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Can a Rotation Be Built With College Bats?

There were plenty of college arms available in the 2020 draft and plenty of Twins fans were clamoring for the Twins to go all in on college pitchers. Minnesota’s brain trust presumably believes that college bats have a better chance of succeeding than college arms. But is it so?
Image courtesy of Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Derrek Falvey was well renown for developing pitching in his time in Cleveland, but since taking over for Minnesota he has shown a strong preference for college bat-first players when picking later in the first round.

The Twins have selected Brent Rooker, Trevor Larnach, Matt Wallner, and most recently Aaron Sabato and Alerick Soularie all before pick number 60 (and catcher Ryan Jeffers could be thrown into the mix as well). With only four picks in this year’s five-round affair, Minnesota went with three bats and one high school arm but have begun the process of picking up additional college arms in the form of undrafted free agents.

With the Twins making great strides in player development and the use of technology this approach makes some sense. After all, there’s more than one way to skin a cat – the important thing is that the cat gets skinned (have you ever tried chewing cat skin?) Minnesota can target less heralded pitchers in the later rounds (or free agency in this year’s case) and make good use of their developmental skills while continuing to obtain arms they covet in trades (Jhoan Duran, Chris Vallimont, etc.), and can also use the surplus of hitting prospects to obtain mlb-ready pitching.

And that’s fine, but for it to work out two things need to happen. First, the hitters need to develop (so far, so good) and second, teams willing to trade pitching to the Twins need to covet Minnesota’s bats. There’s plenty of ways to work out a trade including trading away MLB talent if Minnesota is confident in the younger replacements, but are college hitters really that much more likely to succeed than college pitchers?

In an admittedly quick and limited attempt to answer that question I have searched Baseball Reference’s draft index and combed through the first five rounds of the 2010-14 drafts to compare college pitchers and bat-first college position players. I chose those five years because they’re fairly recent while giving the players adequate time to reach the majors, and five rounds because it was the length of this year’s draft.

To get as bat-first as possible I tried to stick to corner outfielders (cutting out center field only players) and first baseman. The sample size of pitchers is much larger than hitters, as significantly more pitchers are drafted each year (at least than corner OF/1B bats).

In sticking with our theme of fives, we’ll look at the percentage of players from each category that have reached five bWAR so far in their careers. This isn’t perfect, as 2014 players have obviously had less time to reach five WAR than 2010 players, but it does give us a cutoff point and some evidence of success at the MLB level.

Here’s the results:

Attached Image: Can a Rotation Be Build Chart pic.png

While the sample size is much too small to responsibly jump to any sweeping conclusions (other than that the draft truly is a crapshoot), we can see that college pitchers have been somewhat less successful than bat-first hitters so maybe Falvey and Co. are on to something. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the big-name pitchers (Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray, and Aaron Nola) came earlier in the first round than where the Twins have been taking their college bats (but OF Aaron Judge was the 32nd pick of the 2013 draft!) with much less pitcher success coming later in the first round.

I’ll go ahead and drink the Kool-aide in part because I find myself in agreement with pretty much everything Derrek Falvey and Thad Levine do, and in part because I haven’t tasted Kool-aide for at least a few decades.

What do you think? Do you agree with the strategy of targeting bat-first hitters in the late first/second round and finding pitching elsewhere? If not, who would you have targeted in this year’s draft? And when’s the last time you had some Kool-aide? Please leave your comments below!

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16 Comments

While they have some down farm prospects like Enlow and Jordan Balazovic, if the Twins want to keep in the competitive level of MLB they are going to have to utilize the value of their farm system to add a top of the rotation level arm.

 

They need to manage the "surplus" bats they have at these corner positions, identify the players that have real value and the highest value and magnify the value of the ones they think are lesser values.One way of magnifying the value of a prospect is to move him up the minor leagues rapidly.

 

A 20 year old performing average at best in AA is much better trade bait than the same 20 year old doing really, really well in A ball.Don't believe this?Look at many of the trades the Twins have been as the selling party, the Johan Santana trade in particular.The high salary teams like the Yankees and Dodgers do this consistently.  

    • mikelink45 likes this
I like the strategy. Now, more than ever, hitters are easier to project into the future. When you’re working with relatively limited resources, you make safe bets.

I also think we’re seeing a similar blueprint working wonderfully right now. The Nationals (Scherzer, Corbin, Soto, Rendon), the Astros (Verlander, Grienke, Altuve, Springer, etc.) are prime examples. Develop hitters, then go buy the pitching when the time is right. One obvious reason: You don’t need the volume when it comes to pitching. You need a couple great starters and a handful of good relievers. It’s much easier to go out and get a high-end starter and reliever than multiple high-end offensive pieces. We just saw first hand the kind of organizational depth it takes to have an elite offense.

Something also not being considered is the current roster construction. There’s going to be significant turnover on the offensive side in fairly short order. Kepler and Polanco are the only ones you can reasonably count on being around and productive 2-3 years from now. With Lewis, Kirilloff, Larnach, Jeffers, and maybe Rooker, it’s a start. But, more is needed, and I don’t see much behind that handful in terms of being impactful offensively and close to the majors.

Or, could it be that just maybe the college hitter was just the best player there in their evaluation? There are an awful lot of great hitters out there that went to college. “College” is carrying this derogatory sentiment when it comes to prospects for some reason. Worked out pretty well for some guys named Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver. Also, some guys called Rendon, Harper, Goldschmidt, Alonso, Story, Bregman, Chapman, etc.
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Doctor Gast
Jun 17 2020 06:29 AM

I`ve been on board on what the FO has been doing.

The trading to get pitching prospects that was mentioned came from teams that were competing for the PS for valuable MLB pieces that we had not from our farm system. Yes we traded a potential low level bat (Lewis) to get a temporary BP fix (Romo) but the resistance of FO to resolve this log jam of bat 1st players & go for a high potential arm, I haven`t seen. The highest prospect we traded was not of bat 1st category but our pitching which made me question their general trading strategy 

We can`t compete w/ NY to buy arms. Also many teams like WAS & HOU compete only when they go out & deplete their farm system to obtain a high profile arm & scrape the bottom when they don`t. I`d rather that we copy CLE & LA where they go out develop young arms & have a constant flow of top arms & sell off the excess to obtain the positions where they are weak. That way they are always competing.

I can see that maybe Sabato was probably the best player available for our 1st round. But was disappointed that (even though we didn`t have many good draft selections) out of the great pool of college arms that we didn`t land one. After the 1st round I wasn`t up on what our options of college arms were so I can not comment. Hopefully they can find a gem in the open prospect market or the international draft. Also I`d like to say IMO that high potential arm is more valuable than a high potential big bat, no glove player

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SgtSchmidt11
Jun 17 2020 07:23 AM

 

I like the strategy. Now, more than ever, hitters are easier to project into the future. When you’re working with relatively limited resources, you make safe bets.

I also think we’re seeing a similar blueprint working wonderfully right now. The Nationals (Scherzer, Corbin, Soto, Rendon), the Astros (Verlander, Grienke, Altuve, Springer, etc.) are prime examples. Develop hitters, then go buy the pitching when the time is right. One obvious reason: You don’t need the volume when it comes to pitching. You need a couple great starters and a handful of good relievers. It’s much easier to go out and get a high-end starter and reliever than multiple high-end offensive pieces. We just saw first hand the kind of organizational depth it takes to have an elite offense.

Something also not being considered is the current roster construction. There’s going to be significant turnover on the offensive side in fairly short order. Kepler and Polanco are the only ones you can reasonably count on being around and productive 2-3 years from now. With Lewis, Kirilloff, Larnach, Jeffers, and maybe Rooker, it’s a start. But, more is needed, and I don’t see much behind that handful in terms of being impactful offensively and close to the majors.

Or, could it be that just maybe the college hitter was just the best player there in their evaluation? There are an awful lot of great hitters out there that went to college. “College” is carrying this derogatory sentiment when it comes to prospects for some reason. Worked out pretty well for some guys named Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver. Also, some guys called Rendon, Harper, Goldschmidt, Alonso, Story, Bregman, Chapman, etc.

IDK that you can count Harper.He dropped out of HS, got his GED, and went to a JUCO during what would normally be his Senior Year.

 

I don't think that's what people would normally call a "college" bat.

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puckstopper1
Jun 17 2020 07:27 AM

 

Something also not being considered is the current roster construction. There’s going to be significant turnover on the offensive side in fairly short order. Kepler and Polanco are the only ones you can reasonably count on being around and productive 2-3 years from now. 
 

What about Sano and Garver? 

 

In 2-3 years it is likely Garver will need to see significant playing time at 1B or DH.

I am bewildered.Even in the juiced ball era pitchers are the most valuable commodity.The reduced minor leagues still need good arms and also good fielding.Unless MLB is just going to be a series of home run derbys I am not a fan of the current strategy. 

    • Doctor Gast likes this

IDK that you can count Harper. He dropped out of HS, got his GED, and went to a JUCO during what would normally be his Senior Year.

I don't think that's what people would normally call a "college" bat.


Good point, duly noted.

Take Harper off the list (despite technically attending a college) and replace him with JD Martinez, Charlie Blackmon, Tim Anderson, Joey Gallo, etc. there are dozens more quality players that can be added to the list (just on the offensive side of the ball).

My point is only that going to college is perceived as a negative. I can’t figure out why. I’m guessing it’s an age thing, but facts are less than 5% of MLB players have a 4 year degree. 1). That’s a bad life decision, unless you’re Mike Trout. The majority of these guys aren’t going to be set for life. 2). That means age isn’t really the issue. The vast majority are leaving school before they graduate. Is it really that much different than an 18 year old playing rookie ball? A lot college bats get “fast tracked,” and aren’t really delaying the timeline much. Bergman went to college and still debuted at age 23 (and is one of the top 5 players in the game).

I just don’t understand the concern over “college.” Is it really any different if they’re drafting high school hitters? It really means nothing in terms of future production. What percentage of high school bats are up at age 21 or before? Almost none unless you’re an elite top 10 caliber prospect.

It’s a really good discussion topic. Somewhere along the way something happened that caused people to view college hitters less favorably than others. Doesn’t make sense to me considering the list I’ve provided. It seems that for every Bellinger there’s a Bregman.

Obviously, numbers get skewed a little because I’m not sure people are properly discounting international players. When we’re talking about players from the United States or elsewhere that are draft eligible, there seems to be a pretty good success rate when it comes to college hitters.

What about Sano and Garver?

In 2-3 years it is likely Garver will need to see significant playing time at 1B or DH.

I intentionally left them out. I don’t feel great about either being clean-up hitting studs 3 years from now.

As a catcher, the chances of Garner maintaining his level of production last year through his age 32 season is pretty minimal. Counting on any catcher to be an offensive centerpiece years down the road is a bad idea. We saw concussions derail Mayer’s historically great career. It usually happens suddenly, not a slow progression over time. Not saying it’s impossible, just not likely given the wear and tear. Also, can he really be an offensive centerpiece while playing only half of the games (if he stays behind the plate?). Also, doesn’t Jeffers replace him behind the plate eventually if he’s as good as they say?

I’m as big a fan of Sano as anyone. You can look at my history here, if you don’t believe me. I was advocating for the guy at his lowest point, when most others wanted him gone. But, that doesn’t mean I think building an entire offense around him is a great idea. Obviously, there consistency issues there. There are injury issues. He’s gotten into some trouble. There’s a pretty good chance his skills will erode (big guys fall off a cliff at some point - Prince Fielder for one), he’ll get injured, or he’ll run into some more trouble between now and then. I love him as a player, just don’t have confidence in his longevity into his 30s.

To your point, if Garver needs his reps to be at 1B/DH, that may mean either he or Sano are off the team. We know Donaldson will be here, does he stick at 3rd base as a 37-38 year old? If Kepler is still around, where does that put one of Kirillof/Larnach? Neither of them are playing CF. Lewis? That’s also assuming these guys pan out. It’s all but guaranteed that 1, maybe two of them don’t live up to the hype.

Again, not saying these two won’t be there and won’t be good. But, anyone prudent and impartial can easily see the risks there. Hell, even a lot of projection systems have Garver coming back to earth in 2020, let alone 2023.

One guy I did leave off the list was Arraez. I’d put him with Polanco and Kepler as most likely to still be around and productive a few years from now.

My point is this: You don’t draft for current need. Those will change in three years. It’s just as likely that some of Berrios, Balazovic, Duran, Enlow, Thorpe, Jax, Colina, Sands, Vallimont, Leach are a dynamite rotation and we’re desperate for hitters because Cruz has retired. Donaldson has gotten old, Garver is a shell due catching, Sano fell apart again, Rosario left in free agency, etc. etc.
Since most teams are reluctant to trade away good pitching I guess I don’t like the premise
    • adorduan likes this

Since most teams are reluctant to trade away good pitching I guess I don’t like the premise

Concur. We talked during the off-season about trading from the surplus of corner bats to get pitching. We wound up trading a young arm for Kenta Maeda, plus a competitive balance draft pick (which the Dodgers spent on a pitcher, I believe), more or less. Pitching remains the coin of the realm.

 

I don't recall exactly how our FO has articulated their strategy. Maybe we've been putting words into their mouth by saying "draft the surer bets, namely hitters, then sift through and trade for what we need". The problem with this approach is, either you trade the best of these hitters, on the theory that what you keep is nearly as good plus you obtain a prize in trade, or else you hang onto the best hitters, and find that the remainder aren't any more valuable to potential trade partners than to you.

 

I'm not sold.
 

    • adorduan likes this

Concur. We talked during the off-season about trading from the surplus of corner bats to get pitching. We wound up trading a young arm for Kenta Maeda, plus a competitive balance draft pick (which the Dodgers spent on a pitcher, I believe), more or less. Pitching remains the coin of the realm.

I don't recall exactly how our FO has articulated their strategy. Maybe we've been putting words into their mouth by saying "draft the surer bets, namely hitters, then sift through and trade for what we need". The problem with this approach is, either you trade the best of these hitters, on the theory that what you keep is nearly as good plus you obtain a prize in trade, or else you hang onto the best hitters, and find that the remainder aren't any more valuable to potential trade partners than to you.

I'm not sold.


Pitching is definitely the best currency followed by true shortstops catchers and center fielders. Corner spots are pretty easy to fill so I am really skeptical this is what will get pitching in return
    • ashbury and adorduan like this
What I find interesting, even if the data is not 100% complete as stated, is the failure rate of college pitchers drafted that high vs hitters. It's actually something I felt was true, but interesting to see it in actual numbers.

I don't believe that means anything close to "don't draft college pitchers early". And remember, the Twins grabbed Canterino, a college pitcher, in the 2nd round last year. I think the FO philosophy is simply draft guys with a "something" you really like and that you think you can build on. Just because a college pitcher is older than a HS arm doesn't mean he's a finished product yet. And they have drafted more than a few college arms, just not in the 1st round yet.

In baseball you seldom draft any position based on pure need because that player is not going to fill that need for a few years. You draft the best player available that fits your organizational framework, while still trying to draft all positions.

While it may appear there is a glut of corner OF/1B types in the system, it's not as if they have drafted them all in the 1st round. Lewis, Cavaco and Jeffers are clearly not that corner player. (Jeffers being a 2nd round selection, but still).

Now, you still need arms. Good arms. Projectile arms. And with reports of how deep the college pitching class was, I'm a little surprised and disappointed there wasn't ONE college pitcher available the Twins really liked in this abbreviated draft. I can only assume they stuck to their philosophy of drafting the best player available.

I think previous drafts have shown they have mixed it up pretty well in their overall selection process. And I dont think there is any stigma against a college player vs a HS player. In fact, it may be opposite. HS kids are very hard to project due to physical development. Most top college players, though certainly not all, were drafted coming out of HS in later rounds but decided to play college ball and improve their ability. Then they grow an inch or two, add weight, gain experience, and are a different player 2-3yrs later.

This draft was very unusual. If things return to normal next season, or even a 20-25 round draft formula, and the Twins ignore arms, then I will raise a questioning arm and complain.
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twinstalker
Jun 18 2020 10:44 PM

I skimmed this, but the point seems to be that maybe you get actual player more often by choosing corner/1B bats. However, I see no reference to the ceiling, so a 50 WAR pitcher is the same as a 5 WAR bat-first player, but maybe difference in average WAR is what should be tested. Is it better to succeed in getting a bat-first player slightly more often than succeeding in getting a pitcher when it's the pitcher who are more frequently great? Not even sure that's the case, just wondering.

 

But as you mention, there are pitchers drafted that even Falvine might never have passed on no matter if their general strategy is avoid them. Just curious before I look it up...what college pitchers were sitting there for Falvine in 2017? Remembering back, there were two: Brendan McKay and Kyle Wright. While they looked good, I don't think anybody mistook them for Cole (1) and Bauer (3) or even Hultzen, who went 2nd in 2011.By the way, take a look someday at how the Twins crapped all over what might go down as the best draft ever. Three picks in rounds 1 and 1s, none sniffing MLB.

Patrick, congrats on blogging on an issue that has bothered me greatly with the Falvey strategy.Of course,I'm very pleased with the progress they've made in 4 offseasons of drafting, free agency and (to a much more limited extent) trades. What Twin fan cannot be ecstatic with a 101 win season?

 

Well, having experienced the thrill of WS wins in '87 and '91, and not getting any younger, I for one am getting impatient for this regime taking the step necessary to advance in the playoffs - a feat only accomplished once since 1991 - in 2002 when we beat the A's in the first playoff series.That's one playoff victory in almost 30 years.

 

While there have been lots of reasons for playoff failures, we can see that the teams most successful in advancing have done so with top-of-the-rotation starters shutting down the opposition - a trait sorely lacking in the Twins organization to the present day.Only Santana has emerged since 1991 and his efforts in 2006 failed due to a lack of hitting in that series.But surely, as we looked forward to 2020, most fans would acknowledge, I believe, that lack of an ace would mean the odds against advancing would again be severely hampered by lack of one, no matter how powerful a lineup. 

 

Basically, there are 3 ways to acquire a stopper: by the draft, by free agency or by trade.This organization has remained consistent in their refusal to compete in the FA market for #1 starters - a position Falvey has followed.Trades have brought in Odorizzi and Maeda, but again, Falvey has proven unwilling to trade top prospects or an established position player for an ace(thinkingof a Buxton for Thor trade here).So that leads to the draft, where again Falvey hasn't even attempted to go for top pitching prospects even though he had the #1 pick 4 years ago, where they, reportedly, passed on McCay to select Lewis.Yes, it's a crap shoot, but so is selecting a HS shortstop.

 

OK, chances of drafting a #1 - type starter are also low, as Patrick has shown,but if you are never going to aim high, how are the Twins going tomove into the elite circle of legitimate WS contenders?Either they start taking some greater risks in the trade market or in the draft, or we are probably going to remain on the outside looking in.If Falvey's hiring was due to his association with the Indians' organizational success in developing starters, he hasn't shown it rubbed off on him.I keep hoping for a change in philosophy, but so far, no dice.It would be a shame to waste such a potent lineup with a less-than-stellar staff.

Sure, it's fun to see a bunch of corner OF/1B/DH guys rake in the minors but is it really a great strategy?You need to really hit on a high number of themif you are eventually gong to trade them for pitching. It costs more at least2 and more likely 3 of those type players to even sniff at decent ML pitching, and you still need to find a trade partner. I don't see it as any less risky than trying to draft and develop your own pitching even with the higher miss rate...

 

I intentionally left them out. I don’t feel great about either being clean-up hitting studs 3 years from now.

As a catcher, the chances of Garner maintaining his level of production last year through his age 32 season is pretty minimal. Counting on any catcher to be an offensive centerpiece years down the road is a bad idea. We saw concussions derail Mayer’s historically great career. It usually happens suddenly, not a slow progression over time. Not saying it’s impossible, just not likely given the wear and tear. Also, can he really be an offensive centerpiece while playing only half of the games (if he stays behind the plate?). Also, doesn’t Jeffers replace him behind the plate eventually if he’s as good as they say?

I’m as big a fan of Sano as anyone. You can look at my history here, if you don’t believe me. I was advocating for the guy at his lowest point, when most others wanted him gone. But, that doesn’t mean I think building an entire offense around him is a great idea. Obviously, there consistency issues there. There are injury issues. He’s gotten into some trouble. There’s a pretty good chance his skills will erode (big guys fall off a cliff at some point - Prince Fielder for one), he’ll get injured, or he’ll run into some more trouble between now and then. I love him as a player, just don’t have confidence in his longevity into his 30s.

To your point, if Garver needs his reps to be at 1B/DH, that may mean either he or Sano are off the team. We know Donaldson will be here, does he stick at 3rd base as a 37-38 year old? If Kepler is still around, where does that put one of Kirillof/Larnach? Neither of them are playing CF. Lewis? That’s also assuming these guys pan out. It’s all but guaranteed that 1, maybe two of them don’t live up to the hype.

Again, not saying these two won’t be there and won’t be good. But, anyone prudent and impartial can easily see the risks there. Hell, even a lot of projection systems have Garver coming back to earth in 2020, let alone 2023.

One guy I did leave off the list was Arraez. I’d put him with Polanco and Kepler as most likely to still be around and productive a few years from now.

My point is this: You don’t draft for current need. Those will change in three years. It’s just as likely that some of Berrios, Balazovic, Duran, Enlow, Thorpe, Jax, Colina, Sands, Vallimont, Leach are a dynamite rotation and we’re desperate for hitters because Cruz has retired. Donaldson has gotten old, Garver is a shell due catching, Sano fell apart again, Rosario left in free agency, etc. etc.

Really?When have the Twins ever had rotation loaded with studs?Never..... And now magically a bunch of these guys are going to be great?I won't hold my breath....