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2021 MLB Draft Stock Watch: Which Demographics Are Riskiest At No. 1 Overall?

Marcelo Mayer Larrygorenfourseam
Marcelo Mayer (Photo by Larry Goren/Four Seam Images)

Welcome to Baseball America’s 2021 Draft Stock Watch. A recurring feature throughout draft season, we’ll use this space to explore rising and falling prospects in the 2021 draft class and also dive into different themes and topics at greater length. In today’s edition, we’re taking a look at the historic success rates for various demographics among the top-five picks, and seeing if that could have any impact on who goes No. 1 overall. You can see previous Stock Watch installments below: 

Top 30 Prospect To-Do Lists | 10 Sleepers | Bearing Down On 1st Round Pitchers | Checking In On 1st Round Bats | 10 Early-Season Risers | A Historic High School SS Class? |10 Risers On Our BA 300 Update | A Standout Northeast Class | 12 Pop-Ups & Performers | 5 Ranked Risers, 5 Unranked Pop-Ups | BA 400 Rankings Risers | Question Marks In The College Class

Welcome to another draft stock watch!

We’re about two months away from the 2021 draft, and in contrast to the last three drafts, there’s no real confidence about who’s going to wind up being the first player selected.

In 2018, Auburn righthander Casey Mize established himself as the top player in the class through his first 10 starts of the season thanks to terrific strikeout and walk numbers, in addition to a repertoire that was being graded out with plenty of 60s.

In 2019, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman was the wire-to-wire favorite to be the No. 1 pick and never let anyone else enter that conversation by hitting .411/.575/.751 with 17 homers and 76 walks to just 38 strikeouts.

The 2020 draft was more unique than both and the shortening of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 meant that there was plenty of uncertainty about the draft, but throughout the entire process the only players we mocked at the No. 1 spot were Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Vanderbilt center fielder Austin Martin. As the days got closer it seemed clear the Tigers were locking in on Torkelson.

Perhaps that will also be the case this year with the Pirates, and as we near the draft we’ll find some clarity on who the favored player at No. 1 is. As we sit here today in the middle of May, however, that’s not the case in the slightest.

There’s a wider pool of names who could end up being the first player off the board than in any of our recent draft classes and in each of our first three mock drafts, we’ve had a different player listed by Pittsburgh’s first overall selection.

Prior to the season, Vanderbilt righthander Kumar Rocker was the de facto top player in the class and landed No. 1 in our first mock draft. In our second mock we paired the Pirates with Texas high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar and in our most recent mock we had Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter at the top spot.

Despite hopes there would be some sort of consensus created at the top as the season progressed, we haven’t gotten that. All three players mentioned above, along with California high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer and Louisville catcher Henry Davis, are being seen as the top tier of prospects in the class—in a multitude of orders depending on the scout or team you talked to.

So, with no obvious No. 1 player in the class, how will the Pirates go about making their selection? Certainly signability could come into play at a greater level for Pittsburgh and many teams picking in the top 10 this year. But outside of that how will teams break ties or feel confident about a player they’re selecting?

One factor that might bear some weight for teams is historical trends for various demographics. That’s what we wanted to dive into a bit in today’s stock watch. Given a group of players with roughly equal prospect status, does it make sense to target a high school shortstop because of greater upside potential? Does it make sense to take a college righthander given the sheer number of those players who have been selected among the top-five picks and been successful? Or does the attrition rate of pitchers in general instead steer teams toward a college hitter?

For this brief study, we’re grabbing each of the demographics we currently have ranked among the top 10 players in the class, and then looking at how each of those demographics have panned out for teams who drafted them among the top-five picks in the class. For endpoints, we cut things off at 2016 for high school players and 2017 for college players. Additionally, players like J.D. Drew and Luke Hochevar who signed out of independent leagues a year after their final college draft season have been included in our four-year player sample.

You can see our full draft rankings here, but as a refresher here is how our top 10 in the class shakes up at the moment:

  1. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
  2. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit HS
  3. Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
  4. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake HS, Chula Vista, Calif.
  5. Henry Davis, C, Louisville
  6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow HS, Winder, Ga.
  7. Sal Frelick, OF, Boston College
  8. Ty Madden, RHP, Texas
  9. Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi
  10. Kahlil Watson, SS, Wake Forest (N.C.) HS

While Hoglund will fall out of the top 10 on our next update after having Tommy John surgery, the demographics ranked among the top 10 include four-year righthanders, a four-year catcher, a four-year outfielder and high school shortstops.

With those groups of players being the likely favorites to go with the first pick and inside the top-five selections, how have they panned out?

There are plenty of ways to assess hit rates for these players. First and foremost, teams are looking to get major league players in the draft.

DemographicDrafted & SignedMade Majors% Made MLB
4YR C1111100.00%
4YR OF141392.86%
4YR RHP524892.31%
HS SS252288.00%

While the MLB draft is largely considered a crapshoot, that’s not the case at the very top. Teams generally don’t miss among the top-five picks and that’s become increasingly the case this century—at least in terms of a player making the majors.

A large majority of all players at each position group go on to make the big leagues, with the high school demographic unsurprisingly the least likely to turn into big leaguers—but still a strong hit rate overall.

It’s impressive to see a 90%-plus hit rate for four-year righthanders as well, considering the sheer number of college righthanders to be taken among the top-five picks and the general attrition rate of pitchers due to injury.

The strongest number here is the four-year college catchers, which has a 100% major league hit rate and recent four-year draftees who are not included in this sample (Joey Bart, Adley Rutschman) unlikely to end that streak.

The top-five misses include high school shortstops Alex Barrett (Astros, 1965), Garry Harris (Blue Jays, 1980) and Corey Myers (D-backs, 1999); four-year righthanders Stan Hilton (Athletics, 1983), Bill Bene (Dodgers, 1988), Kyle Sleeth (Tigers, 2003) and Mark Appel (Astros, 2013); and four-year outfielder Jeff Pyburn (Padres, 1980).

Astute readers will note that six of the eight misses were drafted prior to this century, with both 21st century misses being pitchers.

But simply making the majors doesn’t necessarily mean you hit on a top-five pick. Teams picking in that range have their choice of the top prospects in a draft class and getting an impact big leaguer is the goal—not simply getting a player who has a cup of coffee in the bigs or is a replacement level player there.

DemographicDrafted & SignedAverage WAR
HS SS2518.62
4YR OF1416.9
4YR C1115.54
4YR RHP5211.54

There’s no better individual metric than WAR to gauge the impact of each position group, and this table presents what seems to be a clear picture. We are using Baseball-Reference WAR for our purposes. If you want the most impact potential in the top-five picks among these demographics, high school shortstop should be the one you go with, and four-year righthander should be your last choice.

After all, check out the top-10 WAR leaderboard for top-five selections among our selected demographics:

19931MarinersAlex RodriguezSSHSWestminster Christian HS117.5
19901BravesChipper JonesSSHSThe Bolles School85.3
19733BrewersRobin YountSSHSTaft HS77.3
19662AthleticsReggie JacksonOF4YRArizona State73.9
20042TigersJustin VerlanderRHP4YROld Dominion72.3
19864RangersKevin BrownRHP4YRGeorgia Tech68.2
19734PadresDave WinfieldRHP4YRMinnesota64.2
19684YankeesThurman MunsonC4YRKent State46.1
19972PhilliesJ.D. DrewOF4YRFlorida State44.9
20085GiantsBuster PoseyC4YRFlorida State43

However, the magnitude of the careers of players like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Robin Yount distorts the picture when we’re simply taking average WAR of the entire player group.

If we instead look at the median WAR for each demographic, we get a starkly different picture:

DemographicDrafted & SignedMedian WAR
4YR OF148.15
4YR C117.6
4YR RHP525
HS SS253.35

It's a bit of a different picture, with the high school group going from the top to the bottom, thanks to the lowest percentage of positive WAR outcomes of the group, at just 60%.

Four-year catchers have the highest positive WAR rate at 81.82%, while four-year righthanders check in second at 76.92%. Despite ranking highest in median WAR, four-year outfielders have a 64.29% positive WAR rate, but of the nine players with positive career WAR, six have managed 19 or more—giving the group an impressive median WAR rate.

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So, what does all of this mean? It’s difficult to draw a clear narrative from the results here, because there’s plenty of noise in the data: We’re looking at a small subset of players each year ... The talent level of each class varies fairly significantly … It can be difficult to separate scouting successes and failures from player development successes and failures … There are often financial motivations for draft picks beyond pure talent … etc., etc., etc.

Here are a few of the takeaways I drew from the data that might be worth summarizing here in closing.

  1. It bodes well for four-year catchers if the industry takes you among the top-five picks — The hit rate for this demographic was extremely encouraging. This doesn’t necessarily mean that more teams should start drafting college catchers among the top-five picks. There’s a reason this demographic has fewer top-five selections than the other positions, and perhaps it’s the case that catchers must clear a very high bar either offensively or defensively (or both) for a team to invest such important draft selections in a position that comes with a high risk for injury. The group has historically made the majors at the highest rate of our sample and the median WAR of the group was also the highest. That’s not to say there aren’t misses. Danny Goodwin (Angels, 1975), Eric Munson (Tigers, 1999) and Jeff Clement (Mariners, 2005) all finished their careers with negative WAR totals, but the trio still managed to combine for 20 major league seasons and seven of the 13 catchers have either been solid big league producers or significant contributors—with two players (Adley Rutschman and Joey Bart) still to be determined.
  2. Teams rarely miss entirely in the top-five picks, especially since the turn of the century — Only eight players of our 102-player sample have failed to make the majors in some capacity. Of that group, just two were drafted since the turn of the century: righthanders Mark Appel (2013) and Kyle Sleeth (2003). The 1980s seems like a truly snakebitten decade for our selected position groups, with four players taken among the top-five picks never making the big leagues: outfielder Jeff Pyburn (Padres, 1980), shortstop Garry Harris (Blue Jays, 1980), righthander Stan Hilton (Athletics, 1983) and righthander Bill Bene (Dodgers, 1988).
  3. There is truth to the belief that high school shortstops are one of the biggest upside demographics — This isn’t surprising, as the toolsiest players in the class are typically found in the high school ranks, and when you pair offensive skill with a premium position and explosive toolset you have a great combination for upside potential. As one scouting director told us previously this year when we examined the strength of this year’s high school shortstop class: “If you are a slam dunk offensive impact and you’re sticking at that position, in my mind you are going in the top-five picks,” he said. In addition to the highest average WAR, high school shortstops accounted for a strong rate of players who go on to produce 10+ career WAR, at 44%. Four-year catchers were the best of that category, at 45.45%, while four-year righthanders had the lowest rate (40.38%) and four-year outfielders came in third (42.86%).  Additionally, the turn-of-the-century hit rate for high school shortstops is quite good. As soon as Royce Lewis and Bobby Witt Jr. (not included in the sample) make their big league debuts, teams will have a 100% hit rate for the demographic since 2000. The three misses at high school shortstop were all prior to that year:  Alex Barrett in 1965, Garry Harris in 1980 and Corey Myers in 1999.

Does any of this help you decide who you like as the No. 1 player in the 2021 class?

Does the hit rate of four-year catchers make you feel more comfortable about Louisville's Henry Davis? Would you be too excited about upside potential to pass up on high school shortstops like Jordan Lawlar, Marcelo Mayer, Brady House and Kahlil Watson? Do the high odds of a college righthander making some sort of positive impact with a big league club steer you towards the Kumar Rockers, Jack Leiters and Ty Maddens of the world? Or does the strong hit rate and impressive median outcomes for college outfielders point you towards Sal Frelick?

Or, equally likely, does all of this simply muddy the water further as we try and understand the top of the 2021 class?

Fortunately, we have the luxury of simply sitting back and seeing how the Pirates deal with this question and seeing who they settle on for the No. 1 pick on July 11.

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