The Reality of Legacies and Latter Round MLB Draft Picks

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As nice and uplifting a story as the Diamondbacks drafting of paralyzed former Arizona State player Cory Hahn in the 34th round of the MLB draft is, it also provides insight as to how little teams think of the draft’s latter rounds and the likelihood of finding useful on-field talent that can make it to the big leagues.

In another pick that got significant attention, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son Josh in the 37th round out of high school. Because Pettitte’s son has committed to Baylor University, Josh Pettitte is not expected to sign with the Yankees. That’s probably a relief for them because a 37th round draft pick is not expected to be anything more than organizational filler. If Josh Pettitte was considered an actual prospect, he would’ve been taken by a team other than the Yankees well before the 37th round, commitment to Baylor or not. When the Yankees selected Paul O’Neill’s nephew Michael in the third round, they did so not as a legacy or a favor to the O’Neill family but because he can actually play. The Mets made a similar selection with Lee Mazzilli’s son L.J. in the fourth round. These are players who would have been selected by another club at around the same spot had the Yankees and Mets not made the selections. There’s no doubt that the legacy was a tiny factor in picking the players, but not to the degree that the Yankees selecting Pettitte and this is the difference between players selected in the first 10-15 rounds—for any reason—and those picked after.

For every late-round draft pick who makes it to the majors, there are thousands of others who don’t get past the low minors. Players who are drafted past the tenth round are not expected to make it. Once in a long while you’ll have the occasional freak occurrence like Albert Pujols (13th round), James Shields (16th round), Domonic Brown (drafted as a pitcher in the 20th round), Mark Buehrle (38th round), and Mike Piazza (62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda). By and large, the players who make it to the majors are those who are picked in the first 20 rounds with the numbers decreasing significantly as the rounds pass. Players taken in the first few rounds will receive repeated opportunities not just because of latent talent, but because of the money teams invest in them. That’s become even more pronounced with the slotted bonuses and limited amount of money teams are allowed to spend in the draft. They don’t want to toss money away on a player even if, after three or four years, he shows he’s not what they thought he was. In some cases, these players make it to the big leagues so teams can say, “Look he made it to the majors at least,” as if that’s some form of justification for an overall miss on a high draft pick.

Indicative of how little teams think of the latter rounds were the decisions to make these selections of players like Hahn and Pettitte. They create a story for a brief time but devolve into the realm of the forgotten because they weren’t meant to be remembered in the first place.

Should teams spend more time and money on the draft past the initial stages? Are there enough talented draft-eligible players to make it worth their while? It depends. Some clubs don’t want to spend the money and resources it will take to mine through the amateurs for 50 rounds to find perhaps five players that have a chance to contribute. Others, like the Cardinals, have made it a regular occurrence to draft players on the third and fourth days of the draft such as Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Luke Gregerson, and Jaime Garcia. The Cardinals and then-scouting director Jeff Luhnow have been credited with the Cardinals’ fertile farm system, but perhaps the truth is more of a matter of the conscious decision not to waste late-round picks on legacies and heartwarming stories, instead choosing to draft players who they think might be able to help them at some point.

The Yankees and their apologists can point to the inexplicable luck the team had in 1990 with Pettitte the father (22nd round) and Jorge Posada (24th round drafted as an infielder) as reason to think Josh Pettitte has a chance, but that’s wishful thinking. They got lucky in 1990 just as the Cardinals got lucky with Pujols and the Devil Rays got lucky with Shields. On the same token, teams have repeatedly failed with top-tier picks for one reason or another be it injuries, miscalculation, off-field problems or bottom line bad luck. If the Yankees were going to draft a player in the 37th round who had a miniscule chance of becoming useful to them or the Diamondbacks were going to do the same thing in the 34th round, then why not draft the players they did and accrue some publicity? Overall, there’s no difference because a paralyzed player like Hahn only has a slightly less chance of making it than someone else who was drafted in the 34th round, so the Diamondbacks did something nice and it won’t harm their draft because on the field, it won’t make much difference either way.

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The Astros Experiment In Baseball Engineering

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When the Astros offered Tim Bogar a job to be their new bench coach, Bogar turned it down because the deal included a clause that he couldn’t interview for managerial jobs elsewhere. When discussing this somewhat odd demand, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he didn’t comment on “human resource issues”.

Never before have I heard the words “human resources” referenced in a baseball context, especially by the GM.

This exemplifies the different tack the Astros are taking in rebuilding their club from what amounts to a moribund and barren expansion team. It’s an experiment in baseball engineering that continues from the hiring of Luhnow to the naming of a Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their pro scouting coordinator, to the unique title they anointed on Sig Mejdal as “Director of Decision Sciences”. Yesterday, they continued the trend of loading their front office with the highly educated when they hired Harvard graduate David Stearns as assistant GM. Whether or not it works will be known only in retrospect, but it strikes me as a reinvention of the wheel. Because Luhnow is so immersed in data crunching, is beloved by stat people for his supposed success in building the Cardinals minor league system into the pipeline for talent, and is running such a horrific and mostly talentless organization, he’s receive carte blanche from owner Jim Crane to do what he wants.

The credit for the Cardinals is a shaky premise at best. Luhnow’s entry into baseball was rocky and stemmed from Bill DeWitt’s desire to recreate the club in the Moneyball image. The insertion of a total outsider who’d come from the corporate world was not taken well by the old-school baseball men in the Cardinals organization and eventually sowed the seeds for Walt Jocketty’s firing and Tony LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting in which the future Hall of Fame manager won the power struggle. It’s easily glossed over that Luhnow was stripped of his power after the 2010 season. I wrote of Luhnow’s drafts in this posting immediately after he got the Astros job. The truth about anyone’s drafts is that there are so many factors that go into a player’s development that blaming Luhnow for Colby Rasmus or crediting him for Allen Craig is a partisan attempt on the part of the analyst depending on his beliefs. Supporters will say that Rasmus is a talent who was mishandled by LaRussa, critics will say that Rasmus is badly overrated. The credit/blame game can go on forever. But now Luhnow’s in charge of the Astros and he’s implementing what he believes. It’s admirable, but admiration doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.

Does Goldstein have the qualifications to do the job for which he was hired? Is there a joint appraisal process in effect and if the scouts disagree with what the numbers say, who breaks the tie and how does he do it? Goldstein comes from Baseball Prospectus which, like the Ivy League, has become a mill for baseball front offices and in the media. BP has a tendency (if you read the back of their annuals) to relentlessly promote what they got right. “Look, we nailed this, that and the other thing” is a selling point without mentioning what they got wrong as if it was a matter of circumstance and if the players, managers, or front office people had done what they were expected to do, the numbers would’ve played out as correct. It’s a wonderful world to live in in which there’s no possibility of being defined wrong due to a constant shifting of the goalposts after the fact to make oneself right.

I’ve had people credit me for being right about the Red Sox pending disaster (I had them at 81-81; no one could’ve predicted 69-93) with Bobby Valentine and am quick to point out that I also picked the 98-loss Colorado Rockies to the win the NL West. To me, it gives more credibility to embrace the negative and understand why it happened and learn from it to be more accurate the next time.

There is no “way” to build a team nor to make accurate projections in a sport. Nate Silver has had his reputation launched into the stratosphere because of his brilliant and right-on-the-money work with predicting the Presidential election on Fivethirtyeight.com. Inexplicably, that has morphed into a validation of his PECOTA baseball system of predictions, but it’s comparing the Earth to Neptune. There’s no connection. Baseball is not politics and in spite of the different algorithms used to come to the results, it’s easier to calculate a voting bloc than it is to determine how Bryce Harper or Mike Trout are going to function as big leaguers; how the Red Sox players would react to Valentine.

Keeping on the political theme, what we’ve seen recently is baseball’s extreme left wing and extreme right wing grapple for a proximate cause as to why the Giants have won two of the past three World Series. Questions and assertions are popping up as to whether Giants GM Brian Sabean’s old-school sensibility and management style signaled the “end” of Moneyball or if Moneyball is still the “way”. Both premises are ridiculous. Assuming that the Giants’ championships discredit Moneyball is presuming that Moneyball was a solidly researched and accurate foundation to begin with instead of a fictionalized and twisted story that was crafted by a skillful and self-indulgent mythmaker, Michael Lewis.

Moneyball was never an actual “thing,” therefore it’s not something that had to be proven wrong because it wasn’t right in the first place.

On the other side, this piece on HardballTalk discusses a stat guy in the Giants’ front office named Yeshayah Goldfarb. The posting lavishes praise on Goldfarb and doubles as an apparent repudiation of anyone who dare question the value of Moneyball and numbers. It’s written that Goldfarb influenced the Giants acquiring and keeping the likes of Javier Lopez and Juan Uribe for the 2010 club.

Lopez? They needed a stat guy to suggest they trade for a sidearming lefty? They got Lopez from the Pirates who was only a Pirate because, in 2009, he was horrendous for another stat based club with the Red Sox and allowed to leave as a free agent where no team other than the Pirates made him a decent offer.

But the stat guy knew!!

Um…no.

The truth is it had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with Lopez being a breathing left-handed pitcher. Nothing more. If Tony Fossas at 55(?) years old chose to make a comeback, there would be a team to have a look at him because he’s lefty. Period. And Uribe? Really? So the Giants had a brilliant group of numbers people who advised them to keep Uribe in 2010 and he became a post-season hero, but the non-stat based Dodgers signed Uribe after that season, he’s been a disaster, and Ned Colletti’s an idiot? Goldfarb also gets credit for Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, yet no one other than a Jewish weekly knew who he was. Amazing. Is that how it works?

No. It’s not how it works in any manner other than looking back at what occurred and finding “reasons” to bolster one’s position. The “Yeah, we’re in!!!” aspect of Moneyball still lives as the front offices are infested with people who didn’t play baseball, but have calculations and college degrees to get them in and become the new age hires. But much like Moneyball and the Giants, there’s a clutching at credit for floating principles that can’t be quantified. If the Astros are in the playoffs in 2-3 years, there will be an explanation for it, but the bickering factions will use their own methodology to determine what it is—both might be right, both might be wrong and neither side will admit it.

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Manufactured Outrage At The Astros For Firing Their Manager

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What was the proper etiquette for Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow to do the obvious thing in making a change from manager Brad Mills? Was he supposed to let him finish the season just because? What purpose would that have served other than to put forth the pretense of…of…I’m not sure what?

There’s a reaction of anger and righteous indignation that the Astros fired manager Mills and two coaches after their 12-4 loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday night and I don’t know why. Barring anything miraculous, no one with a clue thought that Mills stood any chance whatsoever of keeping his job past his current contract that expires at the end of this season. Mills had been hired by the previous GM Ed Wade and as soon as new owner of the Astros Jim Crane hired Luhnow, Mills was on borrowed time. It was known and guaranteed. In that same vein, no one with a clue is going to say that Mills is responsible for the team’s record. So what’s the issue?

Had the Astros been better than what they are (39-82 and losing 5-0 today as of this writing with Tony DeFrancesco as the interim manager), it’s still unlikely that Luhnow was going to keep Mills. Having come from the Cardinals organization and having endless problems with their manager Tony LaRussa and being treated as an unwanted interloper by the old-school baseball people, Luhnow is going to want his own man who knows how the front office wants things run in the statistically-based way he prefers. You can debate whether that’s the proper strategy and I don’t agree with stats as the final word, but it’s Luhnow’s baby and he has the right—even the responsibility—to fire someone he doesn’t want in order to hire the person he does want.

I agree with what Luhnow is doing with the Astros in terms of field personnel. The organization was mostly devoid of usable talent at the minor league level and the few useful big leaguers they had were either older or were replaceable, so he cleaned out the house, accumulated young players, focused on high-end talent in the draft and now he’s dismissed a manager and two coaches because they weren’t going to be here anyway.

Luhnow did it respectfully and there haven’t been “anonymous sources” in the front office aiming knives at the back of a former manager when he’s dismissed. Keeping Mills around just to placate the press or for some other silly reason is about as bad as firing him now. Why postpone the obvious? Mills is getting paid as per the terms of his contract. Because he acquitted himself as a professional during these trying circumstances knowing he was a short-timer for a team that was tearing the whole thing down, he’ll get a job as a coach or front office assistant and has put himself in position to get another shot at managing.

This outrage is senseless and self-serving without basis.

What were the Astros supposed to do?

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Jeff Luhnow’s Petri Dish and The Sporting News Misogynist

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Apart from getting webhits for saying something stupidly controversial and drawing the ire of, well, everyone, I’m not sure as to the purpose of this Stan McNeal Sporting News piece about new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow filling out his front office with like-minded people who adhere to stats above all else.

Whether Luhnow’s way is going to work or not is a matter of conjecture. It’s a petri dish of statistical thought and implementation that hasn’t truly been tried before.

J.P. Ricciardi took Moneyball to its logical conclusion by mostly following the book’s tenets to the letter and his results were up-and-down; Paul DePodesta used stats and a total disregard for humanity to destroy the Dodgers and was fired after 20 months; the Rays altered the plot and used a load of high draft picks, fearlessness, intelligence in both old and new school techniques to build a team that made the playoffs in three of the past four years without any money and a rotten ballpark, but no one has done what Luhnow is clearly going to do and has had the time to see if it can succeed.

The posting linked is intentionally offensive and I don’t understand why someone who believes differently would attack his opponent like that. But it’s his column and the Sporting News that has to answer for one of their writers posting it; it’ll resolve itself.

As for the Astros hirings, are you now starting to see why Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa viewed Luhnow with jaundiced eyes and were threatened by his presence when he joined the Cardinals? He had the ear of the owner and was coming at baseball decisions from a foreign train of thought diametrically opposed to what they were accustomed to; add in that Jocketty and LaRussa were men with credentials being forced to adhere to a new blueprint and it wasn’t because what they were doing wasn’t working—they’d won doing it their way. Both men could’ve left the Cardinals and would’ve had their choices of jobs immediately.

It’s no wonder the situation got so messy that Jocketty was fired and LaRussa had to resort to sharp-elbowed infighting to get his way.

Is this Luhnow’s fault?

No.

The situation was difficult and the Cardinals fought through the dysfunctional factions and still won.

Now Luhnow’s off on his own and is receiving free rein from the Astros new owner Jim Crane.

“Director of Decision Sciences” is a pompous and ridiculous title for a job anywhere—not just in baseball—but Sig Mejdal fits into what Luhnow wants to create. McNeal calling Stephanie Wilka a “cheerleader” as the lead to her impressive resume and education is idiotic, plain and simple.

If the Astros become a success, the overwhelming probability is that it won’t specifically be because of Luhnow’s stat based theories nor the people he’s hired, but because they’re going to have the number 1 pick in the draft in 2012; they’ll probably have the number 1, 2 or 3 pick in 2013; and are a good bet to be picking that high in 2014 as well.

High draft picks are an equalizer to lots of mistakes as long as Luhnow and his people don’t get too clever.

And they might.

We don’t know.

This is actually a circumstance where I’d dearly love to see draft picks available for trade. What would Luhnow do? Would he pull a Jimmy Johnson NFL move and package the top pick for a series of lower round choices and try to re-stock the organization? Is there a consensus number one pick a la Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2012? MLB is missing a golden opportunity to make the draft irresistibly attractive for something other than hype and manufactured stories about players we’ve never heard of and will likely never see in the big leagues.

Luhnow’s ridiculed predecessor as Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, also gave the club a few pieces upon which to build with Brett Wallace, Jonathan Singleton and J.A. Happ. It’s not much for what’s essentially an expansion team, but it’s something.

The problem the Astros and Luhnow have is that everyone is looking for undervalued talent and using the same numbers to find it. How can you find undervalued talent if there’s nothing left to undervalue?

You can’t.

In the coming years, we’re going to see the end result of the stat-based building of a team from scratch by a front office comprised of baseball outsiders crunching numbers. Doing what McNeal did and issuing misogynistic and ignorant proclamations in the guise of “news” and “analysis” is not forwarding the argument for those who, like me, don’t believe that Luhnow’s way is going to work.

McNeal’s not making a case based on anything. He wanted attention and he got it. It’s not a good way to go about getting it and presumably, he’ll pay the price for being a fool. And he’ll deserve it.

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