Drafting Shortstops but Developing Ballplayers

ESPN rolled out their totally scientific, not from the gut Future Power Rankings today. It’s tucked behind the paywall, but within you will find that the Rays are ranked 25th after being ranked 12th in March, which to me says a lot about how good they are at projecting the future, but I digress. The point I want to focus on is this quote from failed GM/super smart draft guru Keith Law:

The Rays love the bat and approach of Willy Adames, who came over in the David Price deal as the one prospect the Rays acquired with Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin. He might grow into more power, although he’s likely to move off shortstop to third base.

It’s a common refrain from Keith and other scouts that a player is “likely to move” off of the position. So common, in fact, that you wonder why they even make a point of saying this phrase. Naturally, this got my gears turning about how we could even look into something like that. Well, the inimitable Baseball-Reference draft database is a tremendous first step.

Since the 1995 Rule IV draft there have been 2,194 players drafted as shortstops. I didn’t take the time to compile the data for all positions, but that’s roughly 110 shortstops drafted per year. Of that number 256 have gone on to accrue any sort of time in the Show, which is a bit unfair to the most recently drafted guys, but tough titty. So you’re talking around 11.6% of these guys drafted go on to get even one PA (or IP!) in MLB with around 3.2% of all of these guys that get drafted as a shortstop playing the majority of their innings at that position. Here’s a breakdown:

I wanted to see if it mattered whether the guy came out of high school or college and I think you see that that does play a pretty large role, as far as, staying at the position. College short stops that get drafted and go on to play in the Majors showed a 41% chance of staying on the position (again, for the majority of their Major League innings), while only 14% of high school players were able to stay at shortstop. This makes sense when you realize that the shortstop is usually the most athletic player the lower you go, but I don’t think most folks realize that over 70% of guys that were drafted as shortstops and manage to percolate through the minors end up moving off of the position. Basically just as many end up at 2B with 3B also serving as a solid option, though they end up all over even on the mound.

We’ve seen the raw count of players, but how about an idea of production? For that we can again thank the B-Ref draft database as they show each player’s bWAR over the life of his career. We can similarly break this down as follows:

Second base and shortstop continue to dominate the conversation comprising roughly 76% of all the WAR that these players accrue, though you see some success at 3B, particularly among high school players, and in center field which our own B.J. Upton can attest is a road to a fat check. This goes a long way to show that the majority of guys move off the position, but let’s take a look at the ones that did stay there. Here’s the top-20 by bWAR:

Many of these guys were really high picks and 13 of the 20 played at least a year of college. Note that throughout this research I’m using only the data for the team that he eventually signed with as most of the college players were drafted, but declined to sign. There are certainly some high profile names on there, but there’s also a bunch of guys that you probably never thought of as being all that great of a player. You’ll notice that only one of these guys, Tulo, has even an .800 OPS as most of these guys are good defenders that hit ok to well enough for the position. Let’s compare that to the top-20 guys that moved off the position:

Only half of these guys were college players, which is fairly meaningless, but take a look at the OPS column. ¬†Several of these guys maybe be good defenders for their position, but their carrying tool is that they could hit regardless of relativity. Let’s look at this a little more scientifically:

The takeaway here should be that there’s probably two types of SS in this world, and maybe you can argue a third. The first type is the guy that will have no trouble staying on the position even as he fills out. He’s a good defender, but the bat is iffy. If he can hit average or above for his position (87 wRC+ for SS in 2014) then he’ll probably be a solid contributor. The second type is the guy that you think has a very good chance to hit, but the glove or the body type is likely to cause the player to move down the defensive spectrum. The third player, the unicorn, is the guy that can both hit and defend well. Good luck getting your hands on that player, but if you can find him you’re obviously going to do well.

Draft/scouting gurus like to decry the second guy because oh noes he might not be a SS if/when he gets to the bigs, but the problem here is that the first type of player had either be other-worldly with the glove or he better be able to hold up his end of the bargain with the bat. The latter player had better hit, but if/when he does you can move him wherever on the diamond and he’ll prove to be a good defender. The latter player has positional mobility that allows you to still squeeze some juice while the former really has one shot for it to work out. I applaud the Rays for focusing on up the middle players, particularly at SS in their draft philosophy, but when they move on to the next branch of the decision tree I hope they decide to pick the player that may not profile at the position long term, but sure looks like he can hit over the guy that HAS to stay on the position to have any value whatsoever. Remember, a mediocre defensive shortstop is still likely to be plus anywhere else on the diamond.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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