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The Pirates and drafting prep pitchers

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I’m sure a lot of you saw FanGraphs’ recent article on the Pirates’ top 21 prospects. One thing I found interesting in it were a few brief comments about the team’s strategy in drafting prep pitchers, especially this one:

The org has long been at the forefront of baseball biometrics research, and it’s possible they’ve identified traits that are indicative of fastball projection while the rest of us overvalue current velocity.

Of course, we’ll never know whether this is true, unless somebody on the inside spills the beans. I do think, though, that the Pirates have gotten better at drafting prep pitchers and, in particular, have had good success in projecting the development of young pitchers and their stuff. So I figured I’d review all of their efforts to draft prep pitchers.

I don’t have any profound conclusions. For one thing, with most of the young pitchers they’ve drafted, it’s too early to say anything definitive. The most that can be said is whether the pitchers appear to be developing well. For another, the Pirates have gone heavily into prep pitchers only sporadically, no doubt because there are 30 teams drafting and they probably can’t always get the players they want.

It does look to me as though they’ve improved in their drafting of prep pitchers. Of course, that’s easy to say considering that the starting point is a 2008 draft in which they focused on college hitters and a 2009 draft that was a wipeout. One change that’s pretty easy to see is that they haven’t been able to stock up on large numbers of prep pitchers because of the more restrictive draft bonus rules that took effect starting in 2012. Instead, they’ve gone for fewer prep pitchers and, in some years, drafted them earlier. The team also seems to focus sometimes on getting pitchers who are already showing an increase in velocity shortly before the draft, something noted in the FanGraphs piece. Mitch Keller and Travis MacGregor are both examples of this.

Anyway, here’s the tale of years. You can try to draw your own conclusions.

2008

The Pirates didn’t get much into prep pitchers in Neal Huntington’s first draft. They paid an above-slot bonus to righty Quinton Miller, a 20th round pick. He showed some ability, but had shoulder and command problems. Miller lasted six years and topped out in AA. The team also took lefty Chris Aure from Alaska in round 15. He lasted a little over a year.

2009

Some fans may recall this draft. The Pirates went in big for above-slot bonuses, all or almost all of which went to prep pitchers. These included right-handers Brooks Pounders (round 2), Zack von Rosenberg (6), and Trent Stephenson (7), and lefties Zack Dodson (4) and Colton Cain (8). Only Pounders reached the majors, where he struggled in brief action with the Royals in 2016. Von Rosenberg and Stephenson were both projection types, but neither saw his stuff improve after the draft and neither ever got out of class A. Dodson spent several years in AA, but never developed the command to go further. Cain had some injury issues and reached AA only briefly with Houston, after the Wandy Rodriguez trade.

2010

This was the draft in which the Pirates got Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in the first two rounds. I don’t think either pick tells us much about the team’s ideas regarding prep pitchers. When you have a high school pitcher throwing in the mid-90s with a good curve and good command, or regularly hitting 100 mph, projection isn’t a big concern. It is interesting, though, that Huntington said publicly that it took some persuading for him to use an early first round pick on a prep pitcher.

The Pirates also drafted five prep pitchers in rounds 4 through 10, but didn’t sign any of them apart from fourth rounder Nick Kingham. They signed 17th round pick Ryan Hafner to an above-slot bonus, and also signed 41st rounder Bryton Trepagnier and 49th rounder Logan Pevny. All of these were tall, lean right-handers whom the Pirates probably saw as projectable. Kingham did add a couple mph and also improved his curve, and is now one of the team’s best prospects following Tommy John surgery. Hafner showed good stuff in the low minors but struggled badly once he reached high A, which was as far as he got. The last two were fairly obscure picks and neither developed. Trepagnier went to the Braves in a minor trade and was released early in the 2016 season after reaching AA. Pevny was released after three years in short season ball.

2011

This was the last draft prior to the new rules designed to limit draft spending. After signing Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell to record bonuses in the first two rounds, the Pirates returned to spending big on prep pitchers. Clay Holmes got a record bonus for the ninth round, and the team also signed prep righties Colten Brewer (4), Tyler Glasnow (5), Jake Burnette (7) and Jason Creasy (8). Glasnow’s velocity took off after he turned pro and he’s now one of the top pitching prospects in the minors (or just a bum if you’re Dave Cameron). Holmes, another tall righty, has seen his velocity tick up a little, but he’s been delayed by Tommy John surgery. He did get added to the 40-man roster after reaching AA and remains an interesting prospect due to extreme groundball tendencies.

Of the others, Brewer saw an increase in velocity to the mid-90s, but missed a lot of time due to injury and disciplinary issues. The Pirates lost him in the minor league phase of the most recent Rule 5 draft. Creasy made it to AA fairly quickly thanks to good control, but got mired there as his stuff didn’t develop. Oddly, though, he returned late in 2016 with increased velocity after missing much of the season with an injury. Burnette has thrown only 117 innings over six years due to numerous injuries, and hasn’t gotten past low A. He and Creasy will both be in their final years before minor league free agency in 2017.

I’m guessing the Pirates would take the results of this prep pitcher group every time. Of five signings, they got one top prospect, one solid prospect, one AA pitcher, and two pitchers with solid to good stuff who’ve been hampered by injuries and other issues. Even the pitchers who haven’t succeeded so far have mostly shown improved stuff at some point, although it took a while with Creasy.

2012

The Pirates mostly took a break from prep pitchers in this draft, possibly as part of their (happily) failed effort to hoard pool money to sign Mark Appel. Third rounder Jon Sandfort was one of their standard tall, projectable right-handers, but proved to be one of their worse misfires, washing out after three rough seasons. The only other prep pitcher they signed was Hayden Hurst (17), whose pitching career consisted of five batters, all of whom walked (he got one out on a caught stealing). The Pirates failed to sign their 22nd round pick, lefty Taylor Hearn, but ended up with him anyway.

2013

The Pirates went more heavily than usual for position players in this draft, the result being a second straight year of going light on prep pitchers. The only ones they signed were lefty Blake Taylor (2), and righties Neil Kozikowski (8) and Billy Roth (16). Taylor already had good stuff when drafted and mainly needed to improve his command. He went to the Mets for Ike Davis and has managed to stay on the mound for only 17.2 IP in the last two years combined. Kozikowski was a projectable righty who’s developed slowly so far. His fastball has moved up a tick, but his command hasn’t improved and he’s in the bullpen now, still in short season ball. Roth’s fastball velocity eventually increased to the upper-90s, but he couldn’t get over serious control problems and was released after the 2016 season, having made it to low A briefly.

2014

The Pirates again signed only three prep pitchers, all righties, but they committed their two second round picks (they had four picks in the first two rounds) to Mitch Keller and Trey Supak. They also paid an overslot bonus to eleventh rounder Gage Hinsz. All three were throwing in the low-90s by the time of the draft, so they weren’t strictly projection cases. All three were also showing some ability to throw a curve and change. Hinsz had an especially interesting background, as he’s from Montana, which doesn’t have high school baseball. Still, Keller is now sitting in the mid-90s and edging higher, while Hinsz is getting up to the mid-90s at times, and both have made advances with their secondary stuff. Keller, as everybody here knows, had a major breakout season in 2016. Hinsz pitched well in low A after missing the early part of the season due to a concussion sustained in a March auto accident. Supak, of course, went to Milwaukee in the trade for Jason Rogers prior to the 2016 season. He had a solid partial season in low A.

It’s still early, but the Pirates have to be ecstatic to get this much potential, so far, out of just three prep picks. I don’t know anything about Supak’s post-trade progress apart from the stats, although I have read that the Pirates weren’t satisfied with his development. That no doubt explains why he got traded and not one of the other two. All three struggled in 2015, and Keller and Supak missed time with injuries, so the Brewers didn’t have much to go on in negotiating the trade. That’s an example of one of the pitfalls of trading for prospects: The team you’re getting the prospect from, if it’s competently run, always knows the players much better than you do.

2015

The Pirates really got away from prep pitchers in this draft, instead going heavily for contact hitters. They didn’t take a prep pitcher until they selected Ike Schlabach in round 19. The only other prep pitcher they signed was 22nd rounder Nathan Trevillian. Both were unheralded when signed and figured to be more fliers than anything. Schlabach is a tall lefty who had roughly average stuff in high school. He’s mostly struggled so far. At 6’2”, Trevillian is a small righty by Pirates standards. He threw mainly in the upper-80s when drafted. He has yet to pitch as a pro, having had Tommy John surgery before he could take the mound after signing.

2016

The Pirates roughly repeated their 2014 draft, going for several prep pitchers early. They failed to sign supplemental first round pick Nick Lodolo, but signed Travis MacGregor out of round two and Braeden Ogle out of round four. They also gave overslot bonuses to late-round picks Max Kranick (11) and Austin Shields (33). Obviously, it’s extremely early with these guys. I think one thing this draft and the 2014 one may show, though, is that the Pirates are putting a little more emphasis on present stuff — and drafting prep pitchers earlier in order to get it — than they did earlier in Huntington’s tenure.

MacGregor was probably somewhat of a signability pick, intended to help the team in signing Lodolo. He requires the most projection of the group, as he’s still quite lean and throws mainly in the upper-80s.

Kranick was a surprise signing, as he would have been drafted early but for his seven-figure asking price. The Pirates got a bit of a coup by signing him for $300,000. He already throws mostly in the low-90s and threw a change a lot in high school, which isn’t that common with prep pitchers. He started working on a curve. He also has fairly good command already.

Ogle, the lone lefty, has the best present stuff, already throwing in the low- to mid-90s. Like Kranick, he used a change extensively in high school. He scrapped his curve for a slider after the draft. His command has further to go than Kranick’s. It seems like the Pirates got a nice break that a lefty with Ogle’s stuff was available in round 4.

Shields is a project, a big guy from Canada who was signed as Plan B when Lodolo didn’t sign. Shields already has low-90s velocity, with a good chance to add to that. He has a long ways to go with his command and delivery.

For what it’s worth, I saw Ogle and Kranick pitch at the end of the GCL season, and saw Ogle, MacGregor and Shields in fall instructionals. Ogle was impressive, as his slider and command both appeared to have improved in the month between the two outings, and his fastball was sitting at 92-96. Kranick was getting his fastball up to 93, was showing good command for a prep draftee, and was making progress with his curve. MacGregor struggled in his fall outing, which may not mean much, but hopefully he’ll add velocity. Shields has the furthest to go, but didn’t look as raw as I expected. It seemed to me like a very promising group. Admittedly, I’m probably letting the progress made by Keller and Hinsz in 2016 impact my views of the later group, and it’s not necessarily safe to assume that they’ll develop as well.