The Risk of Taking a Pitcher in the First Round

Earlier this week, Kipper at The Pirates Tavern forum sent me a post he did looking back at recent draft history, focusing on players taken in the top five picks from 1999-2005.  What he found was that hitters have been the safer picks, and that the failure rate amongst pitchers in the top five picks has been very apparent.  I appreciate the work and the effort Kipper put in, and he reaches a conclusion that is similar to a theory that I believe, but haven’t tested: pitchers, in general, are riskier picks than hitters.  However, there is one thing I wanted to bring up, not just because Kipper looked at it this way, but because everyone looks at it this way.

The idea of looking at past draft results to determine the success rate of pitchers who were taken at a certain level is flawed, especially when you use that success rate (or failure rate) to argue against taking a top ranked pitcher in a future draft.  The reason for this is because when you look at past draft results, you’re not looking at the top ranked pitchers.  Instead, you’re looking at where the player was selected, and as Pirates fans know, that player isn’t always the best available.

All we have to do is look back a few years to the 2007 draft to see what I’m talking about.  David Price was the top ranked pitcher, and the top ranked prospect in the draft.  He went first overall, and so far there appear to be no problems, with Price on his way to what looks like a promising career in the majors.  The next pitcher to go off the board?  Daniel Moskos to the Pirates.  Avoiding the Matt Wieters discussion, Moskos wasn’t the next best pitcher.  According to the Baseball America rankings, Rick Porcello was the second best pitcher in the draft.  However, Porcello’s signing bonus demands were so high that he fell all the way to number 27 in the draft.

Then there’s 2006.  The top two pitchers in the draft were Andrew Miller and Tim Lincecum, respectively.  The top two pitchers who were selected were Luke Hochevar and Greg Reynolds, respectively.  Hochevar entered the draft as Baseball America’s 8th best prospect overall, and Reynolds ranked 5th.  Miller was drafted 6th, and Lincecum fell to 10th, being the 7th pitcher taken in the draft.

There were no pitchers taken in the top five picks of the 2005 draft, although Mike Pelfrey was rated as the 5th best prospect in the draft, went 9th overall, and has shown some promise in the Mets’ rotation.

The 2004 draft saw two successful pitchers taken in the top five.  Despite being ranked as the 7th best prospect in the draft, Justin Verlander was the first pitcher selected.  Jeff Niemann was the third pitcher selected, despite being the second best prospect in the draft, and the second best pitching prospect.  The top five failures were Philip Humber, ranked 5th before the draft, and Mark Rogers, ranked as the 13th best prospect before the draft.  Then there was the number one prospect in the draft, Jered Weaver.  Weaver fell all the way to the 12th overall pick due to signability concerns, but eventually signed.

There’s a trend developing here.  Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, and Rick Porcello were all highly rated prospects coming in to the draft, but fell due to concerns, those being signability for Weaver and Porcello, and size and delivery for Lincecum.

So what does that say for the early top five prospects in the 2010 draft, four of which are pitchers?  Anthony Ranaudo ranks second in the pre-season Baseball America rankings, Jameson Taillon ranks third, prep starter A.J. Cole ranks fourth, and Deck McGuire rounds out the top five.  The success rate of pitchers taken in the top five picks from 1999-2005 was just 17.6%, according to Kipper.  However, what about the players who were ranked in the top five?  I could only find rankings back to 2001, so the 2001-2005 players were:

Mark Prior (2001, 1)
Gavin Floyd (2001, 4)
Dewon Brazelton (2001, 5)
Scott Kazmir (2002, 2)
Adam Loewen (2002, 3)
Bryan Bullington (2002, 4)
Chris Gruler (2002, 5)
Jeff Allison (2003, 4)
Kyle Sleeth (2003, 5)
Jered Weaver (2004, 1)
Jeff Niemann (2004, 2)
Philip Humber (2004, 5)
Mike Pelfrey (2005, 5)

I bolded the players who I considered a successful pick.  Prior is a point of contention, due to the injuries, but he looked great from 2002-2005, with a 3.24 ERA in 613.1 innings, and ratios you’d expect from a first overall pick.  By comparison, Scott Kazmir had a 3.61 ERA in 723 innings before struggling in his 2009 season.  If Kazmir just fell off the face of the Earth due to injuries, I don’t think anyone would consider him a bust at this point.

So you’ve got 6 out of the 13 pitchers rating as a successful pick, which gives us a 46.2% success rate.  That’s a success rate I believe in, and one that I could apply to a guy like Ranaudo or McGuire when evaluating whether the Pirates should select them.  The reason for that is because when we’re talking about taking the number two ranked player in the draft with the number two pick, we need to go back and see the success rate of previous number two prospects, not previous number two picks.  If Ranaudo went the way of Lincecum, Porcello, or Weaver, and fell in the draft to the 8th pick, he wouldn’t suddenly increase his chances of becoming a good pitcher.  Those guys were considered top prospects before the draft, and the reason they had success was that they lived up to their potential, and not because they fell beyond a certain spot in the draft.

Like I said before, I don’t want to come across that I’m picking on Kipper here, because I see this approach brought up all the time.  I saw it a lot last year when talking about whether the Nationals should draft Stephen Strasburg first overall, with the reason against that being the failure rate of previous pitchers taken first overall.  The thing is, you would think it’s silly if I found a stat that said pitchers taken 23rd overall don’t have success, just like you would think it’s silly if I graded the pitchers taken in the 21st-25th picks.  So why is grading the pitchers taken in the top five rounds any less arbitrary?

As I also mentioned before, I agree with the general theory that pitchers are riskier than hitters.  One arm injury is all it takes to derail a pitcher’s career.  Pitchers are more susceptible to those career altering injuries due to their workload.  If a hitter has over 600 at-bats one year, he’s not at risk of a serious injury the next season.  If a pitcher goes over 200 innings one year, he might be at risk, depending on his workload history.  We’ve already seen how fragile pitchers can be with the news that Anthony Ranaudo will miss at least one start, and maybe 2-3 weeks, due to elbow discomfort.

I haven’t run the numbers (and I plan to do a post on this before the draft rolls around) but the general theory, which I agree with, is that college hitters provide the least risk.  The Pirates have gone with college hitters the last two drafts, and plenty of people are calling for them to take a safe pick like Christian Colon or Bryce Brentz in the 2010 draft (and I use the word “safe” in reference to the perceived success of college hitters, and not in reference to signability, reaching for talent, or any other negative connotations involved with the phrase “safe pick” in drafts).  Even though they’ve gone the college hitter route twice, I wouldn’t assume that they’re totally averse to taking pitchers, and the 2010 draft is shaping up to be a pitching rich draft, especially at the top.

Pitchers are a risk, but at some point you need to take that risk to try and get a Tim Lincecum or a Rick Porcello, which is a great luxury to have.  The only way the Pirates will get this type of pitcher is through the draft, and the only way to do that is to take the risk and select them in the first round.  Maybe we’ll see that this year with a guy like Ranaudo or McGuire.  Maybe we’ll even see them take Jameson Taillon, surprising everyone after their anti-high school pitcher approach in the first round last year.  Whatever the case, I hope they take a player based on their perception of that individual player’s potential and risk, and not based on previous draft results, or general opinions on the risk of selecting a certain group of players.  If that happens to be a pitcher, then let’s hope they don’t pass up one of the top options, and let’s hope that top option is one of the 46.2% that becomes a successful pick.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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