One of the sites that I frequent as a baseball fan is Fangraphs. For those into the sabre-metric world of baseball as a means of evaluating players, the site is one of the essentials in the baseball world. I can’t say that I agree with all of the articles, or even all of the metrics that are used. There are usually issues when looking at any statistic, so none of them are perfect. Still, WAR is one statistic that is widely used by people in the business as a means to evaluate a players value. So when Fangraphs writer Jim Breen did a recent article calculating WAR for major league’s teams draft picks since 2002, I thought I would check it out.
The article’s intent is certainly a good one. Breen essentially set out to show how successful teams are at drafting by calculating the WAR they have provided their drafting team. Essentially, who is the best at drafting and developing homegrown talent? Unfortunately, when you dig deeper into the method by which this was calculated, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Why? Well, there are many reasons, and I wanted to dive into a few here.
But first, the reason I am linking the article in the first place.
The Tigers finished 6th on the list provided by Breen, accumulating 78.7 WAR from players that were drafted from 2002 on, and accounts for WAR accumulated for the Tigers while wearing their uniform. In other words, players like Curtis Granderson, drafted before 2002, who debuted after did not count in the accumulation. This is vital to his process as it obviously will discount some players, but I get it, he had to start the cut-off somewhere so it is a fair analysis of all teams. Essentially, he is looking at the nice round number of 10 years.
Now, the Tigers finishing 6th in accumulated WAR would suggest a very good thing. It obviously suggests they are getting value from their draft choices, but that may or may not be the case. Breen didn’t go far enough in his analysis.
He uses the term “homegrown” in an effort to describe what the drafted player is in this analysis. Certainly a drafted player that goes on to provide its’ drafting team with WAR is “homegrown”. However, this does little to acknowledge the successes teams have which develop players through international means. Are players signed internationally not “homegrown” as well if they play for that team that signed them? I may just be nitpicking Breen’s word usage, but to qualify drafted players as “homegrown” and not acknowledge international signings as such, doesn’t tell the whole story on an organizations’ ability to develop. In Breen’s scenario, the last place Mariners can’t count Felix Hernandez.
I will give Breen a little pass on that one though, he did set out to look at the draft after all, and technically, international signings aren’t draft picks. But let’s look at a couple more obvious issues with his analysis.
First off, it’s not a level playing field. There are so many factors that can go into whether or not the drafting teams actually gets to reap the benefits of it’s draftees WAR accumulation or not. One, their is fiscal restraints. Given that some of the worst teams draft high every year, do they not have an advantage in picking some of the best players? Or at some at a disadvantage because of the signability issues we have seen from players in the past? Tigers fans only have to look at Rick Porcello as an example of this. Is Rick Porcello’s 6.7 WAR that he has accumulated a function of good drafting by the Tigers, or just an indication of the management willing to meet his bonus demands in the 2007 draft? I have no doubt that Porcello, who was rated as the 1st or 2nd best high school pitcher in the draft, would’ve went much higher had it not been for his perceived troubles to sign with a big league club.
There is no accounting for where teams drafted, their willingness to spend, or if the team even had a first round pick. We all know the success level of draft picks gets a lot lower after the first round. If the team doesn’t have a first round pick or two during that time frame, that is going to askew it’s WAR numbers negatively.
Another issue I have with the article is the ability of having a few top players drafted work out for a team. The team that posted the most WAR from 2002 drafts and on, the Boston Red Sox, have hit on several players that have accounted for most of that WAR. In fact, there is a column that Breen provides showing the average WAR per player that has made the big league club, and Boston is second to only the Tampa Bay Rays in that category, who are also top 5 overall in WAR.
The Tigers find themselves in the middle of the pack at 2.25 average WAR per player. While that can be seen as a positive, it could also be potentially be seen as a negative. On the one hand, it suggests that the Tigers have gotten value out of a bunch of players it has drafted. On the other, it goes to show that the low ceiling/high floor approach that they have taken outside of a few of their first round picks. In fact, the Tigers have gotten more than half of their WAR accumulation from three players in Justin Verlander, Alex Avila, and Rick Porcello. If you take out their 46.2 WAR combined, Tigers draftees other than them have only provided 32.5 WAR during that time frame. If we do a little math, going by the total WAR provided/average WAR provided, we can see that roughly 35 draft picks have contributed WAR to the Tigers from the 2002 drafts on. If you take out the three players above, that means that 32 other picks have averaged about 1 WAR per player. That is a lot of players, but unproductive ones at that. I’m not sure that is a good thing, but it does lead into the next issue I have with this article.
The time frame itself is off. As I mentioned earlier, I know why Breen probably chose 2002. It gives him the 10 most recent drafts to look at. But this isn’t a quality approach to deciding which teams have drafted best during this time frame. Why? Well, certain teams, namely the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays have put a big emphasis on the draft the past few years, and have quality farm systems. This doesn’t allow for players that have been drafted in the past couple of years to accumulate any WAR of course. For instance, should the Nationals be considered worse drafters than the Marlins because they have accumulated less WAR than the Marlins in Breen’s time frame. The Marlins have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, while the Nats have one of the best. It’s likely that the Nationals surpass the Marlins in accumulated WAR from these drafts in the next couple of years, highlighting one of the failed aspects of this study.
Yet another issue with this article is that it only accumulates WAR for the team that drafted the player. In other words, it doesn’t take into account players WAR drafted by the team that got traded, or left as a free agent, when they accumulate WAR for their new team. Shouldn’t that be taken into account? After all, just because Zach Greinke is accumulating WAR for the Milwaukee Brewers right now, doesn’t take away the fact that he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals.
It also doesn’t account for the value that teams got from their draft picks in trades. This is where Tigers fans of course would see an obvious jump in their WAR. General Manager David Dombrowski has demonstrated a tremendous knack for acquiring assets through the trades of his draft picks. While this doesn’t suggest that the Tigers did a good job of selecting the players, the value they got in return is very real, and shouldn’t be discounted.
In conclusion, I know that I am probably being very critical of a quality writer in Breen. The idea behind the article is something in which I appreciate very much. A teams ability to draft is very important, but, and I am sure Breen knows this, it isn’t the only way to build a team, and the amount of WAR accumulated by “homegrown” players acquired via the draft in the past 10 years doesn’t necessarily mean success. There are too many factors.
The bottom line is any study in this manner when it comes to the draft’s success from 2002-2011 shouldn’t be done until at least 2025. Why? It would actually give the players drafted during that time frame to either make the big leagues, or even get through their careers to show how much WAR they accumulated. So, essentially, if the article that Breen had done had been modified to look at the 1981-1990 seasons, I would be able to appreciate it more. It would also have to include the WAR for players drafted by the team, whether or not they accumulated the WAR on the team that drafted them. Again, just because Randy Johnson didn’t accumulate his WAR for the Expos, doesn’t mean that it was a bad draft choice. I just think the article would have to include these things to be considered more accurate.
That article, or study, would be quite an undertaking, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it. I commend Breen for trying to quantify the ability of a team to draft, unfortunately I feel like it just comes up a little bit short.