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Overlooked Or Overdrafted? Understanding First Round Reaches

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Korey Lee (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Consensus can be an elastic concept in the draft.

This year two clubs bucked consensus late in the first round to select players outside the top 100 draft prospects as ranked by Baseball America.

The Cubs snagged 6-foot Fresno State righthander Ryan Jensen with the 27th pick, and the Astros followed with California catcher Korey Lee at No. 32 overall. Those players ranked 109th and 173rd on the BA draft board.

The BA draft board is by no means perfect, but it is still unusual for players ranked outside the top 100 to be selected in the first round.

But when a non-top 100 player is popped in the first round, it occurs—with few exceptions—at the back of the first round, which is the ideal position to deviate from consensus and take a calculated risk. That’s because as the draft moves farther away from the No. 1 pick:

  1. The probability of drafting an impact player diminishes rapidly.
  2. Ordinal ranking overstates the difference in quality between prospects.

Thus zeroing in on a singular tool or even a player’s work ethic or competitive drive can be a worthwhile gamble, in light of the alternatives.

The Cubs zeroed in on Jensen’s best tool—his fastball—according to senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod.

“(Jensen) has a lot of traits that we were looking for this year in terms of athleticism and (plus) pitch traits,” McLeod told Cubs correspondent Patrick Mooney. “He’s in the upper 90s, near 100 (mph). He’s carrying that velocity deep into starts. We love the life to the heater.”

The Astros’ selection of Lee illustrates another reality of the draft today. In the bonus pool era, money a club saves on one pick helps it distribute finite resources to other players in the draft. No club applies this strategy as well as the Astros, who saved a tick more than $500,000 against slot value by signing Lee for $1.75 million. The resulting surplus pool money allowed them to go over slot with fourth-round high school outfielder Colin Barber.

Lee paved the way for his selection at No. 32 overall by playing well when the heat was on. He spent the season hitting behind No. 3 overall pick Andrew Vaughn in the Cal lineup—and he held up under the scouting scrutiny. He ranked inside the top 10 in the Pacific-12 Conference in home runs and slugging.

Each year since 1981, BA has ranked the top prospects for the draft. The ranking has grown in scope through the years, beginning as a top 10 to numbering 500 amateur prospects today.

The goal of BA’s draft prospect ranking is to reflect industry consensus about the top amateur talent in the nation—but of course no two major league teams value prospects exactly the same.

As mentioned, it’s rare for a player ranked outside the BA top 100 to come off the board in the 30-odd picks of the first round. Counting the selections of Jensen and Lee this year, it has happened 20 times in the 30 drafts since 1990, the first year BA ranked draft prospects to 100.

The biggest first-round "reaches” in this period are presented here. Depending on one’s point of view, these players were all either overlooked or overdrafted in the first round. But one thing is clear: the track record for this player type is not encouraging, even granting the low overall hit rate for mid-to-late first-round picks.

To this point the biggest success stories among the first-round "reaches” are lefthander Matt Thornton, a fixture in the White Sox bullpen from 2006-13, and speedy outfielder Ben Revere, a slash-and-run leadoff type for second-division Twins and Phillies teams in the early 2010s.

Eleven of the first-round "reaches” either provided negative major league value, as estimated by Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, or failed to reach the majors at all.

Five other "reaches” rank as top 20 prospects for their organizations. They are Jensen, Lee, Orioles Triple-A first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, Padres Double-A third baseman Hudson Potts and Royals high Class A lefthander Daniel Lynch. Christian Arroyo is not far removed from prospect status himself. 

The future is uncertain for these six young players, but what is clear is that scouting departments today are more sophisticated than they once were. They have the tools to more precisely evaluate players, and they have a better grip on risk factors. Also, the bonus pool system that has been in place since the 2012 draft encourages creativity when signing players.

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Top MLB Prospects Hot Sheet (9/3/19)

Our final regular season hot sheet ranks the 20 hottest prospects in baseball, beginning with Joey Bart.

All this is to say that comparing a 2019 draft pick with his 1990 counterpart is not an entirely direct comparison.

Nevertheless, let’s sort our first-round “reaches” into categories to explore why teams reached for them. Here we nod to BA founding editor and draft guru Allan Simpson, whose “Ultimate Draft Book” informed this analysis.

Late Gains

This category applies to four pitchers in our sample, three of them collegians. Righthander Hayden Simpson (2010), righthander Blake Williams (2000) and lefty Daniel Lynch (2018) all saw their stuff tick up late in the season.

Georgia lefty Kevin Matthews (2010) made velocity strides as a high school senior but didn’t make it out of Class A before the Rangers released him.

Two-Sport Athletes

The Rangers and Rays took big swings at high school baseball/football standouts, taking outfielder Jake Skole (2010) and righthander Jason Standridge (1997), respectively. The latter reached the majors, while the former enrolled at the University of Georgia as a defensive back after his baseball career flamed out in 2016.

Lefthander Matt Thornton focused on basketball at D-II Grand Valley State. He eventually thrived as a go-to reliever in the majors.

Signature Tool

One standout tool helped push these high school prospects into the first round.

Scouts correctly viewed shortstop Cito Culver (2010) as a first-round glove but a third-round bat. The Giants really valued high school shortstop Christian Arroyo’s (2013) feel to hit, and he’s still just 24. Outfielder Paul Wilder (1996), the first draft pick in Rays franchise history, had huge power but failed to connect in pro ball.

Shortstop Corey Myers (1999) is the most egregious overdraft in our sample. He smashed Arizona state high school records as a senior and had a great predraft workout with the Diamondbacks, who chose him fourth overall. He topped out at Triple-A in nine pro seasons.

Budget-Conscious Picks

These high school players satisfied their drafting teams’ desire to save money on signing bonuses, whether because of a surfeit of early picks (shortstop Jake Hager) or for bonus pool savings (shortstop Hudson Potts) or for general thriftiness (shortstop Ryan Mountcastle, outfielder Ben Revere).

Miscellaneous

  • The Phillies might have been overly familiar with Philadelphia high school lefty Jesse Biddle, whom they drafted 27th overall 2010
  • Owner George Steinbrenner mandated that the Yankees draft a catcher in the first round in 2000, just in case Jorge Posada left as a free agent. That’s how Michigan catcher David Parrish became the 28th overall pick.
  • The Cubs chose Clemson outfielder Tyler Colvin 13th overall in 2006, but his top 100 omission was a misread on the part of BA.
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