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The Royals’ 2021 draft was an exercise in hubris

They believe in themselves, that’s for sure.

Dayton Moore, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, watches as the Royals take batting practice prior to a game against the Detroit Tigers on May 1, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Dayton Moore, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, watches as the Royals take batting practice prior to a game against the Detroit Tigers on May 1, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball draft is a risky enterprise to begin with. In the league’s entire history—going back to the formation of the National League in 1876—there have been just 22,000 individuals who have put on a big league uniform. There have been over 22,000 players selected in the MLB draft since just 2004. The simple fact is that most drafted players never make the big leagues.

A few years ago, J.J. Cooper at Baseball America wrote about some statistics on just how rare it is for players selected in the MLB draft to even reach the big leagues. Looking at data from 1981 through 2010, some of his findings include:

  • Less than one in five players in the draft reach the big leagues
  • Only 9.8% of draftees who sign reach 0.1 career Wins Above Replacement
  • Less than 10% of draftees after the 11th round ever make their MLB debut

However, not all draftees are created equal. Like other sports, some players are statistically likely to be more successful than others. That’s why first round picks are extremely important. Cooper notes that over 70% of first round draftees eventually reach the big leagues. And at The Hardball Times, Matthew Murphy notes that even within the first round, production falls exponentially starting with the second pick.

Graph: Net WAR by Draft Pick, pre-Free Agency from 1991 through 2005
Net WAR by Draft Pick, pre-Free Agency from 1991 through 2005

Picking in the top ten is a huge advantage. From Murphy’s historical data set, the average player production from 10th overall selections was double that of players selected just 30 picks—not rounds, picks—later.

Of course, not every type of draftee is the same. MLB teams can choose four flavors of draftees: high school hitter, high school pitcher, college hitter, and college pitcher. All four have different average outcomes. At the Society for American Baseball Research, Richard T. Karcher wrote an article in 2017 about the chances of a drafted player making it to the Show, examining data from 1996 through 2011. I’ve correlated information about the first round into the table below:

Percentage of Drafted Players Who Make MLB Debuts

Type Played in MLB Played MLB 3+ Yrs
Type Played in MLB Played MLB 3+ Yrs
High school pitchers 59.8% 34.0%
High school position players 56.7% 43.9%
College pitchers 71.2% 50.0%
College position players 78.2% 60.1%

There’s another thing at play here: draft and development history. Some organizations are just flatly better at it than others, and every organization has strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to the riskiest group of draftees—high school pitchers—the Royals are particularly awful. From 2007 through 2015, the following is a list of all 17 high school pitchers the franchise took in the first five rounds of the draft.

High School Pitcher Draftees by Kansas City, 2007 to 2015

Year Rnd OvPck Name Pos WAR G ERA WHIP Drafted Out of
Year Rnd OvPck Name Pos WAR G ERA WHIP Drafted Out of
2007 3 96 Danny Duffy LHP 19.8 233 3.95 1.32 Cabrillo HS (Lompoc, CA)
2007 2 66 Sam Runion RHP 0 0 N/A N/A A. C. Reynolds HS (Asheville, NC)
2007 4 126 Mitch Hodge RHP 0 0 N/A N/A Prince of Wales SS (Vancouver, BC)
2008 1 36 Mike Montgomery LHP 6.1 183 3.84 1.35 William S. Hart HS (Santa Clarita, CA)
2008 3 80 Tyler Sample RHP 0 0 N/A N/A Mullen HS (Denver, CO)
2008 4 115 Tim Melville RHP 0 13 6.75 1.79 Wentzville Holt HS (Wentzville, MO)
2008 5 145 John Lamb LHP 0 27 6.25 1.63 Laguna Hills HS (Laguna Hills, CA)
2010 5 149 Jason Adam RHP 0 76 4.90 1.35 Blue Valley Northwest HS (Overland Park, KS)
2011 3 95 Bryan Brickhouse RHP 0 0 N/A N/A The Woodlands HS (The Woodlands, TX)
2011 4 126 Kyle Smith RHP 0 0 N/A N/A Santaluces Community HS (Lantana, FL)
2012 3 100 Colin Rodgers LHP 0 0 N/A N/A Parkview Baptist HS (Baton Rouge, LA)
2013 3 82 Carter Hope RHP 0 0 N/A N/A The Woodlands HS (The Woodlands, TX)
2014 1 28 Foster Griffin LHP 0.1 1 0.00 0 The First Academy (Orlando, FL)
2014 2 56 Scott Blewett RHP 0 2 6.00 2.33 Baker HS (Baldwinsville, NY)
2015 1 21 Ashe Russell RHP 0 0 N/A N/A Cathedral HS (Indianapolis, IN)
2015 1 33 Nolan Watson RHP 0 0 N/A N/A Lawrence North HS (Indianapolis, IN)
2015 4 129 Garrett Davila LHP 0 0 N/A N/A South Point HS (Belmont, NC)

*To not unduly penalize players for being good enough to make it to Kansas City (or elsewhere) but not pitching well, I have assigned a zero to those pitchers with negative career WAR.

As you can see, the Royals have been thoroughly unable to draft and develop high school pitching talent. It has currently been over a decade since the Royals took a high school pitcher who made more than a pair of token appearances. The average WAR per player is 1.5; without Duffy, that drops to 0.39. Outside of Foster Griffin’s 1.2 innings before blowing out his elbow last year, no Royal taken in the top 30 picks of the draft has even made the big leagues.

To recap: first round picks, and especially top ten selections, are much more likely to be productive big leaguers than even second rounders (and especially players from later rounds). While most draftees don’t make their MLB debut, some are more likely than others to do so. Furthermore, the riskiest group, the one most prone to busts, are high school pitchers; barely one third of first round high school pitching selections play for at least three years in Major League Baseball. And, to top it all off, the Royals have a practically nonexistent track record with drafting and developing high school pitching talent.

So, knowing all this, the Kansas City Royals selected...high school left-handed pitcher, Frank Mozzicato, with the seventh overall pick in the MLB draft. Then, with the 43rd pick in the MLB draft, the Kansas City Royals selected...high school right-handed pitcher, Ben Kudrna.

We should root for Mozzicato and Kudrna, along with the rest of the Royals’ 2021 draft class, to become Hall of Famers. I hope they succeed. And I know how SEO and Google work—this piece is going to rank for a lot of relevant search terms. Someone reading these words is a friend or family member of those two. Maybe your name is even Frank Mozzicato or Ben Kudrna.

However, the Royals franchise, the people in charge of the drafting and developing, have a starkly different job than the fans do. Fans ought to root for all draftees. The front office’s job is not to have a great time with good kids. It is the front office’s job to make the best and most objective selections in the MLB draft, the ones that are likely to help the franchise in the future.

None of us will know what the ultimate outcome of this draft is for years. Half a decade, to be certain, and maybe not even then. But we can judge the Royals’ draft with the information that we have right now, and with this current information, it’s impossible to view this draft through any other lens than one of simple, brazen hubris.

That’s because the Royals didn’t just draft Mozzicato seventh overall. They drafted him seventh overall even though his average ranking on Baseball America, MLB, ESPN, and Prospects Live was 38th. The Royals did not draft Mozzicato in a vacuum—the Royals chose not to select Kumar Rocker. They chose not to draft Brady House, Kahlil Watson, Sal Frelick, and others. Then, the Royals used the money they saved by signing Mozzicato to sign Kudrna, whose draft ranking average among the four aforementioned publications was 44th. They did not get a “deal” on him, and they passed over players like Will Taylor—a top 25 prospect—in the process.

It is dangerous to think you’re smarter than the consensus. Beyond that, it is dangerous to draft high school pitchers, especially if your organization has a long and putrid track record of doing so successfully. For the Royals to double down on that is frustrating. It is impossible for them not to know the information that has been outlined in this piece, and yet they spent millions of dollars and precious top-50 draft capital on the riskiest proposition in the entire draft and then went and did it again.

Since making the playoffs seven years ago, the Royals have operated like an organization where every employee is shielded from the consequences of their actions. No amount of losing or poor results has been enough for anybody to lose their job over the last four years, and despite the most dire breakdown in baseball quality this year, the machine is humming along like nothing is wrong. So, maybe it makes sense that the Royals went all in on risk—because without consequences, there really is no risk.