The Blue Jays’ Draft Strategy

Now that most of the dust from the 2011 draft has begun to settle, one of the more interesting story lines to follow this summer will be how many early picks the Blue Jays will be able to sign. As has been well documented, the Blue Jays came into the 2011 draft with 8 of the first 60 picks, giving them a total of 20 selections in the first 15 rounds. But what is particularly interesting is that of those 20 picks, the Blue Jays used 17 on high school players. That’s a lot of high school players. In fact, since 2000, teams have, on average, selected fewer than 6 high school players in the first fifteen rounds.

Here’s a look at the number of high school players each team drafted in the first fifteen rounds this year.

* I looked at only the first fifteen rounds to limit the sample to draftees teams were likely intent on signing.

As the above graph shows, it’s the Blue Jays, Rays, and then the field. But the graphic above doesn’t do justice to just how rare it is for a team to use such a high portion of their early picks on high school players. Since 2000, only two teams have drafted more than 13 high school players in the first 15 rounds. The Braves drafted 17 in 2000 (also with 20 picks) and the Blue Jays drafted 15 last year (with 21 picks). Now obviously, to draft a lot of high school players, it helps to have a lot of extra picks. But taking a deeper look, it’s not like there have been a lot of teams taking a similar percentage of high school players that have been prevented from reaching the mid-teens by the number of picks they had. Aside from the 2003 Dodgers and the 2011 Rays (who had 25 picks in the first 15 rounds) no team since 2000 has drafted more than 11 high school players in the first 15 rounds.

Here’s a look at the amount of high school players taken in the first 15 rounds by every team over the past two seasons.

The fact that in back-to-back years the Blue Jays have gone all in on high school talent suggests two things. First, the Jays are going to be big spenders on amateur talent. Outside of the first rounds, it takes more money to sign high school players due to the leverage they have from the option of playing college baseball (Joe Musgrove’s under-slot signing not withstanding). Not only that, but the Blue Jays didn’t shy away from tough signs, selecting two of the drafts toughest signs in high school arms Tyler Beede and Daniel Norris. For any team, especially a team playing in the American League East, signing and developing amateur talent is a prerequisite for success. From this standpoint, Jays fans have to be excited that the team appears to be putting such an emphasis on young talent.

But you can make a commitment to acquiring young talent without leaning so heavily on high school players. There are plenty of junior college and 4-year college players who slip in the draft due to signability. The fact that the Jays have selected so many high school players suggests that the they have made a philosophical commitment to the notion that high school players are a better investment than college or junior college players.

The Blue Jays have proven to be pretty sharp in their baseball operations over the past couple of seasons, so if they begin to deviate from the industry norm, it’s worth at least a cursory explanation of what their thought process may be. I think there are two main advantages from going heavy, and while neither is exactly rocket science, I think they are worth stating.

First, although a higher percentage of your picks may never reach the big leagues, after the first couple of rounds, you likely increase your chances of developing above-average major-league players by going the high school route. As players get older, the gap between what they are and what they may become gradually grows smaller. But with 18-year-olds there is still enough of a gap that a lot of players who will grow into good prospects slip through the cracks. Just look at some of this year’s early college picks. Danny Hultzen went in the tenth round out of high school. The Braves took Anthony Rendon in the 27th round out of high school, and George Springer fell all the way to the 48th round. Certainly questions about each of these players’ signabilities contributed to where they went in the draft, but if teams had a better idea of what they would become in three years, it’s unlikely these players would have made it to college. If you draft and sign bunch of high school players in the 5-15 round range, you increase your chances of developing above-average big leaguers, and it’s the ability to develop these types of players that fuels success at the major league level.

Second, by drafting so many high school players you may give yourself a little extra leverage in negotiations. You can go to each agent and say I’ve got $500,000 available for your client, but I’ve got the same offer out to two other players and whoever takes the offer first gets the money. Having other options probably won’t radically alter the course of the negotiations, but the effect is probably not negligible, either.

While I don’t think the Jays have reinvented the way teams will draft in the future. I do think the strategy the Jays seem to be employing is certainly worth monitoring.

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34 Responses to “The Blue Jays’ Draft Strategy”

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  1. Xave says:

    “you likely increase your chances of developing above-average major-league players by going the high school route.”

    This seems to be a common piece conventional wisdom, but I haven’t seen it backed up with data. AA has made a point of acquiring high-upside players, which I think is the right strategy to compete in the AL East, and he appears to think, as you do, that high school draftees are inherently higher-upside than college players. Have there been any studies done on this?

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    • Neuter Your Dogma says:

      “you likely increase your chances of developing above-average major-league players by going the high school route.”

      Sure, because most of the best prospects skip college, right?

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      • Xave says:

        Like I said, I get the logic, but when have us FanGraphs-types been satisfied with seemingly sound logic not backed up by data?

        And it’s not like there aren’t counter-examples. Plenty of unremarkable-seeming HS players turn into college stars who suddenly have “high upside”.

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    • OKGOJAYS says:

      As a Jays fan there was a feature in Spring Training that showed AA’s office in Dunedin, in it was a giant magnet board with the names of almost every player in the MLB and Minors, color coded to when they were drafted, in what round, how they projected out, and their current status. It also mentioned that AA had info on what the scouts were saying when the player was drafted. He said that the board if I remember correctly allows him to track available talent in the MLB/minors and allows him to make better decisions when drafting. I am sure the data is out there to back up this drafting strategy but I highly doubt the Jays will ever release it.

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      • Matt says:

        I think the magnet board is a perfect example of what AA is doing. He is treating this draft like it is 2014 instead of 2011. Instead of grabbing guys that are the best college prospects right now, he is drafting the HS players who project to be the best next time they are draft eligible (2014). That way he can get multiple Rendons, Hultzens, and Springers without giving up a top ten pick (Jays never have top ten picks). If his projections are right 25% of the time, its like getting 4 or 5 1st round picks in 2014 right now.

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    • Chris says:

      I will speak on pitchers because that’s generally my strength.

      The conventional wisdom of drafting high school arms before college arms is necessary because teams are looking for three things:
      1) Fresh arm
      2) Coachability
      3) “Indentured control”

      High school arms aren’t burdened with overuse rampant in college arms. A good example of that might just be Strasburg. Another is Prior. Or Marcum. I could go on and on about college arms – and many are fantastic pitchers today (see: Lincecum, Weaver, etc). But I also look at pitchers like Hernandez, Halladay, Verlander, Sabathia, Beckett, and many others, and they all have something in common – all went straight to the pros out of high school.

      The saying goes that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That applies specifically to college arms.

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  2. Gobstopper says:

    Keith Law said that in previous drafts where the Blue Jays were solely drafting college/university players, things didn’t work out so well. I just hope they can get a fair number to sign and agree this seems like a strategic approach to protecting potential high upside talent.

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  3. Peter says:

    Another advantage to drafting high school kids is that you have more control over their baseball development. I would expect MLB teams to have better coaching staffs and it would eliminate things like the overuse of a young pitcher’s arm.

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  4. Grant says:

    What puzzled me about the Jays draft strategy was that they’ve totally abandoned college players even in the early rounds. In the later rounds in makes some sense, but though the JP years weren’t great drafts they did very well with college pitching. Romero was a high pick who has turned out well (notwithstanding the fact that Tulowitzki was passed to take him), but guys like Cecil, Marcum, Rzep and Janssen came from lower in the draft. Clearly their player development guys were doing well with college arms.

    Excluding an entire sector of players was a questionable strategy for JP – no HS pitchers and very few HS bats. But now AA excludes college bats pretty much altogether and largely avoids college arms too. Wonder if they may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

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    • allisauce says:

      “Romero was a high pick who has turned out well (notwithstanding the fact that Tulowitzki was passed to take him), but guys like Cecil, Marcum, Rzep and Janssen came from lower in the draft.”

      Wasn’t Cecil a comp pick?

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  5. GrouchoM says:

    “As the above graph shows, it’s the Blue Jays, Rays, and then the field.”

    Oh really? Math must not be your strongsuit. The Cubs have a MUCH higher percentage of HS players taken than the Rays. How is 11 of 15 (73%) higher than 14 out of 25 (56%)? The Pirates have a higher percentage too. Oh that’s right, they’re both NL teams so both are by definition inferior to every AL team.

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    • Xave says:

      Way to pick an extremely tangential nit in the snarkiest way possible!

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    • prankmunky says:

      I was about to ask how you could take offense to something so trivial but then I noticed your name. Well, at least you got your last statement right.

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      • test says:

        See, I was just annoyed that with two graphics showing every club in MLB, they aren’t in the same order. The first graph is reverse alphabetical by city, but the second is reverse by team nickname? This is not good graph making, and I wouldn’t object except the site name suggests that the graphs might be better done than that.

        But also, yes, I agree, % of HS players is obviously a better number to use than total HS players.

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  6. SC2GG says:

    Perhaps AA is simply sticking with the timeline that he knows about but has not revealed to us all.

    If you draft all HS players the first two years, then draft players that are going to be the same age as the HS players are next year (all 1st yr college?), then 2nd yr college again the year after that, you’re going to have an insane amount of players all competing for big league jobs all at the same time.

    In other words, since the odds of any particular group of players panning out is the same in any one year, if you craft your draft so that all your players “arrive” at the same time, you’re going to have a period of time where there are a lot more possible success stories all being possibly successful at once, which can lead to a very very good, very very salary cap friendly group of players (or a lot of trade assets to acquire missing parts).

    Perhaps AA is just thinking in terms of a law of averages to create a better average.

    Next years draft will be very interesting!

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Problem with that strategy is that, if 2 or 3 draft classes are all at about the same skill/age level, you’re not going to have roster space at the appropriate level for them all.

      For a number of reasons, methinks its better to have a sustained, steady influx of prospects to the big league club, rather than an army of prospects arriving all at once.

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      • joser says:

        Well, to counter-argue: they’re not all going to progress at the same rate. You’re going to have some log-jams (particularly in the middle minors as those college guys arrive just as the best of the high school guys are moving up) but a lot of it is going to work itself out in the best possible way: competition for limited roster spots. In the worst case you can alter your draft strategy in later years to accommodate what has developed from previous years. And a surplus is never a bad thing when you can trade with other teams.

        I don’t know what SC2GG is talking about with a “salary cap” however. Do you know something about the coming CBA negotiations that the rest of us don’t?

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      • SC2GG says:

        Joser – just a poor choice of words on my part, I meant the most that the team could spend whether that be defined internally or externally, more young cheap players = more flexibility no matter what the case.

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  7. Bryan says:

    I think he’s shooting for those franchise/star players. Face it, in a division where 2 of the teams have all stars around the field and TB continuing to get better. The only way you can hope to compete in the future is to develop talent of similar status. If you can’t gamble in the FA market then you at least have to do so in the draft to be successful in the AL East.

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  8. Tea Baggins says:

    There’s also the potential changes coming into play for the draft next year with the hard slotting system being proposed. The Jays are trying to grab as much talent as they can with picks because next year in theory the top talent will to in the top slots like the NBA or NHL. This could be the last year to exploit a bad system as long as you are willing to spend the money. If they don’t sign the picks then they get compensatory picks in return.

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    • Nik says:

      Exactly. These last two years will probably go down in history to be the easiest drafts to sign high school players. Next year with a hard slotting system not only will the top talent go higher, but top HS prospects will be more inclined to go to college with the MLB bonuses cut to a reasonable (for the teams) amount.

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  9. Glomp says:

    Damn, the Nationals draft ONLY college guys. Wow.

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  10. I’m trying to figure out why most of the teams are identified by their names while some by their cities…

    All apologies, it’s just my OCD is acting up.

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  11. Hank says:

    I think this might have been better if you looked at % of picks that are HS as opposed to raw # of HS picks. Some of the teams had a significantly different # of picks…. are they picking more high schoolers as a specific strategy or do they simply have more picks and therefore end up with more HS picks.

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  12. Antonio Bananas says:

    Maybe his scouts are just better at high school scouting?

    Here’s my theory on developing star players. Get really good at something and do it. Whether that’s high school, college, amateur free agents, players from curacao, paying 60 million dollars for japanese players, whatever it is. Find something you can be great at and do it.

    For the Jays, they think they can scout and develop high school players better than anyone, so that’s what they do. Which is what I’d do. Don’t evenly distribute your resources to scouting everyone if you’re not the best at everything. No team has the resources to be the best at scouting everyone.

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  13. cs3 says:

    Maybe im missing something, but looking at the 2nd graph, the Bluejays have drafted ~32 highschool players in just 4 rounds of drafts?
    how did they acquire that many picks?

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    • JaysfaninWindsor says:

      Over the last few seasons the Jays got a tonne of picks from:

      A: The 2009 JP Ricciardi draft where he didn’t sign a few first round/sandwich round picks that the Jays got back in 2010.

      B: AA is a fiend for finding players that project to be at least Type B free agents (John Buck, Miguel Olivo, Jon Rauch, Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs, Octavio Dotel) and signing them to one-year deals (or one day in the case of Olivo). That way when they sign in the offseason, the Jays get sandwich picks.

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  14. Brad Johnson says:

    I didn’t read all the comments so this might have been said.

    One explanation is that the Blue Jays are anticipating the institution of hard slotting which will limit high school signings to the earliest rounds. The first three or four years are likely to be pretty thin drafts, so loading up heavy on college players now will work as an organizational advantage.

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  15. My echo and bunnymen says:

    Really could use some work on the graphs. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but you sorted the two graphs differently, descending alphabetical order for location and then descending alphabetical order by team name. That creates quite a hassle when looking between the two graphs to see how they did in the past to most recent. Which wasn’t the worst problem, that would be the lining up of the bars to the names issue. Enjoyed the article, but the problems made it a bigger hassle than it should have been.

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  16. Blue says:

    “But the graphic above doesn’t do justice to just how rare it is for a team to use such a high portion of their early picks on high school players. ”

    Er, you aren’t looking at “portions”. You have graphed raw numbers.

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  17. NeilM says:

    I wonder how much the huge number of HS players was influenced by yhe upcoming bargaing agreement – owners are said to be going after slotting for the draft. Teams may have more leverage with HS players this year, saying “take your money now as maybe it won’t be there next time around”

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