The Pirates were pilloried for “playing it safe” with their selection of Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez as the 4th overall pick on draft day. Most draft gurus and pundits seemed to think a bigger reach could not have been made if Neil Huntington had Go-Go Gadget arms. But was it really so terrible?
One rainy day I took the time to compile the first 6-year WAR totals for all the first round picks drafted in the 1990’s. (6 years because that’s how long a player is under team control). I’ve shared some of the findings elsewhere, but I wanted to revisit the research with respect to the Pirates’ first round pick. Just getting down to brass tacks, college hitters, on average, are worth 1 WAR per season while under team control. What Bucco fans seemed to have wanted was another pitcher, but if any fanbase should know the risk of drafting pitchers in the 1st round, it should be Pittsburgh fans.
While it’s true the strength of this draft was in arms; the problem is that historically first round pitchers have been less valuable than position players. In my study, high school pitchers on average contributed .4 WAR per year during his first 6 years in the majors. College pitchers were only a little better, averaging .5 WAR a season. Furthermore, very highly drafted pitchers seldom become stars, even though most make a contribution. The knock on Sanchez is that he’s hardly a superstar in the making, but then again neither are most the pitchers selected at or near the top of the draft.
So what sort of a big league future do scouts envision for Sanchez? In a nutshell, they see a defense-first catcher with slightly above average hitting skills. Being a catcher is about as physically and mentally demanding job as you can imagine, making them harder to come by. That’s why they get a +12.5 run adjustment when figuring their WAR. And most catchers really suck at hitting; the average regular catcher posted a .315 wOBA last year. Say Sanchez meets expectations by being good for a .320 wOBA and half a win on defense every season. We’re talking about a 2, 2 ½ win per season player. Is that really so awful?
After playing it safe with their highest and most expensive pick, Pittsburgh then loaded up on some high-upside arms, including some potentially tough to sign players. Seems to me Huntington executed a well-laid out plan. Play it safe first with a college position player, then load up on pitching when the distinct advantages disappear.
Now if he can bring Miguel Angel Sano into the fold, the Pirates will have one heck of a farm system.
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