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2013 MLB Draft: Are teams getting better at drafting?

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Drafting is still an inexact science, but are teams better at it now then they were 30 years ago?

Bob Levey

It's almost draft time, which means it's time for baseball writers to write 6,592 articles about how the draft is a crapshoot. Which is true. Mike Trout, clearly some sort of Olympus-birthed baseball deity, was drafted between Randal Grichuk and Eric Arnett at the end of the first round. And don't even get writers started on Albert Pujols, who went in the 680th round when Cardinals accidentally set Yahoo! to AUTO DRAFT.

If the draft is such a crapshoot, then, why are teams always so scared to give up a pick for a known quantity like Michael Bourn or Kyle Lohse? Is it because teams are arrogant and overconfident about their own ability to find diamonds in the rough? Because, as Dave Cameron puts it:

Having draft picks is a good thing. Teams should value them. But they should know what that value is, and be willing to trade it in for an established Major League player when the price is right.

The reluctance of teams to give up draft picks got me wondering. Is the inexact science of scouting becoming less inexact? Have teams gotten better at finding usable talent in the first part of the draft?

When you compare a first round from the last decade with a first round from the '60s or '70s, it's pretty clear that teams are better at finding good players within the first 50 picks. But when it comes to the differences between, say, 1985 and 2005, though, it's worth checking to see if that's still the case.

Over at Beyond the Boxscore, there's a great look at how the top-100 prospects of Baseball America have correlated with the top-100 players in baseball (by WAR) year to year. The results were interesting:

Courtesy Beyond the Boxscore

The start of the graph is a little tricky because if Baseball America wasn't ranking prospects before 1990, so obviously the best players in baseball aren't going to be BA-ranked prospects. But starting with the early '00s or so, that's less of a concern. And you can see the trend still ticking upward, ever so slightly.

The good folks at Baseball America aren't scouts. But they're great proxies for scouts because they base their rankings on conversations they have with scouts and front-office executives, and their job is to distill all of those on- and off-the-record conversations into something like a top-100 list. If BA is getting better, that's at least a strong hint that scouts and organizations are getting better, too.

A look at the list of first-round successes and flops since the start of the draft has to include an arbitrary measure of success, unfortunately. I'm pretty comfortable with 10 career wins as a benchmark of success, though. Here's a list of first-rounders from the 2002 draft who are right around 10 career wins according to

  • Jeff Francis
  • Joe Blanton
  • Joe Saunders
  • James Loney

Those should be considered successes, right? Loney sneaks on with almost two wins more in just the last two months, so maybe he's not the best example, but those players did return some value for the teams that drafted them. Plus, 10 is a nice round number that no one's going to yell at me for.

Ten wins it is. Here, then, are the number of 10-win players drafted in the first 50 picks of each draft:

The number is increasing over time, and some players from the drafts in the '00s are still adding to their value. Teams are having an easier time finding valuable picks in the top 50, compared to the start of the draft. But the trend line is dramatically affected by the early years of the draft -- if you just look at the last 30 years, the trend goes in the other direction.

I blame Moneyball. Billy Beane should never have wrote that book.

What about the complete swings and misses -- the players with zero or negative value in the first 50 picks?

Also slowly improving over time, but you can't really tell a difference between the '80s and now.

There's a little bit of a reverse effect for the last part of that last chart -- someone like Philip Humber or Kyle Waldrop is still around to play themselves off the list of one-win-or-better players, so the last few years of the chart aren't static. Of course, that also means there's time for players like Chris Nelson and Trevor Plouffe to play themselves onto the list of one-win-or-better players, so maybe it evens out.

If drafting is really becoming a more precise science because of improving technology, refined scouting, and increased availability of information on draftees, we should really see the change in the next decade. We'll get to know the final value of players drafted in 2005 and start to get a sense of how the first drafts of the '10s are looking.

But so far, there's nothing supporting the idea. I wanted to find something. Maybe as the more recent drafts shake out over the next few years, there will be more good players found in the first 50 picks and fewer duds. For now, though, it's just a theory and a gut feeling.