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Torkelson, Jordan Could Be 2020 MLB Draft Trendsetters

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Blaze Jordan (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam)

Over the next nine months, teams with picks at the top of the 2020 draft are going to spend countless hours analyzing Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson.

They’ll be looking at his swing, his power, his exit velocity, his athleticism and his makeup. They’ll discuss whether he has the ability to play third base or some other position.

And before next year’s draft day, each team picking at the top of the draft will have to have an in-depth discussion about whether it is willing to pick a righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing first baseman with a high pick, maybe even the top pick in the draft.

Historically, right-right first basemen have largely been shunned on the first day of the draft. They are the guys who have to usually wait to hear their names called.

That trend is changing. Andrew Vaughn was picked third overall last year. Next year, Torkelson and Mississippi high school first baseman Blaze Jordan, yet another righthanded hitter and thrower, are potential top picks.

A right-right first baseman is a draft prospect who has already moved to the lowest end of the defensive spectrum. It’s usually an indicator of limited athleticism and leaves teams without a fallback option in pro ball. A shortstop whose bat fails to meet expectations might still provide value because of his defensive ability.

A lefthanded-throwing first baseman at least has an excuse­—his only real options are first base or the outfield. But a righthanded-throwing first baseman is someone whose body or defensive skills have already led teams to give up on him at third base or the outfield.

There are no second chances. A first baseman who doesn’t hit will be released. A first baseman who can’t cut it defensively has nowhere else to go other than DH, and very few players have ever broken into the big leagues that way.

It all seems logical, but modern drafting is much more scientific. Teams try to feed as much data as possible into models that help guide their decisions. Those models also account for past draft history and incorporate more sophisticated data that wasn’t available a decade ago, like exit velocity.

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Draft history makes a strong case that the conventional wisdom about drafting first basemen—especially right-right first basemen—is somewhat misguided.

In the Baseball America era, which began in 1981, and continuing through 2015 (because more recent draftees are still climbing the ladder), the few first basemen who have been picked near the top of the draft have proved to be smart investments.

We looked at players picked in the top 50 picks of the 1981-2015 drafts to see which positions had the highest success rates as measured by average and median wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference.com) as well as the percentage of players who produced positive career WAR and the percentage who played at least 150 major league games.

PositionPickedWARWARCareer WARMLB Games
1B7313.44.949.30%53.40%
3B9512.52.847.40%53.70%
SS20410.32.944.60%49.00%
OF3149.51.938.90%41.40%
Average Overall16828.61.842.90%30.10%
LHP24881.644.00%15.30%
2B297.83.248.30%55.10%
C1267.41.546.00%43.70%
RHP5936.61.141.50%13.20%

Just 13 first baseman have been selected among the top 10 picks in those 35 drafts. Of those 13, nine have had significant major league careers. Adrian Gonzalez, Will Clark, Todd Helton, Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas are some of the best draft picks of the past 40 years. Carlos Pena, Prince Fielder and Eric Hosmer do not reach that level, but all three have had significant careers. Yonder Alonso has had his moments as well.

And every one of those 13 draftees made it to the majors. The worst (J.J. Davis) is the only first baseman drafted in the top 10 picks to fail to play at least 250 major league games.

Widen the sample to players taken in the top 50, and first base remains the most productive position (as measured by average wins above replacement and median WAR per pick). The data shows that first basemen are also more likely to reach the majors, produce positive WAR and play 500 or more games than draftees at other positions.

Expanding the study to the top 100 picks finds the same results. First basemen remain the most successful position in the draft, as measured by average WAR, median WAR and percentage who played 500 games. They dipped to second (behind lefthanders) in percentage of players who produced positive WAR.

There have been busts among first base draftees­—the 2008 draft saw few success stories—but teams picking first basemen early have generally been happy with their decision.

But hitting and hitting for power are a position player’s most important tools. If baseball becomes more willing to look a little closer at defensively-limited mashers, that’s good news for Torkelson, but even more so for Jordan.

Torkelson is following in Vaughn’s footsteps. Jordan could be the true trailblazer. He is playing third base a bit this summer, but teams see him as a first baseman long term.

In the past 40 years, no righthanded-hitting high school first baseman has been taken in the top five picks, and Davis (1997) is the only one to be taken in the top 10. Jordan could change that, and draft history shows it might be a smart decision.

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