First Pitch: Predicting What the Pirates Might Do in an Unpredictable Draft

The draft is such a crap shoot.

No matter how much information you have, and no matter how good or bad a pick looks, you really just never know what will happen. That’s true all across baseball. It’s the reason why 24 players were drafted before Mike Trout in 2009, with Trout’s drafting team taking one of those players before they took him. It’s why Andrew McCutchen can fall to the Pirates with the 11th overall pick, or why fifth rounders like Tyler Glasnow can become one of the top prospects in the game.

Despite the draft being a crap shoot, and totally unpredictable, that doesn’t mean the process of evaluating picks is worthless. You just have to be very open to new information, and very willing to change your evaluations in the future, possibly multiple times. Because no matter how much information you are working with on draft day, new information will come out following the draft, and soon enough, the draft day info will become irrelevant.

But the draft day information is the starting point. It gives the initial perspective. And in some cases, it can let you in on some of the drafting trends for specific teams, or the entire league.

For example, take the 2014 draft for the Pirates. They took Cole Tucker in the first round with the 24th overall pick. It was a move criticized by a lot of people, myself included, mostly because it went against every public ranking system that had Tucker as a second or third round pick. If the Pirates took Jacob Gatewood or Monte Harrison on draft day, the move would have been praised, because it would have matched the information we had at the time.

Only a few weeks later, we learned that the Pirates weren’t the only ones high on Tucker. Several other teams picking right after them, including the Oakland Athletics with the next pick, were lined up to take him. It became obvious that if the Pirates wanted Tucker, they needed to take him 24th. Meanwhile, Gatewood went 41st overall, and Harrison went 50th overall.

Now fast forward a year later. All three prep players got an aggressive push to Low-A. Tucker isn’t putting up great numbers, but they’re not bad when you consider his age. He has a .266/.289/.325 line in 186 plate appearances, with a 12.4% strikeout rate and a 3.8% walk rate. Definitely room for improvement, but he doesn’t look like a guy who is terribly overmatched.

That’s not the case with Gatewood and Harrison. Gatewood has a .203/.260/.288 line in 127 plate appearances, and is striking out at a 37.8% rate. Harrison has been worse, with a .143/.246/.231 line in 168 plate appearances, with a 43.5% strikeout rate. Both look completely overmatched.

This isn’t to say that Tucker is a success, or that Gatewood and Harrison are busts. It’s just pointing out that before the draft, those two were regarded as better picks, while Tucker was seen as a guy who shouldn’t go anywhere near the first round. Surprisingly, Tucker went in the first, and the other two slipped. And a year later the results have backed up those surprising moves on draft day.

It’s for this reason that I didn’t feel like we should waste any time this year highlighting individual picks for the draft. That was a process that made a lot of sense when the Pirates were picking in the top four every year. It even made sense in 2013 when you knew Reese McGuire would be available, and when you thought Austin Meadows might be available when they picked. But last year was the first year that the Pirates had a late pick, and the process was completely unpredictable. I don’t know if they’ll do the same thing this time around, going for an apparent “reach” in the first round. But with this draft, there are so many options that I don’t think it makes sense to highlight one or two, and act like that’s the only good pick they could make.

For example, one debate we had when creating our draft tiers was where to put Brady Aiken. He was the number one overall pick last year, but had Tommy John surgery this year and fell due to injury concerns. Most mock drafts and rankings have him rated below the Pirates’ pick. They might have a shot to take him at 19, and that move would be a risky one, but could come with some massive upside for that pick. But there are a lot of other appealing players for that pick, such as hitting prospects like Cornelius Randolph, Ian Happ, or even pitchers like Walker Buehler and Mike Nikorak. That’s not even including guys who might surprisingly fall to the Pirates. There are a lot of directions for the Pirates to go, and as we’ve seen in the past, they’re going to go their own direction and take the guy they like best, even if that doesn’t match up with the public information.

So rather than focusing on specific players (although I cheated by mentioning a few of the guys I liked in the previous paragraph), I thought I’d focus on some trends, since they tell the story a little bit better. The truth is that we don’t really have a big enough sample size to say for certain that the Pirates have any trends. Yes, they’ve had seven drafts already with this management group, but only three with the new draft system, and one of those was the Mark Appel draft, which was a rare circumstance. Furthermore, this is only their second draft picking at the bottom of the first round, making things more complex.

Despite the small sample size, there have been a few trends that have emerged. The first one is age. We saw that in a big way last year with the selection of Tucker. It wasn’t just that he was a high schooler, but he also was younger than almost every other high schooler in the draft. On that same note, they took Taylor Gushue in the fourth round, who was younger than most of the college players in the draft. The idea here is that you might get some additional growth and development from these guys, since those high school and college years are so crucial for initial development.

That’s not the full extent of the age trend. The Pirates have always loaded up on prep pitchers, and the last few years have been no exception. They spent big on Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz last year, and went over-slot on Billy Roth and Neil Kozikowski the year before. And Tucker wasn’t their only first round prep hitter, as they took Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire with first round picks in 2013. You could expand on this if you include the second round and the selection of Wyatt Mathisen in 2012.

The other trend that has developed has revolved around athleticism for position players. The Pirates have drafted players in the middle rounds over the last few seasons who have looked like good picks, and guys who might become starters, but all of them lacked that excitement factor where you could dream about them as future first-division starters. For example, can you picture JaCoby Jones, Connor Joe, or Jordan Luplow starting over Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and/or Gregory Polanco in the future? They could end up as starters in the majors, but on a team like this, they’re going to be really good fourth outfielders at best.

All three of those players were drafted as outfielders, although that was short-lived. The Pirates drafted them for their bats and their athleticism, with the goal of moving them to a new position in the future. Jones played center field and second base in college, but moved to shortstop, which is a position he hadn’t played since high school. Luplow was drafted as a right fielder, but moved to third base this year, which he hadn’t played since suffering an injury during his freshman year in college. Joe was drafted as a right fielder, and is currently playing first base, although the Pirates had plans to work him at catcher and third base before his back injury last year.

In each case, the player’s potential value goes up if they can learn the new position. For example, Jones might make a second-division starting outfielder with his bat, but if he can learn to play shortstop, then that’s a lot of power you don’t usually see from the middle infield spot. And this is an intentional approach, as Greg Smith told me during Spring Training. They feel that it is easier to draft a good hitter who is athletic and teach him a harder defensive position than it is to draft a good defender at a valuable position and teach him how to hit.

I don’t know who the Pirates will draft tomorrow, and I don’t even think they will know until the pick comes around, considering the uncertainty of this draft. But looking at the recent trends, I expect two things to happen — they will continue to prioritize prep players and younger college players, and they will focus on good hitters who are athletic, and who might have a shot to move to a more valuable position in the future.

**Pirates Prospects 2015 MLB Draft Top 100 Tiered Rankings. Here are the rankings to follow over the next three days, you know, if you want to get specific.

**2015 Draft Pick Signing Tracker. You’ll want to bookmark this page.

**Prospect Watch: Another Gem From Sampson; Hanson and Garcia Homer

**Pirates Primed for Outstanding June…Again

**Pirates Release Tyler Sample

**Chad Kuhl’s Progress Developing His Secondary Pitches in Altoona

**Morning Report: The DSL Pirates are Playing Like an Inexperienced Team

 

  • have to realize that management spends tons of money and time on scouting these players and they are in a much better position to decide who to take then we are. My preference is for high end prep players. My personal favorite in this draft is the pitcher from UCLA. Has 4 pitches that he can control and might possibly be able to command them as well. Another Wacha possibly.

  • Time to open presents, hope we don’t get a lump of coal.

  • Very interest to see who they take and will reserve judgment until the “industry sources” speak I suppose.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 8, 2015 10:14 am

    Although I agree guys like Gatewood and Harrison are struggling this year, even more so than Tucker, I won’t conclude it was the right pick for another 3-5 years. Although I hope Tucker proves to be deserving of the Pirates first round pick, things could be flipped around in one season.

    • John Dreker
      June 8, 2015 11:59 am

      Harrison has had a tough time since his grandmother passed away about a month ago. He took time off to be with family and since then has been really struggling, even worse than before. They may have been better off sending him to EST when he got back to give him some time off in a low pressure situation

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        June 8, 2015 1:20 pm

        I am very sorry to hear that John – that reminds us that these kids are human. On the surface, we see a kid struggling with low numbers or bad performance, we generally don’t consider what may be going on in his life outside of baseball that may be having an effect on him. For his sake, I hope he can rise above and dedicate the rest of his career to his grandmother.

  • Tim…I am not a fan of Mock Drafts for precisely the reason you state above.

  • From below….I, too, prefer the H.S. arms and bats. Let them learn the “Pirate Way” not the USC or South Carolina way.

    I’d say the Penn State way, but there’s not too many PSUers who made the bigs in baseball….sigh.

  • Tim…I very much liked your very first sentence. I went round and round with a couple of bloggers who said “crap shoot” was a bad choice of an expression.

    However, it IS scary that we think alike. I’m glad we disagreed on Ramirez or else I’d be very worried about you.

    🙂 🙂

  • Paul Polinsky
    June 8, 2015 7:13 am

    Emjayin, appreciate your reply. You’re right, better to have them in our system than college. I look at Alverez and Sanchez and how long it has taken to get to the majors and what a disappointment they have been (Pedro love the one time 36 homers, however, more than offset by K’ s and misadventures at first and third

  • I also like the “late” info on some of the kids thought to go early in the draft. Phil Bickford tested positive for marijuana even though they tell you there will be an unannounced “random” drug test within the 30 day period preceding the draft. Brains may not be his long suit, but will the Pirates hope he falls to #32? Alex Bregman of LSU was predicted to be a Top 10 pick but he just ended an 0 for 18 slump – not what you want to see if you are thinking of drafting him. Rain caused the Illinois-Vandy Super Regional Game to be pushed to today – LHRP Tyler Jay is getting the start for Illinois against LHRP/LHSP Phillip Pfeifer of Vandy.

    How can Garrett Whitley be a Top 10 pick for some and the #27 pick for Baseball America? He can rake, and if he is still there at #19, will the Pirates take him? Hooper was pitching a big game against another high rated prospect – anybody see the results?

    • Just checked BA and HS LHSP Justin Hooper outpitched DeMers throwing a Shutout and winning 3-0. He was throwing his FB at 96 with exc command, throwing his curve for strikes, and getting many of the 10 strikeouts with a sharp breaking Slider. 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 10K’s/0 Walks. With 3,000 people in attendance, and many, many scouts present, I feel safe in predicting he will not be around at #32. So, IMO, Allard or Hooper, with Whitley being a fallback at #19.

  • Paul Polinsky
    June 8, 2015 4:42 am

    I have trouble understanding the Pirates draft philosophy. The acquisition cost of a 1 or second round is relatively the same for a Prep school player or a College player. Yet the College trained guy is 2-3 years closer to the majors, and is somewhat easier to predict the upside (you already know his 3 year upside post-prep school) . I recognize we have some prep pitchers now 1-2 years away, but it is taking too long for the Pirates to develop them.

    • Upside… A college pitcher has less variance in outcomes… At 18, he could look like a potential #1 but at 21, he might grow to an upside of a #3. That is still extremely valuable as there are not 30 solid 3s in the majors, but the Pirates are looking to find potential sruds means they have to take on variance risk

    • Paul: I think the Pirates see that 3 year period of 18-21 as a tremendously important developmental period, and I fully agree. Better to have them in our developmental system rather than in someone else’s system. And, the Pirates are deliberate in their approach to developing talent (especially pitching) regardless of whether that talent is in a college player or a HS player.

      Many of these college pitchers have been ridden hard in that they pitch usually once a week and then, throwing well beyond the 100 pitch mark is not unusual. From there they have to be broken back to a normal 4 day rest between starts and then try to get them out of games before hitting 90 or 100 pitches. Gerrit Cole was a quick turnaround for the Pirates, but Tyler Glasnow is on schedule to get to the majors at the same age, and with a lot less wear and tear on his arm.

      • That is an interesting point about Cole vs Glasnow, but I would like to see the numbers.

      • well you could have said that about taillon as well- but he just had tj, so that’s obviously not really a reasonable methodology

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