Among the sabermetrically inclined, it is almost an article of faith: There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Pitchers are more inconsistent than position players are in terms of performance, have a higher injury rate, and are more likely to lose effectiveness due to injury. Victor Wang took it further, and did research demonstrating that top position prospects are worth nearly double what top pitching prospects are worth.
Because of this, it has always seemed odd to me that so many pitchers are selected at the top of every draft. I recently asked SB Nation draft expert Andy Seiler about this, and his response was:
Teams value pitchers because, even though the records say that hitters make it big early, they feel that getting that great pitcher is that much more important. You can find a shortstop or a third baseman or a center fielder in later rounds with better success than you can find pitchers in the later rounds most of the time, and it’s also easier to acquire those types of hitters on the market. Pitchers are harder to find, and that’s what they’re shooting for. There’s not a lot to back that with real evidence, but that’s the general consensus in the game, and like I always say, the people in the game are a whole lot smarter than the average fan gives them credit for.
But are they smarter than we think?
Let's take a look at this from another angle. A lot of focus has been placed on the bust rate of pitchers, how many of the highest rated pitching prospects and highest selected pitchers in the draft fail. But what about the pitchers who succeed, who become staff aces? What can we learn by looking at the successes instead of the failures?
Here is a list of all pitchers who had posted a seasonal WAR of 5.0 or higher from 2002 (the earliest year that Fangraphs provides WAR data) through 2009, and their draft round or status as an international free agent. A WAR of 5 is a somewhat arbitrary standard for an ace, but I believe that it is as good a number as there is to separate the true aces from the merely good. From 2002 until 2009, there have been 99 pitching seasons of five or more WAR. These 99 pitching seasons are distributed among merely 50 pitchers.
|F. Hernandez||Int. Signing||6.9|
|C. Lee||4th round||6.6|
|J. Vazquez||Int. Signing||6.6|
|C. Carpenter||1st round||5.6|
|J. Johnson||4th round||5.5|
|C. Lee||4th round||7.2|
|B. Webb||8th round||6.1|
|E. Santana||Int. Signing||5.8|
|AJ Burnett||8th round||5.5|
|B. Webb||8th round||6.9|
|J. Blanton||1st round||5.6|
|K. Escobar||Int. Signing||5.2|
|J. Vazquez||Int. Signing||5.1|
|J. Santana||Int. Signing||7.3|
|B. Webb||8th round||7.0|
|C. Carpenter||1st round||5.2|
|J. Santana||Int. Signing||7.6|
|C. Carpenter||1st round||6.8|
|D. Willis||8th round||6.2|
|P. Martinez||Int. Signing||5.9|
|B. Webb||8th round||5.3|
|AJ Burnett||8th round||5.1|
|R. Johnson||2nd round||9.9|
|J. Santana||Int. Signing||7.7|
|J. Schmidt||8th round||6.6|
|P. Martinez||Int. Signing||5.7|
|F. Garcia||Int. Signing||5.0|
|P. Martinez||Int. Signing||7.9|
|J. Schmidt||8th round||6.7|
|J. Vazquez||Int. Signing||6.0|
|K. Brown||1st round||6.0|
|R. Johnson||2nd round||8.7|
|P. Martinez||Int. Signing||8.3|
|D. Lowe||8th round||6.0|
Thirty-four of the 99 pitching seasons of five or more WAR were by pitchers selected in the first round of the amateur draft. Seventeen of the 50 pitchers who had a 5+ WAR season were first round picks. In both cases, that is slightly more than one third - a 34% chance that any given ace pitching performance over the course of the season will be by a pitcher selected in the first round of the amateur draft. In addition, pitchers selected in the first round are more likely to have more than one 5+ WAR performance over the measured period. And in every season measured, one of the three top performances has come from a pitcher selected in the first round, including the top four in 2009 and the top three in 2008.
This indicates that there may be a problem evaluating draft possibilities in a conventional return on investment model. I do not doubt Wang's research; it is clear that you will get a better average return on investment from position prospects than from pitchers; they are less volatile and less prone to having a career WAR of zero. But to the degree that ace pitchers are a required component of a playoff team, teams must acquire ace pitching to contend.
Does having individual ace pitchers have a significant impact on playoff chances? Of the eight playoff teams in 2009, five had at least one pitcher with a WAR of 5+, including both World Series teams. In 2008 as well, five of eight teams were represented on the list, although none of the five made the World Series. In 2007, four of the eight teams had a 5+ WAR pitcher. Considering the scarcity of these aces, it certainly seems to have a substantial impact on a team's playoff chances (although we are dealing now with a very small sample size).
And the most likely source of the ace pitching of tomorrow is the first round of the amateur draft. A first approximation from this angle suggests that teams take bigger risks selecting pitchers in the first round, but those risks are counterbalanced by significant upside.
This is hardly a definitive case for selecting pitching instead of hitting in the first round, or even for considering the two equal. But it indicates that even if the club is not smarter than the average fan thinks, they aren't as foolish as some think either.