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Do Teams Focus Too Much On Pitching During MLB Draft?

September 15, 2016
Shortly after he took over as the Orioles' president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail coined a term for his game plan that has become well known in these parts.

"Grow the arms, buy the bats," wasn't exactly a revolutionary idea, given the fact most teams in baseball were already operating with the same philosophy. And it certainly wasn't a new approach for the Orioles, who had spent 80 of their 148 draft choices the previous three years on pitchers (including 2007, before MacPhail took over June 20 and was a key force in getting first-round pick Matt Wieters signed).

It's been almost a decade (nine-plus years) since MacPhail arrived, and little has really changed in the way the Orioles and just about every other team in baseball utilize the amateur free-agent draft. Every team has a mission, find the "electric" arm, the one that lights up the radar guns, pushing them to previously unheard of three-digit numbers. 

Baseball, like just about every other major sport, being the copy-cat business it is has religiously stuck to its philosophy of going after the best arms instead of the best athletes. And there is enough reason to at least wonder if the game is better off for this approach, especially when it comes to grading high school pitchers.

The Orioles know all about how that works with Dylan Bundy -- the "electric arm" of the 2011 draft emerging as a potential force at the top of their rotation. The Orioles drafted Kevin Gausman the next year, seemingly putting the Orioles in position for a dominant one-two punch. But under the guidelines that now seem to have taken root, it takes time for young pitchers to develop. 

While position players are thrown to the wolves as soon as they sign, pitchers are nursed at a pace that can only be described as "ultra cautious." It's enough to make some seasoned observers wonder if it's ever worthwhile drafting a high school pitcher. There is certainly enough evidence to suggest it's a waste of time.

Unlike football and basketball, where college drafts have served as a source of instant replenishment, baseball has been content to use the process as little more than a way to stock the minors and allow talent to slowly rise to the major leagues. But, in case you hadn't noticed, times have changed. More than ever before, the baseball draft has been used for instant gratification.

And, more often than not, the position players are making as big an impact as the pitchers, which begs the question: Shouldn't the best athletes, the ones with the best and most tools, be the primary targets? Especially given the fact just about every team includes a pitcher originally drafted as a position player (like the O's Mychal Givens).

I doubt any team has stressed the need for starting pitching more than the Orioles -- and they appear to have a pair of keepers in Bundy and Gausman. But one can be excused for wondering if the emphasis isn't overstated.

In the four drafts conducted while MacPhail was in charge (he is now with the Philadelphia Phillies in a similar position), the Orioles drafted 26 (of 50) pitchers in 2008 (Brian Matusz); 30 more (of 50) in 2009 (Matt Hobgood); 22 (of 50) in 2010 (Manny Machado) and 28 (of 50) in 2011 (Bundy). 

In the five drafts under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, only once (2015, when they used 19 of 41) have the Orioles used less than half their picks on pitchers. This past year 27 of 41 draft choices were listed as pitchers, perhaps significantly, only seven of them from high schools.

Based on the sheer numbers, it seems reasonable to assume (I know, I know what that means) that a much higher percentage of position players (athletes in this terminology) make it than pitchers. Even given the fact pitchers make up almost half of every roster, it remains there are eight other positions, and somebody has to play them.

Given the number of top players, especially at the high school level, also utilized as pitchers (often as the ace), it would seem assets other than arm strength and the ability to light up the radar gun, might get a little more consideration.

Case in point: There was a pretty good player around here a few years ago who was the top pitcher and best player on his high school team. His dad, who happened to be a big league coach, felt strongly he should be considered a position player first.

Every other team in baseball had him scouted as a pitcher -- draftable in the second or third round. He was taken by the Orioles, the only team that rated him as a position player, because Dick Bowie was the only scout who took the time to see him play when he wasn't pitching -- and the rest of the story is history for Cal Ripken Jr. But here's a thought to ponder: Suppose it was "just another guy," one who didn't have a dad coaching in the big leagues -- for the team that picked him, no less -- what would have happened?

The ensuing answer in most similar cases is this: "We drafted you; we're paying you; you belong to us and you'll do it our way." The bottom line is more players are able to make the transition from position player to pitcher than the other way around.

We're not suggesting pitching should be de-emphasized, with so many moaning about the shortage of top quality starters, but wondering why more attention isn't being paid to position players, those who might be every day contributors. In other words, are we over-emphasizing a position where even the best are playing every fifth day? Is it really necessary to draft 10 in order to turn over a keeper?

Tough question. Not an easy answer. But it would seem one worth considering.

Jim Henneman can be reached at

Issue 225: September 2016