“Best Player Available”

First, you obviously consider talent. You want to know how good a player is now and can be in the future. But this is fraught with danger. Can you really tell who is better than who right now? Sure, Gerrit Cole is better than the guy available in the third round, but is he really better now than Trevor Bauer? And what about comparing pitchers to position players? How can you tell Cole is better than Rendon, or that Rendon is better than Danny Hultzen? Not only do you have this “present” question, you have to worry about the future. Cole might be better than Dylan Bundy now, but who will be better in 4 years? Who will have the better career? Crossing the pitcher-hitter boundary again, will Rendon be better than Bundy? And what about high schooler vs. high schooler? Will Bubba Starling be better than Bundy in a few years? And which of these (present and future) talent do you weigh more heavily? Do you go with upside or present value? Talent is the most important aspect of drafting a player. You, obviously, want the best player available, but we can’t even decide on who that is.

And teams can’t either. Each of those teams has an army of scouts that go and look at a player, and as much they may try, their opinions are subjective. There’s no way to say how good they’ll be against major-league pitching or hitting until they, you know, face major-league pitching or hitting. But these scouts come back with all these reports on players, and some reports may even conflict over certain players because scouts within an organization may not see the same things as others in the organization. When the front offices try to compile the information, they have to make a decision, and they create a ranking system that tries to put all these players in order. Eventually, this is somewhat of a consensus within the organization, but what about the rest of baseball?

Maybe everyone had Bryce Harper number 1 on their list, but are you sure that Manny Machado and Jameson Taillon weren’t ahead of him on any lists? And which of those two did teams think were better? There may have been more of a consensus with those players because of the time spent scouting them, but when you get to 4th and 5th round players, the talent is more muddled and tiers between players are less distinct. At that point, who is the best player available?

Then, you have to think about price. Sure, price is no object, and drafted players are much cheaper than free-agents. But are you going to tell me money has nothing to do with it? If you have a guy you project to average 3.5f WAR during his career who wants a $1.5 million bonus and another who projects for 4 fWAR but wants $3 million, who are you going to go with? There isn’t an obvious answer, but are you willing to pay the additional $1.5 million for the “best available” player when he may not be that much better?

And what about injury risk? Pitchers get hurt much more than hitters, so does that affect their ranking? If I like Cole a little better than Rendon and think he should be the better player, do I take into account that he’s more likely to get hurt? And if I do, how much does that count off on Cole’s rating? Is it the same for each organization?

As you can see, the phrase “best player available” isn’t always as clear as it seems. It seems so natural and so common sensical, but it’s actually vague and misleading. Taking the best player available is certainly the correct strategy when drafting players, but we have to be careful when criticizing teams over who that player is. I’m guessing teams take the “best available player to them”, but it’s within their own construct of what that means. We may disagree with their construct, scouting, and formulas, but if we do, let’s focus more on with what we disagree. Calling out a team for not taking the best player available is easy, and because of the lack of knowledge about how each individual team drafts, it’s an accusation that doesn’t have to be defended once you’ve made your casual glance through Keith Law, John Sickels, Kevin Goldstein, or Baseball America’s draft lists. You can get mad that your team drafted Law’s 13th best player with the 7th overall pick, and you may feel perfectly justified in doing so because a credible mind told you that there were a few better players than the one your team selected. But in the end, you don’t know that the player wasn’t the best available player on that team’s board (see Culver, Cito). And you can’t use hindsight, either. Teams didn’t have that information when they drafted, and you can’t use it against them. It’s fine to criticize teams and their drafts (you should; constructive criticism is pretty much always good), but let’s be a little better about it than getting mad that they didn’t take the “best player available” because none of us knows what that means.

6 thoughts on ““Best Player Available”

  1. KDN

    I’m willing to bet that far more fans care about the NHL draft than the MLB one. Hell, take a stroll over to Hockey’s Future’s message boards and you’ll find people interactively performing full 7-round mock drafts from the time the last draft happened up until the next one takes place. I can’t imagine a comparable thing happening for baseball (i.e. the full-on 50+ round mock draft) unless professional scouts are participating.

    Just look at the Worldwide Leader, home of possibly the worst mass-market hockey coverage on the internet: 3 contributors to their NHL draft blog compared to two for the MLB counterpart (and one of those, Keith Law, rarely posts to the blog since he has his own on ESPN’s MLB page).

    The NHL draft is likely just as big with its hardcore fans as the NFL draft is with there’s. As you stated about the MLB draft, “a lot of the players don’t sign at all, most players we’ll never ever hear of, and we won’t even see the good ones for another few years.” This is not the case with the NHL; top-10 busts are rare, players aren’t drafted just to fill out the minor leagues, and the stars of the draft usually become stars in the league within a pretty short time (13 of the last twenty years’ 15 top-scoring draft picks were first rounders, 12 of which were from the top-6).

    Great article otherwise, though.

  2. Mark Smith

    Thanks. The, uh, NHL line was mainly a joke, but I didn't know a lot of that about the NHL. Should have known better than to mock the NHL to a Northern audience. :)

  3. KDN

    It’s playoff time. The NHL crowd is all on edge. You had better watch your step.

    Seriously though, I had completely forgotten how into the draft hockey fans are since this is the first one I’ve followed in ten years. It’s also one of the more fun drafts since my favorite team is picking high for the first time in memory and there’s a top eight or so that could be the best player in the draft. I think it’s more entertaining this way than to have the “everyone tank for LeBron” drafts that generational talents create.

  4. Mark Smith

    I think everyone understands theoretically what the best player available means, but people throw it around like it's an actual certainty. Whenever the draft happens, you will see plenty of people who get angry because their team didn't take the best player available. Like with Cito Culver, I would be incredibly surprised if 10% of the people watching thought he was the "best player available" at that time.

    As for drafting for need, you have to look ahead, but you can't be a slave to it. Regarding Jeter, the Yankees should have known over the past few years that they needed a SS to replace him. That doesn't mean they should have reached for one, but if one happened to fall to them, they should have taken him. The Braves, for instance, last season gave priority to hitters. I don't know if that was a good idea, but they may have also taken their best available player.

    My main point was that a lot of people will throw around criticisms a month from now based on a few mock drafts they saw on ESPN or Baseball America without actually thinking about what the term means and what goes into deciding it.

  5. Allen

    Another wrinkle is the players' ability to hold out for a major league contract, which ends up hurting either the team or the player, or both (see Stephen Strasburg for a prime example of how it can hurt the player). A player who demands a major league contract would move way down my draft list.

    • Mark Smith

      I imagine that has an effect. But if they are the best available player, should that matter? Or couldn't you just give him some extra money to stop pressing for a major-league contract? But you're absolutely right, there's a lot more that goes into "best available player" than simply talent.

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