting better now and having more success in it, which appears to be true the last few years, although they struggled for so long and had fallen so far that the only way to go was up.
Every time I talk about the past issues, people say, 'well it has gotten better, right?' I hope the Indians are changing, and players like Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor give hope. Yet this is still a team who had two early picks retire very recently and both players in their early twenties. In the last 20 years they have only seven players in rounds 2-10 become regulars. Think about that. Of the over 160 players taken by the Indians early only seven have become a regular player in the majors for four years or more.
In the end, the Indians have given back 116 wins over the last 20 years as a below average drafting team. At this point, getting up to par is the goal and something that I as a fan would be happy to see. Things of late are encouraging, but there is still a long way to go to prove so otherwise.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
It's clear from these charts that calling the Indians awful in their drafting of amateur players is not hyperbole. They, in fact, are terrible.
I'd love to see similar stats on Latin American players, as I imagine we aren't much, if any, better there.
It's always easy to say, "it's getting better" because there are constantly new prospects coming up at A and AA levels. They seem interesting and full of potential, but the problem is that most of them stall out by AA or AAA. Even Tony, who I have a lot of respect for, here has lowered his bar so much that he thinks it's acceptable to talk about top-ten prospects as 4th outfielders and utility infielders...
Who knows, maybe the current crop in the system is better. Our player development folks like to talk the current players up, but really, there's not much agreement out there in the world of minor league talent evaluators, as most of them think our farm system pretty much stinks.