Beating St. Louis / Tank Standings | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

I probably won’t be the only one to admit that I was having a rather lazy Sunday before the Brewers’ ninth inning rally began in St. Louis. Really, Jason Rogers provided quite a spark for a club that appeared headed to another ho-hum loss. It’s not the Milwaukee played poorly against the Cardinals on Sunday, as a rag-a-tag gang of arms held the St. Louis bats in check, but they just didn’t take that next step to stand out. Until the ninth.

Jason Rogers and Khris Davis provided the blows for a seven-run ninth that found Craig Counsell going for the jugular. Instead of allowing Yadiel Rivera a plate appearance in a high leverage situation — no better time to earn his second MLB hit, Counsell called on veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy to pinch hit. Lucroy’s walk loaded the bases, and Rogers quickly turned the Brewers’ two-run deficit into a two-run lead.

Khris Davis promptly thanked the Cardinals for intentionally walking Adam Lind (after Seth Maness also allowed a single to Logan Schafer). The left fielder liked the first pitch he saw enough to swing, and that swing propelled Davis’s second homer of the game into the seats. Suddenly, the Brewers’ two-read lead swelled to five.

If you’re like me, you can hardly believe your eyes: the Brewers played a strong series in St. Louis, including a well-played one-run victory that included even more ninth-inning heroics (of course, by Davis, who else?). This well-played set of games pushes the Cardinals into a “must-win” series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are three games behind the NL Central leaders heading into the last week of play.

Race to the Bottom (Previous Rank) Current Pace Maximum W .500 out RS / RA GB Note
(1) Phillies 61 65 62 61 True tank season soon to become reality
(2) Braves 64 68 65 59 3 Somehow have yet to truly bottom out
(5) Reds 66 70 67 71 5 Week’s biggest winner? #5 to #3 = $2M+ draft bonus increase
(6) Athletics 68 71 68 78 7 Tank potential may truly come to fruition
(4) Rockies 69 75 69 70 8 @ Arizona / @ SF to close season
(7) Brewers 69 75 69 73 8 @ San Diego / vs. Cubs = tank potential?
(3) Marlins 72 75 72 74 11 Week’s biggest loser! #3 to #7 = $2.7M+ draft bonus LOST
(8) Tigers 75 79 76 69 14 @ Rangers / @ White Sox to close season
(10) White Sox 76 79 76 73 15 vs. Royals / vs. Tigers to close season
(9) Padres 76 79 76 74 15 vs. Brewers / @ Dodgers to close season

Meanwhile, in the fight for draft slot bonus, I picked the Marlins as a “rebound candidate” three weeks ago, and the Miami Nine did their run differential justice. Their 66 win pace on September 8 was six wins behind their RS / RA pace of 72 wins, and sure enough, the club’s “true talent” shone through over the course of September. Thanks to Miami’s “reverse collapse,” Cincinnati, Oakland, and the Brewers have jumped forward in the standings (the Rockies have fallen back slightly).

What is at stake during this last week?
The closing week should be interesting, as several “tank” clubs face contending clubs, which gives them the interesting dynamic of either playing spoiler or swiftly losing more games. Oakland, Colorado, and Milwaukee are in a “true” race for the 4th draft pick; San Diego, the White Sox, and Detroit are fighting for the 8th draft pick.

Draft Slot Fights Teams Top Slot / Bottom Slot (in 2015 $$$) WAR Difference
4th Pick Oak / Col / Mil $5M+ / $3.8M+ 13.6 WAR (80% MLB; 1.3 median WAR) / 14.5 WAR (70% MLB; -0.1 median WAR)
8th Pick Det / CHW / SD $3.4M+ / $3.2M+ 8.0 WAR (60% MLB; -0.7 median WAR) / 10.9 WAR (82% MLB; 0.0 median WAR)

It is tricky to estimate the value of these races. Specifically, a few elite players skew the “average” Wins Above a Replacement player (WAR) for several of these draft slots. In these cases, it is more effective to measure the median WAR, as well as the percentage of draft picks graduated to the MLB. Grabbing the 4th pick, instead of the 6th, makes it more likely for a team to graduate a draft pick to the MLB, and receive more marginal value for that pick. Interestingly enough, the 10th draft pick is much better than the 8th; I gather that the inexact science of the draft leads to discrepancies like this in many different picks. In fact, just a few players can skew the overall judgment of a pick, which simply means analysts must carefully scrutinize each draft situation:

Most Valuable Picks (by WAR) #1 #2 #3
4th pick Barry Larkin (70.2) Kevin Brown (68.3) Dave Winfield (63.8)
6th pick Barry Bonds (162.4) Derek Jeter (71.8) Gary Sheffield (60.3)
8th pick Todd Helton (61.2) Jay Bell (36.9) Jim Abbott (19.9)
10th pick Mark McGwire (62.0) Robin Ventura (56.0) Ted Simmons (50.1)

Saving Big Money
There is another way to showcase the value of these draft picks: recently, teams have shown a willingness to aggressively use their slot money to sign slightly below-value picks with their top pick, and then sign impact players as they fall later in the draft. For a specific case, the most recent June draft found only 92.6% of Top 10 bonus pool money used, which averaged out to $400,000 additional money per team:

2015 Draft Example Bonus ($M) Slot ($M) %
1. Dansby Swanson $8.6169 $8.6169 100%
2. Alex Bragman $5.9 $7.420 79.5%
3. Brendan Rogers $5.5 6.2233 88.4%
4. Dillon Tate $4.2 $5.0265 83.6%
5. Kyle Tucker $4.0 $4.1887 95.5%
6. Tyler Jay $3.8895 $3.8895 100%
7. Andrew Benintendi $3.5904 $3.5904 100%
8. Carson Fulmer $3.4706 $3.4706 100%
9. Ian Happ $3.0 $3.351 89.5%
10. Cornelius Randolph $3.2313 $3.2313 100%
TOTAL $45.3987 $49.0082 92.6%

However, even that per-team average does not show the full potential of a radical draft strategy: more than $1.7 million of that unused slot money belonged to the Houston Astros, who were able to sign Top Ranked draft prospects deep in the first/supplemental round (#37, Daz Cameron). To a lesser extent, the Colorado Rockies used the same strategy with their remaining first/supplemental and second round picks (respectively); the Rangers went big in the second and third rounds; the Cubs spread their slot bonus strategy across their second, third, and fourth round picks.

If you’re new to the MLB draft, this type of strategy is important because teams are constrained by their spending pool for the first ten rounds. Should a club overspend by a certain percentage, they will initially be taxed on their overage, and additional bonus slot violations will force the team to lose future draft picks (on top of monetary penalties). So, the most important aspect of earning a top draft pick is not necessarily grabbing the best talent possible in the first round, but maximizing the ability to sign the best available talent within the first handful of rounds. There are other strategies teams can use, such as signing college seniors within the Top 10 rounds (the Brewers did this with Blake Allemand, for instance, in 2015, which saved them $300,000 for Nash Walters, George Iskenderian, Karsen Lindell, and Trent Clark, among others). But, in terms of true draft advantages, there is no substitute for a large draft bonus pool, and a Top Five pick is the best way to secure that advantage.

Marginal Roster Value
One can use another specific tool to judge the benefits of having a large draft pool, and therefore the ability to “spend big” after the first round: if a team can grab “true” Top 10 talent in the late 1st round (or later), Top 30 talent in the 2nd or 3rd round, Top 50 talent in the 3rd or 4th round, and Top 100 talent after the 3rd round, they have potentially secured true marginal value for their roster. For the sake of speculation, assume WAR is an indicator of “true talent” (I understand that there are shortcomings here, but this is a quick-and-easy way to illustrate the importance of saving bonus slot money for later rounds).

Draft “Talent” Value WAR
Top 10 Talent 10.9 WAR (82% MLB; 0.0 median WAR)
Top 30 Talent 12.4 WAR (54% MLB; -0.9 median WAR)
Top 50 Talent 8.5 WAR (44% MLB; median pick did not make MLB)
Top 100 Talent 4.1 WAR (29% MLB; median pick did not make MLB)

This chart is deceptive: obviously, by the time one reaches 100 players deep in a particular draft pool, the odds are slim that a team has selected an MLB-potential player, let alone an impact MLBer. In terms of value, however, if a team successfully saves draft slot money to sign a Top 50 player in the 4th round (a Demi Orimoloye-type talent), they basically increase the odds of gaining an MLB player by around 50%, and they potentially receive eight-times as much roster value in an average case.

So, any way you spin it, the draft is a huge gamble, even within the Top 100, and outside of the Top 100 it’s an even bigger gamble. By earning a top draft pick, and therefore more slot money, a team can simply increase the odds that they have the resources to make good bets and sign the best overall talent throughout the draft. This could be the difference between hitting on an 11 WAR player with the 30th pick, or a replacement player with the 50th pick, etc.: by spreading a draft bonus pool throughout several picks, a team can maximize their chance to make valuable picks, and the bigger the pool, the more aggressively a club can use this strategy.

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