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Where the aces are

Where the aces are
September 26, 2013
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In April, I wrote a piece looking at the failure rate of high first round picks, and what I found was that pitchers are much more likely to fail than hitters. It wasn’t even close as hitters were about 15% more successful than pitchers.  This lead me to think a team might be wise to just go for hitters early rather than take the risk on pitchers.

Well, I realized this thought was rather flawed. I was just looking at success rate and not really looking at where great pitching comes from. It might be a risk to draft them earlier, but what if that is also the only place to find truly great pitching?

This lead me to try and discover where does one find an ace. Is there a rhyme and reason? Or, is there no such thing as a pitching prospect?

The best indictor statistic for pitchers right now is xFIP: it is fielding independent pitching. It allows one to judge the pitcher alone and not take into account the defense around him. It also takes out the variance associated with home run rates. The best part is it is on the same scale as the old ERA stat, so anyone can look at the numbers and understand them.

I decided to go back to 2007 and take the top ten pitchers in xFIP over the last seven years; so 70 total players. If a player made the list more than once, he counted each time. This gave me a good amount of data on where you can and can’t find aces.

Where you don’t find aces?

Well, in general there has been little luck with international free agents. They had only 13 appearances which came out to about only about 19%. On top of that almost half of those appearances were Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish. I am not sure the reason. It might be something with starting in systems at a much younger age, but international players just don’t seem to be the place to find your front line starter.

In the last six years not a single top pitcher has been taken after the 8th round. If you go back to 2007, then you get two players who appear: John Smoltz (22nd round) and Jake Peavy (15th round). The total percentage of aces found after round eight is 3%, which makes them outliers more than a prediction of the ability to find such pitchers.  A guy like Doug Fister who appeared once, while being unheralded, was still a 7th round selection, showing you need to grab arms early.

I ended up putting them together with the other college players, but in general community college pitchers were also a rare occurrence. If you wanted to find a star pitcher it won’t be in Juco and not really in college in general.

Only 22 pitchers from any college made the list for a total of 31%. The safest pitcher is viewed as a college pitcher and there have been many great early picks for college pitchers, but it is pretty clear the safe college pitcher - especially after the top ten picks - doesn’t have the ace upside many teams would want in a high pick.

Where the aces are

50% of ace pitchers were high school picks.

So, if you combine this with my earlier piece, then high school pitchers are the biggest risks but also the biggest reward. The injury and flame out risks are high, but the best place to find that front line pitching is far and away from the high school ranks. If you combine international, college, and junior college, then they ended up equaling high school pitchers, which is how big the divide is.

Now, if you thought that was drastic, well one round in particular has had 53% of the ace pitchers and that round is the first.  There were 37 players taken in round one who made my cut off. The next best round was round eight with nine pitchers, then round 4 with eight pitchers, and lastly round two with six pitchers.

There were a total of 57 drafted players who made the list, and only 20 were not from the first round.  There is little doubt if you want to find frontline starters, then you should look in round one. (One interesting twist was the guys with lower velocity or ground ball guys were often the players taken in round eight i.e. Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb, which showed a correlation between velocity and draft position.)

This showed me that the TINSTAAPP* is basically BS. The only way to get a frontline starter is by finding a prospect and finding him early. Aces are all solid prospects and the majority are high picks. You have a better chance finding a hitter later than a pitcher with All Star upside.

So if you go back and combine this with my piece from April it does propose quite the quandary. Do you risk a high flame out rate and draft a high school pitcher in the first round? Or do you go for the hitter and hope you might be able to flip him for an arm later?

At the end of my other article, I said I would avoid pitchers early. Well, now I have to contradict myself. The risk is worth it to me, and it shows that the Indians like any team should stick to their board. It should not matter what your system looks like, you take the player who you think will give you the best chance to succeed.

If you read my Big Board from last week you can see why this is very relevant. The Indians currently have two first rounders. They have their own plus a competitive balance pick. I think they end up with a third when they extend Ubaldo Jimenez the qualifying offer before he signs with another team as a free agent this offseason.  So the Indians could easily end up with three picks in the top 35.

In a draft that is loaded with high school arms, that is the strength of the draft. I had 24 pitchers on my top 35 for next year, and 14 of those were high school arms. Next year might be the perfect year for the Indians to swing for the fences and see if they can find their future ace....or aces.

*TINSTAAPP - There Is No Such Thing As A Starting Pitching Prospect

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at

User Comments

September 27, 2013 - 9:18 PM EDT
New rules aren't causing top guys tot slide though, just less money for the players. Every team knows what it will take to sign, a few guys fall but the only top HS arms who didnt draft and sign were guys who said I want to go to school, I dont think it affects this data too much
Doc Holliday
September 27, 2013 - 6:02 PM EDT
This is a nice look back at the draft...

but the new draft rules will likely have to be taken into account with regards to the realities of the numbers going forward...

Shoulda likely taken that into account. It's likely highly thought of prospects will slide out of the top ten, and if they remain signable, could present value lower than your piece suggests.

Perhaps you should do a follow up taking that into account, or add it to this piece.
Rich D
September 27, 2013 - 8:41 AM EDT
Well, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, and Sowers didn't work out that well as first round college arms, so maybe they'll start taking more high school pitchers in round one.

But it's definitely a risk as evidenced by the injury flameouts of Adam Miller and Jason Knapp, a couple of high profile high school pitchers the Indians drafted (Miller) or traded for at age 18 (Knapp).

The Indians seem to do better spotting young pitchers in other organizations and trading for them (Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Chris Perez) or finding reclamation projects (Kazmir, Pavano). Drafting pitchers has not been their forte, at least since the days of Lee and Sabathia.

Based on the data presented, it seems better to take a risk on a high-upside high school arm in the middle to late first round than to take a limited-upside position player (Naquin, Beau Mills, Trevor Crowe).
September 26, 2013 - 7:15 PM EDT
After thinking about it a little more, I would definitely support this team if they drafted a pitcher in the first round every single year. It seems like the international market could be a pretty good way of finding a high upside position player, and with the new moneyball philosophies being utilized and so many more platoons being used in the majors, it just seems like it would be so much easier plugging in a productive hitter than it would be to find a pitcher.

If we drafted 6 pitchers with our first picks in consecutive years, we obviously have a much better chance of finding that true ace than if we would have only spent 3 of those picks on pitchers. Of those 6 picks, if one becomes a true ace, one become a solid 2/3, and the another a solid 3/4, we have the foundation of a very good pitching staff in place while really only having a 50% success rate.
September 26, 2013 - 7:04 PM EDT
Reading this makes me think about our 2012 draft. We passed on a couple high upside arms so we could save money and draft Brown and Lovegrove. It's obviously to early to make any conclusions about these guys, but after reading the article, there is a very slim chance that either of these guys will ever anchor our rotation.

Giolito was a risky pick, but he had that ace upside, and it could end up paying huge dividends for the Nats. Pitching wins championships. I loved the pick this year because the draft was so weak, but we should be drafting the high upside arm over the high upside bat every single time, even with the lower success rate.
September 26, 2013 - 3:47 PM EDT
Cliff Lee comes to mind, even though that was in return for another pitcher.
September 26, 2013 - 3:44 PM EDT
Very interesting. I'd be curious to see the number of pitchers that made the top 70 that were traded prior to making a major league start/had less than one major league season of experience. Depending on the results, maybe trying to draft bats with a higher rate of success with the expectation of trading them down the line for pitchers makes more sense. On the other hand, with the way teams value their prospects these days, what we'd have to give up would probably be steeper than in the past.

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