Bad teams, high draft picks, and pitchers: a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I’ve been thinking about the draft quite a bit lately. I was asked to make the Pirates’ pick for MVN’s mock draft over the weekend and I did a lot of wrestling with a lot of things before finally coming to UNC’s right-handed pitcher Alex White as my pick. You can read my reasoning at that post, but I’m not sure there’s a position player worth the slot if Ackley’s off the board and in the end, I liked White the most out of the pitchers available (and not because we share a school). It’s also what I think the Pirates will probably do with the pick given the same set of circumstances (no Ackley) that I was.

I’ll be upfront here. Drafting a pitcher in the four-slot of the draft makes me nervous. I read Thomas Boswell’s piece in the Washington Post back in April about drafting pitchers early (also discussed by Charlie on his blog) and it made me queasy. But when thinking about my MVN pick, I thought into it a bit more. It’s harder to project pitching than hitting, yes. But it shouldn’t be impossible. If it was, drafting pitching would be a completely random event. Take one look at the Red Sox or the Rays and you’ll agree that it’s not.

Teams bad enough to have the first pick in the draft are quite often pitiful organizations. They have poor scouting, they have poor player development, and they make poor decisions. For example, the Pirates have picked two of the 13 pitches chosen first overall since 1965: Kris Benson in 1996 and Brian Bullington in 2002. Benson had an awesome (some might say Strasburg-like) junior year at Clemson in ’96 though he doubled his innings that season. In 2009, that might be seen as a red flag. He didn’t throw after the draft in ’96 and in ’97 started the year out at Lynchburg, which was the Bucs’ advanced-A affiliate then just like they are now. He pitched well there and was sent to Altoona, where he struggled. He was promoted to AAA Nashville in 1998 anyways and he had a decent year (respectable 1.36 WHIP, nice strikeout and walk rates and a nice K/BB ratio), but got hit pretty hard and lit up for a 4.98 ERA. He then started 1999 with the Pirates, even though he hadn’t really excelled at any level since high-A. In 1999, one year after he pitched 156 innings in Nashville, he threw 196 2/3 innings with the Bucs. In 2000, he went to 217 2/3. In 2001, he had Tommy John surgery and he never really recovered the potential he flashed prior to going under the knife.

Is it fair to say the Pirates’ handling of Benson is the only reason he’s considered a bust as the first overall pick in the draft? Probably not, but I think we can look at the evidence and agree that their handling of him certainly might have contributed. The Pirates’ other number one overall pitcher was Brian Bullington. I don’t think that even Dave Littlefield thought he was the best player in the 2002 draft. But we’ve got proof of principle here. Of the thirteen pitchers taken with the first pick in the draft, how many others were affected by the team that picked them like Bullington and Benson?

In 1973, David Clyde became the first pitcher drafted first overall. He went straight from high school to the majors because he was from Houston and the Rangers’ owner wanted to sell tickets. Guess how that turned out. Floyd Bannister had some pretty good years in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, but he pitched for some really bad teams in Seattle and Chicago. Mike Moore pitched for an awful Seattle team early in his career and still carved out a solid career. Tim Belcher is one of the few pitchers drafted early to land on a good team (the early 90s Dodgers turned things around quickly after he was picked) and he also had a solid but not great career. Andy Benes was a good pitcher on some middling Padre teams in the early 90s, arguably the ace of the St. Louis team that made the playoffs a couple times in the mid-90s, and ran out of gas at the age of 30. How does the perception of his career change if he started out with a good team? Ben McDonald was rushed through the minors and had a full big-league workload thrown on him at the age of 22. Paul Wilson was part of a young Mets’ staff who saw every single promising young arm in the system get blown out (Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher were the other two big names in that group). Brien Taylor was a good prospect until he tore his labrum in a fistfight. Matt Anderson was a really stupid pick (and yes, I know current Pirate scouting director Greg Smith made that selection). Luke Hochevar’s got his whole career ahead of him and looked good in AAA before his callup this year. David Price looks like a future ace.

I realize that that was a cursory glance a those picks and that this a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg argument, but I think that development and environment has as much to do with with most of these pitchers failing as bad luck or the inability to. It’s no surprise that Brian Bullington developed poorly with a club that developed a lot of pitchers poorly, just like it’s not a surprise that David Price is developing well in a system that’s developing a lot of pitchers well. It is certainly harder to scout pitching than it is to scout hitting, but I think it’s also easier for bad coaching to screw up pitching prospects than it is for bad coaching to screw up hitting prospects. There’s a lot more to it than just saying, “drafting pitchers high never works.”

In fact, it seems to me like it’s panning out much better in the past few seasons. The jury is still out on most of these guys, but in addition to Price, Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Brandon Morrow, and Justin Verlander were all recent first round picks and none were selected later than Scherzer at #11.  Brian Matusz (last year’s #4 pick) got off to a good start in the minors last year. Scouting is different now than it was even ten or fifteen years ago and the handling of young pitchers has improved exponentially.

I’m not saying that I think that White or Crow (or even Strasburg, for that matter) are slam dunk picks in the four-spot this year, but if the Pirates think they have the right people in place to develop young pitching and they think that White or Crow are the best players available, then that’s who they should pick. I don’t think they should be scared away by this particular page of history, because I’m not sure it applies to them.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.