Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron recently joined Redbird Rants for an interview. Earlier this year, the two published Hits and Misses in the Baseball Draft: What the Top Picks Teach Us About Selecting Tomorrow’s Major League Stars from McFarland Books. You can order the book over the phone from McFarland at 1-800-253-2187.
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Daniel Solzman: Thank you for joining Redbird Rants today. How are things treating you?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: We’re doing well, and thank you for inviting us to take part! It’s an intriguing time of year for teams, with a lot of decisions to be made before, during, and in the wake of the draft.
Daniel Solzman: I really enjoyed reading Hits and Misses in the Baseball Draft. There was a heavy focus on the St. Louis Cardinals. How did you and co-author Chuck Myron come to the decision of profiling the Cardinals?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: The Cardinals have long been one of baseball’s most successful organizations, and their accomplishments have come without the benefit of large-market revenue. The early 1990s, the beginning of the timeframe we studied, was a rough patch, but by the end of our study, the franchise was in the midst of its most successful stretch since World War II. It was a natural to examine how much of a role the draft played in that turnaround.
Oct 10, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak looks on during batting practice the day before game one of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Busch Stadium. Image Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Solzman: While I realized you studied the 1990-2006 MLB Drafts, how would you compare Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak when it comes to trading away prospects to improve the team’s chances of making a postseason?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: Jocketty displayed an uncanny ability to sell high on prospects at just the right times. Not all of his moves panned out, but many of them netted veteran help in exchange for prospects who didn’t contribute in any meaningful way at the big league level for the clubs that traded for them. They weren’t trades that sacrificed tomorrow for today. They were trades that enhanced today at the cost of a tomorrow that never came. Mozeliak shifted the focus from cashing prospects in for veterans to nurturing prospects from the draft all the way through to productivity, and stardom in some cases, at the major league level. In doing so, he’s built perhaps the best minor league system in baseball, with results that have carried over to the bigs. It’s hard to say which strategy is better, but since they both produced World Series titles, we think it’s fair to conclude that they demonstrate two distinct but effective approaches to the player development process.
Daniel Solzman: It’s truly amazing to read how so many first round picks never make it at all to the big leagues. Then, when they do, they never pan out due to injuries or other things. For example, I went to the same high school as Cleveland Indians 2004 first round pick Jeremy Sowers, who everybody knew would be drafted in the first round, and New York Yankees relief pitcher Shawn Kelley, who I didn’t even know was on the high school baseball team until years after the fact. One has a serviceable career so far while the first rounder isn’t pitching anymore. Is Sowers an example of a first rounder that just didn’t pan out?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: Sowers, like many other first-round picks we examined, failed to live up to expectations. About two-thirds of the 685 players who were drafted in the first round between 1990 and 2006 didn’t have “serviceable” careers, which we defined as one in which a player was active in the majors for at least five years and had a positive wins-above-replacement value. Sowers appeared on his way to being a successful major leaguer in his first season, throwing two shutouts and winning seven games. And thanks to that strong rookie campaign, Sowers ended his career in 2009 with a positive WAR. He nonetheless only pitched four seasons in the majors. In retrospect, would the Indians have been better off selecting Jered Weaver, who went to the Angels six picks after Sowers? Of course they would have. Then again, the Indians could have fared a lot worse. In 2004, the Padres chose Matt Bush with the first overall pick of the draft. Bush is currently in prison for a DUI hit-and-run and will likely join Brien Taylor and Steven Chilcott as the only first overall picks who failed to make the majors.
Daniel Solzman: Looking back on it, how great is the Cardinals decision to not re-sign Albert Pujols after the 2011 season?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: It’s a tribute to the Cardinals’ scouting and player development systems that they haven’t missed a beat since losing Pujols to free agency. Matt Adams, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, and Jon Jay are just some of the current Cardinal position players who were drafted and groomed by the organization. Whereas other teams have relied heavily on big-money free agent signings, the Cardinals have looked to their farm system to fill voids. For proof of the Cardinals’ remarkable ability to identify and cultivate talent, look no further than the club’s 2013 World Series roster, which featured 18 players who were drafted or signed as amateur free agents by the organization. Mozeliak also deserves credit for correctly predicting that the off year that Pujols endured in 2011 was no fluke and was in fact the beginning of a protracted decline.
Feb 24, 2014; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha (52) during photo day at Roger Dean Stadium. Image Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Solzman: What do you make of the Cardinals selections in the 2012 first round and compensation round?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: Chuck spoke with Michael Wacha and James Ramsey, the first two picks for the Cardinals in that draft, while they were at High A ball just months into their pro careers. A little more than a year to the day after that conversation, Wacha was an out away from a no-hitter in the majors. Add in his postseason success last autumn, and he’s already become a success story. Wacha’s accomplishments represent the nearly immediate dividends that many teams hope for when they draft a college player highly. Ramsey is playing well at Springfield this year, and his earnest personality and pedigree of having come from a strong college program at Florida State suggest he’ll be a mainstay at the major league level once he gets there. Stephen Piscotty has made people wonder why he lasted until the 36th overall pick, and while he’s struggling with plate discipline so far this year, it’s early. Wacha, Ramsey and Piscotty all come from large colleges, while Patrick Wisdom and Steve Bean, who have endured more struggle so far in their pro careers, come from a small college (St. Mary’s of California) and high school, respectively. We think most people would say that makes sense and follows an intuitive trend. But the rate of first-round picks who made the major leagues out of the six colleges that produced the most first-rounders during our study (Stanford, Texas, Arizona State, Florida State, Rice and UCLA) was 70%, only slightly higher than the rate of all first-rounders who made the major leagues. That’s in spite of all 16 first-round picks from Stanford, Piscotty’s alma mater, making it to the bigs.
Daniel Solzman: After drafting position players in the first rounds of 2010 and 2011, the Cardinals have selected college pitchers three years in a row during the first round in Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales, and as of Thursday night, Luke Weaver. Do college pitchers tend to have a faster track to the majors than position players?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: Pitchers and position players drafted out of college have always had a faster track to the majors than their high school counterparts. In recent years, we’ve seen a significant acceleration of that trend. Of the 24 college-groomed position players drafted in the first round between 2004 and 2006, a staggering 22 of them have made it to the majors. And 42 out of 51 college pitchers drafted in that timeframe have reached the bigs. Earlier in the 2000s, college players were reaching the majors only about two-thirds of the time.
Daniel Solzman: What was the most fascinating thing you learned in writing the book?
Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron: In many ways, it’s the same thing we found so fascinating when we started. For all of the effort, smarts and careful study that organizations pour into the draft, the miss rate remains remarkably high. We have a greater appreciation than when we started for just how dedicated teams and players are to changing that, which makes it even more striking, in spite of some level of progress from the early part of the timeframe we studied to the later years, that there’s little evidence to suggest that the draft won’t continue to confound as long as it remains in place. The failure humanizes the draft on some level, and that’s what makes the draft and the player development process so compelling. There’s so much to learn from studying and closely monitoring that part of the game, and you discover so many amazing stories when you do. Those stories make “Hits and Misses” more than just a book about the draft, or even baseball itself, and help us better understand why we succeed and fail at the things we do every day.