While I don't totally agree with this - there should be some limit on this, though I'm not sure at the moment what - I at least feel that I can understand why he made this unorthodox move for the drafts from 2003 to 2005. I tried to explain this in my series of articles on the draft - which I hope to review again this season in hopes of winning more converts - but not everyone either understand or agree with me. And that is fine with me - can't please everyone, as the Ricky Nelson song goes - but my interest is always piqued when anyone disagrees with this method because perhaps I missed something or didn't take things far enough.
During spring training, while perusing my Baseball Prospectus 2006, I ran into a quote that got me thinking. In it, they point out that Matt Cain is a great example of why the Giants should not follow his course of action of punting draft picks and basically mock him with that statement. So that was the genesis of this post. I also wanted to examine what they did since Baseball Prospectus has a history of disparaging Brian Sabean's methods and, in particular, his deliberate loss of 1st round draft picks by signing free agents just before the deadline. They clearly are not Brian Sabean fans.
They're Not Alone
Now, today Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury jumps on this topic too, with his column blasting Sabean's draft methods, so I felt the immediate urge to get this out, so I apologize if some parts are a bit disjointed and perhaps incomplete; I tried my best to get everything just right but sometimes you read things so often you just miss obvious mistakes. I was also originally going to compare BP's study with mine to answer my critic's questions, but I'm making that into a separate post now, coming soon to a blog near you.
What Tim and BP did, I compare with gamblers' regret, who look at the Keno board or poker hand or lottery pick numbers and exclaim, "If only I had picked that other number or asked for another card or placed another bet, I would have won." That is so simplistic! I will cover BP later as first I'll tackle Tim's column.
Tim played the game of "If Only" with the Giants drafts under Sabean. I will try to tackle his points in order. His error is the same as I have seen with most other digs at a GM for poor draft selection, so I'm only singling out Tim because he happened to publish his column today and I happen to be working on a post regarding this topic. Otherwise, I like Tim's writing most of the time.
Tim's First Point: Point Out the Good Ones Without Context
First, he noted Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, who were picks by the Phillies, then Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman by the Astros, including that Berkman was passed over by the Giants when they picked Jason Grilli 4th in 1997. Chase Utley was the 15th pick of the first round; all the picks that Sabean has given up that caused people to get all steamed up at him have been much later in the first round, they were in the 21-30 range and higher. So there's no way he could have picked up Utley with the picks he punted. In addition, here are the odds of finding a star player of Utley's caliber in the 11-20 pick range as suggested by my research: 15 to 1. So obviously the Phillies beat the odds in picking Utley.
But if you like those odds, you'll love the ones against picking Ryan Howard in the 5th round with the 140th pick of the draft. Now, my stats only went up to pick 100, but that's not too far away, so lets assume the odds are similar: my research suggested odds of about 250 to 1 for picking a star if you had a pick in the 60-100 pick range of the draft. Like finding a needle in the haystack, no? And it would have to be a pretty large haystack to miss Howard, he's a big boy! This would mean that after five years of picking, on average you will find one, and that's the average, it would not be statistically significant at that probability until probably around 7 or 9 years.
OK, now lets go with Morgan Ensberg. He was picked in the 9th (!!!) round with the 272nd pick of the draft. I would guess that the odds would go much higher nearly tripling the pick number, so I think it would be safe to say that the odds would be much greater than the 250 to 1 odds for Howard, probably over 1000 to 1 odds, I would think. So Tim wants the Giants to be gamblers? Those are all long odds.
In addition, if Tim must use Morgan Ensberg as a shining light for the Houston franchise, then he should show more patience with Sabean as well: Morgan was a total failure as a major leaguer until he was 28. Plus, he had a horrible sophomore year, pushing his stock way down. It was only when he was 30 years old, last year, that he became good enough for anyone to point a finger at him and laugh at other people passing him up in the draft.
On the other hand, Sabean has a player who has shown more promise at an earlier age than Ensberg. At the age of 26, which Niekro was last season, Niekro had been in AAA for 2 seasons already and spent his first season in the majors, hitting .252 with 12 HR in 278 AB for 46 RBI. At 26, it was Morgan's FIRST year in AAA and it would be another two seasons before he would have his breakout year. So if Tim likes Ensberg so much, then he should give Sabean until Niekro is 30 before he judges Sabean's drafts a failure.
Lastly, at least for this first point that Tim made, I have a lot more to cover, he knocked Sabean for passing up Lance Berkman and picking Jason Grilli instead. Here's the first 16 players picked in the 1997 draft, the Giants weren't the only one picking a dud and passing over Berkman:
- Matt Anderson (Berkman way better; FYI, happens to be at AAA Fresno now)
- J.D. Drew (Berkman better)
- Troy Glaus (Push, perhaps Glaus better since he's a 3B)
- Jason Grilli (nuff said, I agree, bad pick)
- Vernon Wells (Berkman better so far, Wells younger and CF)
- Geoff Goetz (Never made majors; AA highest)
- Dan Reichert (Short MLB career)
- J.J. Davis (Berkman way way better)
- Michael Cuddyer (Berkman way better)
- Jon Garland (Push, Berkman arguably better to me )
- Chris Enochs (Never made majors; AAA highest)
- Aaron Akin (Never made majors; A+ highest)
- Kyle Peterson (Short MLB career)
- Brandon Larson (Short MLB career)
- Jason Dellaero (Brief call-up)
- Lance Berkman
But if one likes Houston's drafting record, how about these guys?
- Tom Nevers
- Tony McNight
- Robert Stiehl
- Derick Grigsby
Tim's Second Point: Praises A's When He Should By His Logic Diss Them Too
Next he disses Sabean for passing up on Huston Street in 2004 and, by extension, praises the A's. Well, then he needs to diss the A's too and big time. They also passed up Street too, MULTIPLE TIMES. They picked Landon Powell (highest level: short season A-ball) with the 24th pick, Richard Robnett (highest level: short season A-ball) with the 26th pick, and Danny Putnam (highest level: high A-ball) with their 36th pick, before picking Street with their #40 pick. At any point, another team picking in between could have snagged Street too, but didn't. The only two picks out of the 39 ahead of Street to make the majors so far is Justin Verlander #2 Detroit and J.P. Howell #31 Kansas City. Other players of note: Jeremy Sowers (Indians - #6, AAA), Jered Weaver (Angels - #12, AA), and Stephen Drew (D-backs - #15, AA).
KC, by the way, picked Matt Campbell with the pick they got from the Giants for Tucker. I cannot find him at all in the Minor League Baseball website. He only made low A-ball in 2005 so I guess he quit. The player the Giants traded Tucker for, Kelvin Pichardo, is 20 years old this season, and he is not currently playing in the minors, so he is probably going to show up in one of the rookie leagues, or perhaps short-season A-ball at Salem-Keizer.
Tim's Third Point: Will Clark and Matt Williams and Giants 2006 #10 Pick
Not to belabor my previous point, but the Giants got lucky with their picks of Clark and Williams. Over the 1986-1998 period, only 11% of Top 10 picks became stars. It is probably a bit higher if you just focus on just the Top 3 picks of the draft but the Giants are only picking 10th. That is still not good odds for a pick that Tim says is "their most significant selection since they took Will Clark second overall in 1985 and Matt Williams third the next year."
And I'm surprised he would make such hyperbole regarding the baseball draft, particularly since he covers all the major sports. In football and basketball, where the draft is much more important to the future of the sports franchise, the 10th pick of the draft is never a sure thing, and certainly is not a star, at least not right off, as Tim suggests that the Giants need from the draft: he wants results "almost immediately." And yet for baseball, which has not seen a player go straight from the draft to the majors in decades, he demands that the Giants find someone who would pay off immediately. Even for the 2004 draft where the A's netted Street, they were lucky, only two others have made the majors so far from the first 40 picks, let alone the Top 10, and the other two did not make big contributions last season.
Tim's Fourth Point: Brad Hennessey vs. Bobby Crosby
Again, it is easy to pick on teams and, to Tim's credit, he does note this in his column, but then goes ahead and did it anyway. So lets examine all the A's 20-30 picks so we get a taste of their success rate, from 1990-2004, since he liked 2004's pick of Street, and Beane is just continuing his predecessor's methodologies:
- Don Peters #26 - 1990
- Brent Gates #26 - 1991
- Benji Grigsby #20 - 1992
- John Wasdin #25 - 1993
- Eric DuBose #21 - 1997
- Bobby Crosby #25 - 2001
- Jeremy Bonderman #26 - 2001
- Joe Blanton #24 - 2002
- John McCurdy #26 - 2002
- Ben Fritz #30 - 2002
- Brad Sullivan #25 - 2003
- Brian Synder #26 - 2003
- Landon Powell #24 - 2004
- Richard Robnett #26 - 2004
Tim's Fifth Point: Sabean Has Only Cain As a Good Pick
This is kind of ironic since the column came out the same day as the news of Lowry's good first outing against the Astro's the night before. He was the Giants 2nd pick of the first round of the 2001 draft that Tim's pointed out the A's picked Crosby after the Giants picked up Hennessey. If Tim is saying that he knows which player will have a mysterious tumor appear in the shoulder, TWICE, pushing back his development a few years, because Hennessey has shown the brilliance of his abilities multiple times last season, then he has a future as a tele-psychic or in the GM suite of a professional sports team. In addition, given Crosby's low .249 BA or low .326 OBP for his career prior to 2006 plus all the injuries, perhaps he should reconsider his argument and say that the A's blew it by picking up Crosby when they could have had Lowry, who is a career 19-13 with 3.71 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 2.3 K/W ratio prior to 2006.
Baseball Prospectus Dig
"With first round draft picks like Cain, it makes you wonder why Brian Sabean is so eager to give them away." - Baseball Prospectus on Matt Cain in their Top 2006 Prospects section, Baseball Prospectus 2006 (copyright 2006; Workman Publishing)
While I like BP in general - I have their editions from 2003 to 2006 - I find that they have a blind spot for Sabean and his methods. As much as they like to play themselves up as looking beyond the obvious and using data to put a new light on things, they just love to give Sabean and his methods a poke any chance they get, like the above. A number of their comments have gotten my goat before - and that's generally their appeal for me, they can be quick to cut to the bone, like the best that Bill James had delivered effortlessly oh so many years ago - but I found the above to bother me a lot.
Interesting, the use of Cain for making the case for not punting first round draft picks. It reminds me of the slogan for the California Lottery, "You can't win if you don't play." Why don't they instead list the first round draft picks for the Giants from 1987 to 2001 with their overall pick order (squemish Giants fans should hide their eyes and skip to the next section):
- 1987: Mike Remlinger (16th pick overall)
- 1988: Royce Clayton (15th)
- 1989: Steve Hosey (14th)
- 1990: Adam Hyzdu (15th)
- 1991: Steve Whitaker (33rd)
- 1992: Calvin Murray (7th)
- 1993: Steve Soderstrom (6th)
- 1994: Dante Powell (22nd)
- 1995: Joe Fontenot (16th)
- 1996: Matt White (7th; lost due to clerical error, ultimately fortunately)
- 1997: Jason Grilli (4th)
- 1998: Tony Torcato (19th)
- 1999: Kurt Ainsworth (24th)
- 2000: Boof Bonser (21st)
- 2001: Brad Hennessey (21st)
How about the fact that Baseball America had rated Cain the 38th best prospect in that draft. Thus the Giants actually drafted him higher than BA thought he should be drafted, based on the talent pool for that draft. This is a pattern I've discovered with the Giants relative to Baseball America's pre-draft ranking: the Giants typically pick players before others think they should be picked. Even here, Sabean picked Cain sooner than the consensus.
I also remember the collective "huh?" that came out of the Giants drafting Nate Schierholtz in the 3rd round and he has become one of the organization's top three hitting prospects, where exactly depending on the outlet ranking him. And if you go back to all of Sabean's drafts and compare them to where BA ranked him, more often than not, the Giants have drafted players ahead of where BA thought they would be. While that was a negative in the early years because the Giants did not have a great number of successes back then, once the millenium came, Sabean has been a lot better in picking players in the draft. And signing players who didn't get drafted: Jeremy Accardo, who's pitching for the big club now, and Brian Horwitz, who has won two league batting titles in his two years with the team and is challenging for a third, were undrafted and signed by the Giants.
How about these players:
- Bryan Bullington
- Chris Gruler
- Adam Loewen
- Clint Everts
- Scott Moore
- Jeff Francis
- Drew Meyer
- Joe Saunders
- Russ Adams
- Royce Ring
- James Loney
- Denard Span
- Bobby Brownlie
- Jeremy Guthrie
These are the picks before Cain that I think the teams would now prefer Cain (other good draft picks that year include BJ Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeremy Hermida, Khalil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, Jeff Francoeur, and Joe Blanton). Do these teams feel as good about drafting these players as they would had they instead drafted Cain? Maybe in the future, if Cain should (unfortunately) ends up as a bust or if their pick suddenly blossoms into a star, or both. But at the moment of this quote, I don't think they are as happy with their pick as the Giants are with their.
How about the A's disdain for high school pitchers? They are one of the major practioners of the sabermetric art within the MLB. Billy Beane is also one of their endorsers, his endorsement was on the cover of their book before. Would Billy agree with BP that it is OK to draft high school pitchers, as long as they turn out to be Matt Cain? These are the high school pitchers drafted before Cain: Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen, Clint Everts, Zack Greinke, Scott Kazmir, and Cole Hamels. Only Zack Greinke and Scott Kazmir would be considered picks as good or better than Cain, the rest are not yet in the majors full-time, though it is still early, they are all only about 21 years of age.Bill James Disagrees
In addition, Bill James totally disagrees with the Matt Cain pick. I found this quote from his book on ESPN from a link on TangoTiger's website:
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001), James writes,There you have it: a leading saber states that it is a "stupid" gamble to draft a high school pitcher.
"The most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that major league teams
continue to use first-round draft picks for high school pitchers ... It has been
obvious for twenty years that this is a stupid, stupid gamble ... yet every
year, four to seven first-round picks are invested in these turkeys."
Eatting Your Dog Food
It gets even worse: this advice they give Brian Sabean not only contradicts their own research, it contradicts the research by one of the writers of the prospect article! In a series of articles under their Doctoring the Numbers column, the writer analyzed the draft picks and one of the results of the analysis was:
The two salient conclusions from the last article were that:
1. College players taken in the first three rounds are about 50% more likely to reach the majors than high school players;
2. College players, on average, yield about 55% more value than high school players drafted with the same pick.
The shorthand for this is that college players are both more likely to reach the majors and more likely to develop into star-caliber players once they reach the majors.
While he backs off of this statement later in the series, noting that this advantage was largely dissipated during the 1990's, it is still clear from his research that drafting a pitcher, whether high school or college, is much riskier than drafting a college hitter. Yet here they are, advocating drafting a pitcher when it is so much riskier than drafting a college hitter.
One More Swipe At Kawakami
I thought I would end with an examination of Tim's last paragraph in his column today:
There's only the 10th pick in the upcoming draft, and either Sabean finds the
next Will Clark or else things are going to get very dark for a very long
Again, nice hyperbole. The Giants farm system, since he didn't seem to notice, is the best it has been in years, probably the best since Clark, Thompson, and Williams roamed the system and, except for this triumvirate, the farm system could be the best it has been since the early 70's when it produced young starts like Dave Kingman, George Foster, Gary Mathews, Garry Maddux, John "the Count" Montefusco, and Ron Bryant. And in terms of pitching, probably the best ever for the San Francisco franchise.
Nice players today include EME, Schierholtz, Ishikawa, Sanders, and Horwitz among the position players and Valdez, Sanchez, Wilson, Accardo, Hennessey, Griffin, Joaquin, and Martis.
Overall: Pot Shots
Altogether, these are pot shots taken at Sabean which I think I showed above is unfair or, worse, untrue. But when an area like the baseball draft that is so unexamined so far, it is easy for people to misunderstand how hard it actually is to find and draft players of consequence. And particularly easy when one particular GM has made himself the king of first round draft picks given up. Hopefully I have shown how far off base these statement were from the truth of the matter.