Cole, Rendon, and Drafting Pitchers vs. Position Players

Argument for Pitchers

Pitchers are one of the most valuable resources in the baseball universe, and if you can find young pitching, you’ve hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, pitchers are so precious because they tend to get hurt more often than position players because of the extremely unnatural motion they must make so frequently. While you already have normal attrition for prospects as they fail to make the adjustments to move up the minor-league ladder, pitchers have the added obstacle of avoiding major injuries that diminish the quality stuff they had when they were drafted.

And that’s why you should draft more of them. If pitchers have the same talent obstacles to getting to the majors and the added injury factor, you will need more of them in your system to off-set the severe attrition taking place. But you don’t want to simply get any pitcher. You need good pitchers near the top of the draft to ensure that you have more than the Pittsburgh Pirates staff. You need to spend quality money to ensure that you are getting quality pitching in return. While it will mean that more of your money is essentially lost to attrition, you are still encouraging a strong future rotation by loading up on young pitchers, which will save money in free-agency.

And free-agency is one of the aspects of drafting players that no one really talks about. A strong farm system gives the team cheap, young talent so that the team doesn’t need to hope there’s a quality free-agent in an area of need that will come to the team for the amount of money the team can spend. That last statement has a lot of qualifiers, and it demonstrates the difficulties teams can have when searching to fill holes through free-agency. With pitchers, the problem is worse. As we’ve discussed, pitchers get hurt more than position players, so when teams spend on pitchers in free-agency, they spend the same money per win as they would on a position player but are more unlikely to see the same return on investment. By ensuring that your system is filled with young pitching prospects, you won’t have to spend as much on free-agent pitchers, and when a pitcher does come through, you essentially make more money off your investment.

Argument for Position Players

Victor Wang’s research clearly demonstrates how much more value teams get out of position players, and the numbers are staggering. Top 10 hitting prospects generally give the team close to $36.5 million of surplus value (value produced – amount of money paid to player), but Top 10 pitchers only produce about $16 million worth of surplus value. That wasn’t a typo. Top pitchers tend to produce less than half of their position player counterparts, and while the values get closer the farther down the list you go, position player maintain an easy, consistent edge over pitchers until you get into Grade B prospects.

If you want the maximum return on investment, you need to spend the big money on position player prospects. Spending more money generally correlates with talent level, and the more talent a player has, the more likely he is to make the majors. Without the extreme injury risk of pitchers, the position players are more likely to produce when they get to the majors, and they produce more than pitchers do once they get there. If you’re concerned about pitching, you can always use the excess position players you have to trade for one.

Conclusion

This whole discussion, of course, takes place theoretically. When one drafts or signs an amateur player, the team shouldn’t worry about needs or position. They should, instead, focus on getting the best player available, regardless of position, because too much can happen between draft or signing time and the moment they reach the majors. But this discussion holds for situations like the one the Pirates will face with the number one selection—when two players will give you potentially similar value at the major-league level, which should you choose? This can happen throughout the draft, and I’m guessing teams have had to have this discussion numerous times during a draft. They like two players fairly equally, but they have to decide between the pitcher or position player.

From a pure value standpoint, the answer is obvious—take the position player. They get hurt less often. From this point of view, the Pirates really shouldn’t be having much of a discussion over their top pick. If all the medicals check out (and it doesn’t seem as though anyone is terribly worried they won’t), then Rendon is their man. With both players likely to be top 10 prospects this off-season, Rendon will probably give the Pirates about $20 million more production than Cole. Of course, we don’t know that will happen, but we’re playing percentages here because, the more times you play the right side, the more it will likely work out over the long-run. Just for your information, none of the Kansas City Royals’ main pitching prospects were drafted in the first round except for Aaron Crow. John Lamb (5th), Mike Montgomery (supplemental), Danny Duffy (3rd), Chris Dwyer (4th), Jason Adam (5th), and Tim Melville (4th) were all huge value finds after the first few rounds of the draft. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Christian Colon were all first-round picks, and the Royals paid William Myers and Brett Eibner like first-round picks. Time will tell how that strategy worked.

The next question is whether needs play in at all. Consider the Pirates situation. They seem to have a somewhat decent offense, but their pitching is abysmal. Should they draft Cole, knowing he’ll move quickly and be excellent? Probably not. First of all, the Pirates could still use an All-Star 3B to move Pedro Alvarez to first, but the most important thing when you are spending so much money is to get something back for it. Rendon gives you the best chance. Position players give you the best chance. NFL and NBA teams can worry about needs. MLB teams can’t, and as fans, we need to recognize the difference between the drafts.

Okay, so now we still have to worry about getting pitchers. No one can simply abandon getting pitchers. I think the Royals system shows the way. In the first 5 rounds of their past 4 drafts, 12 of the Royals’ 20 picks have been pitchers, but looking only at rounds 1 and 2, 5 of their 8 picks have been position players. During early rounds when they are spending a premium, they seem to be focusing more on position players to get a return on investment, but they won’t avoid a premium pitcher if they believe he’s the best on the board. Over the next few rounds when there’s still talent left, the Royals seem to be pouncing on pitching, especially high school pitching (only Dwyer was a selection out of college), to get quality and quantity without terribly overspending for it. Over the past few years, the Royals also appear to be scouring Latin American more. Latin America is a cheap source of labor (the ethics left alone for another discussion), and teams could really try to load up on pitching by signing live arms from the area to bolster their farm system.

Now, what does this mean for the Yankees? First of all, it sucks that the Yankees tried their hardest to get Cole in 2008, and he’s now potentially the best player available in the draft. Second, you would hope the Yankees would use early-round picks on position players, but they should take a pitcher if they believe he is significantly better than the best available position player. 5 of their past 9 first and second round selections have been hitters, including each of their last 4, and getting nice prospects like Brett Marshall and Adam Warren in later rounds are nice finds as well. Third, you have to like how they have pursued Latin America, getting 3 of their top 4 prospects and 2 of their top 4 pitching prospects and Ivan Nova from there. In the end, the team should pursue more upper-level pitchers, but when it comes to spending the big bucks, they should lay them down on position players.

7 thoughts on “Cole, Rendon, and Drafting Pitchers vs. Position Players

  1. Allen

    The Pirates will pick whoever will settle for the smaller signing bonus (which in either case will be equal to about 20% of their total payroll). In fact, I bet the team is annoyed that they have to pay a first overall pick. Maybe the Yanks can buy it off them for a few bucks. That can be a new source of revenue for the Pirates – make sure to be the worst team in the league every year (come on, how hard will that be with all the work they've put into it for the last 18 years) and sell the first pick to the Yankees. What's this site called again?

  2. Mark Smith

    Taillon wasn't cheap either.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      But evidently the Pirates ducked Matt Wieters in 2007 to draft Daniel Moskos instead, to save the cost of Wieters' signing bonus.

      • Mark Smith

        Different regime. Huntington took over after the 2007 season.

        • LarryAtIIATMS

          Didn't think of that. Good point.

  3. LarryAtIIATMS

    Mark, terrific piece! You make a number of points that are hard to counter: the position player draft choice does appear to be objectively more valuable, and hitters are a less risky bet than pitchers. You can also look at the players teams are willing to sign long-term, before or just after they reach arbitration: Pedroia, Longoria, Tulowitski, Jay Bruce — all position players (you can probably think of others). Few teams are willing to make these kinds of long-term extensions with young pitchers — Wade Davis comes to mind.

    For the Yankees, this calculation may be different, since the Yanks can acquire missing pieces in free agency, and since top-flight starting pitchers have been the Yanks' biggest unmet need in free agency recently (at least, very recently). So long as the Yankees can pick up high productivity position players in free agency, the Yanks may want to select pitchers in the draft.

    Nice piece!

    • Mark Smith

      In my opinion, the Yankees need to use their economic might to grab every tough sign that begins to fall in the draft.

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