With the NFL draft being held this Thursday, a commonly held NFL draft premise would make for a timely comparison for MLB draft strategy, at least in my eyes. And that premise is, “You don’t draft a running back early.”
Everybody knows that you don’t use prized top draft slots on tail backs for two main reasons:
- It is a QB-centered game nowadays, with the running game less important than ever before
- Running backs age poorly and their peaks decline rapidly compared to other positions.
So keeping that in mind, let’s look ahead at the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft in June. The Tigers are highly likely to go with Casey Mize, a collegiate starting pitching prospect, with the top overall pick. Past that pick, many 17 year old high school seniors are likely to be given multi-million dollar signing bonuses in the first round, to hopefully pitch a few years later for the parent club. In fact, this year’s draft class is said to be rich in high school pitching talent.
Flashback just two years. The prospect world was in debate over who was the best pitching prospect in baseball, between Julio Urias and Lucas Giolito. Today? Nobody knows what the future holds for Urias, as he is beginning his climb back from surgery on the labrum of his pitching shoulder. Giolito? He continues to get clobbered on the Major League level;, and most evaluators tab him as a bust.
I could go on and on with more top pitching talents that have busted in just the last year and change. Urias’ former Dodger teammate and fellow top prospect, Jose de Leon, has seen his stuff diminish due to nagging injuries, and now is out with Tommy John. Others, like the Braves’ Mike Foltyniewicz, Kolby Allard, and Max Fried, all reflect outlooks that no longer carry the luster they once did. Folty still throws hard, but his command hasn’t developed. Allard and Fried lost velocity. Injuries played little role here, though Fried did have Tommy John. And all three are still very young players. They’re just pitchers.
So while pitching is a good 30-40% of the game, with hitting and defense comprising the other parts, the contributions of a pitcher do not outweigh in significance the contributions of a position player, who both hits and defends. This is proven by WAR models, which almost always reflect the most valuable players in the league as position players.
So while NFL teams and their fans know not to invest draft capital in a running back, why do MLB teams continue to invest basically equivalent amounts of draft capital between pitching and positional prospects? Why, in other words, would so many teams feel comfortable drafting 17 year old pitchers throwing mid to high 90’s gas, when by the time they reach the big leagues in four or five years, their repertoire could digress either due to injury or just random attrition. The fact that these kids are nowhere near ready to pitch at the MLB level at the time they are drafted, reflects how much forward development needs to happen in order for them to pan out, let alone the avoidance of negative development.
If I was running a rebuild, it seems obvious to me to focus almost all of my resources on positional talent, and look to acquire veteran pitching only much later in the rebuild process. That is of course, in addition to investing much into developing pitching in arenas I can do so without forfeiting my ability to invest that same slot in a position player: later round draft picks, international free agency, etc.