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Why we should temper our expectations about the 2018 draft class of pitchers

Succeeding in the big leagues is hard!

Jackson Kowar #37 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the first inning against the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jackson Kowar #37 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the first inning against the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As they say, hope springs eternal. Fans, players, coaches, and front office staff alike have an infinite capacity for hope. Some of these hopes are not realistic: no team can win a World Series every year, but we can hope for it. Not every prospect can become an All-Star, but we can hope for that, too.

That’s why expectations are so important. Expectations are not always built on realism, but, moreso than hope, they are built on results. Nobody expected the 2019 Kansas City Royals to make the playoffs fresh off a 100-loss season, for instance, but we did expect the 2015 Royals to make the playoffs fresh off a World Series run. Likewise, nobody expected Nicky Lopez to be a great player this year; however, next year we will expect Lopez to continue to perform well.

If you’ve been following the Royals at all this year, you know that a lot of their top prospects have made the big leagues. In fact, once Jon Heasley made his start, the Royals became the first team in history to use five different pitchers that they selected in the same draft to start a baseball game in the same year.

Hope is certainly high for these players, as it should be: they’re talented, highly-regarded arms with decently high floors. But our expectations for these players is way, way out of whack, and we really should be tempering what we think these players might become.

The first reason that we should temper our expectations is right in front of our noses, and that reason is that their performance has, ah, stunk. Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and the aforementioned Heasley have given up a combined 194 earned runs and 154 walks in 322 innings, which translates to a 5.42 ERA and a 4.30 BB/9. Even by archaic standards like win-loss record, they stand at a combined 13-26. There’s no other way around it to say that, as a group, they’ve been flat-out bad. Furthermore, there isn’t a single one who is doing well. Bubic has the best ERA at 4.80 and Singer has the best FIP at 4.13. That ain’t good!

But the other more important reason we should temper our expectations is because of how the draft works and what the history of college pitchers looks like in the first few rounds.

Kansas City drafted their quartet of highly-rated starting pitchers between picks number 18 (Singer) and 40 (Bubic). I took that as a starting point and expanded the perameters a little, looking at every draft pick from 2000 through 2015 that fit the following qualifications:

  • Selected between the 15th and 50th picks in the draft
  • From a 4-year college
  • Signed with the team that drafted them
  • Pitcher

All told, there were 158 selections that met every qualification. The first observation was clear: most pitchers didn’t amount to anything at the big league level. Of those 158, only 49—or 31%—managed a career WAR per Baseball-Reference of 1.0 or greater. Other marks:

  • 27 (17.1%) accrued 5+ career WAR
  • 14 (8.9%) accrued 10+ career WAR
  • 2 (1.3%) accrued 20+ career WAR
  • 0 (0%) accrued 30+ career WAR

Best College Pitchers, Selections 15-50

Year OvPck RdPck Tm Bonus Name Pos WAR G ERA WHIP SV Drafted Out of
Year OvPck RdPck Tm Bonus Name Pos WAR G ERA WHIP SV Drafted Out of
2008 39 39 Cardinals $938,000 Lance Lynn RHP 27.2 275 3.48 1.28 1 University of Mississippi (Oxford, MS)
2011 18 18 Athletics $1,540,000 Sonny Gray RHP 21.3 208 3.53 1.22 0 Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
2002 22 22 Indians $3,000,000 Jeremy Guthrie RHP 18.4 306 4.42 1.34 0 Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA)
2006 21 21 Yankees via Phillies $2,250,000 Ian Kennedy RHP 17.8 397 4.11 1.28 44 University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
2012 22 22 Blue Jays $1,800,000 Marcus Stroman RHP 16.3 163 3.65 1.28 1 Duke University (Durham, NC)
2004 40 40 Athletics $800,000 Huston Street RHP 14.5 668 2.95 1.07 324 University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)
2008 43 43 Diamondbacks $877,000 Wade Miley LHP 14.5 270 4.17 1.37 0 Southeastern Louisiana University (Hammond, LA)
2009 22 22 Twins $1,850,000 Kyle Gibson RHP 13.7 221 4.37 1.39 0 University of Missouri (Columbia, MO)
2005 25 25 Twins $1,350,000 Matt Garza RHP 12.5 290 4.09 1.32 1 California State University, Fresno (Fresno, CA)
2002 24 24 Athletics via Yankees $1,400,000 Joe Blanton RHP 11.9 427 4.38 1.34 2 University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY)
2008 19 19 Cubs $1,540,000 Andrew Cashner RHP 11.9 300 4.10 1.36 1 Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, TX)
2006 30 30 Cardinals $950,000 Adam Ottavino RHP 11.8 502 3.47 1.31 26 Northeastern University (Boston, MA)
2013 34 34 Royals $3,550,000 Sean Manaea LHP 11.2 114 3.74 1.20 0 Indiana State University (Terre Haute, IN)
2001 30 30 Giants $1,175,000 Noah Lowry LHP 10 106 4.03 1.38 0 Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA)

The second thing to stand out? Very few of these pitchers were from the same year, let alone the same draft class. Of the 27 pitchers who were moderately successful (5+ career WAR), two years—2010 and 2014—were not represented at all. No more than three pitchers in this group shared the same draft year.

In this light, the struggles among the Royals’ group of college pitchers isn’t concerning. Rather, it is the norm for college pitchers to struggle. Pitching is hard, and there are very few players in a draft with truly elite tools and pitches relative to their peers. Remember: barely over 3 in 10 college pitchers selected between picks 15 and 50 make a positive impact on a big league club.

What does this mean for the Royals? It means that we can probably only realistically expect one to stick around to be an above-average starter—something akin to Danny Duffy, who is almost right at 20 career WAR—if we’re lucky. Making it to the big leagues is a big step, but to get more than two long-term, useful rotation pieces in the same draft would be a miracle. As for Heasley, who was drafted in the 13th round, making it to the big leagues is already a wild success story; to expect anything more from a 392nd overall pick would be unfair.

The Royals simply have their work cut out for them next year in determining who has the best chance to succeed as a starter and who will best be a fit for the bullpen. Making the right choice is important. And for the rest of us, making sure our expectations are properly set will mean less unnecessary heartbreak down the road.