Oakland Athletics’ vice president Billy Beane only wants to draft college players. He was once that high school kid who chased the big money, and he doesn ?t want those types of kids in his system. Moneyball (the book) has an anecdote where he gave his scouts free reign over a pick. They took a high school pitcher and Beane responded by throwing a chair through a wall. The Athletics can ?t afford to screw up drafts, so they pick college players.
Neal Huntington is not Billy Beane. He loves investing high picks into high school pitchers. He did it twice Monday with the Gunnar Hoglund and Braxton Ashcraft. It ?s the third straight year the Pirates have picked multiple high school pitchers in the first three rounds. While there ?s another day of drafting still to go, those selections are made by recommendations from local scouts. The higher-ups ? job is done, and they stayed the course they have set for years.
First round pick Travis Swaggerty may have been a bit of a stretch at No. 10 overall, but he still looks like a quality prospect. If I ?m reading the writing on the wall correctly, he ?ll sign either for slot value or a little less so the team can give more money to Hoglund and/or Ashcraft. They last tried this with Nick Lodolo in 2016, who went unsigned. Let ?s see if they value these picks enough to keep them out of college.
This wasn ?t always the Pirates ? strategy. In Huntington ?s first five years on the job, he took a college pitcher three times in the first round (Vic Black in 2009’s supplemental round, Gerrit Cole in 2011 and Mark Appel in 2012) and once in the second (Tanner Scheppers in 2008). Cole is Huntington ?s most successful draft pick to date. Black pitched four innings with the Bucs before getting dealt in the Marlon Byrd trade. Appel and Scheppers didn ?t sign (and they dodged a bullet with Appel).
The Appel snub seems like the turning point in the Pirates ? draft strategy. Since then, Huntington has not taken a college pitcher in the first three rounds of any draft. He ?s taken nine high school pitchers in the first three rounds since 2013.
That doesn ?t mean the Pirates ignore college pitchers in these early rounds. They have drafted 23 college pitchers in rounds 1-10 compared to just a dozen high schoolers since 2013. The difference is where they selected them.
Thirteen of those 23 have come in rounds 8-10. That doesn ?t mean they ?re throwaway picks– Chad Kuhl was a ninth rounder in 2013– but the pattern is clear: when drafting a pitcher, target high schoolers with the highest draft picks. Some of those college pitchers selected were reaches, too. The Pirates took junior RHP Aaron Shortridge with pick No. 114 this year. He wasn ?t on MLB ?s top 200 draft prospect list. Again, the strategy seems to be to either have him sign for under slot value to reallocate those dollars elsewhere, including Hoglund and Ashcraft. This isn ?t an issue of the team being cheap. Teams have a ceiling for how much they can spend on the draft. The volume of high school pitchers suggests that ?s what the Pirates want to spend it on.
The Pirates, like many other teams, try to get high upside arms out of high school so they can mold them into the pitchers they want, not the pitchers their respective colleges want. But does it work ? Rany Jazayerli did a write up on the Royals’ drafting history of pitchers for The Athletic and it was quite revealing. Let’s look at it during the Huntington era for the Pirates.
Let ?s omit this draft and the four before it since it ?s still too soon to judge a lot of these players ? careers. Mitch Keller and Shane Baz may be high-tier prospects, but you can ?t really consider anyone a success or failure until they at least sniff the majors or quit the game. So with apologies to Trey Supak, Brandon Waddell and Travis MacGregor fans, the jury is still out on them. We ?ll omit the batch for now.
Every drafted pitcher from 2013 falls into one of four categories: didn ?t sign, bust, cup of coffee (less than one year of major league service time), and ?success ? (over one year of service time). Here ?s the breakdown of the 15 college pitchers the Pirates took in rounds 1-10 from 2008-2013:
And here it is for the 20 high school pitchers:
The success stories for high school pitchers are Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. Nick Kingham, Colten Brewer (with the Padres) and Clay Holmes qualify as the cup of coffee guys. Kingham is on a good path to become a success story, and Holmes has a puncher ?s chance, too. The college successes are Cole, Kuhl, Justin Wilson and Brandon Cumpton. Black and Adrian Sampson (with the Mariners) cracked the majors, and Shane Carle looks like a mainstay in Atlanta ?s bullpen.
You can argue which package of players is better. Both have merits, but the college arms seem to have a better success rate of reaching the majors. There is plenty of hype around Keller and Baz, but Brandon Waddell, Tyler Eppler and Alex McRae are all in AAA and look like future major leaguers. All three went to college. They may not have the same ceilings as the high school guys, but they were drafted later.
I don ?t like to second guess individual picks because the MLB draft is a crapshoot– a failed pick is usually more the team ?s scouting and development ?s fault rather than the player ?s– but let ?s compare Baz to a similar right-handed pitcher in last year ?s draft: Alex Faedo. Faedo looked like a potential top 5 pick at one point, but a minor knee surgery hurt his stock. He fell to the Pirates, but they chose Baz instead. Six picks later, the Tigers took Faedo. Right now, MLB Pipeline has both pitchers ranked in the 50s on their top 100 prospects list.
Baz could obviously wind up the superior pitcher (it would be unfair to assume they are anything besides roughly equal at this point of their professional careers), but Faedo looks pretty good right now in High-A. Baz hasn ?t pitched above rookie ball. Yes, it ?s comparing an apple to an orange, but the apple is just three promotions away from the majors. If the goal is to draft future major leaguers, Faedo looks like the safer a bet.
The Pirates have not done a good job drafting players over the last decade. Cole is the only Huntington draftee to ever have a 3 WAR season (Alvarez was moved back to a 2.9 WAR season after Kevin wrote this article last year). Taillon, Glasnow or even Keller each have the potential to have such a season some day, but the Pirates haven ?t been able to consistently build through the draft to this point.
The old adage is to grow the pitchers and buy the hitters. The Pirates have invested a lot of early round picks on 18 year olds in recent years. If they don ?t pay off, a chair may just need to go through a wall.