The amateur draft is the most obvious way a team gathers prospects they hope will develop into capable major league players. The strategies used when deciding who to draft are different for each team based on circumstances. On the whole however each team has a general philosophy that they live by. Successful teams draft and develop well. The Rays success after years of stumbling around the AL East cellar are directly attributable – along with good management at all levels – to successful drafts.
A Quick History of the Draft
Prior to 1965 players were located through an extensive scouting system. When a prospect was identified teams openly bid against one another get his signature. Coincidentally the Angels who shook up the free agent market this year by signing Albert Pujols were the catalyst for the creation of the ‘Amateur Draft.” In 1964 they ignored one of baseball’s unwritten rules by bidding 2 1/2 times that unwritten $100,000 maximum, for Rick Reichardt in 1964. Other owners shocked that someone had broken the rule so boldly, decided to initiate the first draft in 1965. Originally there were drafts in January, June and a short lived August draft of American Legion League players. You can find more details on the history of the draft in The Evolution of the Draft over at MLB.com.
Braves Draft History
From 1965 through the 2011 draft, the Braves claimed 2400 players. The number drafted varies with each team because of the rules that caused a team to lose or gain a draft pick due to trades or a player declining arbitration. I’ve compared the Braves numbers with those of the Dodgers and Cardinals to give some perspective because they too are old established franchises who like the Braves have had good times and bad since 65. Since I’m going to talk about how many reached the majors we’ll use the draft numbers through the 2009 draft when comparing the teams.
(All draft information obtained from The Baseball Cube database.)
As you can see the Dodgers drafted over 300 players more than the Braves during that time but like the Braves they’ve had mixed result recently.
Draft success has many variables; the talent available, whether we are at war or not, the draw of other major sports just to name a few. Not all players signed of course and some like Craig Kimbrel were drafted twice. The Braves drafted some well known players and prospects who didn’t sign and were eventually drafted by – and successful with – other teams. For every Kimbrel who comes back to sign with us there are those good ones who get away.
In the January 1966 secondary draft for instance they chose as their first pick and the 19th overall, a young pitcher named Tom Seaver. In the fourth round of the 1982 draft the Braves chose but were unable to sign Randy Johnson. They were unable as well to sign Steve Finley in 1986 and while we all know they convinced Freddie Freeman to sign in 2007, they failed to convince Brandon Belt to sign – as a pitcher. The point is that after the first three rounds or so the draft is more like restocking the pond than angling for a prize bass.
While all three teams got about 60% of their draftees into at least one pro ballgame. less than 15% actually make it to the big leagues. For the Braves that meant 305 out of 2,299 played on the big stage and of course not all of them played for the Braves when they go there. Just more proof that playing this game at the highest levels is very, very hard.
As I said last time, in an article over at Baseball Prospectus (membership required) R.J Anderson says that building on pitching isn’t something that started in 1990.
. . . the Braves’ ability to mass-produce young starters predates Schuerholz’s tenure and extends beyond Bobby Cox’s reign as general manager during the late 1980s. To find the movement’s genesis, you have to trace it further back. Back past Roy Clark and Paul Snyder, back to 1967—when Bill Wight joined the organization as a scout.
Mr. Wight arrived just 2 years after the draft started so we can look at some numbers and draw our own conclusions.
Pitching remained about 50% of the draft with the notable exception of the time when Bobby was GM. This is a bit misleading however. It was only a short period and during that time he drafted Steve Avery and Kent Mercker and traded for John Smoltz as well as signing Chipper Jones. It is nevertheless noticeably smaller than GMs before or since.
A course correction occurred when John Schuerholz arrived and pitching once again jumped over 50%. It’s stayed above there since 1991 and in the 10 years from 2000 to 2009 neared 60%. This supports the reported drafting strategy of Paul Snyder who learned the trade working under Bill Wight. R.J. Anderson writes in the same article:
…Snyder took this parlance to heart, acknowledging later that he would opt for the pitcher if the two players were valued equally. . . .in Scout’s Honor, Snyder, while paraphrasing Wight, says, “[Everybody’s] always looking for pitching and if you have pitching you can get players.”
That’s the general feeling I hear from GM’s today but can there be too much of a good thing?
I wrote last time that the Braves minor league system – considered a model for player development for many years – is no longer one of the baseball’s best. Has the emphasis on drafting pitchers caused us to miss out on talent we could have used in the past three or four years and certainly could use now? Is it an unbending attachment to the philosophy or have they just had bad luck – prospects failing and a shallow talent pool to draw from- with the draft? I’ll look at our recent drafts next time and see if that helps us make a decision.