This is a continuation from a series that began last week with catchers.
From 1988-2002, sixty-eight shortstops were drafted in the first round (and supplemental first round) of the June Amateur Draft. Twenty-two of these players would never play in the Major Leagues, a group that includes a whopping 19 high school picks, two college players, and one Puerto Rico draftee. Twenty-three other players were Major League busts, with less than 2 career WAR to their name. This group includes 14 more high school picks, eight college guys, and another player taken out of Puerto Rico.
This leaves 23 shortstops, about 34%, that made some good on their bonus money at the Major League level. However, just eight players (11.8%) were good enough to produce more than 12 WAR in the big leagues (Note: I think this number will rise by at least two before Kelly Johnson and B.J. Upton finish their careers). Here are all 23 players:
Name WAR From Alex Rodriguez 105.2 HS Chipper Jones 83.2 HS Derek Jeter 69.5 HS Nomar Garciaparra 43.1 U Chuck Knoblauch 42.7 U Brian Roberts 27.5 U Royce Clayton 20.4 HS Adam Kennedy 18.4 U Felipe Lopez 12.5 HS Preston Wilson 12.3 HS Michael Tucker 11.7 U B.J. Upton 10.8 HS Mike Cuddyer 10.6 HS Kelly Johnson 9.8 HS Adam Everett 9.7 U Khalil Greene 9.1 U Pokey Reese 7.3 HS Bobby Crosby 6.6 U Willie Greene 5.0 HS Brent Gates 4.5 U Kevin Orie 3.6 U Russ Johnson 3.3 U Benji Gil 2.5 HS
To recap a little bit, this means that the 68 shortstops drafted over 15 years were distributed like this: 45 high school players, 21 college players and two Puerto Ricans. While the latter two didn’t work out, the college shortstops had a 52% success rate (if we define success as eventually producing 2 WAR, which is a dubious distinction at best), while high school players “succeeded” at just a 25% level. But, if you want to know why scouting directors continue to fall for the toolsy prep shortstop, take a look at that leaderboard again: Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter have passed a combined 250 Wins Above Replacement, handily outpacing the other 65 players combined.
You would be astute to point out that Rodriguez, Jones and Jeter weren’t like all the other high school shortstops, as these were elite guys. Rodriguez was a consensus #1 guy in his draft class, Jones was a consensus top two pick, and Jeter easily in the top ten. But, if we limited ourself just to shortstops drafted in the top ten, we have 16 data points, and eight of them produced 5 WAR in the big leagues, drafted in this position: first, first, second, sixth, eighth, ninth, ninth, tenth. Only one player didn’t reach the big leagues (1999 draft’s #4 pick, Corey Myers), though six others have a negative before their career WAR number. And if you’re scoring at home, that means the first-round shortstops drafted after 10th overall consist of 52 players, and just 10 of them would reach the 5 WAR watermark.
Like I did with catchers, I want to look at the success stories, and see what their minor league production looked like. To keep the number of players palatable, I limited the group to only the 17 players that produced seven or more WAR, in other words, everyone above Bobby Crosby in the previous table. And then, because I don’t think we learn much from them, I removed Royce Clayton, Adam Everett and Pokey Reese. These were guys whose offensive identity really didn’t matter a whole lot, so we can sum up their path to the big leagues like this: “really impressed scouts with their defense.”
All over the map, but I do want to use this space to talk about ultimate position. Of the 13 players we’re looking at, just Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Khalil Greene and Felipe Lopez were primary shortstops during their career. We can probably throw A-Rod into this group, too, but still, it’s certainly not rare for these guys not to last long at shortstop. Michael Tucker never played a game at shortstop, and just a year at second base, while Mike Cuddyer was there just a year. Four players would make second base their home, and then five split between third base and the outfield. But with heights ranging from 5-9 to 6-3, and with weights from 165-210, I don’t think we need to put a lot of stock in that.
This was actually more impressive than I would have guessed. I have 10 players show up with Low-A experience, and really only Brian Roberts wasn’t young for the level (201 PA’s at age 21). And, to boot, Roberts .240/.347/.323 line was the second worst of the bunch. The worst belongs to Preston Wilson, who was the only high school draftee to post a Low-A OBP below .350. Of the other seven teenage performances, the worst OBP is Felipe Lopez at .351, and the worst slugging is Jeter at .394. Honors for top prize are between Alex Rodriguez (.319/.379/.605) and Kelly Johnson (.289/.404/.513).
This was usually a step down for the players, as even Chipper Jones hit a paltry .277/.353/.413. The better guys didn’t end up as the better players down the road in the Major Leagues, so I’m inclined to really look at High-A performances and just wait and see until we get a nice sample in Double-A. But props to Michael Tucker (.305/.391/.456) and Mike Cuddyer (.298/.403/.470) for what they did.
I can remember now that when the B.J. Upton hype machine was in full swing, we compared his .301/.391/.426 line in AA (at ages 18 and 19) to Alex Rodriguez (at age 18) hitting .288/.391/.441. But what should be noted is that the best guys didn’t last long at this level, and they hit it well. It took a guy like Cuddyer two years to figure it out, and Nomar wasn’t very good (.267/.338/.384), but a quick move to Triple-A and onto the Majors was a good sign.
I like this. The best performances were by Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, with Chipper Jones not far behind. Derek Jeter posted his best minor league numbers in Triple-A, and Khalil Greene looked pretty human. It’s hard in prospect analysis to wait to decide on a player until Triple-A, but with first round shortstops, it seems hard to make a definitive opinion much before then.
As I look at each player that failed, and his minor league path before then, it quickly jumped out at me that Low-A is a really important barometer for shortstops. I said above that the good players had .350 OBP’s in Low-A, where that was pretty rare for the failed prospects. I think of guys like Jason Repko and Aaron Herr, who would go on to tease scouts with some pretty solid performances in Double-A and Triple-A as they moved up the ladder. But Repko had hit .220/.257/.329 in Low-A, and Herr was .248/.283/.366. The fact is, for the most part, these highly athletic players tend to do a good job hitting mediocre Low-A pitching.
And for the players that teased in the low minors, a guy like Josh Burrus for example, then Double-A was usually a harsh reminder of reality. I continue to think that High-A is a weird unimportant stop in the development of first round shortstops — I don’t really have a hypothesis why this is true — but it’s clear that Low-A and Double-A are better barometers of how a player will mature. I’m trying to be careful making blanket statements, lest I’d have thought Nomar Garciaparra or Preston Wilson were busts prematurely, but I think we all understand the point.
High school shortstops are dangerous, dangerous uses of first round picks. The college variety is safer, but you really are just looking for a 5-20 WAR player in the end. And, with everyone, the best way to tell a fraud from a prospect is to see how they do out of the gate, and then check back in when they get to Double-A. And, for what it’s worth, the chance the player stays at shortstop is almost non existent.
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