Sheehan: Draft Bats, Buy Arms
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
“Draft bats, buy arms.”
So maybe the last bit of advice is from a movie that hasn’t been made yet, but when “Draft Day 2: Electric Boogaloo” comes around, in which Kevin Costner plays a major league general manager fighting for his job while awaiting the birth of his granddaughter, that will be the tag line. When in doubt, take the hitter.
Look, the baseball draft is simply harder than the NFL one. The NFL outsources player development to the NCAA, and takes players who will, by and large, be playing on fall Sundays a few months after they hug commissioner Roger Goodell. In baseball, only a very small handful of players show up in the bigs that quickly, and the top picks can take years to pan out. The 2017 Rookies of the Year, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, were taken in the 2013 draft. Jesse Winker is one of the top rookies in the NL early this season, and the Reds took him with a supplemental first-round pick back in 2012. The MLB draft is the beginning of a long process, not its end.
What we know as we approach draft day 2018, though, is that successful baseball teams are building their lineups through the draft, and taking their chances on finding pitchers elsewhere. Last year’s World Series champs, the Astros, received 40 percent of their position-player value, as measured by wins above replacement, via the draft, and 35 percent of their pitching WAR that way. The 2016 Cubs got just 3 percent of their pitching WAR through the draft, after four straight seasons of drafting a hitter with a top 10 overall pick. The four hitters they picked—Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ—form half their everyday lineup in 2018.
Work back through the title teams of the decade, and the pattern holds. The 2015 Royals, built around the slow burn of first-rounders Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, got 53 percent of their position-player WAR via the draft, and just 13 percent on the pitching side. They traded for James Shields, Wade Davis and Johnny Cueto when it was time to win. We remember Madison Bumgarner’s heroics for the 2014 Giants, but he carried pretty much all of the draft value of that team’s pitching staff. Drafted hitters, though, including Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, produced more than half of the team’s offensive WAR.
Truth be told, this trend has less to do with the draft and more to do with the free agent market. Growth in league revenues and revenue sharing have made it easier for teams to keep the talent they produce. The list of active superstars now past their primes who have never been free agents is incredibly long. Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto and Joe Mauer all won MVP awards for the small-market teams that drafted them, and signed long-term deals that bought out years of free agency. Miguel Cabrera, 35 years old and an inner-circle Hall of Famer, has never been a free agent. Mike Trout won’t be one, if he gets there, until he’s 30. Robinson Cano hit the market at 31, Albert Pujols at 32.
The coming free agent season is so highly anticipated because it’s the exception to this new rule. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are the kind of 20-something superstars who almost never become available any longer, a perfect storm of age, ability and willingness to decline long-term deals. The two are so well regarded, they managed to warp not only their own free agent market, but the one the year before them.
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If you want a superstar’s prime years, you better get them in the draft. The last 13 NL MVP awards, back to Albert Pujols in 2005, have been won by a player playing for the team that drafted him. Twelve of those MVPs are position players. Look at last year’s MVP voting. In the AL, four of the top six finishers were draftees playing for the team that selected them. The other two were international amateurs: Jose Altuve and Jose Ramirez. The NL was even more extreme: the top seven vote-getters were all draft picks producing for the teams that took them.
It’s not the same on the pitching side. Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer were drafted by the Padres and D-backs, but won Cy Young Awards last year—their second and third, respectively—for the Indians and Nationals. In fact, of the eight pitchers who got votes in the AL balloting, just two (Justin Verlander and Marcus Stroman) did so while pitching for the team that drafted them. Just six of the 16 Cy Young Awards handed out this decade have gone to pitchers throwing for the team that drafted them . . . and three of those belong to Clayton Kershaw.
Look, everyone wants to find the next Kershaw or Verlander or Bumgarner, so we’re not going to see those live arms disappear from draft day. On June 4, Casey Mize and Brady Singer and Shane McClanahan are all going to be picked, maybe one of them first overall. You take the best player available and you hope for health and development.
When you look at the output side, however, and you see who’s winning awards and what the championship rosters look like, you come around to what the Cubs have done, and what a 74-year-old Costner will some day growl in multiplexes everywhere.
“Draft bats, buy arms.”