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Scouting in Pro Sports: Science or Crapshoot?

May 24th, 2014 at 11:14 AM
By Tim Duxbury

Scouting in professional sports is the most exact, ambiguous science out there. Every professional sport is defined by a prototypical archetype and yet so often we hear about undersized, bad-bodied, and “unathletic” players achieving success. According to what evaluators are supposed to be looking for, one would think that athletes like Dustin Pedroia, Russell Wilson, and Stephan Curry were destined to go pro in anything but sports. Why is it that athletes like Doug McDermott, current Creighton University forward, are overlooked because of subjective flaws like being “unathletic”? McDermott moved into 5th on the all-time NCAA division 1 scoring list this past season and yet most “experts” remain unimpressed with his prospects in the NBA. I understand that the college game does not translate 100% to the pro game and maybe I am ignorant in thinking that McDermott will be a much better NBA player than most folks are giving him credit for, but either way, McDermott’s projections have inspired me to dig a little deeper into just how much these “draft experts” can really be trusted. 

'Alex Rodriguez' photo (c) 2009, Keith Allison - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

In a perfect world, the first players off the board in any draft are the ones who should end up being the best over the course of their careers. I realize that the idea of general managers drafting teenagers on the pretense that they will, one day, be Hall of Famers sounds a silly, but lets be honest, no one has ever picked a kid in the last round and had any legitimate designs on him being a franchise player. So, in theory, one would expect to find a number of Hall of Famers, or at least perennial all-stars, in the first few picks of each draft. Finding this would affirm, to me, that the systems through which athletes are evaluated are effective. But that does not appear to be the case, particularly in the MLB.

MLB 1990 Draft                                                                      * as of 2014

Player

All-Star Appearances

*HOF (Y/N)

1. Chipper Jones

8 (19 years pro)

N

2. Toney Clark

1 (15 years pro)

N

3. Mike Lieberthal

2 (14 years pro)

N

4. Alex Fernandez

0

N

5. Kurt Miller

0

N

  MLB 1991 Draft

1. Brien Taylor

0

N

2. Mike Kelly

0

N

3. David McCarthy

0

N

4. Dmitri Young

2 (13 years pro)

N

5. Kenny Henderson

0

N

MLB 1992 Draft

1. Phil Nevin

1 (12 years pro)

N

2. Paul Shuey

0

N

3. BJ Wallace

0

N

4. Jeffrey Hammonds

1 (13 years pro)

N

5. Chad Mottola

0

N

 

 

 

MLB 1993 Draft

Player

All-Star Appearances

HOF (Y/N)

1. Alex Rodriguez

14 (20 years pro)

N

2. Darren Dreifort

0

N

3. Brian Anderson

0

N

4. Wayne Gomes

0

N

5. Jeff Granger

0

N

MLB 1994 Draft

1. Paul Wilson

0

N

2. Ben Grieve

1 (9 years pro)

N

3. Dustin Hermanson

0

N

4. Antone Williams

0

N

5. Josh Booty

0

N

 

It’s Ironic that the sport with the most advanced and obsessive set of statistics proved to have the worst results in producing successful careers from its top five draft picks. In a randomly selected five year period (1990-1994) I evaluated the top five draft picks from the MLB, NBA and NFL drafts and in those five years the MLB yielded only eight all-stars. Four of which (Toney Clark, Phil Nevin, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Ben Grief) were one and done all-stars and only two of which (Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez) could be considered “perennial all-stars”. In that same time period, the NBA produced 16 all-stars, 10 of which earned All-NBA honors, and one Hall of Famer (Gary Payton). Also in the same time period, the NFL draft produced 11 Pro-bowlers and two Hall of Famers (Jeff George and Marshall Faulk). And the kicker in these accolades earned is that the MLB all-star team is the easiest to make because all 30 teams have to be represented in the game. At its lowest level, all it takes to be an all-star is to be the best player on a bad team. And yet, of the 25 players above, only two were worthy of more than two all star games.

But wait, how can I question baseball’s top five draft choices when we have only just entered the age of copious and extravagant avenues in which to estimate a player’s value? Surely baseball has improved in evaluating top-of-the-draft talent since the early ‘90’s. So, to find out, I compiled the top five draft selections, their career slash lines and their career WAR (wins above replacement) next to the number of seasons they have played, in the 2006-2010 drafts. It looks like baseball scouts are showing slight improvement but I suppose a even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then. 

MLB 2006 Draft *includes 2014 WAR & stats thru 5/3/14

Player

.ave/.obp/.slg or era/era+/whip

Career WAR/years pro

1. Luke Hochevar

5.10/83/1.355

2.5/7

2. Greg Reynolds

7.10/64/1.646

-1.8/3

3. Evan Longoria

.275/.357/.509

37.3/7

4. Brad Lincoln

4.74/.84/1.394

0.1/5

5. Brandon Morrow

4.28/99/1.357

7.4/8

MLB 2007 Draft

1. Mike Moustakas

.239/.291/.382

3.9/4

2. Josh Vitters

.279/.327/.450 (MiLB stats)

n/a  8 MiLB seasons (36 ML gm)

3. Ross Detwiler

3.73/107/1.377

3.4/6

4. Phillipe Aumont

3.97/100/1.647

.2/2

5. Matt Wieters

.258/.322/.426

14.0/6

MLB 2008 Draft 

Player

.ave/.obp/.slg or era/era+/whip

Career WAR/years pro

1. Tim Beckham

.266/.332/.381 (MiLB stats)

n/a   6 MiLB seasons (5 ML gm)

2. Pedro Alvarez

.234/.306/.441

4.9/5

3. Eric Hosmer

.277/.332/.422

4.7/4

4. Brian Matusz

5.12/83/1.493

2.2/6

5. Buster Posey

.305/.375/.485

18.7/6

MLB 2009 Draft

1. Stephen Strasburg

3.02/128/1.098

8.4/5

2. Dustin Ackley

.246/.314/.354

6.7/4

3. Donavan Tate

.238/.355/.320 (MiLB stats)

n/a  4 MiLB seasons (A+)

4. Jorge Sanchez

.270/.364/.420

n/a    6 MiLB seasons (32 ML gm.)

5. Matt Hobgood

4.89/(n/a)/1.479

n/a  5 MiLB seasons (A+)

MLB 2010 Draft

1. Bryce Harper

.273/.353/.476

8.8/3

2. Jameson Taillon

3.72/ (n/a)/1.215

n/a  5 MiLB seasons (AAA)

3. Manny Machado

.277/.307.431

7.8/3

4. Christian Colon

.274/.338/.375

n/a   5 MiLB seasons (AAA)

5. Drew Pomeranz

4.91/93/1.517

1.6/4

 

To put the above number in perspective, the average slash line for a hitter in the MLB in 2013 was .250/.318/.390, and for pitchers it was 3.81/102/1.305. By the numbers, we have two studs in Evan Longoria and Buster Posey (each with an average WAR over 3.0 per season for their careers), and three solid players Matt Wieters, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (each with an average WAR over 2.0 per season for their careers) based on their WAR. Now, don’t get mad at me for “slighting” Strasburg, Harper and Machado because I didn’t label them as superstars. They may develop into Hall of Fame talents but right now the numbers don’t show that. Thus far, Stephen Strasburg has put up exceptional numbers but those numbers haven’t translated into wins for his ball club. Despite his good numbers, Strasburg has never had a WAR greater than 3.1 in a season, where as Clayton Kershaw, a bonafide superstar, has never had a WAR lower than 4.7 in a full season. Bryce Harper is another player who is extremely close earning his crown and the only thing standing in his way is his health. He needs to stay on the field for at least 150 games a year, which he has yet to do and will not do again this season. His injuries have taken their toll on his numbers. And Manny Machado is probably the most diverse of the three in terms of his skill set. He has shown flashes of spectacular defense, gap-to-gap power and has hit for a good average. His only flaw seems to be his in ability to draw walks. I don’t subscribe to the theory that a great hitter needs to have off the chart, Joey Votto-type OBP numbers, but to be a star you need to at least be better than the league average. And Machado’s career .307 OBP falls 11 points short of the league average for 2013. This group of young players is exciting and explosive and they have more tools than a Swiss army knife and their “potential” (whatever that nebulous term means) is off the charts, but their numbers are just good, not great, for now. 

It may be more relevant, however, to look the seven players who are without significant, if any, major league experience. Aside from Jameson Taillon, who recently underwent Tommy John surgery, I’m not terribly thrilled about any of these prospect’s futures. And to be fair I was only lukewarm on Taillon before surgery. Between the overwhelming inability to throw strikes and get hitters out displayed by Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Phillipe Aumont, Brian Matusz, Matt Hobgood and Drew Pomeranz and Mike Moustakas’, Josh Vitters’ and Dustin Ackley’s lack of consistency in just squaring up the baseball at the major league level, I see next to nothing to get excited about.  

In my mind Hobgood and Donavan Tate were the biggest, complete and utter flops, having spent a half a decade in their team’s respective farm systems and failing to progress beyond A+. And since we’re on the topic of top picks, let’s focus on the number one picks not named Strasburg and Harper. In a perfect world, this player is THE BEST player in the draft (or at the very least the best player at a position your team has a need for). These are they guys you give the most money to and the guys whose success you stake your job on as a GM and those three, Hochevar, Moustakas, and Beckham, have next to nothing to show for themselves. Two of them are mediocre major leaguers and one has been an average minor leaguer for the past SIX seasons. But this shouldn’t come as a shock because the numbers show that the MLB has been notoriously bad at picking the best players first ever since the MLB draft came into existence in 1965. Since 1965 there have been zero number one overall picks elected to the Hall of Fame, to date. The NFL, on the other hand has had 12 first overall picks inducted into their Hall of Fame since they began drafting players in 1936. And since the Inaugural NBA draft in 1947, 14 number ones have gone into the Hall to date. And for those of you still trying to find a win for the MLB, I know what you are thinking, the MLB draft hasn’t been around as long as either the NFL or NBA drafts. In that case, since 1965, the NFL has inducted eight and the NBA has inducted ten number ones.  

           Taking away opinions and biases, to date, the MLB has been woefully subpar, by comparison, in terms of drafting superstars first. Maybe the reasons lie the fact that baseball players take longer to mature, both physically and mentally, but the numbers do not lie. ZERO Hall of Famers taken first overall. And not only that but quality players are routinely picked up as late round “steals”. Trevor Hoffman, arguable one of the top three greatest closers of all time was an 11th round pick. Mike Piazza, one of the greatest offensive catchers of all time was drafted in the 61st round, a round that no longer exists in the current draft. Future Hall of Famers, Jim Thome, John Smoltz, Albert Pujols were picked in up the 13th, 22nd, and 13th round respectively, and generational talents Mark Grace (24th round), Jorge Posada (24th round), Eric Gagne (30th round) and Mark Buerhle (38th round) were all drafted in the ‘throw away’ rounds of the MLB draft.

So, with draft season upon us, expect big things from Jadeveon Clowney and co. as well as those selected early in this summer’s NBA draft, but be prepared to temper your excitement for the June MLB draft.

 

Statistics in this article are per…

·     baseball-reference.com

·     basketball-reference.com

·     football-reference.com

Tags: Baseball, Chicago, Chicago Cubs, MLB, mlb draft, NBA Draft, NFL Draft

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