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The Royals might be onto something with their college-heavy draft strategy

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But will they follow through with it?

Pitcher Jackson Kowar #37 of the Florida Gators delivers a pitch against the LSU Tigers in the ninth inning during game two of the College World Series Championship Series on June 27, 2017 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
Pitcher Jackson Kowar #37 of the Florida Gators delivers a pitch against the LSU Tigers in the ninth inning during game two of the College World Series Championship Series on June 27, 2017 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The scene: June, 2018. New Jersey. Thanks to numerous circumstances, which included a mediocre 80-82 season the previous year, compensatory picks received when Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer signed elsewhere in the offseason, and a competitive balance pick, the Kansas City Royals owned four of the top 40 picks in the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft. They also had the highest total slot allotment of any team. It was a gigantic opportunity and one of the most important events in franchise history.

The consensus: position players should be the priority. At the time, the 2018 draft was rich in position player talent. Combined with the Royals’ awful track record of developing starting pitching and a growing opinion that drafting hitters was the smartest thing to do, it seemed obvious that the Royals should go that route.

On the first night of the 2018 MLB Draft, the Royals selected Brady Singer, a starting pitcher out of the University of Florida, with the 17th overall pick. It seemed an odd choice, but per Shaun Newkirk’s aggregation of draft rankings from major sites, the value was clear—Singer’s aggregate ranking was 14th, and two sites had him as a top-five player.

Later that night, the Royals selected Jackson Kowar, Singer’s rotation mate at Florida, with the 33rd overall pick. Two college arms in a row seemed bizarre, but, again, it was good value—Kowar’s aggregate ranking was 18th overall, and for him to still be available at 33rd was certainly a nice surprise for the Royals.

But something odd happened. The Royals selected Daniel Lynch, another pitcher, out of the University of Virginia at 34th overall. Then they picked Kris Bubic, another pitcher, out of the Stanford University at 40th overall. Then they picked Jonathan Bowlan, yet another pitcher, out of the University of Memphis at 58th overall. When the first night of the draft came to a close, the Royals had selected five pitchers, all of whom were also college arms.

But it wasn’t done. The Royals selected Kyle Isbel, Eric Cole, Austin Cox, Zach Haake, Tyler Gray, and Jackson Lueck before they got to their first high school selection: Kevon Jackson, at 272nd overall. The Royals had drafted their first 11 players out of a four-year university. Needless to say, that had never happened before under general manager Dayton Moore’s tenure—the closest was in 2009, when Kansas City selected eight college players in their first 11 picks.

It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t just accidentally occur. The Royals decided to emphasize pitching, yes, but they also decided to emphasize college players. And the Royals might be onto something.

High school draft woes

Bubba Starling at the Omaha Storm Chasers game May 5, 2018.
Bubba Starling at the Omaha Storm Chasers game May 5, 2018.
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The Royals achieved their three-year run with the best record in the American League between 2013 to 2015, grabbing an American League Championship and a World Series in the process, mainly on the back of great drafting, shrewd trades, and sharp team construction that maximized their strengths and minimized their weaknesses.

But at some point, the process fell apart. The Royals lost their uniqueness as other teams sought to replicate their deadly bullpen that shortened games to six-inning affairs. Worse, the Royals’ drafting excellence sputtered and halted in about 2010. The lack of a talent pipeline handicapped the Royals and slammed shut their contention window two years too early, as the Royals could barely scrape together 80-win seasons in 2011 and 2012 even with their championship core still intact.

This failure mainly came about because the Royals just couldn’t make anything out of their high school picks. Yes, college picks like Christian Colon and Kyle Zimmer underwhelmed significantly. But it wasn’t the college players that were the problem.

Two draft classes, 2011 and 2014, illustrate this particularly well. In 2011, the first five Royals selections—Bubba Starling, Cam Gallagher, Bryan Brickhouse, Kyle Smith, and Patrick Leonard—were high school picks. Only Gallagher has made the big leagues, and he’s a replacement level catcher, something that can be found readily available in the upper realms of every organization’s minor league system.

And in 2014, the Royals selected college arm Brandon Finnegan with their first pick. Finnegan was a very good reliever and then a core trade piece for Johnny Cueto in 2015. Other college picks to make a MLB debut from that class were Ryan O’Hearn and Eric Skoglund. However, none of the Royals’ high school picks that year have made the big leagues, the most prominent among them being Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot, Scott Blewett, and D.J. Burt.

Recent high school picks have also played poorly, while their collegiate teammates have tended to succeed.

Ashe Russell headlines the recent class of poorly performing high schoolers. The 21st overall pick out of the 2015 draft had to take a break from baseball and hasn’t pitched since 2016. Nolan Watson, another pitcher selected 33rd overall in the same draft, hasn’t moved past High-A Wilmington. And Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, the 14th and 52nd respective overall picks in the 2017 draft, are currently flailing so badly in Wilmington with such extreme contact problems that their big league futures are dead on arrival without fundamental and seismic improvements at the plate.

Meanwhile, the Royals’ recent collegiate picks have started strong. Richard Lovelady is the best relief prospect in the system, and has already made it to Kansas City this year. After over a month of Triple-A domination, Nicky Lopez was promoted to Kansas City and is already showing his unnerving contact skills and plate discipline. Michael Gigliotti, out of the 2017 draft, has done nothing but hit and is successfully returning from a major ACL injury.

And all those consecutive collegiate pitchers out of the 2018 draft listed above? They’re doing well. Singer, Kowar, and Lynch are arguably too advanced for High-A Wilmington, and Bubic and Bowlan are definitely too advanced for Low-A Lexington. All five should see midseason promotions. Others are succeeding, too. Haake and 13th-round pick Jon Heasly are mowing down batters in Lexington, and Isbel was tearing up Wilmington before some injuries sidelined him.

Of course, not every successful prospect in the system was a college player. Khalil Lee, selected out of high school in the third round of the 2016 draft, is the best position prospect in the system—but A.J. Puckett, selected out of college in the second round, has struggled with two organizations so far.

But a pattern can include outliers. And what we have here is a pattern.

College picks and the value proposition

Infielder Alex Gordon #7 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona
Infielder Alex Gordon #7 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The lesson of Moneyball is often misinterpreted. That lesson not that teams ought to play a certain way. That lesson is not that focusing on base percentage above all else is the way to build a team (though it certainly was at the turn of the millennium). Rather, the core and lasting lesson of Moneyball is that the best way to win is to find and then exploit undervalued assets that other teams overlook.

And in the early years of Billy Beane, one of those undervalued assets was college players in the draft. Leaguewide, high school players were valued more highly than college players. Beane himself was drafted so highly—23rd overall in 1980—in part because he was young, projectable, and other buzzwords that you still hear flying out of scouts’ mouths today.

There is some truth that high school players can provide an immense amount of upside, and indeed age matters. In Rany Jazayerli’s landmark examination about the relation between a player’s drafted age and their big league production, he definitively concluded that younger players had better careers after controlling for varying variables than their older counterparts. Over a 32-year period, a team that drafted one of the five youngest high schoolers in the top 100 picks could expect over twice the value than a team that picked one of the five oldest high schoolers in the same group.

But with all this emphasis on high schoolers, the higher floor of collegiate players was becoming undervalued. Beane saw that and pounced on it. In the famed 2002 Oakland Athletics draft, which is detailed in Moneyball, Beane selected a collegiate player with each of his first 23 picks. Over the three-year period beginning in 2002, Beane’s Athletics drafted Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen, Brad Ziegler, Jonathan Paplebon, Andre Eithier, Huston Street, Kurt Suzuki, and Dallas Braden. You can probably guess what kind of institution all nine were drafted from.

College players aren’t undervalued as much anymore. In recent years, legit stars like Alex Gordon, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, David Price, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Kris Bryant, and Alex Bregman were taken from college within the first five picks of the draft.

But there is a reason for this: college players are more likely to make the majors and more likely to be productive in the big leagues than their high school counterparts. A large, quantitative study written by Richard Karcher in the Spring 2017 Baseball Research Journal by SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, discovers as much, at least at the top:

College players drafted in the first five rounds had a greater chance of both playing in the major leagues and playing in the major leagues more than three years than high school players, with the greatest percentage difference in the first and second rounds.”

...The overall takeaway from this study is that, in the top five rounds, generally college players are much more valuable picks than high school players and college position players are more valuable than college pitchers. In the top five rounds, college players not only have a greater chance than high school players of making the major leagues and playing in the major leagues more than three years, but also more college players sign in proportion to high school players.

over half of all college draftees play at least three years in the Major Leagues in

In the 2018 draft, the first five selections were all college players.

Percentage of Draftees Within the First Five Rounds Who Played in Majors 3+ Years between 1996–2011

Percentage of baseball draftees who make the major leagues in the first five rounds. College players make the big leagues at a much higher level than their high school counterparts.

The reasoning behind this difference makes sense. Sure, the best and most productive players not just in baseball but in basketball as well—Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, LeBron James —come straight out of high school. They gain valuable years of playing time in their 20s, allowing them to effectively maintain a longer peak and provide more value to the clubs that drafted them.

But those teenagers also carry with them large error bars. Sometimes those teens develop rapidly. Sometimes they just hit a wall at a higher level and fail. On the other hand, you don’t have to squint and picture the development of college players: they’ve showed it at a higher level of talent. While they have less developmental room to grow, their floor is much higher, too.

With the second pick, the Kansas City Royals select...

Andrew Vaughn, first baseman for the University of California.
Andrew Vaughn, first baseman for the University of California.
Andrew Vaughn | Instagram

The Royals are in an enviable spot in the 2019 draft, thanks to their definitively unenviable record in 2018. Kansas City selects second overall, behind the Baltimore Orioles. And the Royals must make a choice here: should they take a high schooler or a collegiate player?

It seems well enough sorted that the Royals will take a position player, if only because the top of the draft is full of position players. With respect to CJ Abrams or JJ Bleday, the Royals realistically will take one of three players:

  • Adley Rutschman, Catcher, Oregon State University

Widely regarded as the best player in the draft, Rutschman is the rare catcher with defensive acumen as well as a wide offensive toolset, and he comes with the all-important “intangibles” as well. Best case scenario could be Buster Posey, an all-time great player.

  • Bobby Witt Jr., Shortstop, Colleyville Heritage High School

Witt is the best high school draft prospect in the country. A skilled defender, Witt is as much a lock to stick at shortstop as can be, Witt possesses serious power. Best case scenario could be Trevor Story, whose hit tool isn’t particularly great but whose power and sharp defense more than covers for it.

  • Andrew Vaughn, First Baseman, University of California Berkeley

A right-handed first baseman only wouldn’t normally be a top-two pick, but most right-handed first basemen aren’t Vaughn. Vaughn is simply the best hitter in the entire draft, who combines an advanced eye for walks and strikeouts with impeccable contact skills and power that can be described as ‘epic,’ if you have an air for the dramatic. Paul Konerko, peak Prince Fielder, or healthy Mike Sweeney are best case scenarios for him.

So who will the Royals choose?

The short answer is, in all likelihood, Witt. In Baseball-America’s mock draft, Carlos Collazo writes about the second overall pick that “Witt is still the heavy favorite here thanks to his loud tools and strong performance this spring.” MLB.com’s mock draft also has Witt going second overall. And in two Fangraphs mock drafts, Kiley McDaniel writes that “almost everyone...is insistent that Witt is the pick here” and “It sounds like Kansas City’s options are Rutschman or Witt at this pick.”

There is a wrinkle here, as McDaniel writes and expounds upon in his second mock draft. The Baltimore Orioles really control the top of the board with their first pick. While Rutschman is clearly the best player available, McDaniel reports that the Orioles could select whoever between Vaughn and Rutschman signs for a lower signing bonus, thereby allowing them more wiggle room elsewhere in the draft to sign better players and giving the Royals the ability to draft Rutschman. In this scenario, the Royals will probably sign Rutschman.

It is the other scenario that is more of a conundrum—and more likely. Yes, the Orioles could try some draft wizardry and play it cute, but the obvious play is to pick the best player on the board and move on to their next pick. In this scenario, the Royals would be forced to choose between Witt, the best overall high school player in the country, and Vaughn, the best hitter in the draft.

Witt isn’t a bad selection in a vacuum. Position players are less volatile than hitters, and Witt is a supremely talented player with a more unique offensive skillset than your average shortstop. But after so much success with college players, will the Royals really go with a high school player? With the Royals’ cabal of 2018 pitchers already creeping up through the mid minors, will the Royals select someone who might be two or three years behind Singer and Co. in their respective ascension to the big leagues?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of all of this is that we probably won’t know which will have been the correct course of action for half a decade or more. What we do know is that precisely one high school draft pick has put on a Kansas City Royals hat out of their last seven drafts (Jake Newberry, out of the 37th round in 2012). If the Orioles don’t gift Rutschman to the Royals, Kansas City’s college-heavy draft strategy will be put to the test.