What Happens in the Draft Room

Today, one of the key events on the baseball calendar takes place: the annual Rule 4 draft. Yup, that’s what it’s technically called, but it’s better known as the amateur draft, with 1,200 high school, college and junior college players hearing their names called over the three days of proceedings. Unlike the football and basketball drafts, the baseball version takes place a bit under the radar, with all but the most hardcore fans unfamiliar with the vast majority of the draftable players.

This is understandable, as all but the rarest of exceptions among players are not seen at the major league level for a while, unlike the instant gratification of the football and basketball drafts. This isn’t to say that the events of later this week aren’t vital to the short, intermediate and long-term future of all 30 clubs. On the contrary; the draft remains the cheapest way to turn a club around, though it does take time. There is a lot of player-specific draft content around this week, so let’s take a different tack and look at the process, the people involved – the who’s, what’s and where’s surrounding the baseball draft. Last time, we looked at the process from the very beginning through the end of the spring season. This time, we pick it up as the clubs enter their respective draft rooms.

Sometime in the second half of May, the hub of draft-related activity shifts from playing fields across the country into 30 draft rooms in the clubs’ home cities. Most are within the confines of the clubs’ stadia, but some clubs may rent out conference rooms in hotels in their home city. Selection of the appropriate venue is crucial. It must be a comfortable space, as key club personnel will be spending up to 18-20 hours per day there. It must be a secure, private space, for obvious reasons. There must be nearly round-the-clock access to food and drink, as the fuel to get through these grueling days and nights has to come from somewhere. Just as crucially, it must be wired – or wireless-ed, if that’s a word – to the hilt, as the video and computer needs required to get through this period are beyond significant.

Club support personnel has been planning for this stretch for weeks. When the scouts, crosscheckers and scouting director arrive, all should be in place. White boards are stationed all around the room. Up to a thousand magnets with the names of the prospects submitted for draft consideration have been prepared. Each magnet contains a bevy of basic information. The player’s name, eventual major league position, handedness, and his all-important age as of draft day all stand out in bold script. The information is color-coded – in the draft rooms in which I have been present, college players are in black, high schoolers in red, and junior college players in green. There may also be special notations to identify seniors, draft-eligible sophomores, or other key defining characteristics. Draft numbers have been obtained from the commissioner’s office for all players submitted; basically the go-ahead that the player is eligible to be drafted.

The analytical work for college players has been prepared. For the very best prospects, it is very detailed, spanning three spring seasons and two summers with wood bats, with examinations of batted-ball and split data prepared, with a greater focus placed on performance against high-quality opponents. For second-tier prospects, the analytical data is in more of a summary form, more of a search for both positive indicators and red flags that scream “don’t draft me”. A representative of the club’s medical department is usually present. Medical information has been collected on virtually every prospect under consideration, and each player is given a medical “grade”. In most cases, that grade simply serves as a risk assessment that must be thrown into the pudding with all of the other data when making a draft selection, but in the cases of a number of prospects per year, a “don’t draft” grade can be given, which can be quite controversial when placed on a prominent prospect. Psychological and – for hitters – vision information is also a key component of the process. As long as players score in a broad, average range, such data may not be examined in detail, but outliers on both ends can move up or down a draft board as a result.

The draft room process begins with the arrival of the area scouts. They usually are grouped by region — East, Central and West — with a breakdown into four regions also a possibility. This is the area scout’s opportunity to talk about – and sell – his players. The process begins at the top of the scout’s preference list, and goes all the way to the very bottom. Obviously, a greater amount of time and effort is spent at the top of the list, with accompanying video of the player shown on one of many video screens in the draft room. This video is often shot by the scout himself and then submitted to the office. It is supplemented by video shot by the Major League Scouting Bureau and shared with all 30 clubs.

This is the time when an area scout can shine. A good area scout has submitted all the medical, psychological and vision data well before the draft meetings – he does not arrive with a huge folder of data that he hands to one of the support personnel, who will be wholly oversubscribed over the next two-three weeks. The prepared area scout might have index cards with all of the key data on all of his prospects handy, instead of poring through his computer for the information. The prepared area scout conveys the key non-baseball data regarding his players – regarding makeup, signability, the decision-maker in the family, the advisor – coolly and directly. A scout will often be asked which players on his list that he really, really wants – his gut-feel guys – and quite often they will include players farther down the pref list. Drafts are often lost in the early rounds, but they can often be won with solid late-round pickups.

The regional crosschecker will often serve as moderator/questioner when their area scouts are in town. The scouting director and other high-ranking club personnel will typically let the area scouts have their day and ask questions sparingly. The more direct questioning will be saved for the days afterward, when the area scouts have returned to their home base.

After the area scouts have had their say, the regional crosscheckers will put the best players from their respective areas into a preferential order. The area scouts will usually be assigned college regional coverage, and the assembly of the main overall draft board will begin to take place. At some point around this time, a team might hold its annual draft workout, inviting players from around the country to work out and perhaps scrimmage in front of club brass. This is often a great way to assess a player’s intangibles as well as his tools, to see how he handles the daunting task of performing on the big stage. A club must be careful not to get too excited or too deflated about what they see – it’s just one of many data points on the way to draft day.

You will notice that there has been very little mention of the General Manager to this point. While the scouting director has kept him in the loop regularly regarding the ongoing proceedings, the GM obviously has lots of fish to fry, and need not be a regular occupant of the draft room. He will receive too much credit and too much blame for the decisions that take place there, but the role of the GM in the draft process is often overblown.

The GM will most certainly be in the room, however, when the top few tiers of prospects are discussed and placed in the top 15-20 spots on the draft board. He will likely have seen a few of them in person, and will have pointed questions to ask about many of the ones he has not seen. A great deal of time, energy and effort will be taken into getting the top of the draft board right. Virtually every year, there will be two magnets who get flip-flopped a dozen times as arguments go back and forth. You could have a great process, but one too many flip-flops may yield a bad result. While players are typically ranked by upside, the likelihood of reaching that upside must be taken into consideration. It is much like assembling a portfolio – you can’t have 100% growth stock high schoolers or 100% blue-chip collegians. You need to diversify.

The main draft board, when complete, might contain anywhere from 100-150 names. Now, you might think that such a number would get you through five, maybe six rounds of the draft. Not even close. The 30 clubs’ draft boards actually begin to diverge quite quickly. As early as the sandwich or second rounds, names will begin to be called that other clubs don’t have ranked nearly as high on their respective boards. If a board has been assembled correctly, with signability appropriately accounted for – more on that later – a team can get as many of three of their top 30 rated prospects in the first three rounds, and can draft as many as six of their top 60 rated players, and anywhere from 15 to 20 players off of their entire “big board”.

I always liked to take a step back from the big board to see if there was enough “red” on its back half. To me, this is the greatest challenge of a scouting staff – its ability to find and evaluate signable under-the-radar high school talent. Everyone knows who the blue-chippers are, and they’re sitting on the left side of the big board. If there’s no “red” on the right side, your scouts aren’t doing their jobs. I can still vividly see Michael Brantley‘s red magnet sitting on the right side of the Brewer draft board. He wasn’t a blue-chipper, but he was an extremely gifted hitter with big league bloodlines, and he wanted to play professional baseball. Every club needs to strive to find their Michael Brantleys.

The draft goes well beyond the big board, however. There will be positional boards – teams will draft “best player available” for quite a few rounds, but there comes a point in time when minor league roster requirements must be considered. There will be a medical board, containing players with fairly significant medical concerns, but who might be worth a risk in the right spot. There may be a “special” board, a kind of catch all for players with unique situations. And with the advent of the “draft cap” – the bonus pool assigned to each club for its Round 1-10 picks – a board of the most talented college seniors, who possess very little financial leverage, might be utilized.

Back to signability. Once you have completed your first iteration of the big board, it really needs to be inspected for signability. If you have a player sitting in, say, the 63rd spot on your big board, and he’s only willing to sign in the top two rounds, he’s basically unsignable for your club. At best, the 63rd player is a fifth round pick, and he’s not getting that kind of money there. A team may create an “unsignable” board for players who are completely, 100% unsignable, and perhaps a second, “overpay” board, where they can keep players “alive”. If they are able to save some money on an early-round pick, they might then be able to utilize those savings by plucking one of them in a later round.

Possibly the most time-consuming portion of the process is the assembly of the positional boards, after the big board is in place. It is also a process rife with the potential for error. The crosscheckers are gassed, they are now dealing with lesser talents than the ones they have been discussing previously, and there is a temptation to cut corners and get it over with. This is how you might miss, say, Paul Goldschmidt or even Albert Pujols. The position players are actually easier to work through, utilizing a combination of first-person observation, notes from the area scout presentations, and performance data.

It’s the pitchers where it really gets tiresome, specifically the righthanded pitchers. If there 1000 player magnets, as many as 500 of them could be for righthanded pitchers. There needs to be an organized process to get them into some semblance of a legitimate order. One approach might be to move the potential MLB starters — of whom there aren’t many after you’ve assembled the big board — to the head of the line. The ones with multiple MLB average pitches, who can handle the opposite hand. Follow them up with pitchers with a “plus”; a big fastball or a hammer curve, for instance. Then slot in your “performers”; the guys who get the most from what they have.

Some form of a final draft board should be in place a few days before the big day, with the knowledge that information is continuously being gathered, and that tweaks here and there need to be made. Meetings will be held between the scouting director, GM and their bosses, perhaps including ownership representatives, to keep them apprised of developments. Some baseball lifers tell horror stories about owners basically laying waste to all of their work and dictating a first-round pick. Thankfully, that’s never happened in my history. The night before the draft, everyone should get a good night’s sleep, and then get ready to strap in for three days of fun.

The first night of the draft is likely the easiest, you make your one or two picks, slightly readjust your board, keep abreast of ongoing signability developments, and then get ready for the next two days, which are marathons. The draft cap must be continuously monitored, as opportunities might appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Every time you begin to get fatigued, you simply remind yourself that there are still big leaguers on those boards – let’s go and get them.

The scouting director will typically trust his draft board. So much of so many people’s energy was consumed in its construction, and there comes a point where you just sit back and respect it. There are times, however, when a scouting director needs to go with his gut, and jump a player over others. Quite often, the deciding factor will be the comfort the scouting director has with a player, or even with a particular scout.

You simply never know which piece of information is the key, the one that transforms a prospect from a magnet into a living, breathing draft selection. When your scouting director calls out 40 names this week, not all will turn out to be the right selection. Please, however, avoid the temptation to say that the draft is a “crapshoot”. That undermines the hard work of so many that contribute to the process that they trust will yield a good result.

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