The 2018 MLB Draft started on Monday. As teams have picked players from the high school and collegiate ranks, I’ve been thinking about what an “optimal” way to build a team is.
High school and college pitchers are throwing harder than ever earlier and earlier in their life every single year. In high schoolers especially, that velocity elicits excitement among MLB teams. But there is so much we don’t know about pitching and how throwing harder can affect player health. Having the first high schooler to throw 100 mph or 98 mph or whatever, doesn’t help your major league team if said player blows out his elbow and never has a chance to develop his command and learn how to attack the strike zone.
The high school baseball season is short. Baseball runs from February or March into May. That’s two or three months out of the year. Professional baseball is, well, professional. It’s year-round; it’s a job once drafted. And considering how little we know about Tommy John surgery and its’ causes, maybe assign an 18-year-old that is used to a three month season to another half season of rookie ball isn’t the best idea?
For college pitchers, the same concerns are there too. A collegiate baseball season runs from February into June for teams that reach the postseason. And college players, by the time they get drafted again, are usually 20 or 21 years old. That’s three more years of development and practice without the strain of pitching being your job. Even then, projecting pitchers is a notorious fickle exercise.
College position players are a much easier projection. As long as you value things that actually make a difference, position players are much more likely to carve out at least a niche role and are far less likely to have a debilitating surgery like Tommy John.
Which leads me to my overall point. Doesn’t it make sense for an MLB team to go very heavy on collegiate bats in the draft and then pay for pitching in free agency? Obviously, you have to draft some pitchers to fill out your minor league rosters and you try to develop them. And although, as we saw in the 2018 offseason, long-term contracts for pitchers were scarce, I think finding a good pitcher in free agency is easier than a great hitter.
With a veteran pitcher, they already have X number of seasons taking care of their arm. They’ve probably got stuff mostly figured out. Or, if a team’s young bats are driving them into contention before they have an ace, trade for one. That’s easier said than done, but we saw Justin Verlander get moved last year without the Astros giving up a ton of assets. Verlander was instrumental in leading Houston to a World Series win. Even if the Detroit Tigers had extracted more/better players from Houston, that World Series title is worth any price of prospects.
Collegiate bats have much more staying power in baseball. High school, and even to an extent, collegiate pitchers are much riskier due to the inherent injury problems that plague pitchers’ elbows. Veteran pitching can almost always be added later, but young, star hitters are much rarer.