When any draft nears–MLB, NFL, NBA, whatever–the phrase “best player available” immediately takes root as a central tenet of the discourse. All the professional and amateur pundits shout from the rooftops about the wisdom of taking the best player available and foolishness of drafting for need.
And I get. I completely understand the reasoning behind a slogan like “best player available.” Teams that draft for need, so this philosophy states, lose value by passing up on more talented players simply to fill holes in their rosters.
In baseball, the best player available mantra seemingly makes even more sense because of the uncertainty surrounding any player’s ability to even reach the major leagues. How do you know a player you draft will even be able to fill your particular need one day when the attrition rate is so high? Better to take the best player available to provide a greater possibility of having a viable major leaguer and then look to fill organizational needs through trades and free agency.
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But because I like to be yelled at by randos online, I decided to start thinking about the slogan “best player available” more seriously over the last month or so, especially in the context of tomorrow’s MLB Draft and the Royals’ position in it. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that “best player available” is a drastic oversimplification of the thought processes that should be in place for drafting professional baseball players. It’s a great slogan, and it helps fans digest a more detailed philosophy centered on maximizing draft value.
But in its simplicity, “best player available” actually obscures some of the most important considerations involved in drafting baseball talent.
So, in an organized and concise manner, I’m going to provide my case against “best player available” as a draft ethos and then wait for everyone to tell me how stupid I am on Twitter.
1. “Best player available” pretends there’s more certainty than there actually is
I once had a scout explain to me why scouts very rarely give 65 or 75 grades to any tool or player (though they will give 45 and 55 grades as a way of distinguishing between average and just above or below it). He said that providing too much gradation in the scouting scale pretends there’s a greater level of certainty and precision to scouting a player than there actually is. I loved this explanation because it recognizes that evaluation and projection is inexact. Even in today’s game with more data available than ever before, there’s so much uncertainty in the evaluation and projection of baseball players.
“Best player available” makes the explicit claim that there is a “best” player available, a player who is noticeably better than the other players, better in a way that distinguishes him from the others. In some contexts, pundits and public scouts openly admit that this isn’t true. Take a look at Fangraphs’ big board, and you’ll see that players are ranked one, two, three, four, and so on, but their future values have much less gradation. The top five players are all graded out at 50; players six through 10 are all graded “45+”. As the list goes on, there’s less and less gradation, meaning more players are huddled into the same grade, despite being ranked as better or worse than the players of the same grade.
So, how can we say with intellectual honesty that Marcelo Mayer will be better than Jordan Lawler? Both are given a 50 FV. Or think of it this way, by the logic of best player available, Micky Moniak (who was ranked third and rated 55 FV by Fangraphs before the 2016 draft) was noticeably better than Kyle Lewis (who was ranked eighth and also rated 55). Moniak has had an OPS of .691 in 1722 minor league ABs so far with very little MLB time. Kyle Lewis was the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year.
Of course, the MLB draft is littered with misses. It happens all the time for various reasons. But if it happens so frequently, why do we speak, write, and make decisions as if there is more certainty than there is? If we know there isn’t a great deal of certainty, why don’t we speak as if there isn’t difference between taking Lawler and Mayer (50 FV) or House and Frelick (45+)? And if there isn’t a noticeable difference between these players we put into each tier, why wouldn’t we take other things into consideration … like what a system needs?
2. Good systems have talent all across the diamond
Having talent across the diamond sometimes means thinking about bolstering a specific position group in the draft. If you’ve followed the Royals’ player acquisition over the last few years, you may be under the impression that there are only three positions–pitcher, catcher, and shortstop–but I assure you, there are nine.
I jest, but man, the Royals seemingly only draft and sign pitchers, catchers, and shortstops. Why? It’s part of a philosophy that seems to meld the concept that catcher and shortstop are the most important defensive positions (true) with the notion that if someone can play shortstop, they can play almost anywhere (not true).
Of course, the result of this philosophy is a system heavy on pitchers, catchers, and shortstops, and light everywhere else. For the Royals, talent is particularly lacking in the outfield (especially center field), where they seemingly have no one with a great chance of being more than a bench player. Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, and Rudy Martin are the players with the best chance, and while there’s hope they could be impact players, the likelihood isn’t great.
While it’s true that drafting a prospect to fill a position of need at the major league level doesn’t make much sense because 1) there’s not a great deal of certainty that he will make it to the majors and 2) by the time he does, that need should already be filled. But it absolutely makes sense to draft with an eye toward bolstering positions of need organizationally. Teams do this all the time; it’s one of the things they consider on top of how they have players evaluated. In 2018, the Royals were lucky enough to have Brady Singer fall to them at 18, a player I’m sure they had ranked in tier 1 or 2 of that draft. But they kept drafting college pitchers. Why? Because their system was extremely weak at starting pitcher, especially in the upper levels where the drafted college pitchers could be expected to move quickly.
So far, that approach worked out pretty well for them. It turned around a very weak farm system and gave them a crop of promising pitchers.
And while we can say that the players they drafted were probably high on their boards when they were taken, we also should admit that this was a strategy based at least in part on the needs of the system.
3. Best player available assumes the ability to trade players to fill needs, but it’s not always that easy
Best player available proponents explain away the need to fill out a roster by claiming that teams can simply trade for what they need. There are a few problems with that idea. Yes, teams can trade prospects for other prospects to get what they need, but there’s always a risk in taking that step that pundits rarely discuss. Take the Royals as an example. They have no centerfielder beyond next year (unless you count Kyle Isbel which isn’t a sure thing to me). So, they could decide to trade for one by moving some of their excess pitching, catching, and shortstop prospects. But finding a trade partner isn’t a sure thing, especially when you’re talking prospects for prospects rather than prospects for proven major leaguers. The Royals would need to find a team that’s in a similar situation as them but in reverse–a team with an excess of center field prospects and in need of pitchers, catchers, and/or shortstops.
This isn’t impossible, but it’s a tighter needle to thread than you might think. Teams usually value their own prospects more than other teams do because they’ve developed them, invested in them, know how they’ve been instructed, and know their makeup (what kind of people they are). If a team needs a centerfielder, meaning they’re the ones seeking a deal, they’re already starting from a weak negotiating position. Plus, they may have to overspend in prospects to get a player that’s highly valued by his own team.
That, and the increased perceived value of prospects generally, is why you see fewer and fewer prospect-for-prospect trades. Teams in contention want proven major leaguers, and teams out of contention are happy to develop through signings and the draft.
Ultimately, the central premise of the “best player available” slogan isn’t entirely false. It’s better to keep prospect quality at the forefront of your draft decisions, but it’s woefully inadequate. It assumes that we know more than we can know about prospects and their future. It fits perfectly with a discourse that flattens complexity in favor of simplicity and bombast, but there are so many more things to take into account when drafting prospects, most importantly our own fallibility but also what an organization needs.
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Feature image by Bryce Edwards