The Major League draft is a black box. In the NFL or NBA, for example, there are traditionally fewer rounds and clearer needs, and draft prospects are traditionally so close to the professional level that, like with the case with football linemen, the drafting process is very much a plug-and-play experience, at least in comparison in baseball.
In our favorite past time, drafting is almost impossible to predict, and along with that, almost impossible for us to diagnose organizational failures in draft strategy. Well, most of the time. If a player unexpectedly gets hurt, or you draft the best player available and it happens to be Mike Trout, everyone thinks you’re an idiot, or a genius. So, it’s pretty difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but we’ll try our best.
This year, the strategy was clear: pitching, pitching, pitching, and make sure they throw right-handed. Let’s dig right into this strategy: I’m not sure how I feel about it, initially. On one hand, this could be an untapped inefficiency in this draft class, or the draft in general. In theory there’s the same amount of future WAR in every draft class on average, so the more pitchers you pick, the more likely the chance you draw big leaguers. The Yankees also seem to have a solid footing with young position players, and a lot of future needs for starters. On the other hand, the Yankees aren’t exactly pros at drafting pitching:
The strategy in past years has been to focus on more college players, as the trend has gone in the sport, and one product of that strategy is Aaron Judge, and hopefully James Kaprielian.
What’s interesting is that because teams have focused so much on college players, the advantage has thinned as teams focus so heavily that high school players fall through the cracks. In a fascinating piece from Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight, he wrote about how, in recent years, high school arms might be the most underrated player type in the draft:
Notably, college pitchers have plummeted in value. This brings us to the picks themselves. For their first round selection, the Yankees chose Clarke Schmidt, a right-hander out of the University of South Carolina. He was ranked as a second-rounder, so this is already a reach pick, but possibly for the right reasons. If they bank on him recovering from Tommy John surgery (big if), then they essentially snag a first rounder under-slot. If not, they’ll still likely save money they can utilize later in the draft.
Enter Matt Sauer. I basically consider him the “real” first round selection. There were probably concerns of signability since he was committed to the University of Arizona, and that sent him down the board and into the Yankees’ lap. They saved the money from the first round so they can sign a pitcher over-slot here, one who’s probably one of the better prep arms in the draft overall. Now, think about that, and look at the above chart. It makes some sense, kind of.
Straight down the board the Yankees focused on pitching. In total, they only drafted 12 position players. Kyle Zurak is a right-hander who had a nice final season at Radford; Dalton Higgins and Glenn Otto are higher-floor relievers, despite the latter’s shoulder concerns; Dalton Lehmen was their first left-hander, a starter out of Augustana University; Trevor Stephan was one of Arkansas’ best pitchers as a reliever. The only position player in the first ten rounds was Canaan Smith, a likely outfielder out of high school and committed to Arkansas (the extra money could come into play here).
That’s a lot of college pitchers, and when I consider the new college pitcher disadvantage, I’m not sure what to think. Is it something area scouts saw individually? Is it a systematic strategy based on analytics? Is it strictly organizational need? Is it just Damon Oppenheimer and misguided orthodoxy? We really don’t know. All we know is that they are stocked to the gills with pitching, and they’re hoping they hit the big leagues within the next two or three years. We’ll know within five if this strategy worked or not.
You can find a full list of all the draft picks here, and go here for anything draft related at all. There will be much more analysis as players start to sign, and when we actually get a good look at them in their first looks at professional ball.
What do you think? Do you agree with the Yankees’ strategy of drafting primarily pitching? What would you have done differently?