As the more fanatical Pirate fans are all well aware, the Pirates in recent drafts have followed a fairly extreme pattern of focusing on prep pitchers. In 2009, they selected high school pitchers with five of their first nine picks. In 2010, it was seven of their first ten, although they failed to sign four of the seven. In 2011, it was five of the first nine. The strategy seems clear: By selecting projectable teenagers who have not matured physically, the Pirates are trying to maximize their chances of finding high-ceiling prospects who may break out as they gain strength and experience. College players, being older, are more predictable and, consequently, the odds of a future star slipping to the fifth or tenth round are much lower. The approach of looking for projectable pitchers is especially evident in the Pirates’ very strong preference for pitchers who are 6’4” or taller, generally with lean, loose frames and easier deliveries. The team clearly hopes that some of these pitchers will add velocity as they get stronger; most throw in the upper 80s or, occasionally, low 90s when drafted.
But will this approach work? As far as I know, there’s no publicly available data showing the likelihood of a 6’4” teenage pitcher adding velocity as he gets into his 20s. It certainly does happen, but I have no idea of the odds. Some teams, particularly the Twins and Braves, have had success drafting prep pitchers heavily, although the Twins focus on pitchers with good command who throw strikes and rely on their defense.
The obvious risk that the Pirates’ approach poses is that they’re not drafting hitters, and especially not college hitters, with their early picks after round one. The contrast is interesting because they went heavily for college hitters in their first draft under Neal Huntington. In 2008, they selected five college infielders in the first nine rounds. Apart from Pedro Alvarez, three of the other four—Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud and Matt Hague—have a good chance to contribute at least a little in the majors. D’Arnaud, of course, has played for the Pirates. None is likely to become a star, and Mercer and Hague may not be more than marginal players, but that’s a good return for picks after round one. As research by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus has shown, the odds of a draft pick reaching the majors at all drop below thirty percent by round three or so, and keep dropping afterward.
The consequences of the Pirates’ approach are becoming apparent in the low minors. West Virginia and State College are largely wastelands when it comes to hitting prospects. Both rank near the bottom of their leagues in offense and it’s not because their hitters are young. The weighted average age of the hitters on both teams is slightly older than league average. (Both have the youngest pitching staffs in their leagues by a comfortable margin.) The GCL Pirates are in much better shape, but it’s entirely due to a promising group of Latin American signees. The Pirates are starting to see the benefits of having viable possibilities available in AAA, even though those players may not project to be stars. The alternative is going back to the days of building depth with washed-up veterans, like they did in previous years with players like Luis Rivas, Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby and Craig Monroe. Does anybody want to return to that practice?
This could all work out if the Pirates’ drafting produces a large number of strong pitching prospects, but it’ll be years before we know. Young pitchers are so unpredictable that it’s quite possible that little could come of these efforts. Even if these drafts produce a large number of pitching prospects, things still may not work out because pitching prospects don’t generally have the value of hitting prospects due to the added unpredictability. That’s why I wish there was some actual data available to indicate the viability of the Pirates’ reliance on projection. Right now, I don’t see any way to judge the degree of risk they’re taking.