Former Draft Flops: From Zeros to Heroes

We all like to think that the first round of the amateur draft is a can’t miss event, but more often than not picks in the first round have a fairly high failure – or at least disappointment – rate. A year ago, two such examples would have included Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker and Toronto’s David Purcey. In the past few months, though, both players have shown that they just might provide some value to the organizations that drafted them – albeit a few years later than projected.

Purcey was taken 16th overall in the 2004 draft and Toronto passed on the likes of Philip Hughes, Gio Gonzalez, Huston Street, Yovani Gallardo, and Dustin Pedroia. The Jays gave the hard-throwing lefty out of the University of Oklahoma $1.6 million to sign as a 22-year-old pitcher that was expected to move fairly quickly. However, Purcey hit a wall in double-A. His inconsistent command led to too many base runners via the walk and the hit. He was also known as a one-pitch pitcher who had little desire to improve his secondary pitches, which allowed even minor league hitters to time and jump all over his above-average heater.

The real break for Purcey came with the move to the bullpen at the beginning of 2010 – a move that had been talked about pretty much since he entered pro ball. He’s now all but abandoned his change-up and favors his fastball about 80% of the time, while mixing in the occasional slider and curveball to keep MLB hitters on their toes. Purcey has seen his fastball command improve significantly and has a positive pitch type value on his heater for the first time in the Majors (over parts of three seasons). He’s still an extreme flyball pitcher but his line-drive rate is down noticeably and batters are hitting just .169 against him (.200 BABIP). His 21 games at the MLB level in 2010 is obviously a small sample size but the 28-year-old hurler has finally started to move in the right direction to carve out a respectable MLB career as a reliever.

Walker was also taken in the 2004 draft – 11th overall out of a Pennsylvania high school, making him a marketing agent’s dream for the Pirates organization. Jered Weaver, Billy Butler and Stephen Drew were taken in the draft right after him. Unfortunately, Walker’s career was dealt a blow when the former catcher had to move out from behind the dish to third base when his defense failed to develop. Although he hit double-digit homers four times in his minor-league career, Walker lacked the prototypical power for third base and he seemed to wilt under the pressure of his new position by posting a .694 OPS at triple-A in 2008. He began to make improvements, though, when the organization switched him to a super-utility role where he played all over the diamond. His OPS jumped to .791 in ’09 and then to .951 in 2010 (43 games).

Called up to Pittsburgh in late May, Walker has continued his hot hitting. He currently has a triple-slash line of .302/.342/.453 in 225 at-bats while playing mostly second base. Walker is showing good pop for a second baseman with an ISO rate of .151. On the down side, his defense has been pretty mediocre, according to UZR, which has him at -7.2 at the keystone. The rating is due mostly to poor range, which is not surprising for a former-catcher-turned-third-baseman-turned-second-baseman. If Walker keeps hitting as well as he has (although it would be nice to see an improvement on the 5.3% walk rate), Pittsburgh may be willing to live with the defensive deficiencies. If not, though, Walker could end up back in a utility role.

It’s fairly clearly that neither Purcey nor Walker will ever perform well enough to justify their former draft slot but both players have MLB value. It’s also impressive that, in both cases, their original organizations held onto them long enough to reap some benefits. Perhaps both Purcey and Walker are examples that organizations now realize how much money they can save by developing and holding onto their own prospects.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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While I tend to value advanced metrics more than most, I can say unequivocally that Walker’s defense has been a lot better than his UZR shows. While he will never be confused with Roberto Alomar, in his first half-year at the position, he has been a very encouraging surprise for us Pirate fans. He turns the double-play very well (especially for someone with so little experience at the position), he has very good range out into the outfield on pop-ups, and, makes the routine play nearly every time (I can only remember one error on an easy play). I think there is some truth to his range being an issue, but not a glaring weakness or to the point where he would get moved off the position. In all honesty, he has been really good at handling 2B, again, for only 100 or so games.

On the batting front, he has a pretty high BABIP right now, but that is largely driven by the fact that he is squaring up the ball very often, leading me to believe (haven’t checked in a little while) that his LD% is pretty high. He is a pure doubles-hitter, gap to gap, and uses the whole field. I also think, with time, that he will eventually (if not next year) hit 20-25 homeruns as well, but that is just as likely to be 15-20. Coming from the 2B position, that is above-average.

He needs to improve his BB rate (although his eye is pretty good, which confuses me) to move that OBP up around .360-.370, if I am correct in my assumption that his AVG will end up being around .290 as the standard. With his SLG% around .460, he could be OPSing in the low-to-mid .800s, which would really help the Bucs.

Good article, man. I appreciate the writing on the Bucs, as this site is one of the only ones that does it with any consistency.

Well done…