Monday, June 4, 2012

Three High School Hitters...

The Oakland Athletics had three first round draft picks in the Amateur draft tonight. The A’s were gifted with the 11th overall pick and two supplemental picks at the end of the first round, provided as compensation for the loss of free agents this last offseason. Led presumably by Billy Beane,* the A’s chose a high school infielder with each pick.

*Have you accepted Billy Beane as your lord and savior yet?

When the first selection, that of Addison Russell, High School Shortstop from Florida was announced, the Sabermetric experts were surprised, the Baseball Network crew were shocked and appalled, Harold Reynolds remained Harold Reynolds, but with a slightly shriller voice… In short, the world as we know it was not brought to an end, but to many baseball insiders and mildly informed fans, Beane’s selection of a High School player ran contrary to many of their preconceived impressions of his drafting philosophy.

For those few of you who did not read Moneyball, the short explanation is this: Beane determined that College players were laughably, absurdly better investments than high school players. This was because college players would, of necessity, accumulate a sizeable body of statistics during their careers, and against a much higher level of competition than their high school equivalents. The physical bodies of college players would also have more time to mature, injuries would occur and, most importantly to the perpetually cash strapped A’s, their bonus demands would steadily drop as they lost negotiating leverage. Beane’s preference for college players was backed by the estimable Bill James, and has since been confirmed by a plethora of statistical studies.

So why then did Beane abandon his statistically grounded study to sweep up high school hitters by the metaphorical truckload?*

*Beane has not selected a high school player in the first round since the Jeremy Bonderman debacle of 2001, again, read Moneyball for more details.

There are 4 factors that I believe contributed to this seeming change of tactics, each of which is merely representative of a broader theme within the game.

1)    Moneyball has always been misinterpreted. The mindset that Moneyball represents did not, as Joe Morgan apparently still believes, require its practitioner to sign slow, poor fielding, patient college players who look bad in denim. Instead, Moneyball represented a truly all-encompassing approach to baseball management. Hamstrung by a low budget and a bad stadium, Beane chose to acquire those players whose productive skills were undervalued by the baseball establishment. For quite some time, college players who could lay off a slider in the dirt were heavily undervalued. Thanks largely to Beane’s success, that is no longer the case.

2)    High School Hitters are not High School Pitchers. The research into draft pick results has decisively concluded that college pitchers are much better than their high school counterparts. Not only do they reach the majors faster, they are also far more likely to reach the majors at all. That high success rate is balanced out partially by their degree of success: high school pitchers are much more likely to become allstars. Yet when the aggregate components are added together, Victor Wang still concluded that college pitchers were always the better choice.

High school hitters, however, fared far better in comparison. Wang concluded that hitters drafted in the first round provided identical value to their teams no matter their level of education. In the second round college hitters gained a small advantage in performance but in the third high school hitters pulled well ahead. While these calculations must be balanced against those of Nate Gilmore who determined that high school hitters become stars less frequently than their counterparts and can take over two years longer to develop, it is clear that the gap between the two classes of hitters is not nearly as large as some talking heads have claimed.

3)    The new cap on draft spending curtails large bonuses. Beane surely had mixed feelings about the institution of the new collective bargaining agreement this last winter. While the provisions that curtail excessive spending on prospects have placed his small budget team on an even playing field with its rivals, it also prevents the A’s from securing a large class of young players for far less than what they would have to spend on the free agent market to attain comparable value. In this draft, however, Beane seems to have chosen to bank on the high upside of high school hitters, whose bonus demands will undoubtedly be less than college players who have more national exposure and connection to agents/ advisors/agent provocateurs. With little difference in expected production between high school and college hitters, the lower prices of the former assuredly factored into Beane’s decision making process. The longer development times of such players are of little concern to a franchise that cares little for its existing fanbase and is dedicated to contending in 4-6 years in a nearby city that shall remain nameless.

4)    The 2012 draft class was uniquely, perversely, weak in terms of college age hitters. Had Beane wanted to splurge on a trio of college bashers, he would have been hard pressed to find three worthy of the investment, as prospect guru John Sickels wrote:

This draft isn't as good as 2011 certainly, but it isn't as bad as some people say. Strengths include high school position players with upside, and a whole bushel of guys who project as impressive relief arms. College hitting is the biggest weakness.

Only 6 out of the 31 picks made in the first round were college position players, and several of those, notably Tyler Naquin by the Indians and James Ramsay by the Cardinals were considered overdrafts. While there were a number of superb college pitchers in the draft, the best were taken before the Athletics’ first pick, and the rest would have been too pricey for their budget as compared to their production.

Seen in this light, Beane’s decision to draft Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, and Matt Olson was in keeping with his dedication to finding and acquiring undervalued assets cheaply, and simultaneously fulfills the need of the team on the field for infield offense, the ownerships’ need for delayed offense, and the new collective bargaining requirement for decreased expenditures.

This draft was not a sign, as Harold Reynolds believes, that “teams are learning how to develop players again, and not relying on colleges to do it for them.” It is instead a sign of how intelligent baseball people adapt to changing circumstances and increasing competition.

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