How And Why The Graduation Rate For Draft Picks Has Changed

Baseball America determined that roughly one in six signed picks—17.2 percent, actually—from the 1987-2008 drafts went on to play in the big leagues. Today, we’ll see how that rate compares with historical marks and explore the reasons for the change.

Rresearch conducted by BA founder Allan Simpson and published in 2003 indicates that 22.8 percent of signed picks from the top 20 rounds of the 1965 through ’95 drafts played in the major leagues.

The graduation rate for draft picks in today’s game is slightly higher. In the 22 drafts we studied for this exercise, we found that roughly a quarter of signed draft picks (25.4 percent) from the top 20 rounds reached the major leagues for at least one game.

Breaking it down one step further: In the first 10 years of our sample, 1987-96, the graduation rate was 26.3 percent, whereas 24.6 percent of signed draft picks had reached the big leagues (through the first half of 2013) from the second decade of the sample, 1997 through ’08. That 24.6 percent rate will surely rise as players continue to reach the majors from the more-recent drafts, but an additional 90 players would need to graduate in order to match the 26.3 percent rate from 1987-96.

Regardless of which graduation rate you reference, roughly one-quarter of signed draft picks from the top 20 rounds will appear in the majors, though perhaps the proliferation of international talent in today’s game has muted the impact of the more-recent draft classes. That trend might signal a decline in draft-pick graduation rate going forward.

Major league front-office executives offered several hypotheses—many of them interrelated—as to why more draft picks reach the majors today than they did 25-30 years ago.

Transaction action. Multiple sources indicated that teams today make many more transactions involving the major league roster than they once did—more callups, more demotions, more outrights and more waiver claims. This creates much more major league opportunity for fringe players and low-ceiling prospects.

“Teams are more aggressive than ever with short-term roster juggling,” said one executive, “meaning that they’re more likely to use 35-40 players in a season rather than 25. Even though a lot of those extra stints are the same guys over and over again, it should still lead to more players getting big league time—though not more regulars.”

Injuries and investments. “I’d argue we have more injuries now,” said another exec, “and because of the money involved, teams are more cautious and will put a player on the disabled list instead of having him ‘rub some dirt on it.’ With more injuries comes the need for more players to replace them on the roster.”

Another front-office executive noted that teams have practically nothing to lose from a financial standpoint by taking a flier on a player from Triple-A. In the context of the average major league salary ($3.2 million in 2012), the non-tenured callup receives only the prorated portion of the $490,000 major league minimum, which works out to about $20,000 in salary for a one-week trial. This occurred less frequently in the past, when the gap between the minimum and average salary was smaller.

General pitcher churn. As pitchers face fewer batters per appearance than they once did, teams face constant demand for new arms to replace the ones who burn out or lose effectiveness. The average team in 2012 used about 22 pitchers to cover all the innings in the season. In 2002, they used 20. In 1992, they used 17. In 1982, they used 15. In fact, teams averaged between 14 and 15 pitchers a year from the baseball’s first expansion in 1961 until 1985, when the average reached 16 for the first time. The average has not dipped below that threshold since then. In graphical form, where the thin black line represents the five-year moving average:

Pitchers Per Season

 

The wonderful Baseball-Reference Play Index generated these pitcher head counts, but they inevitably include a few position players each season who took the mound during blowouts. That number ought to be fairly constant from year to year, however. The gaps in the graph represent strike-shortened seasons in which less than 162 games were scheduled. We’ll never know exactly how many pitchers would have been used in those seasons.

The number of unique position players per team has remained much more stable, ranging from roughly 19 to 22 during the Expansion Era. The average number of position players per team has trended downward since peaking in 1991 (21.7) and has averaged 20.8 during the last five full seasons.

Velocity cycle. An emphasis on pitcher velocity in today’s game has resulted in an historic strikeout rate—one in every five batters—or maybe it’s the other way around and teams are fighting fire with fire, preferring power pitchers to combat all-or-nothing hitting approaches. Regardless, teams clearly favor pitchers who throw hard, and that selection bias may be contributing to more arm injuries—at the least, more DL stints—thus the need for fresh hard-throwers.

It’s not just fastball velocity that has climbed to new heights, however. Sliders and cutters—the latter pitch type among starters, anyway—are thrown harder and more frequently today than they were even five years ago. According to Baseball Info Solutions pitch data presented at Fangraphs.com, the average fastball velocity by a starter in 2012 was 91 mph, compared with 89.8 mph in 2007. Sliders and cutters saw similar gains, increasing from 82.3 to 83.3 mph (sliders) and 85.5 to 87.4 mph (cutters). The rise in cutter velocity is particularly impressive, given that the pitch’s rate of deployment doubled in that span. Average fastball velocity for relievers climbed from 91.1 mph in 2007 to 92.5 mph in 2012, while sliders saw a more modest gain (82.6 to 83 mph).

AVERAGE PITCH DISTRIBUTIONS IN 2012
Because of their inherent platoon splits, fastball/slider pitchers often wind up in the bullpen, where managers can use them in favorable matchup situations. Last year, relievers threw either a fastball or a slider nearly four out of every five pitches. The “Other” category captures cutters, splitters and the stray knuckleball.
Pitch Starter Reliever
Fastball 56% 60%
Slider 12% 18%
Curveball 11% 8%
Changeup 12% 6%
Other 9% 8%

Matchup morass. With the seven-man bullpen and 12-man pitching staff now standard, teams freely devote roster spots to matchup relievers with large platoon splits, and these extra roster spots naturally create more opportunity for unproven pitchers to get a foot in the door. This applies to many lefthanded relievers, of course, but many teams today also carry sidearm righty relievers, many with their own platoon weaknesses. Their ranks include the likes of Steve Cishek, Cody Eppley, Cody Gearrin, Peter Moylan, Pat Neshek, Darren O’Day, Joe Smith and Brad Ziegler.

This reliever-heavy roster construction works only if the opposing offense is unable (or unwilling) to pinch-hit late in games to gain the platoon advantage, and with a typical big league bench consisting of three or four non-catcher position players, this has become the case. For perspective, the average American League team in 2012 pinch-hit 43 times, compared with 77 times in 1982. The gap would be even wider if one discards pinch-hitters for the pitcher in interleague games.

Offenses today often cede the platoon advantage to the defense, resulting in more right-on-right and left-on-left confrontations in late innings, situations rife for fastballs and sliders. As the table at right illustrates, relievers in 2012 threw either a fastball or a slider 78 percent of the time—nearly four out of every five pitches—while starters relied on offspeed pitches in equal measures to combat batters from both sides of the plate.

Greater scrutiny. Technological advances—particularly MLB.TV and the MLB Network—have changed the way fans consume baseball. If a hot prospect goes into a 1-for-30 tailspin, then even casual fans will know about it. That negative reinforcement may be damaging for the player, and that factor may be contributing to teams keeping a shorter leash on young players.

Higher stakes. In today’s game, where one-third of teams qualify for a playoff spot, too many underperforming players can make the difference between winning the second wild card and staying home. Thus teams require instant results and cannot always afford to be patient with struggling youngsters.

More information. The draft and other means of player procurement proceed in a more orderly fashion today because organizations have access to more sophisticated ways of gathering, processing and disseminating information. This contributes to a larger percentage of signed draft picks reaching the majors as scouting departments do a better job of identifying amateurs with pro potential (as well as those who are signable in the first place) and player-development staffs do a better job of cultivating raw tools into skills.

“The whole process is more efficient,” said the first executive. “NDFAs and players drafted after the 20th round used to be a larger portion of the big leagues because teams now have gotten better at lining the talent up properly. In the past, you could find big leaguers more easily in those areas.”

Our research backs up the exec’s claim. Dividing the first 20 years of the sample into “old” (1987-96) and “new” (1997-08) groups reveals that more players selected in the second through fifth rounds in the “new” sample reached the majors at a higher rate, 39.1 to 37.9 percent, and provided more three-year players, 13 to 12.6 percent. The opposite is true for players drafted after the 20th round, where teams found a higher percentage of big leaguers, 7.7 to 6.1 percent, and regulars, 2.3 to 1.2 percent, in the “old” sample.

More jobs. Two waves of expansion in the ’90s created 100 additional major league jobs with the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rays and Rockies. In the bigger picture, baseball has increased its ranks by 50 percent since the first draft in 1965, expanding from 20 teams to 30. The existence of more teams necessarily results in the existence of more second-division teams, and second-division teams facing nonexistent playoff odds have nothing to lose by auditioning as many unproven players as they can cram on a 40-man roster.

Accessibility. Half of the 30 big league teams have Triple-A affiliates within 250 miles of their home city, making travel between destinations both easy and relatively affordable. In fact, nine organizations have access to Triple-A players within a tempting 100 miles of their home base. They are the Athletics (Sacramento), Blue Jays (Buffalo), Braves (Gwinnett), Mariners (Tacoma), Phillies (Lehigh Valley), Red Sox (Pawtucket), Reds (Louisville), Rockies (Colorado Springs) and Tigers (Toledo).

 

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