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.



Print This Post





Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
ALEastbound
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

We are not selling jeans guys.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 1 month ago

Sounds about right.

“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.”

Would you prefer “crapshoot that smart people spent lots and lots of time trying to load the dice without actually touching them?”

williams .482
Member
Member
williams .482
2 years 1 month ago

A better comparison would be a crapshoot where all of the players did a masterful job loading the dice in their favor, with the net result being no additional benefit for anyone.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 1 month ago

Yes, just because a lot of people put a lot of work into it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. There may not be a better way to do it, but this process depends a lot more on the opinions and eloquence of scouts than I would like for my team.

joser
Guest
joser
2 years 1 month ago

It’s more like blackjack where all the players are pretty good card counters but the casino is using an unknown but large number of decks.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 1 month ago

I like this analogy – there’s a lot more randomness than Tony feels there is, but his slight bias can be forgiven since he’s been on the inside and worked so hard, and doesn’t want to feel like his hard work was for naught.

You might work hard and be smart, but so are the other guys that you are gambling against. Saying that you are gambling doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put in the work or that there’s no skill involved, because the other guys will destroy you if you aren’t good and don’t work hard. But it’s still gambling.

Ben
Guest
Ben
2 years 1 month ago

Absolutely fantastic. Thanks for this.

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
2 years 1 month ago

WOW!! Thanks for the insider’s look!! Very informative!! Two more exclamation marks!!

A couple of comments:

(1) With respect to “red flags that scream “don’t draft me””, what kinds of things are we talking about?

(2) “vision information is also a key component of the process” — I used to think this kind of stuff was hooey, until I toured the Louisville bat factory a couple of years ago — they said that Ken Griffey Jr. asked them to develop a wood-colored paint for his bat — the reason? he liked the color of his bat but the grain in the wood bothered him during his swing — my initial reaction was to say ‘Oh, come on” but, when you consider the near super-human ability that is required to be a MLB all-star/hall-of-famer, it kind of makes sense that his vision is good enough to be bothered by wood grain travelling at, what, 100 mph?!?!

Thanks again, Tony.

SimonSays
Member
SimonSays
2 years 1 month ago

They have a vision test provided by the MLB that even a scout can administer. You don’t want to draft someone with vision like Mike Olt (though that’s behind him now).

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 1 month ago

At what point though do you decide to let it slide and say “that’s what lasik is for?” I feel like that could be an inefficiency in the late rounds, where everybody is passing over the Josh Donaldson/Pablo Sandoval poor eyesight folks (not that Donaldson was overlooked since he was a 1st rounder or that people should have looked harder at the undrafted Sandoval) because their vision can be corrected later? How different is it from drafting somebody who’s out with say tommy john surgery?

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Guest
Marcus Tullius Cicero
2 years 1 month ago

Really, really cool – thanks for such a detailed article!

Jamie
Guest
Jamie
2 years 1 month ago

Ooh, yeah, I want to know more about these non-medical “red flags”. PEDs? Ugly girlfriends? Elijah Dukes?

Shankbone
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

What a treat on draft day. Cheers.

TomTerrific
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

Great stuff. What I always wondered is that since teams go almost rapid fire from about round two on, it must meant that teams are just going off their lists and when a player is taken they just cross it off and read off the next name, no? There just isn’t time to ponder anything during the draft since it goes so fast.

Scott Marcus
Guest
Scott Marcus
2 years 1 month ago

I was listening to a podcast, and one of the speakers mentioned that the MLB draft is the only one of the major sports that has its draft during the season. Why is that? It seems like the off-seaason would be better from a marketing standpoint. Not having to compete with actual MLB games, and being a big winter event would help.

Also, some guys are still playing, since the College World Series is still going on. Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until none of the pool of draftees would still be playing baseball?

Is there something about having all of the scouting being “fresh”, as opposed to having sat on a desk for a few months? It seems to me — naively, perhaps — that scouting from April/May/June would still be good in November, considering that nothing should have changed during those intervening months.

joser
Guest
joser
2 years 1 month ago

The low minor leagues are about to get underway, and they’ll be infused with the players just taken in the draft. If you had the draft in the offseason, then you’d have to send those guys to winter leagues (in Arizona/Florida, presumably, as I doubt the teams would want to send their fresh draft picks off to the Caribbean or South America). Or have them sitting around not playing games for several months.

The baseball draft will never be as much of a “big event” as the football and basketball drafts. The NFL and NBA drafts are stocked primarily by NCAA college players who have been followed and watched by a national audience for years; the top draft picks are established household names even before the draft. That’s simply not the case with baseball (especially with so many picks being high school players) and, unless something inexplicable happens that turns the NCAA baseball tournament into something like March Madness or makes high school baseball championships as popular as the Rose Bowl, that’s not going to change. And even then, there just wouldn’t be as much excitement for a draft whose players are mostly years away from reaching the major league roster (or, distressingly frequently, never arrive at all) vs sports where last year’s high draft pick can be the player who almost single-handedly turns around a franchise.

matt w
Guest
matt w
2 years 1 month ago

All the major American sports have their drafts in June, right? Presumably that’s keyed to the end of the academic year. MLB is just the only one where June is the middle of the season.

PackBob
Guest
PackBob
2 years 1 month ago

Certainly not a crapshoot, as randomly generated drafting would fail nearly all the time. The clubs do a very good job of identifying the traits that lead to good baseball players. The one thing they can’t do is predict with certainty any player’s continued development or a future injury, which can make it seem like a crapshoot.

Billy
Guest
Billy
2 years 1 month ago

To what extent (if any) do teams look at the prospect rankings put forth by Baseball America, Keith Law, Sickels, etc.? Is there any check done there to see if there might be some guys that the team has rated higher that might be able to be selected in a lower round than what the team planned?

maqman
Guest
maqman
2 years 1 month ago

Thanks for the peek inside Tony, very interesting. It occurs to me that a series on front office organizational charts and job descriptions would help those who aspire to get into one someday, as well as those such as myself who are simply curious.

Lakeside
Guest
Lakeside
2 years 1 month ago

Something ive always wondered is how much effort is put into the last 5 rounds or so.

What type of work is done? ? Do you let an intern make the pick?
Do you work marketing into the mix at this point? Celebs, season ticket holders, coachs son’s, Jeffrey Maier?

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 1 month ago

Depends on the org, but those that start drafting relatives definitely have given up hope for getting actual MLB players out of the deal. Maybe there’s some hidden psychological value to drafting the coach’s son or your 1st round pick’s little brother, but those picks kind of seem like funsies.

Satoshi Nakamoto
Guest
Satoshi Nakamoto
2 years 1 month ago

Really like these last 2 articles about the draft.
Stuff I’d never have learned otherwise.
Nice insights.

wpDiscuz