I had a discussion with Wilbur Miller in the comments of yesterday’s article, breaking down further the issues that face the Pirates with drafting and development. He had a good argument about how drafting is a problem because the Pirates were making bad choices in the draft.
I agree with his opinion there, but I still think the source of the issue lies with development, and ultimately, with a bad plan that starts from the top. I’ll also add the disclaimer that my only grades on drafting are a scout’s ability to identify talent, and then the team’s decisions on what talent to take.
One of the groups of draft picks we discussed was the college hitters, and the trends seen with them. The longest running trend I saw for college hitters, especially the top ten round guys, was that they always fit the following profile:
**An ability to hit for average and get on base, with very few strikeouts.
**Power isn’t huge in terms of home runs, but the player can hit line drives and doubles.
**The player usually has questions about his defensive abilities, but plays a premium position and the Pirates typically try the player at that premium position for as long as possible.
**The player might also have speed on the bases to add extra value.
Drafting this type of player is a safe move if you’re aiming for future MLB players of any type, but risky if you’re aiming for upside and trying to get a future MLB starter.
You’re hoping that the player’s ability to hit for average, draw walks, and limit strikeouts will translate over from college all the way up to the majors. His value is largely going to be driven by average and OBP, unless he improves in other areas of his game.
The biggest possible area of improvement is in the power department. The Pirates have changed their approach the last few years, but for the longest time they focused a lot on line drives to the gaps, hitting to all fields, going for doubles and average, and hoping that home runs eventually come with the same approach. This is all while they try the player at the most valuable defensive spots until they find one that works.
The upside for these players is low, which means the pick can look horrible if the player does bust in the minors, especially since the best case for the player is usually an average starter or a bench player.
That appears to be a bad drafting decision, taking a guy with lower upside who has a really good chance to bust if his power doesn’t develop, or if he can’t play a defensive position that doesn’t require as much power. But in a way, it’s actually a really good pick, even if the guy busts.
Stay with me.
Again, my feeling is that drafting is about scouts identifying talent, and then the organization’s ability to select the talent that works best in their development system.
The Pirates have a development system that has long focused on players like this. They didn’t push power for the longest time, focused on shortening swings and hitting line drives to the middle of the field, and took guys who didn’t project as starters in the majors, and moved them around all over the field to create a utility player that might be good enough to start in the majors one day.
The development system has changed, and includes more focus on power now. But for the longest time this system was dictated by the organization’s plan. I can’t tell you how many times Neal Huntington has said to me in the past some variation of “We think doubles are power as well” when I asked about increasing a player’s power numbers.
And it’s probably no mystery that some of the best position players the Pirates have developed over the long-term have been Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier, two players who perfectly define the system. Neither had a lot of power, but did hit enough to supplement their numbers. They’re both going to get most of their value from average and OBP. They both moved all over the field to get experience at plenty of defensive positions, and ended up settling in a premium spot at second base, which is much better for their offensive skillset than a corner outfield position.
So I agree with Wilbur that drafting is a problem in this type of case. The big problem I see is that it was always tilted way too much toward selecting those types of players, with very few of the opposite — good power hitters who can play a premium position, but have questions about their ability to hit for average and get on base. The bust rate is high with those guys as well, but at least you’re aiming for more upside.
And that’s why I think drafting is a problem, but not the problem. The problem isn’t making a pick with lower upside. It isn’t the development system designed largely to help those players. It’s the decision from the top for this to be a plan at all. And fortunately that has changed in recent years, and they’ve put more emphasis on drafting power and now trying to maximize power.
I’ve liked some of the picks that have come from this approach more than I liked the picks from the old, lower upside approach. But we still have the unanswered question of whether the Pirates can develop the guys they drafted properly, which means we don’t know if we’re headed for a future of “That was a bad pick, but it was only a bad pick because they are bad at developing guys with power who need to learn how to hit and get on base consistently.”
SONG OF THE DAY
Robert Smith has still got it.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
By John Dreker
On this date in 1972 the Pirates traded pitcher Gene Garber to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for pitcher Jim Rooker. Garber joined the Pirates organization in 1965 as a 20th round draft pick and he pitched 33.2 innings between 1969 and 1972. Prior to the trade, the 29-year-old Rooker had a 21-44 3.93 record in 106 games(68 as a starter) over five seasons. Garber had a long career after the deal, pitching in 911 games and picking up 218 saves, but the Pirates got a lot of value out of Rooker. He won 82 games over the next eight seasons, which doesn’t include his famous appearance in game five of the 1979 World Series, where he helped the Pirates come back from being down 3-1 in the series.
Five former Pirates born on this date, including pitcher Vic Aldridge, who won 15 games during the 1925 and 1927 seasons, helping the Pirates to two World Series appearances and one title in a three-year span. Aldridge would then be dealt even up for Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes after the 1927 season. While Aldridge won just four more games in his career after the deal, Grimes won 25 games during the 1928 season. Aldridge went 97-80, 3.76 during his nine seasons in the majors.
Nanny Fernandez, third baseman for the 1950 Pirates. After playing 145 games as a rookie in 1942, he missed the next three seasons due to WWII. Fernandez returned for two years with Boston in 1946-47, then got in one final big league season with the Pirates three years later. He hit .258 with six homers in 65 games with Pittsburgh. He played a total of 14 years in pro ball.
Pete Mikkelsen, pitcher for the 1966-67 Pirates. After two seasons with the Yankees, he joined the Pirates in 1966 in a trade for Bob Friend and had a strong season, winning nine games, picking up 14 saves, and posting a 3.07 ERA in 126 innings. He set the team record for most appearances in a season (71), topping the old mark of 68 by Elroy Face, who reached that number twice in his career. That record stood until 1977. Mikkelsen struggled in 1967 and was lost to the Chicago Cubs on waivers in early August. He pitched nine seasons in the majors.
Danny Darwin, pitcher for the 1996 Pirates. Joined the Pirates at 40 years old and went 7-9, 3.02 in 19 starts before being traded to the Houston Astros at the July trade deadline. Darwin won 171 games over a 21-year career in the majors, spending nearly half of that time as a relief pitcher.
JJ Davis, outfielder for the 2002-04 Pirates. Hit .163 with one home run over 53 games for the Pirates, then spent one partial season in the majors with the Washington Nationals. Davis hit 127 minor league homers over nine seasons.