Not The Weekly Mailbag: The 2020 MLB Draft
OK, the strangest draft in recent memory is now officially complete. Labor tensions between players and owners have been publicly boiling over for weeks now, causing many to speculate (fear?) that even a drastically shorter season won’t happen; owners have been operating teams at a loss for at least the last couple of months, possibly longer; prospects vying for selection in the 2020 draft haven’t played in a meaningful game observed by a scout since the beginning of March; and the draft lasted just 5 rounds instead of its usual 40 rounds. With all of that in the backdrop, the 2020 draft was incredibly difficult to predict and mock. Now that it’s over, hindsight is 20/20 and we can look at the draft with clarity. I think some pretty clear trends emerged as the draft wore on.
Stability in the First Round
Just two high school pitchers were drafted in the first round of the draft. High school pitchers are generally considered the most volatile prospects that teams can draft. Drafting high school pitchers in the first round has trended down in recent years, with just 3 being drafted in the first round of the 2019 draft, and it is not surprising to see the trend continue in 2020. Teams just didn’t have any time to see development from the top high school arms available in the draft. Mick Abel and Nick Bitsko were pretty clearly the cream of the high school pitching crop, so both the Phillies and Rays were willing to accept some risk later in the first round despite getting just a quick look at these guys prior to the March shutdown.
On the flip side, we saw plenty of hitters go in the first round of the draft – 18/29 picks in the first round, to be exact. Pitchers in general tend to have more volatile prospect outcomes due to the propensity of arm injuries across the sport, so most teams opted to go for projectable bats.
As standard operating procedure, most teams try to avoid risk, where possible. In an uncertain year, teams tried to mitigate risk in the first round of the draft. Teams drafted cautiously, biasing picks in favor of hitters and college pitchers.
Manipulating the Draft Pool
Given the significant decrease in picks, I was very curious to see whether some teams would still try to manipulate their early picks in order to go over-slot with later round picks. The Orioles had the second pick in the draft, selecting Heston Kjerstad, a college outfielder projected by most outlets to go in the back-half of the top-10 picks. It’s not that Kjerstad is a bad prospect – he’s an excellent prospect! But there’s little denying that there was more talent available in that spot in the draft, leading many to speculate that the Orioles had their eyes set on a prospect who would normally be difficult to sign with their competitive balance pick between the first and second rounds.
Interestingly, that’s not how it played out; the O’s selected a SS with big tools and upside with their competitive balance pick. Rumors abound that the O’s hoped a high school pitcher, possibly Bitsko, would fall to that spot so that they could leverage their extra draft capital, but you can’t prove a negative. The O’s may yet work to sign Kjerstad to an underslot deal to sign their 4th and 5th round picks, who have a non-zero chance of choosing college over MLB.
The most egregious example of slot manipulation was the Red Sox’s pick of Nick Yorke, a high school 2B. Most outlets had Yorke outside of the top-100 prospects available in the draft, particularly considering the fact that he plays a non-premium up-the-middle position in high school. I’m sure the Red Sox are higher on Yorke than the rest of the league, but even still, it is a near certainty that Yorke will sign well-below slot value.
Oh, right, you probably want to know about the guys the Yankees selected in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th rounds. Ethan did a fantastic write-up on the prospects this morning – check it out. I’ll begin by saying that I am thrilled with the Yankees’ selections.
The Yankees were certainly cautious with their picks, as I discussed in the league-wide trends observed above. The Yankees selected players with extensive track records at Division 1 NCAA programs. Each player selected also has one major attribute in common: all played well and earned positive reviews from scouts during their play in 2019 in the premier wood bat summer league, the Cape Cod Baseball League. Teams trust reports that come back from the Cape League when the level of talent is elevated even when compared to Division 1 standards, and hitters are faced with a wood bat while pitchers face-off against hitters with advanced approaches at the plate. Both Austin Wells and Trevor Hauver solidified their prospect status in their summer at the Cape, while Beck Way burst onto the scene by striking out more than a batter an inning on the Cape despite being an under-the-radar prospect. I think the Yankees were very targeted in their approach, picking guys about whom they had the most data.
From a general perspective, I prefer to see teams draft based on “best player available.” The journey through the minor leagues is so long and arduous that it is difficult to plan picks based on position. That being said, the Yankees typically pick based on their best player available in recent drafts, but I was happy to see a couple of good left-handed hitting prospects enter the fold.
The Yankees will see if Austin Wells can catch, which most scouts don’t give him much of a chance to do at the pro level. New catching coordinator, Tanner Swanson, has had significant success previously in taking a poor defensive catcher and rebuilding him into a serviceable big league catcher (see: Garver, Mitch), so I have a hunch that the Yankees will see if Swanson’s staff can help make Wells even a part-time possibility behind the dish. What is relatively certain is that Wells has significant left-handed pop at the plate, excellent plate discipline, emerging plate discipline, and enough athleticism to possibly profile elsewhere on the diamond if catching doesn’t work out. For the back half of the first round, this is a great pick.
Trevor Hauver reminds me of a slightly taller version of Rob Refsnyder. Refsnyder came out of college as an outfielder, who the Yankees immediately moved to 2B in an attempt to help his carrying tool, his bat, profile as a starter at a different position. It became clear that Refsnyder had no defensive home and wouldn’t hit enough to justify putting him in the lineup consistently. That said, I loved Refsnyder as a prospect. I see a lot of Refsnyder in Hauver. Hauver shows more raw power and loft in his swing than Refsnyder ever developed, so I’m bullish that second-time’s-a-charm.
Way is a wildcard, but a good risk late in the draft. Way has a good fastball and breaking ball, but his control and command are raw, and he needs to develop a third pitch if he hopes to start. The Yankees have done pretty well with prospects like this in recent years, so I think Way was a good pick in the 4th round.
This was one of the more interesting drafts in recent memory, and I thought it was an exciting event. Most importantly, I thought the Yankees did a good job with the hand they were dealt. Look for Wells to possibly crack the SSTN Top-15 Prospects list in the coming year.