‘Best value’ means different things to MLB draft analysts

By Dave Fultz

This week I’m back to baseball that matters.

For the last two weeks I’ve droned on incessantly about our staff’s fantasy league, so I figure it’s about time I get back to writing about real baseball.

Spring training has me excited for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that so many young players get a chance to play in big league camps.

Most of these players won’t make it to the majors at the end of the spring and many won’t ever make it.

The extensive minor league system that exists in professional baseball is unique to the sport and one of the most interesting facets for “numbers guys” like me.

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Nearly all first round draft picks in the NFL and NBA will play pro ball at the highest level for at least a little while.

The only question is to what degree they are successful and how long they’ll last.

This isn’t necessarily the case for professional baseball players.

Every year, the 30 teams draft around 50 players each in June’s amateur draft, most of which will never even sniff the big leagues.

Because there is so little certainty when it comes drafting future players, the task for those in charge of draft boards across the league is to find the best value available when they make each of their picks in order to build a strong farm system.

The problem is that “best value” means a lot of different things to all the different people that are in charge of deciding who gets drafted and who doesn’t.

For many in the industry, best value tends to take on a meaning that is terribly subjective and often based on limited in-person observation of a player or scouting.

This opens up a world of problems for stat guys because this approach takes very little objective analysis into account.

Back in the 1970s there was a consensus that the best way to turn a draft pick into a star was to find the best high school player with the most potential.

Stat guys, on the other hand, argue that a college player is nearly always a better selection than a prep player, with few exceptions.

Now, I neither have the resources – an outstanding statistical database or an immense amount of time – to research this topic as in-depth as others have before me.

Because Baseball Prospectus (one of the best sources for sabermetric analysis) has already said it better than I can in the space I have here, I’m going to present their research here to support my point.

In the months leading up to the draft in June of 2005, Rany Jazayerli of BaseballProspectus.com undertook a massive study looking into the amateur draft.

Jazayerli studied the performance and draft information of the top 100 players selected in every draft between 1984 and 1999 – over 1,500 in all – and the results were definitively in favor of college ballplayers.

According to the study, college players have been 50 percent more likely to reach the majors than high school players of the same draft caliber.

This historical edge has remained constant over time and there is no reason to believe that it will change.

The study went on to prove that in the first three rounds, not only are college players more likely to reach the big leagues, but they also produce 55 percent more value than high school players of the same draft caliber over the course of their careers.

Jazayerli did qualify his argument by stating that these findings were consistent over the entire 16-year span of his study, unless the draft pick in question was the number one overall selection.

Only in this instance did the presence of a “surefire” superstar talent sometimes outweigh the edge that college players hold over high schoolers.

So if these findings are so conclusive, why do teams keep drafting high-risk prep athletes?

The answer is simple.

It is because the dream of finding the next great high-ceiling superstar overrides reason in many cases.

The search for a “diamond in the rough” causes men to flaunt subjective observation over objective logic and “tools” over the skills that really matter.

The fact of the matter is that college players are much closer to realizing their potential, so it should be easier to project future performance. Knowing this – and applying it to a team’s draft strategy – should make it much easier to play the guessing game that is the amateur draft.

Dave Fultz is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]