Saturday, August 25, 2007

Drafting Pitchers Could Be A Good Strategy

As any Giants fan knows, Sabean loves to draft pitchers. This makes sense from a variety of perspectives, which I've covered before. First, every team always needs pitching, so why not keep a steady supply coming. Second, a pitching prospect who proves himself can take almost any of the 11-12 pitching spots in your 25-man roster, whereas a position prospect can only improve maybe one or two positions on your roster. Third, along the same vein, every team always can use better pitching, so you can trade with almost anyone in the league, even if they are not currently looking for pitching, if that particular team has the position player you need. Fourth, as I reported on recently, Baseball Prospectus research found that two pitching stats (out of three stats that showed significance) are tied to playoff success: strikeout rate and a very effective closer.

So for these, and other reasons I've gone over in past posts, focusing on drafting pitching can be a good strategy. Here is the latest reason I've uncovered: pitching is easier to identify than hitting.

Good Pitching Easier to Identify

A recent article in SI that I found the other day (published in early June 2007) made the very interesting point that evaluating young hitters is tougher than pitchers. A number of experts supported this point in the article. Baseball America's Jim Callis noted for the article:
I ask guys the hardest things to scout. The hardest thing to scout is whether a guy can hit. Pitchers are probably riskier than hitters as a whole but that's more because of the injury factor. A lot of times it's easier to project a pitcher. You can see how much arm speed a guy has, how much life there is on the fastball and if he can throw strikes. ... It's not like you're going to take a high school kid who has had a bad curveball and give him a plus curvevall through instruction."
Dodger scouting director Logan White also noted in the article:

We usually can predict guys who can hit the fastball - that's bat speed. When I see kids having trouble making the transition to the big leagues, they can't hit offspeed pitches. They get out in front, they can't stay back, they try to hook balls. And that's a tough one to predict, how well they're going to adjust to 98 and then an 87 mile-per-hour changeup and then (other pitches).

With high school kids, you might only see him swing a bat four times (in a game). You might only see him swing twice if he walks a couple of times. A pitcher, even if throws an inning or two, you're going to get to see him do his thing 20-30 times. You get a better feeling for his mechanics... You don't get a feeling for hitting mechanics at a game as much.

So two experts on prospects says that it is much easier to figure out how well a pitcher will do - based on seeing more of what he can do plus knowing that what he can do will translate to the majors much easier. Thus a team that focuses on pitching in prospecting will find that a volume business will return more than a niche draft selection which mixes in position players in equal portions to the make up of a major league roster, basically 1:1 today (13 position players, 12 pitchers).

Living is Easy in the Minors

Even AAA hitting success doesn't provide much of a clue for MLB success. This is because there are few pitchers there who can throw hard or have a special curveball (or breaking ball). If they are capable of either or both, they are moved up quickly to the majors. Thus the better hitters can live off a feast of fastballs and mistakes over the plate.

However, in the majors are pitchers who have a wide assortment of pitches. As Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus noted in the article:
It's the inability to recognize good curves, sliders, and changeups. They don't see enough really good ones."
The author, Jon Weisman then quoted Jim Callis, who noted similarly:
If you watch the big leagues, you can be down 3-1 in the count, and the guy might be able to put a fastball on the outside corner for strike two. You're not going to get the cripple pitches as much (in the minors). You just see fewer mistakes in the big leagues. A lot of guys in AAA can throw 95, (but) maybe not 95 and put it on the corner or 95 and get much life on it."
These two was then quoted on two examples of hitters who flamed out despite good prospects. Callis gave Sean Burroughs as his example. "The guy was such a good hitter, always very young for his league." Goldstein gave Matt Bush as his example. "He was still a legitimate top-10 talent." Yet, unable to hit in the minors, even in rookie ball, Bush recently announced he was going to try to make it as a pitcher.

What we learn here is that while the mechanics of pitching success can be seen from almost the get-go with good scouting, the mechanics of hitting success is something that can still go awry even with success at the highest levels of the minors. Hitters rarely face major league quality pitching in any parts of the minors, and even when they do, these pitchers tend to get promoted fast, allowing hitters to get fatter stats at the expense of lesser pitchers. Which is a luxury these hitters don't get in the majors.

Drafting Hitters a Challenging Task

The article ends noting that while teams usually have a pretty good assessment of who are the best prep and college hitters in the country, however, they have at best only an educated guess about how these skills will translate at the major league level.

Goldstein is quoted:
Anytime you're picking, you're still betting on a guy and putting a certain amount of money on him. You hope you have some confidence before you give a million dollars... That first round pick is going to get a fifth of your whole (draft) budget.
But sometimes unexpected issues crop up and aren't ever solved. Logan White stated:
One of the things that can happen - kids' mechanics can change. You have a car that has brand new tires and axles and it runs great. Let's say the axle breaks on the car - its not going to run as good. ... Sometimes kids, especially when they are young, they get into bad habits, and sometimes their mechanics can change from what they were.
White has the right attitude - "no excuses" - but clearly there are a number of challenging issues involved with evaluating hitters that is much harder to judge than when evaluating pitchers.

Giants Thoughts

As I have been making the case for, over the past few years, Sabean's apparent strategy of focusing on pitching via the draft has a number of advantages that accrue over time as that strategy comes to fruition. I've seen a lot of Giants fans then jump to the knee-jerk reaction that the Giants must trade somebody NOW and get position prospects ASAP. These people show that they don't understand what a strategy is by their reaction - a strategy does not unfold immediately or even after a year or two, it takes many years.

They like to point to teams like the Brewers and Tigers and think that they did all that just like that. No, it was a painfully long process, extending over a decade of losing (horrible losing in some cases), with changes of strategy (and GMs) along the way, before finding their way. The key point is not that Sabean has had 10 years to implement this strategy, the key point to me is that we are reaching the boiling point soon with the strategy.

We have the makings of a great rotation, with Lincecum, Cain, Lowry, and Zito, plus Misch and Correia apparently ready to move up and Sanchez perhaps a spring training away from being rotation ready as well. The bullpen, while not great, has a number of good parts in it, with Wilson appearing to be the missing piece - the overpowering closer. We do not need to have great pitching throughout the bullpen, we only need a few key parts doing well - closer, a couple of setups - to have a good season. Hennessey, while not great, has been good at keeping inherited runners from scoring, so he could be the setup guy to go with Wilson. Then we just need another guy to do well, plus a LOOGY (Kline? Taschner?) and we should be set.

With the major league roster pretty full for the pitching staff, that means that any pitchers moving up will then create a nice dilemma for the Giants: promote the guy but first trade the pitcher he replaces, or trade the guy himself. Right now, there's not a lot, but a playoff team does not need to have a rotation of 4 starters who can pitch well enough to be a #2 starter (or better) as the Giants appear to have with the four, so if Misch and Correia continue to impress as starters, it could free the Giants to trade off one of the four. Obviously, no one's taking Zito, so that basically means trading Lowry, as both Lincecum and Cain delivers on strikeouts. But that's only if it looks like Misch, Correia, and Sanchez can take over two of the starting spots in 2008.

The same works with the bullpen. As new guys move up, the experienced relievers will have a record of success (hopefully) that would allow the Giants to trade them at opportune times to get an average to good position player, then bring up the new guy. I don't think we are at that point yet in the bullpen evolution, but in a year or two, that should be generating tradeable chips as well.

But what Giants fans need now is patience. As much as some think it is easy to change things around fast, it takes a much longer time than they think for the other teams who have rebuilt to do what they have done. They must exhibit a similar patience with the Giants, as changing management now would probably only screw up that strategy and put us back at square one with that new GM's strategy. I want to see where this leads us first, and it should only take 1-2 years to see if it is really working.

{Editted 8/26: I should have also ended with some thoughts on the article I linked to, Doh!

The author and the experts make a good case that it is much easier to identify pitching skills that are translatable to the majors than it is to identify hitting skills.

This is not to say that hitting skills are impossible to ID, but just that there are more hidden icebergs of difficulties that can happen with hitters, whereas pitchers pretty much are what they are. What you see when you draft them, that's what they will have if they reach the majors, perhaps they might learn another pitch, but at minimum, you see what they got already and can project how they do in the majors based on that.

So while it is risker to draft pitchers because of the injury factor, it is easier to identify pitchers. And if you focus more on pitching, you can make up in volume what injury takes away. That will provide a steady supply of pitching prospects coming up the system, whereas hitters can be more variable (hit and miss) because it is hard to project how they will do in the majors against really good pitching until they are up here. }

1 comment:

  1. I should have also ended with some thoughts on the article I linked to, Doh!

    The author and the experts make a good case that it is much easier to identify pitching skills that are translatable to the majors than it is to identify hitting skills.

    This is not to say that hitting skills are impossible to ID, but just that there are more hidden icebergs of difficulties that can happen with hitters, whereas pitchers pretty much are what they are. What you see when you draft them, that's what they will have if they reach the majors, perhaps they might learn another pitch, but at minimum, you see what they got already and can project how they do in the majors based on that.

    So while it is risker to draft pitchers because of the injury factor, it is easier to identify pitchers. And if you focus more on pitching, you can make up in volume what injury takes away. That will provide a steady supply of pitching prospects coming up the system, whereas hitters can be more variable (hit and miss) because it is hard to project how they will do in the majors against really good pitching until they are up here.

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