WTM: Are the Pirates Bad at Drafting Hitters?

It’s hard to argue that the strength of the Pirates this year has been the rotation.  Despite the struggles of Tyler Glasnow and a couple bad outings from Chad Kuhl, the future, at least for that part of the team, has to be encouraging.  It’s all the more encouraging that four of the five starters were products of drafts conducted by the current front office.

The hitting has been a different story, and not just because the team’s offense has been foundering badly so far this year.  Only two of the team’s eight regulars were drafted by the current front office, although Gregory Polanco was a product of the team’s Latin American scouting.  I should add here that, with Starling Marte and David Freese out, Adam Frazier, who was drafted by this front office, would be starting if he wasn’t hurt. (Andrew McCutchen and Marte were both signed by the previous front office.)  Of the two current starters, only Josh Bell is in the lineup for his bat, or at least his potential bat. The other, Jordy Mercer, is out there for his glove and isn’t expected to be, and in fact hasn’t been, a significant offensive contributor.  So the question is, Does this front office do poorly at drafting hitters?

Checking the Peer Group

To answer a question like that, you need a frame of reference.  Once again, I think the best one is the Pirates’ divisional rivals.  I looked at their drafts from 2008 — the year of Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s first draft — through 2013.  I chose 2013 as the end point because I found it was possible to make a fairly reliable determination of the likely outcome of all the draftees I checked.  Starting in 2014, for a lot of draftees it was just too soon.

The next question was which draftees to look at.  I decided to check corner players (first and third basemen, and corner outfielders) drafted and signed after the first round.  I defined corner players based on the positions their teams announced at the draft.  I did make a few judgment calls, though, as some of the announced positions appeared dubious.  Matt Adams, for instance, was announced as a catcher but never caught a single pro game, so I included him.  I also saw no reason to include draftees who didn’t sign because teams never intend to sign all their draftees.

I chose corner players because, unlike middle infielders, catchers and center fielders, they’re drafted primarily for their bats rather than speed and/or defense.  Consequently, I think a team’s experience at drafting corner players says a little more about its ability to judge hitters.  I left out the first round because, in almost all cases, first round draftees are widely regarded as significant talents.  It’s a team’s ability to find hitters in later rounds that tells me more about its judgment of hitters.  I did include the supplemental first round because, if a player is drafted, say, 34th overall in a sport with 30 teams, I don’t think you can legitimately say he’s a first rounder.

Cubs

From 2008-13, the Cubs drafted and signed 30 corner players after the first round.  That number included four prep players, four junior college players, and 22 players from four-year colleges.  This isn’t an unusual distribution, as four-year colleges produce the majority of draftees who sign.

Of the 30 corner players the Cubs signed, only three have reached the majors, and one other might still have a shot.  This isn’t totally out of line with expectations; after you get past the first round, the odds of reaching the majors drop sharply.  It’s extremely small in the late rounds, which is where most of these draftees were selected.  The Cubs’ picks who made it or still have a reasonable chance are as follows:

Justin Bour (2009, 25th round, 4-yr):  Bour hit well as a platoon first baseman for the Marlins in 2015-16 and is still in that role this year.
Matt Szczur (2010, 5th round, 4-yr):  Szczur spent all or parts of the past four seasons, including this year, as a bench outfielder for the Cubs and was recently traded to the Padres.  He hasn’t shown much with the bat.
Dan Vogelbach (2011, 2nd round, prep):  Vogelbach is still at the prospect stage.  He’s put up big numbers in AAA and reached the majors, briefly so far, with the Mariners this year.
Bijan Rademacher (2012, 13th round, JC):  Rademacher took until last year to get to AAA, but he posted an OPS there of .879.  He could still conceivably get a callup if he does well this year and the Cubs have a need.

The Cubs’ biggest success was with Bour, a late-round draftee, although it came after he was gone.  Vogelbach could emerge as a similar sort of player with the Mariners.

Reds

The Reds signed 36 corner players out of the 2008-13 drafts.  This included four prep players, six from junior colleges and 26 from four-year colleges.  Only three have reached the majors.  They are:

Dave Sappelt (2008, 9th round, 4-yr):  Sappelt saw a modest amount of time as a backup for the Reds and Cubs in parts of each year from 2011-13.  He posted a .644 OPS.
Steve Selsky (2011, 33rd round, 4-yr):  Selsky played briefly with the Reds in 2016 and was with the Red Sox this year.  He’s still on Boston’s 40-man roster and so could reappear.  He’s been a solid but not outstanding hitter in AAA.
Jesse Winker (2012, 1st supp. round, prep):  Winker ranked well within the top 100 prospects on several lists in 2015-16, but he’s been plagued by wrist injuries.  He debuted very briefly with the Reds this year.

The Reds obviously have had no real success yet.  That could change with Winker if he gets over the wrist problems.

Brewers

The Brewers signed 35 corner players in 2008-13, of which eight were prep players, three from junior colleges and 24 from four-year colleges.  Of these, six reached the majors and one still has a reasonable chance:

Logan Schafer (2008, 3rd round, 4-yr):  Schafer spent parts of every season from 2011-16 with the Brewers and Twins, mostly as a backup and not hitting much at all.
Erik Komatsu (2008, 8th round, 4-yr):  Komatsu appeared very briefly with the Brewers and Cards in 2012.
Khris Davis (2009, 7th round, 4-yr):  Davis has started in the outfield for the Brewers and A’s since 2013 and is one of the better power hitters in the majors.  He hit 42 HRs last year.
Sean Halton (2009, 13th round, 4-yr):  Halton got into 42 games for the Brewers in 2013.
Jason Rogers (2010, 32nd round, 4-yr):  Rogers hit well for the Brewers in 2015, but fell off sharply after being traded to the Pirates after the season.
Mitch Haniger (2012, 1st supp. round, 4-yr):  Haniger reached the majors with the Diamondbacks in 2016 and is hitting well with good power for the Mariners this year.
Garrett Cooper (2013, 6th round, 4-yr):  Cooper didn’t play a lot until 2015, but he’s hit very well since then and is now in AAA.  He hasn’t reached the majors but still stands a reasonable chance.

The Brewers have done much better than the Cubs or Reds, entirely with college draftees, mostly in the mid- to late-rounds.  Davis has become a significant power hitter and Haniger could become a productive hitter.  Rogers looked like he might be as well, but not since the Pirates got him.

Cardinals

From 2008-13 the Cards signed 42 corner players out of the draft.  Six came from prep schools, six from junior colleges and 30 from four-year colleges.  Seven of these players reached the majors and another three still have a reasonable chance.  These are:

Shane Peterson (2008, 2nd round, 4-yr):  Played very briefly for the A’s in 2013, got into 93 games for the Brewers as a backup outfielder in 2015, and opened 2017 with the Rays but was recently designated for assignment.
Jermaine Curtis (2008, 5th round, 4-yr):  Got three ABs for the Cards in 2013.  He was just a solid hitter at the AAA level.
Xavier Scruggs (2008, 19th round, 4-yr):  Played briefly for the Cards in 2014-15 and the Marlins in 2016.  He had an .857 OPS in AAA.
Matt Carpenter (2009, 13th round, 4-yr):  Carpenter has been one of MLB’s best all-around hitters since 2012.
David Washington (2009, 15th round, prep):  Washington has never reached the majors, but he has a career OPS around .870 in AAA and could still get a shot.
Jonathan Rodriguez (2009, 17th round, JC):  Rodriguez also has never reached the majors, but has been a solid hitter in AA and AAA, so with the right break he could still make it.
Matt Adams (2009, 23rd round, 4-yr):  Adams has had some ups and downs, partly injury-related, but he’s mostly been a good power source for the Cards since 2013.
Stephen Piscotty (2012, 1st supp. round, 4-yr):  Piscotty has been an outfield regular for the Cards since 2015 and hit 22 HRs last year.
Patrick Wisdom (2012, 1st supp. round, 4-yr):  He hasn’t reached the majors, but Wisdom is off to a good start in AAA this year after not having done much previously.  He’s 25, so if it continues he could get a shot.
Carson Kelly (2012, 2nd round, 4-yr):  Drafted as a third baseman, Kelly moved behind the plate in his third year and is considered one of the game’s better catching prospect.  He debuted with the Cards last year.

A few things to point out in summary:

  • Obviously, the Reds and Cubs didn’t do well at drafting hitters during the relevant time period, while the Brewers did better and the Cards extremely well.
  • Of the players who’ve become regulars or semi-regulars in the majors — Justin Bour, Khris Davis, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Steve Piscotty, and possibly Mitch Haniger — all have good to excellent power.
  • All of the most successful players came from four-year colleges.  So did Carson Kelly, who’s still at the prospect stage.  The closest thing to an exception is Dan Vogelbach, who’s also still at the prospect stage.

The Pirates’ Drafting

From 2008-13, the Pirates drafted and signed 35 corner players after round one.  They went heavily for them in Huntington’s first draft, signing 12 in 2008, compared to 23 in the next five drafts.  Of the 35, six were prep players, two from junior college, and 27 from four-year colleges.  Four have reached the majors and three others still have a chance.  (Arguably, four still have a chance, but if Jared Lakind, who was drafted as a first baseman, makes it, he’ll do so as a pitcher.)

Robbie Grossman (2008, 6th round, prep):  Grossman spent all or parts of 2013-15 with the Astros, but hit very well for the Twins in 2016 and also so far this year.
Matt Hague (2008, 9th round, 4-yr):  Hague appeared very briefly for the Pirates and Jays in 2012 and 2014-15, and has a long track record as a solid AAA hitter.
Josh Bell (2011, 2nd round, prep):  Bell is settling in as the Pirates’ first baseman and has been hitting well lately.
Alex Dickerson (2011, 3rd round, 4-yr):  Dickerson hit well in the second half of 2016 for the Padres, but has been plagued by injuries and is hurt this year.
Barrett Barnes (2012, 1st supp. round, 4-yr):  After been plagued by injuries, Barnes finally had two strong months at the end of 2016 in AA.  He’s hurt again now but is expected to go to Indianapolis by the middle of this month.
Eric Wood (2012, 6th round, JC):  Wood had his first good season in AA last year, but is struggling so far in AAA.
Erich Weiss (2013, 11th round, 4-yr):  Weiss also just got to AAA this year is struggling, although he hasn’t played that much so far.

Some conclusions about the Pirates’ record with corner players:

  • They did better during the 2008-13 period than the Reds and maybe better than the Cubs, although Dan Vogelbach could change that.  They may or may not have done as well as the Brewers, depending on Bell and Mitch Haniger.  They didn’t do nearly as well as the Cards.
  • There’s a big caveat:  Bell and Grossman were both above-slot signees under a system that no longer exists.  Bell was considered an early- to mid-first round talent who fell to the second round because he told teams he wouldn’t sign, so in a sense he doesn’t belong in this survey at all.  The Pirates were able to sign him because, to their credit, they were willing to pay a record bonus for the round.  It’s extremely unlikely they’d be able to do that under the current pool system.  So the Bell pick tells us more about their willingness to spend aggressively than it does about their scouting.  Grossman’s bonus was much lower ($1M vs. Bell’s $5M), so it’s possible they’d be able to sign him under the current system.
  • The Pirates have struggled with college hitters.  Their only real success there was Dickerson.  As the Cards and Brewers have shown, that’s a crucial demographic if you want to find offense after round one.

What About More Recent Drafts?

There are some potentially encouraging signs in the Pirates’ more recent drafts.  To backtrack a bit, there were a couple of disturbing trends in the 2008-13 time period:  college hitters making very little progress in moving up through the system and a general lack of power.  Of the 25 hitters the Pirates signed out of four-year colleges who never reached the majors, 15 failed even to reach the Double-A level, and only Weiss and Dan Gamache reached Triple-A, with Barnes probably joining them once he’s healthy.  (Gamache struggled in limited playing time at Indianapolis and was released.)  And without delving too much into the numbers, few of the college signees emerged as power hitters.  Those negatives may be changing with the team’s 2014-16 drafts.

From the 2014 draft, Connor Joe (1st supp.) and Jordan Luplow (3rd) are currently hitting well at Altoona, with Luplow showing good power.  (They both also are adding to the trend of Pirates’ hitting prospects taking a big step forward when they get out of the offense-stifling environs of the Florida State League.)  Michael Suchy (5) and Chase Simpson (14) are also putting up passable numbers there, although with astronomical strikeout rates that don’t bode well going forward.  It’s still early in the season, though, and a lot could change.

Another player from that draft, Kevin Krause (9), seems to be healthy after Tommy John surgery and is putting up very big numbers, including excellent power, at Bradenton.  He’s currently out with a hamstring injury.  (Technically, Krause was drafted as a catcher and still goes behind the plate a little, but especially since the surgery the team seems to see him more as a right fielder.)  So, at this stage, Joe and Luplow at the least appear to have good chances of reaching the majors.

The Pirates didn’t go as heavily for college hitters in the 2015 draft, but they did select a prep third baseman, Ke’Bryan Hayes, in the supplemental first round.  Hayes looks promising so far and is one of the youngest players in the FSL.  Of the college hitters, Casey Hughston (3) and Logan Hill (25) are hitting well for Bradenton, and Ty Moore (12) is off to a good start for West Virginia.  There’s a big cautionary note, though, as all three are old for their levels and Moore is playing at a low level for a college draftee selected two years ago.  Hill is competing for the FSL lead in HRs a month into the season, so it’s good to see that kind of power, but there’s an additional red flag in the form of a 25% strikeout rate.  Hughston’s K rate is even higher, but it’s still a big improvement over his severe struggles last year.

There’s not much to be said for the 2016 draft, as the Pirates selected only two college corner players after taking Will Craig in the first round.  Matt Diorio (16) struggled last year and is currently in extended spring training, which itself isn’t a good sign.  Hunter Owen (25) is hitting well at West Virginia and has shown some power, but once again he’s old for the level.

So there are indications that the Pirates may be improving their performance with later-round college hitters, particularly with the 2014 draft.  This is a vital area for them, as a team dependent on its farm system, and not free agents, needs to get value out of the draft beyond just the first round.  That’s doubly true for the Pirates, given that their Latin American program has collapsed over the last five years or so, at least with respect to hitters.  Nobody would dispute that a smaller market team has to have a steady supply of pitching coming up through its farm system.  With the severe problems the Pirates are having early this year, though, we’re seeing that the same is true for hitting.

Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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Arik Florimonte

Given that a large part of their strategy was to target MI and CF types and then move them over if needed, shouldn’t we look at guys who ended up at the corner, rather than guys who started there? Not sure it would change the conclusion, but still…

andrew.oneill88

Great article! Very interesting stuff!

Roberrto21

Not necessary to go through the history of the draft. Just look at the present MLB team. Is anyone hitting well at all? Maybe JHAY, that’s it. This team is playing like they wish it were the last week in September, not early May. Looks like the WC game of 2013 was the high point for this cycle, come back in 5 – 7 years if they change ownership and the FO.

st1300b

Nice article

Bill Harvey

I’ll bring this up here. Can anyone at all give me one single reason why the Pirates shouldn’t sign Luis Robert? I can’t think of any reason at all. There will be the fine, shouldn’t be an issue, and the 2 years of not signing international players for more than $300k, again, not an issue. Just go sign this guy for $10 mil, or whatever it takes, and get him in the system.

Of course I say this about every single Cuban player, and the Pirates have yet to sign any meaningful Cubans, so forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Bill Harvey

Did you forget to include Alvarez or was he omitted because he is no longer in the organization?

rich

He was a first rounder

bucswsbound

OT – unless I missed it, no one has mentioned the Forbes business of baseball stuff. $51 million in EBITDA – ranking 8th in MLB. I know a lot of people would say that the Forbes data isn’t accurate. I’ve seen some comparisons that show that the Forbes estimates have been rather accurate.

dr dng

Simple answer…. Yes.
-‘

Catch22

TBD. Kinda premature with this article….depends if bell, meadows, Hayes, newman, tucker, Kramer, Craig and Frazier turn into productive MLB hitters. You have to rem, Huntington drafted pitching early, notably prep guys.

rich

Wilbur … I was able to detect a flaw in your analysis: the outcome didn’t prove NH is a moron and that the Cubs are geniuses.

On a serious note, I would love to see a similar analysis of the defensive minded hitters in the middle of the diamond – part 2 perhaps?

Joe P

Cubs- Schwarber, Bryant pretty potent duo
Cards, Pham, Piscotty, Kolten Wong, Matt Adams-

BuccosFanStuckinMD

After a terrible start, just like last year, Keon Broxton is up to around .260, has 8 steals, 3 HRs, and is an outstanding glove. Last night against Boston, he hit a HR, triple, and stole 2 bases…he would be pretty useful on this team.

And no, this isn’t a case of 20/20 hindsight – I said it was a horrible trade when the deal was made and many on this site foolishly defended it….

rich

I personally liked the trade because Jason Rodgers had a pretty good year in 2015 and we needed a starting first baseman to platoon with Morse more than a 4th OFer. At the time, it looked pretty even – a somewhat established quantity vs. more of a risky quantity.
The trade looked bad after we picked up a 3rd first baseman (Jaso) and then picked up a 4th in Freese. This changed the trade to being a 4th OFer for a AAAA player.

BuccosFanStuckinMD

I wouldn’t have traded Broxton straight up for Rogers and I stated so at the time, but NH had the brilliant idea to also throw in Supak. Rogers was a career minor leaguer who did have a decent 2 months with Milwaukee late in the 2015 season. But, he was already 27, overweight, and not a very good defensive player – guys like that are easy to come by. Needless to say, he has resumed his career minor leaguer status…

BuccosFanStuckinMD

I don’t think there is just one contributing factor to the obvious fact that the Pirates are in dire need of quality position player prospects, especially once you get below AA level. In my opinion, all of the following have contributed to this situation – and they are not in any particular order:

(1) The Pirates annual decision to not pursue any of the top 50-100 International free agents, as well as any quality prospects from Cuba. Instead they typically sign a bunch of low cost prospects, in the hopes that at least one develops into something. This has been a dismal failure and must change.

(2) A significant number of the Pirates better position player prospects have left the system, many of them in very poor trades – Alex Dickerson, Harold Ramirez, Reese McGuire, Tito Polo, Jacoby Jones, Keon Broxton to name a few. Ivan Nova is all that we have as an asset in return for all of the above…..

(3) Whether you blame the player, the Pirates system’s inability to develop them properly, or whatever other reasons, a number of what were at one time top flight position player prospects have fizzled out or appear to be dying on the vine – Hanson, E. Diaz, W. Garcia, Lambo are examples.

(4) Some very questionable specific high round draft picks of position players, including a couple that were just downright reaches by the Pirates – like Tucker and Joe. Neither were projected anywhere near where the Pirates drafted them….so, either they are cheap and looked for inexpensive first round signings or they need to stop thinking they are smarter than everyone else. Although he’s only in his second season, I predict we will be saying the same thing about Craig in another year or two….that was another reach….and a dumb one considering how he profiles as a position player in the field – first base/DH type.

(5) Over the past 4-5 years, when it comes to position players, the Pirates tend to draft college players far more frequently than high school position players. Again, this may be partly motivated by finances – as college players tend to be cheaper to sign in general, once you get past the top 10-15 guys. Most of those college bats are moving through the system, but in most cases it isn’t because they were successful at the previous levels. Although I still hold out hope for Newman, Kramer, Luplow and Hughston – many of the others are just mediocre with limited upside in the field or at the plate – guys like Krause, Joe, Suiter, Simpson, Moore, George, Hill, Suchy, etc. In my opinion, the Pirates need to focus on more of a balance in selecting college vs. HS players The heavy dose of college players has contributed to the lower levels being very sparse….

Wilbur Miller

Just one point – the college/prep breakdown is normal. For most HS kids, the lower, later round bonuses aren’t enough to justify passing up a scholarship. And the new rules won’t let teams offer much more. You’ll never see the Pirates or anybody else drafting equal numbers from HS and college because they can’t sign the guys.

WardHolder

Hmmm… I get your point about getting away from the first round, but it means you don’t have the discussion of Kris Bryant and Pedro Alvarez, as well as other players that they didn’t take. Tony Sanchez in 2009 was instead of Mike Trout, 21 picks later. Since picking Cutch, the Pirates haven’t demonstrated any special ability to pick a hitter in the first round, whether that is at a corner power position or up the middle.

john fluharty

It would be interesting to know how the metrics vs eyes-on analysis comes in to play here and I’d love to know just what the Cards do differently.

Wilbur Miller

I think the Cards value power more highly, for one thing. The Pirates have a fascination with gap-to-gap hitters like Ty Moore, Ryan Nagle, Matt Diorio, Jordan George and Albert Baur (that’s just from the last couple drafts). As corner players, these guys are dead ends.

Todd Tomasic

This article (Nice job Wilber!) shows why they need a bat in the 1st round in
this year’s draft. With a lot of early picks they will still have a shot at the arms
they love to pick

ajax2448

Every mock I have seen has them taking a prep hitter. One that i see the most is a 1st baseman and I would rather avoid that. Has nothing to do with need. I just don’t like the idea of using a 1st round pick on a high school 1st baseman. His hit tools would have to be off the charts to make me consider that. Like 65-80 on the 20-80 scale.

Wilbur Miller

I hope the mocks are right, even if it’s a 1B. The Pirates do better with prep hitters and historically they’re probably the demographic with the most upside.

turks44

latin america should improve this year, with more money and tighter control on other teams spending.

Bobby L

Latin America has been highly disappointing.

bucsws2014

Good thing for the Bucs that the Brewers also suck at picking first rounders.

leefoo

their Latin American program has collapsed over the last five years or so, at least with respect to hitters.

The only ones that we’ve gotten so far like Tito Polo have been traded. I wonder why we’ve had that dearth of hitters?

There’s not much to be said for the 2016 draft after taking Will Craig in the first round.

Not much to be said for that first round pick either. 🙂 (not sure if I’ve mentioned that before….lol).

BuccosFanStuckinMD

“their Latin American program has collapsed over the last five years or so, at least with respect to hitters” – and that program is to feast on the low level prospects who are much cheaper to sign – not surprisingly, that has been a dismal failure and anyone with a brain could have predicted that outcome….

joe s

Why can’t the Pirates get hitters? It is because they will not spend the money to acquire top tier talent. Hate to say it but it all goes back to the Sano non-signing. I truly think that the player agents in the DR will not deal or trust the Pirates and Gayo. Over the last 4 years the Pirates top international hitting signing was with Banana. He is only one that seems to deal with the Pirates. It has been too long with this site saying that they signed Marte, Polanco and Hanson on the cheap and you cant tell what a 16 year old will do. Fact is, the better players receive the higher bonuses. Do they fail? Sure, but when the succeed you may have an elite talent. All it costs is money, so let them spend it. Only one person’s opinion.

emjayinTN

Once the Pirates showed the benefit of mining that DR Gold and getting MLB-quality prospects cheap, the other teams have taken turns at overspending for anything that has a pulse. It makes it very difficult to find “sleepers” like Marte, Polanco, and Hanson.

BTW, does anyone know who leads the team in runs scored in May? Alen Hanson with 4 is tied with “Cutch and Bell. And, he has only batted 16 times.

John W

Perhaps a dumb question but has there been much change within the organization the last 3-5 years as far who is developing hitters or the overall theme starting at the lower levels?

For example when Polanco was in low A or A ball in 2012-13 vs players at the same level today?

Thanks

Wilbur Miller

Lower level coaches change pretty much constantly. That’s normal.

With hitters, I tend to think it’s nearly all in the scouting and not the coaching.

Pbcorbust

Don’t Forget My boy Kevin Kramer! EDIT: Mdidle Infielder. Nothing to see here, lol.

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