April 30, 2013
Dissecting the Draft
Creating a Mechanism for Evaluation of Draft Strategy
Part of what drew me to Baseball Prospectus, other than my respect for Jason Parks and his vision of a scouting-department-style “Prospect Team,” was the allure of stepping into a ready-made readership eager and able to help me explore baseball on both a macro and micro level. As far as the draft is concerned, that means not only breaking down draft prospects from a scouting perspective on a player-by-player basis, but also working to understand what goes into formulating an overarching approach to player acquisition through the draft. This includes general strategies relating to draft acquisitions, as well as draft-class-specific game planning.
Over the years, I've found one of the easiest assertions an amateur scout can make is, "I really liked [insert successful prospect name] coming out of [high school/college]." During the early days of my journey to grow as an evaluator, whenever any familiar prospect showed a leap in development at the professional level, my mind always ran back to whether or not that was something I was surprised to see. Almost always the answer was "no". But that doesn't really make sense, does it? I was, and really still remain, relatively new at the evaluation game, and it seems highly unlikely that I was able to effectively evaluate complex propositions such as the future success of young baseball prospects with so few years of earnest scouting under my belt.
Furthermore, when inking a draft report, I have always trended conservative in my appraisals, with a focus on identifying risk level and probability (probably an offshoot of my training as an attorney, which places a premium on issue-spotting and rainy-day planning). It would follow, then, that my outlooks generally aren't all that rosy, but rather focus on the things that might go wrong. So why was I seldom surprised with prospect success stories? The short answer is that it is easy to "like" potential and, for the most part, any draft prospect worth expending evaluative resources possesses potential in spades.
As basic as this concept seems, I firmly believe it is an overlooked truism, both for those in the industry and for those covering the scouting game as media members, informal bloggers, or fans (granted, to a greater extent with the latter two than with the former). Hitting on a prospect's upside, or "getting it right,” is intoxicating. You were able to look at a table of ingredients and correctly predict the taste profile of the meal to be shaped—it's a talent, and one that requires intelligence and fortitude to shape. Further, for those in the industry, it is a skill that has the potential to change the fortunes of an organization, particularly when you hit big on an impact talent.
Of course hitting on high-ceiling talent is the ultimate goal, but the nature of the draft acquisition game requires more than evaluating the broad swath of draft-eligible prospects to the best of our ability. At the decision-making level, concerns expand past individual player appraisal to a need to recognize what opportunities an organization’s particular draft slot affords the org, and how best those opportunities can be leveraged to build a draft class that will pay dividends down the road.
How we dissect the draft
Writers covering the draft have historically done so with (1) short scouting reports that paint a broad picture of draft prospect profiles, and (2) rankings. This is an excellent approach to introducing readers to players with whom most are unfamiliar, and for giving a 30,000-foot look at a draft class on the whole. Without fail, these reports historically accentuate the positives associated with players, primarily because readers want to know why they should be excited about a particular player their team selects (and not why that player is likely to fail).
For area scouts, the story is in a lot of ways the same. Scouting is often measured by successes—those who hit on guys get promoted and area scouts with years under their belts and no portfolio of MLB players run the risk of not being renewed when their contract expires. Missing on a guy isn't a badge of shame, so long as your report isn't too far out of whack with what the crosschecker(s), scouting director, special assistants, and the like see. In fact, it could be argued that evaluators on the whole grade themselves too lightly when it comes to misses.
I've had more than a few evaluators repeat the mantra to me, "Even the best in this business are right less than half of the time." This is certainly true, but to accept a low success rate among draft prospects without challenging ourselves to improve our decision-making process is to stagnate the evaluative process altogether. So, in an industry where successes tend to define the quality of the evaluations (both by the industry, and in the eyes of a fan base), and failures are more or less tolerated on a large scale, who is truly evaluating well and where can we identify areas in which improvement is needed?
As far as writers are concerned, the answer most often shouted out is "Rankings.” Rankings put you on the record as to whom you like, and in what order, assuming all factors have been taken into account unless otherwise indicated. I was initially a strong proponent of rankings, and continue to find merit in the process. I have kept track of my own class-wide rankings for five or six years now, and will continue to do so. But if "even the best in this business are right less than half of the time," how harshly are we to grade our own rankings in retrospect? Does a top-40 rating for Tyler Austin make up for the fact that you had Tyrell Jenkins 20 spots ahead of Taijuan Walker in 2010? If you listed Buster Posey as your top draft talent in 2008, is that selection made less impressive by the fact that you had Tim Beckham as the second-best overall talent (and Kyle Skipworth as a top-10 talent)?
To some extent, there is valuable information to be gleaned from a slot-by-slot review of a class-wide ranking. Most notably, you may be able to identify general areas where you tend to be heavy or light on a particular draft profile. Perhaps more important, not all writers are concerned with digging into the dirty details of the draft. Readerships are not shaped from cookie cutters, and for many, a couple of bullet points that can be regurgitated on a message board or over beers at the bar is all a writer needs to provide.
My hope is that you are interested in exploring the draft a little more deeply (and if you have made it this far through this introductory piece, I assume you are interested in such an exploration). To do that, we are going to use this space at Baseball Prospectus to continue a project I’ve been working on for several years—the running of a shadow draft and the monitoring of a shadow system. The process is simple: Each year, we’ll select a team and, at each of that team’s draft slots, we’ll make a selection as if we were the decision makers in the draft room. The selections that are signed and begin their respective pro careers will be placed in our “shadow system,” which we’ll monitor and periodically appraise with an eye toward improving our process.
We pick this project up five years in, with the results thus far set forth in the below table, breaking down the current shadow system by level. As a general matter, and one we’ll explore in more detail in future pieces, I have taken a portfolio approach—looking to balance probability with upside, in each case across the spectrum of position profiles:
To better put the system in context, BP Prospect Team member Mark Anderson kindly took the time to put together a quick ranking of the system (set forth below), noting he liked the upside at the top but that the system falls off quickly as you enter double-digits:
Mark went on to note he liked the collection as a middle-of-the-pack system, which I take as a solid endorsement, particularly considering this represents talent acquisition solely through the draft, without further strengthening via international signings or through trade. The major-league successes are limited thus far, but there is potential impact talent set to arrive at some point this year and (hopefully) fairly regularly thereafter. As an additionally selling point, I believe the cross-section of talent sets up well for purposes of trade package construction, which is to my mind an important aspect of farm-system and player-development utility. There are clear failures in appraisal, and some strategic shortcomings that I look forward to discussing further in future pieces, but overall, I have been pleased with the direction of this project, and very much look forward to the challenge of bringing in the next wave of talent this June.
Looking to 2013—best available, but all else equal…
With just five weeks between now and the draft, in the short term this series is going to focus on the process of formulating a game plan for a particular draft class. For 2013, we will be stepping into the shoes of the Boston Red Sox and making a selection for each of their first 20 picks. With a top-10 overall pick (seventh overall), the first step in setting our strategy is going to be to determine our likely targets for our first selection. From there, we’ll lay out several potential approaches depending on who falls to us and the opportunities we expect to see at each of our next few slots.
Based on my looks at this class’s draft-eligibles over the past 10 months, I’ve narrowed targets for 1-7 to 14 players (listed below in alphabetical order):
1. Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford University
2. Trey Ball, LHP/OF, New Castle HS (New Castle, IN)
3. Ryan Boldt, OF, Red Wing HS (Red Wing, MN)
4. Kris Bryant, OF/3B, University of San Diego
5. JP Crawford, SS, Lakewood HS (Lakewood, CA)
6. Jon Denney, C, Yukon HS (Yukon, OK)
7. Clint Frazier, OF, Loganville HS (Loganville, GA)
8. Jonathan Gray, RHP, Oklahoma University
9. Sean Manaea, LHP, Indiana St. University
10. Reese McGuire, C, Kentwood HS (Covington, WA)
11. Braden Shipley, RHP, University of Nevada
12. Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, Serra HS (Los Angeles, CA)
13. Ryne Stanek, RHP, University of Arkansas
14. Kohl Stewart, RHP, St. Pius X (Houston, TX)
It is important to note that this is not necessarily a snap shot of the top 14 overall talents in the draft class. Rather, this collection represents those talents I currently view as falling in one of three categories: 1) an above-average value for the slot, or talent beyond that which I’d typically expect to be available at this slot; 2) solid value for the slot, or talent I’d typically expect to be available at this slot, and 3) fallback talent, or talent roughly on par with those in category 2, but better suited to fit (as part of my desired draft class on the whole) with talent I expect to grab in the next few rounds.
Generally, the rule of thumb for draft acquisition is “take the best available talent.” However, outside of a few bright lines in each draft class, the construction of draft profiles, taking into account probability, upside and signability, seldom lends itself to clear-cut preferences at a player-to-player, or micro, level. More commonly, we will examine the fit of a player into the broader overall draft approach, arriving at a few potential courses of action. From those narrowed options, we’ll make our ultimate selections. To summarize: “Take the best available talent, but all else equal, take the talent that best fits our draft-wide goals.”
As this introductory piece has stretched on some time already, we’ll cut it off here with an eye to the coming pieces in this series. As noted above, our first step will be to identify our cross-section of potential selections at the top of the draft (i.e., breaking our 14 noted selections out into the three stated categories: 1) above-average value, 2) average value, and 3) comparable value setting up future selections. In between Dissecting the Draft pieces, I will be posting player-specific reports through BP Unfiltered (in the blog section of the site). A link will be provided in the DTS pieces, but please check in on BP Unfiltered periodically if you are interested in reading more on these specific players. Additionally, broader player profiles will be provided through the Scouting the Draft Series.
If you made it through this whole piece, you deserve a gold star. Thanks very much for your time, and I look forward to picking this conversation up soon.
Nick J. Faleris is a practicing structured finance attorney and Sports Industry team member in the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner LLP. The views he expresses in Baseball Prospectus are his own, and not necessarily those of the law firm.