First Pitch: First to the Majors Doesn’t Equal Best in the Draft

Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates

There was a time when Andrew McCutchen was seen as a bad pick over Jay Bruce, just because Bruce arrived in the majors first. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

In 2008 Jay Bruce made it to the majors and hit 21 home runs in 413 at-bats, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. Bruce was taken one pick after Andrew McCutchen, which had people questioning the selection of McCutchen. At the time, McCutchen was in the middle of a season where he had a .770 OPS in Triple-A.

Bruce remains a good player, but McCutchen has turned into an MVP.

Justin Smoak reached the majors in April of 2010. He also first reached Triple-A in July 2009. Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez didn’t reach Triple-A until 2010, and arrived in the majors two months after Smoak, despite being taken nine picks earlier. There were other players drafted after Alvarez who reached the majors first, like Gordon Beckham (2009), Brian Matusz (2009), and Buster Posey (late 2009). All of those players arriving before Alvarez had people questioning the pick, much like they did with McCutchen and Bruce.

Alvarez is now that 30+ homer a year guy he was projected to be when drafted, although he’s more of a three true outcomes player than a guy who can hit for average. Buster Posey is probably the better player, but Alvarez is arguably the second best pick in the first round of the 2008 draft.

It’s hard to remember that people were down on McCutchen and Alvarez after the fact, and all for the simple reason that they didn’t arrive in the majors first. But how about a more recent example?

The 2011 draft class had several pitchers vying for the top spot. The Pirates ended up selecting Gerrit Cole, passing up on Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, and Danny Hultzen.

Bauer was rushed through the minors and arrived in the majors in late 2012. It was the same situation with Bundy, who was even more rushed as a player out of high school. Of course that led to the same arguments that Cole was a bad pick, all because Bundy and Bauer arrived first. There was no regard for their numbers. Just the novelty of arriving in the majors was good enough to call them successful and call Cole a bad pick.

That carried over to this year, and only now is that stance starting to look as foolish as it did with McCutchen and Alvarez. Bauer has struggled with horrible control problems in the majors, and finished the 2013 season in the minors, despite Cleveland in a playoff race. Bundy went down with Tommy John surgery this year, which might be due to the fact that he once threw 484 pitchers in a four-day span. And now Gerrit Cole is looking like an ace.

I don’t want to take the opposite approach here and say that Cole is better than Bundy and Bauer because he was good first in the majors. I just want to take this opportunity to point out what the draft is all about, and how NOT to evaluate a draft.

It Doesn’t Matter Who Arrives First

Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole didn’t arrive before Dylan Bundy and Trevor Bauer, but he’s looking like an ace and that’s all that matters. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A draft is about the final results, not who arrived first. The Pirates are routinely criticized for promoting their prospects in a slow manner. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes they’re actually being aggressive, but fans want them to be ultra aggressive (like Dylan Bundy pitching in the majors at 19 after just three starts above A-ball). Those ultra aggressive moves sound exciting, and they give the illusion that a player is phenomenal. But more often than not, those moves end up backfiring. People see a guy coming up extremely fast, then stop paying attention when that player bombs in the majors.

The Pirates have a slow approach, but they also have a pretty good track record of getting players ready for the majors from day one. It only took Gerrit Cole two and a half months to start looking like an ace. Andrew McCutchen was an impact player almost immediately. Same with Starling Marte. Neil Walker came up and had instant success. Jose Tabata was good early on, but has largely been inconsistent in his career. Jordy Mercer was up and down last year, never getting much playing time, but has looked great this year now that he’s actually gotten a chance. Justin Wilson has looked amazing in his first run as a reliever in the majors. Jeff Locke struggled at the end of two seasons, but had a good year this year in his first full season as an MLB starter, although the finish has been poor. Tony Sanchez is looking like a good backup catcher at the moment, and a guy who might make it as a starter once Russell Martin leaves.

The one guy who came up, struggled, and went back and forth between Triple-A and the majors was Pedro Alvarez. He looked great in 2010, but had a horrible up and down season in 2011, with a few trips to Indianapolis and a .561 OPS on the year in the majors. Alvarez turned things around in 2012, with a .784 OPS and 30 homers. This year he has a .760 OPS and 34 homers. Again, more of a three true outcomes player, but still a guy with a lot of value at third base. He was a 2.3 WAR player last year, and this year he’s got a 2.4 WAR.

The Pirates take a slower approach than some teams. They don’t rush pitchers to the majors constantly like the Detroit Tigers, which almost always leads to a lack of control since those pitchers didn’t learn to pitch against upper level talent before being thrown in the deep end of the pool. The Pirates don’t bring up 19 year olds with barely any experience above A-ball like the Baltimore Orioles. That lacks excitement, but you don’t get good players by making exciting moves. The tradeoff here is that when the Pirates promote someone, that player is usually ready. That’s not something that teams like the Tigers or Orioles can say. They get the exciting promotions, and they get players to the majors early, but the Pirates get what is important: players who are ready for the majors.

You Don’t Have to Get the Best, You Just Have to Get a Good Player

The best player from the first round of the 2008 draft looks to be Buster Posey.

Mike Trout is the best player from the first round in 2009, taken 25th overall, and as the second pick by the Angels.

The 2010 class is led by Chris Sale when you look at WAR, although Sale has the advantage of arriving early. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would be the best of that group in my opinion, with my pick being Harper. Matt Harvey also drew consideration pre-injury.

Gerrit Cole will probably live up to his ace billing, but Jose Fernandez will probably be the best pitcher from the first round of the 2011 draft.

Jameson Taillon still looks like a guy who can be a top of the rotation pitcher in the majors.

Jameson Taillon still looks like a guy who can be a top of the rotation pitcher in the majors.

With every draft, people look back and play the “what if” game. That game is played more often when there’s a bad pick. Buster Posey would have been the better pick over Alvarez, but you’re going to get more people pointing at Mike Trout over Tony Sanchez, or Manny Machado over Jameson Taillon (another “first to arrive” situation, as nothing indicates Taillon won’t live up to his billing). You might get Jose Fernandez over Cole just to get the best guy possible. But none of that is the focus in the draft.

The focus of the draft isn’t to get the best player in hindsight. It’s to get a player who will help you in the majors. Obviously you want your guys to finish near the top each year, but no team gets the best player overall each year. If you look at the list above, you’ll see the Giants, Angels, Nationals, and Marlins as the teams with the top picks. Maybe the Pirates could join them one day, but the more important thing is getting good players, even if they’re not the best players.

This kind of goes back to the first point about players being first to arrive. Once a player is drafted, no other player matters. Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy arriving in the majors in 2012 has zero impact on Gerrit Cole. It should have zero impact on his upside, and absolutely no impact on how he is moved through the minors. The only focus with Cole at that point is getting him to a point where he can be the best major league player possible. The same goes for Jameson Taillon/Manny Machado, and it goes for other picks like Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. In the latter cases, the focus shouldn’t be getting those two up as quickly as possible. It should be developing those two as impact players, so when they do arrive they have the chance to be one of the best from the 2013 draft class. Even if they arrive after other players from the same draft.

You do want to look back and review how things have gone, since you need to review how a team is drafting to make sure the management group in place is the right group going forward. But judging that isn’t about getting the best player possible. It’s only about getting good players.

I see these types of arguments all year, every year, whether it’s the “first to arrive” argument, or the “best in the draft” argument. I was reminded of it tonight with Cole, and I have been reminded of that with each start Cole has had in September. It was only a year ago that people viewed Cole as a disappointing pick all because other players from that same draft arrived before him. Looking back now, that’s just silly. This article isn’t going to eliminate those lines of thinking, but if it gives some new perspective on how to view a draft to just one person who previously used the “first to arrive” analysis, I will chalk that up as a win.

Links and Notes

**Moneyball – The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Version

**Gerrit Cole Continues His Ace-Like Month of September

**Playoff Race Update: Pirates Take The Lead For WC Home Field Advantage

**Jeff Locke Won’t Start Against the Reds

**Austin Meadows is Baseball America’s Top GCL Prospect; Reese McGuire Third

Tim Williams

Author: 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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • CalipariFan506

    My favorite example is Mike Leake. Skips the minors to become a career 4th starter and people say the Reds are geniuses.

  • Blue Bomber

    Good article. The link below also discusses this in relation to McCutchen. Also adds some data to support what I’ve been seeing all year, Martin is having a monster year defensively and should be an MVP candidate (not over Cutch though).

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/how-the-pirates-built-a-playoff-team/

  • dcpinpgh

    On the other side, back in the day, I wished the Pirates could have done that. Instead they used to early picks and then projected the pitcher to be, at best, a 3rd starter. In my best Borat voice, that was some good drafting, NOT!

    • CalipariFan506

      Like the Reds did with Leake haha. They took him 7th overall and he has panned out to be the maximum pitcher he can. In fact it seems like this is a career year and he is a 3rd starter.

      People have also been way too quick to write Tony Sanchez off. But IMO that comes from the media bashing the pick the instant it happened. He was never given a real chance by the fans or media.

      • Y2JGQ2

        Well….No. That’s not right. The reds took Leake because he was ML ready and not a huge risk. They KNEW his upside was limited, but that he could contribute immediately, he was a safe pick and the front office admitted as such. In every aspect, they were 100% correct. Lets make sure we are criticizing facts and not unfounded assumptions

    • IC Bob

      Hard to believe now some of the stupid things our previous management did. The Bullington pick still chaps me.

  • CalipariFan506

    And to even move on from there about Pittsburgh in general just remember that Santonio Holmes caught a super bowl winning TD but he still never really escaped the fans and media perception as a bad guy and a wasted draft pick. I’ve never lived in another city, but in Pittsburgh it seems like your career is made the day you are drafted and it takes quite a bit to change the perception of fans/media.

  • IC Bob

    You keep bringing up Leake but if Leake had spent the first three years in the minors and then came up and pitched like he has this year everyone would be projecting him as an 1 or 2 starter. The best reason not to bring a pitcher up early is money. A team like the Bucs can ill afford to have a pitcher like Leake going to arbitration about the time he becomes good. Pittsburgh needs guys to be good immediately if we are to compete. So far that has been the case. If a team has better resources, there is nothing wrong with bringing a kid up if he can help.

    • dcpinpgh

      what would be Leake’s two Plus pitches and which one would be his average pitch?

  • SteveW

    Pedro’s clearly better than most of the 2008 picks – other than Posey, who is way ahead. However, I’d also rank Hosmer higher in terms of who was the “better pick”. He had as good a season this year as Pedro and is much younger.

    One other 2008 1st rounder who is clearly better than Pedro is Gerrit Cole, who was the Yanks 1st rounder. Obviously he didn’t sign.

  • leadoff

    I don’t think Sanchez is a backup catcher, McHenry, yes. Sanchez will backup Martin and so would every other catcher in baseball with the exception of 4 or 5 others. Sanchez should have left ST as the backup to Martin because he is the 2nd best catcher in the organization.

  • leadoff

    I do agree with the fact the Pirates develop their talent as thoroughly as possible before bringing them up and they don’t pay much attention to what other teams do with their talent. Usually in the draft the top ten is a crap shoot anyone of them can wind up being the best from the group and once in a while a Trout shows up later in the draft.
    The Pirates will now and for the foreseeable future be picking very late in the draft, might be interesting to see how they do, the draft that they lost Appel might be an indicator of how they are going to do! If you look at their minor league system, the cream of the crop mainly comes from picks in the top 15.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Very good article Tim. Expectations of first round picks are always great and they will forever be compared to the other picks of the round. Like to see the Pirates have done well with their picks recently.

  • Andrew

    Tim again great content, I really enjoy, for the lack of a better term, these big picture articles. Drafting and draft analysis in all sports is riddled with ex post facto arguments and comparisons. Good luck trying to quell it.

  • weltytowngang

    Unless something physically significant to Cole, I think he will be something special; this discusses the short term; Cole’s impact will be steady and long term.

    • weltytowngang

      Excuse me, I meant to say “physically significant happens to Cole”.

  • CalipariFan506

    I brought up Leake because of the title of the article. He was the first player from that draft to reach the majors and he’s average.