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The Economics of drafting college pitchers

Posted by Bashwood12 , 15 March 2020 · 2,191 views

As a Twins fan, I have seen several different approaches to drafting and developing pitching. We saw the pitch to contact philosophy at work for a long time. We saw the ill-fated drafting college fireball relievers and trying to develop them as starters, which failed (although we did get a nice relief pitcher in Tyler Duffey out of it). However, the current philosophy seems to be drafting college pitchers who have good peripheral numbers, high spin rates, or some other trait that separates them from the rest of the talent pool.
This should not come as a complete shock considering where Derek Falvey came from. The Cleveland Indians have been doing this for a long time and it has helped them develop a nice pipeline of pitching talent that has allowed them to compete for the AL Central seemingly every year. Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale are two very recent examples of what I am talking about (Mike Clevinger was acquired in a trade from the Angels). Bieber and Civale were not top round picks (Bieber was a 4th rounder, Civale a third rounder). They were college arms that got to the majors within a couple of years.
Falvey has implemented a similar strategy since he has come to the Twins. When looking at the Twins system, there are several college pitchers who could be making their debuts within the next few years. A few names that come to mind are Cole Sands, Josh Winder, Chris Vallimont (received in a trade, but obviously a guy the Twins targeted), Matt Canterino, and a few others. Will all these names become successful starting pitchers for the Twins organization? Almost definitely not. However, these are all pitchers who are advancing relatively quickly through the minor leagues and have experienced a fair amount of success thus far.
Personally, I am a huge fan of this strategy. The MLB draft is an absolute crap shoot, but there is a lot less volatility when it comes to drafting college players, specifically pitchers. High school pitchers, unless they are in a warm-weather state and play ball all summer, do not pitch as many innings in a given year than a college pitcher. There are also innings limits placed on the high school pitchers. While there is a lot less tread on the pitcher’s arm, there is also much less experience and the unknown quantity of how that player’s body will handle the increased workload. The quality of competition in high school is obviously worse than college competition. High school pitchers are also being drafted on projection more than college pitchers. The organization, when drafting a high school pitcher who is 6’5, 180 lbs. and tops out at 92mph, are making an educated guess that the pitcher will get stronger and grow into their body, all while gaining strength and adding velocity. All of this while teaching them quality secondary pitches and teaching kids, who have been able to get by in high school on pure talent, how to pitch.
With a college pitcher, they have had to develop a little more of a plan on how to attack hitters. They have also grown into their bodies (at least for the most part), so they are more of a known commodity. They have had an increased workload, with some pitchers pitching close to 100 innings or more in a college season (Matt Canterino was just under 100 innings pitched for each season from 2017-2019). While there may not be as much projection as one of the high school pitchers we were discussing, the college pitchers are further along in the process of pitching in in an MLB game. Inherently, these college pitchers are more major league ready and have lower floors, even if they may not have as high of ceilings as a high school pitcher.
For a small market organization like the Twins, this is essential for a few reasons. It keeps the Twins from re-signing pitchers who are viable starting pitchers but are not overall difference makers. For instance, let us look at the case of Nick Blackburn. Nick Blackburn was the epitome of a league average pitcher. The Twins bought out a good portion of his arbitration years early because the Twins had a hard time developing homegrown pitchers and because there were few other pitchers coming up the pipeline. The Twins do not have an infinite amount of money to play with, so moves like this are more costly to the Twins than they are the Yankees or the Dodgers.
By having a system for drafting college pitchers that rise quickly through the ranks, it also keeps the Twins from signing the Kyle Gibsons of the world for 10 million dollars a year. As much as I like Kyle Gibson, he has a career WAR of less than 10. He is a league average starting pitcher who is going into his age 32 season. This is not a guy a team like the Twins wants to resign for 10 million a year. The Twins did not feel the need to match or exceed the Rangers deal. While it was helpful to sign Homer Bailey to a one-year deal, Chacin to a minor league deal, the Maeda trade, etc., the Twins can also get potentially similar production for a much cheaper price from Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe. If you are going to get league average or slightly above league average pitching, at least make sure you are paying those pitchers the league minimum and not paying eight figure salaries for the privilege.
The Twins also seem to target college pitchers that fit their prototype or have not reached their full potential. Cole Sands is a guy that was hurt some in college and may have a little more to give. Randy Dobnak was targeted more for his mound presence (information gleaned from a wonderful article in the Athletic about how he became a Twin by Aaron Gleeman) but added a one seam fastball and rose through the ranks in Matt Garza-style fashion. Chris Vallimont was a small college prospect the Twins targeted in the Sergio Romo trade. The Twins do not target college guys they think are going to be back-end starters only. They target college pitchers that they think they can get as much out of as they can. While this strategy will garner the Twins plenty of back-end of the rotation and relievers (Cody Stashak), they will also potentially get some front end starting pitching as well. Nobody thought Shane Bieber was going to be an absolute stud when he was drafted. If they did, someone would have picked him before the 4th round. But this strategy will bring about some front-end starting talent.
This also does not mean I think the Twins should completely abandon drafting high school pitchers. Arguably the Twins top 4 starting pitching prospects (Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic, Blayne Enlow, and Lewis Thorpe) never pitched in college. Jose Berrios did not pitch in college. However, for every Jose Berrios, there seem to be three or four prospects that do not pan out for one reason or another (Landon Leach, Hudson Boyd, Kohl Stewart, Stephen Gonsalves, Dan Serafini, etc.). College pitchers are not immune from this (Alex Wimmers, Matt Bashore, Adam Johnson, etc.), but there will always be less volatility in drafting college pitchers, this making them more valuable in my eyes for a team like the Twins.

  • birdwatcher likes this



Great blog, need my sports fix for the day. Totally agree with your assessment, much less risk, to MLB sooner. It has worked for Cleveland.

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The Wise One
Mar 21 2020 03:53 AM

Landon Leach was injured last year. He is 20 years old. That is way too early to consider him a bust. 

 

Players drafted during the McPhail and Ryan years really do not belong in a conversation about the current front office. It would be more than likely the old house of people who made judgement calls on players has been swept out. Deron Johnson is around likely because it might be bad form to fire a first guy. He was promoted to senior adviser, effectively swept out.

Landon Leach is someone that fits my point exactly. He is 20 years old, hasn't pitched above rookie ball, and, at best, would take 3-4 years to build up to 160-180 innings. Even if you believe he is not a bust (and he's certainly heading in that direction given he's thrown like 20 innings in his pro career in 2-3 years), he will take so much longer to develop and so many more resources to reach his potential.

I appreciate the conversation, Wise One, as I can see your both of your points.
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The Wise One
Mar 23 2020 04:34 AM

I would rather have a system that turns out effective pitchers rather than economical. The Coles, Verlanders, Strassburgs or even the Sale type pitchers shouldn't be available for the team to draft. The team needs to be able to turn lumps of coal into diamonds. 4-5 years should be perfectly acceptable to developif needed. The end product is far mar important than the speed developed

 

I mean, an economical system would produce valuable pitching. It's not like I'm advocating only drafting back-end of the rotation type starters. There are plenty of high school pitchers that turn out to be valuable.

But, college pitching seems to produce at a higher volume and produces quicker. Twins tend to draft one or two high school pitchers in the 10-20 rounds every year, usually overslot guys like Enlow and Balazovic. They should continue to do that if the value is there. But drafting college pitchers has turned out well for the Indians and appears to be adding a lot of depth to our system.