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The Royals bombed their first real test of the JJ Picollo era

Unnecessary risk with no urgency.

Kansas City Royals 2016 first round draft pick pitcher A.J. Puckett (16) shakes hands with Royals director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg (left) during a media conference prior to a game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
Jun 13, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals 2016 first round draft pick pitcher A.J. Puckett (16) shakes hands with Royals director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg (left) during a media conference prior to a game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

When the Kansas City Royals fired Dayton Moore, longtime leader of the baseball operations department, owner John Sherman insisted that this was a decision that would improve the competitiveness of the ball club. Sherman was tired of losing. He was tired of picking at the top of the draft. He emphasized winning consistently as an organization that avoided the valleys as much as possible.

The new leader of the baseball operations department, JJ Picollo, has had a marked impact on the team even since becoming GM last year under Moore. Under Picollo’s direct guidance, the Royals significantly beefed up the analytics department under Dr. Daniel Mack, shifted more responsibilities to newer blood like Drew Saylor and Paul Gibson, and doubled down on behavioral science with the promotions of Melissa Lambert and Ryan Maid. And with Picollo at the helm of trade decisions last year, the Royals arguably had their most thorough and successful trade deadline in y ears.

But Picollo’s first test wasn’t until the 2023 draft. The big league team and upper minors were so devoid of talent that the rough course had been set for whoever would be leading the baseball operations department, but the draft...that was different. The draft was when Picollo could assuage fans’ fears who thought the whole house should have been cleaned when Sherman fired Moore last September.

Unfortunately, the Royals bombed the test just about as badly as they could.

Two years ago, I wrote that the Royals’ 2021 draft was an exercise in hubris. Kansas City approached the draft knowing that they were bad at developing pitching, especially high school starting pitching. They knew that high school pitchers had by far the lowest percentage of drafted players to play in the big leagues for three or more seasons. And yet, they went ahead and chose two high school pitchers. Neither landed on any leaguewide top prospect lists this year. Both are still in A ball. I wrote this:

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.

Thanks to the power of addition, we now know that the Royals last made the playoffs nine years ago. With ostensibly different leadership in charge, and after a draft in which the Royals made a perfectly vanilla selection for a college player who was unanimously ranked in the 10-15 range before the draft, the hope was that Kansas City would continue to incorporate a more analytical and measured approach to the draft.

They did not. With highly rated college position players like Kyle Teel, Chase Dollander, Tommy Troy, and Matt Shaw on the board, the Royals went...with high school catcher Blake Mitchell, who was ranked in the 15-20 range on most boards.

With the way the MLB draft bonus pool system works, nobody was too concerned that the Royals overreached. Rather, the concern was that, once again, the Royals took on unnecessary risk. Why? Because high school catchers are notoriously poor bets and they very, very rarely work out. Dave Schoenfield called it his least favorite pick in the first round for ESPN:

As for my least favorite, hard to believe, but it’s the Kansas City Royals. Taking a prep catcher in the top 10? No, thank you. Blake Mitchell is the first one taken that high since Kyle Skipworth in 2008. Never heard of Skipworth? That’s because he never reached the majors. There’s a reason teams rarely select high school catchers that high anymore: History says most of them don’t pan out. No matter the scouting grades, it’s an extremely risky selection.

Just before the draft, CBS Sports wrote a piece about three basic tricks teams can employ to draft better. One of them? Avoid high school catchers! Author R.J. Anderson brought receipts.

If you’ve read our draft rankings before, you know there hasn’t been a high-school catcher selected in the first round who 1) stayed at the position and 2) tallied 10 or more Wins Above Replacement since Joe Mauer in 2001.

...Just three of the 10 most productive catchers (as judged by WAR) the last few seasons were drafted from the high-school ranks. What’s interesting is that none of them were selected in the first or second rounds. J.T. Realmuto was a third-rounder; Danny Jansen was grabbed in round 16; and Jonah Heim was popped in the fourth. For comparison’s sake, two of the four collegiate catchers on the list were drafted in the first round: Will Smith and Adley Rutschman; Sean Murphy went in the third and Yan Gomes was a 10th-round pick. The rest of the top 10 catchers were signed as international free agents.

That suggests to us that teams are still not particularly adept at identifying which young backstops will be able to handle the position’s rigors. Clubs who aren’t willing to spit in the face of fate with the arrogance of an unruly deity, then, are wise to wait until deeper in the draft to take a prep catcher.

You know who is willing to spit in the face of fate with the arrogance of an unruly deity? Royals scouting director Danny Ontiveros, who acknowledged that drafting prep catchers was risky but that Mitchell bore resemblances to Bryce Harper, so sure, why not.

Then, with the other top-50 pick the Royals had, they chose...a high school pitcher, of course. With the 44th pick in the 2023 draft, Kansas City selected the right-handed Blake Wolters, whom Baseball America ranked 50th and Fangraphs ranked 47th. And with one of their other top 100 picks, the Royals selected Hiro Wyatt, a right-handed high school pitcher. The average high school right-handed starting pitcher takes five to six years to achieve their first 100-inning season in the big leagues—if they make it at all. From the second through fifth rounds of the draft, only 3% to 6% of high school pitchers play in the big leagues for three or more years.

Could Blakes Mitchell and Wolters, as well as Wyatt, become stars? Sure. In fact, I hope so. Nothing could possibly please me more than seeing Mitchell and Wolters become legendary battery mates who become All-Stars together while Wyatt turns into a great closer. I will root for them, and Royals fans will root for them, and I hope they get all the success in the world. But this isn’t about them. It’s about the Royals scouting department, and it’s about making the right gambles. Because, look, the draft is just one big gamble. There are things you can do to maximize your return based on the data known to you, and by their actions, the Royals think they are smarter than that.

Other organizations know better. Neither the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dogers, nor the Houston Astros—three of the smartest organizations in baseball—have selected a high school catcher with a top-50 overall pick in any of the last decade’s worth of drafts. Meanwhile, the only big league pitcher who was a top-50 overall pick with one of those clubs and was drafted out of high school is Matthew Liberatore. He has a career 6.35 ERA in 66 innings.

Over at the Kansas City Star, Sam McDowell identified why the Royals have been so bad for so long: they’ve stunk at drafting and developing players.

The combination of draft and development has just plain not been good enough, and it certainly makes it worse that it’s been good enough for their counterparts, markets big and small. If you’re wondering how it’s gotten this bad in Kansas City, in other words, this is precisely where that conversation should start. The draft hauls. Or lack thereof.

McDowell notes that, from 2012-2019, the Royals drafted 13 players not named Sean Manaea in the first through competitive balance A rounds. Those 13 players combined for 5.7 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs. That is just not going to cut it.

And yet, here we are, with the same names in charge of scouting. Danny Ontiveros is running the draft, but Lonnie Goldberg is still here and “heavily involved in draft operations.

To be fair, drafting and development go hand in hand. Could the organization’s problems be mostly on the development side of things? Perhaps. But it doesn’t matter if the Royals have the worst or best player dev system in the world: prioritizing risky demographics with premium draft picks is a bad bet for everybody. And it doesn’t matter if Mitchell and Wolters and Wyatt flame out or become stars, because bad processes lead in aggregate to bad results. The Royals had a chance to prove they were intent on good processes. They didn’t take it.