2019 MLB Draft Stock Watch: It's A Bad Year To Covet Pitching
This is a very good year to be drafting at the top of the draft. Just don't pick a pitcher.
The college and high school bats at the top of this year's draft class are one of the better groups in recent years. There is a standout top prospect in Adley Rutschman, a few other college hitters with track records of success and tools and a number of very interesting high school hitters.
Shift over to the pitching class and you struggle to come close to the same comparisons. The college class doesn't have a pitcher who is a clear top-five pick. Nick Lodolo, Alex Manoah, Zack Thompson, Jackson Rutledge and George Kirby are all solid pitching prospects, but they are viewed generally as either back-of-the-rotation starters or pitchers with significant risk to end up as relievers. Lodolo is currently BA's No. 7 prospect and highest-ranked pitcher.
Given a choice between drafting this year's sophomores and this year's college juniors, a wide range of scouts said they would prefer to be picking this year's super sophs.
"I don't know if there is a college pitcher in this class who projects as better than a No. 4 (starting pitcher)," said one crosschecker.
The high school class isn't much better, and it's especially weak in lefties. With this year's pitching class, scouts seem to constantly get a wandering eye, looking at what could have been or what is to come. One scout said he'd prefer the unsigned first-round prep pitching talents from last year's class who went to four-year colleges (J.T. Ginn and Cole Wilcox, as well as Kumar Rocker, a first-round talent who slid because of signability concerns) over the top high school pitchers in this year's class.
Normally, there's at least one pitcher in consideration for the No. 1 overall pick. This year, teams picking at No. 3, 4 or 5 struggle to have an arm to consider. Baseball America has been ranking draft classes since 1981. This is the first time we have ever ranked a draft class without one pitcher ranked in our pre-draft top five.
This is a great year to draft bats at the top of the draft, and an awful year to covet pitching with a premium pick. Studying past draft history, what that means is it's likely a very dangerous year to try to take a pitcher high in the first round.
With no Casey Mize, Brendan McKay or Kyle Wright-type pitcher at the top of the draft to analyze, teams have dug deep to analyze a college pitching class seemingly lacking in safe bets.
We know that if past history holds true, teams will be tempted to push pitchers up the board. It's difficult to avoid evaluating pitchers against each other rather than against the standards of past history. If there are no aces to be found, the best future No. 4 starter starts to look pretty good when he's compared to a group of potential No. 5 starters.
Whether the class is a great one or an awful one, plenty of pitchers are going to go in the first round. In the 21st century, every first round has included 10 or more pitchers. Any year that there were fewer than 15 first-round pitchers was a significant outlier. In a particularly deep year, as many as 18-20 pitchers are picked in the first round.
But when a class seems extremely thin on pitching, it's usually best to draft a bat in the first round.
There have been three times in the past 38 years when only five pitchers ranked among the Top 15 in Baseball America's draft rankings. Those years are 1992, 2005 and 2015. Those years also have proven to be among the least productive drafts of the past few decades for pitchers taken in the first round. In 1992, only two of the 14 pitchers selected managed to produce five or more career WAR (wins above replacement). Righthander Rick Helling (20.3 WAR) was the only pitcher to top 10 WAR for his career.
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If you are looking for the previous worst pitching class since Baseball America began in 1981, you'd likely turn to 2005. In Baseball America's rankings, righthander Mike Pelfrey led the way in the fifth spot. That is the lowest Baseball America has ever ranked the top pitcher until this year. There were also only three pitchers ranked in the top 10 and five in the top 15. Those five pitchers in the BA rankings tied the 2015 draft class for the fewest in the top 15.
That 2005 class also holds the record for being the only time in draft history that no pitcher was taken in the top-five picks. That year, Ricky Romero (6th pick), Wade Townsend (8th pick) and Mike Pelfrey (9th pick) were the only three pitchers taken in the Top 10.
Teams were wise to skip the pitching in a draft filled with promising hitters. Only three pitchers from the 2005 first round produced five or more career WAR. Matt Garza (12.1 WAR) was the only first-round pitcher who produced better than 10 career WAR. There are 10 position players in the class who have outproduced Garza.
That 2015 class looks likely to join the 1992 and 2005 classes in pitching ignominy. As that draft neared, scouts had a hard time getting excited about the crop of pitchers they were scouting.
Potential top picks Brady Aiken and Michael Matuella both blew out their elbows. Kolby Allard didn't pitch all season because of a back injury. Nathan Kirby missed the second half of the season with what was described as at the time as a lat injury. He ended up having Tommy John surgery shortly after the draft as well.
And Walker Buehler missed time early in the season with a sore elbow. He did return to the mound, but ended up needing Tommy John surgery shortly after the draft.
So the pitching class for that draft consisted of a number of ailing arms, a hard-throwing righthander who had one year as a starter (Dillon Tate), a high-effort, 6-foot righthander who was viewed by many as a future reliever (Carson Fulmer) and a lefthanded closer who had started two games in three seasons of college baseball (Tyler Jay).
Tate and Fulmer were the only two pitchers among BA's Top 10 that year—which is the only time that has happened in BA's 37 years of ranking draft prospects. Blessed with four years of hindsight, we now know that most teams would have been better off simply passing on the pitching in the first round. Fulmer has ended up as a relatively ineffective reliever. Jay couldn't start. Tate's lack of track record proved to be a legitimate concern. Of the eight college pitchers who were drafted in the first round that year, only Buehler has ended up meeting or exceeding expectations.
History shows that it's best not to steer into the skid. This is a good year for bats at the top of the draft and a bad year for arms. When that's the case, it's usually best to pick a hitter.