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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

James Again on BDD

Just got a chance to read part II of Baseball Digest Daily's interview with Bill James. I commented on part I of the article here. Several more interesting comments on the importance of defense and scouting.

First, James comments on learning plate discipline.

"I think it is easier to learn plate discipline than it is to learn speed or to develop a strong throwing arm—but not much easier. A player who lacks plate discipline at age 18 will usually lack plate discipline at age 30. But not always; some players can adapt well to the challenge of learning to lay off certain pitches."

To me this makes sense given my recent reading on pitch recognition and the Go/No Go reaction time. There are obviously certain physical skills that a good hitter is born with like dynamic visual acuity and there are some skills that can likely be improved with practice like Go/No Go. Hitter's walk rates increase with age I assume because of a combination of improvement in some of these skills coupled with experience.

A comment that surprised me a bit was this one in response to a question about the coachability of high school versus college players.

"There is an argument that the best and only place to play major league baseball is in the major leagues, and also there is a strong argument that one's ability to learn is inversely proportional to one's age. Therefore, the further you can advance a player at a young age, the better."

At first glance this sounds like it goes against a bit of conventional sabermetric wisdom that college players are better investments in the draft. But on second glance the key phrase is the last one. If you can advance a player at a young age you'll be better off but the odds of doing so are reduced because of the injury gauntlet that high school players, especially pitchers, must run. James explains his view on this topic in response to another question.

"What I think happens is, between the ages of 18 and 21, a large number of pitchers are going to hurt their arms during the process of learning to pitch. If they go to college, they’ll hurt their arms in college. If they enter pro ball, they’ll hurt their arms in pro ball.

So which side of the bridge do you want to stand on? Do you want to choose pitchers AFTER they have been thinned by the injuries that occur at ages 18 to 21, or do you want to choose pitchers before they have been thinned by the injuries that occur from 18 to 21?"

So James' view is that in most cases injuries might happen because injuries simply happen. Therefore major league teams who think that drafting a high school player will protect them from injuries because of training at the professional level are probably just kidding themselves. James previously articulated this view in his book The James/Neyer Guide to Pitchers which I highly recommend.

Which of course leads us to the Cubs first round (20th pick) draft choice which they used to select Mark Pawelek, a left-handed high school pitcher out of Springville Utah. He's 6'3" 190 pounds and struck out a Utah high school record 476 batters in his prep career. This season he struck out 132 in 63 innings while not giving up an earned run. The Cubs apparently liked him because they feel he can add strength given his frame, has good command, and he already throws 90 to 96 mph. When asked about taking a high school pitcher Cubs scouting director John Stocksill said, "We just felt the upside of Mark outweighed who was on the board from college and more ready." Baseball America ranked Pawelek third among high schoolers in terms of being closest to the majors.

The full scouting report shown on is:

"LHP w/ ideal pitcher's frame. Tall and long w/ lean muscle. Explosive low-90s FB that sinks and runs. Comes out of a quick, loose whip-like delivery. Curveball is out pitch, w/ 1-7 break that comes near the plate."

You can also see a scouting video on Pawelek here.

So is this a bad pick? Sure Pawelek is a long way from the major leagues but there is just the chance that he has enough old-pitcher skills to progress quickly and barring injury perhaps we could see him in Wrigley Field in three years or so. We can always hope anyway.

Overall, the Cubs chose 10 pitchers in the first 18 rounds, 12 college players, 3 high schoolers, and 4 from community or junior colleges.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with the assertion that pitchers are equally likely to sustain injury in the minors versus college. The minors are about developing a pitchers skills for a potential major league career, whereas as college team is trying to win games. The result is that some of the star pitchers on the college level end up making many more appearances, like off-day relief, that a minor league pitcher would never be subjected to. Additionally, many pitchers may also be position players on off days.
Admittedly, this would be less likely to happen at a "premier" college program, but on less talented teams the star pitchers are continuously overworked.
The additionall stresses that are placed on players arms undoubtedly lead to increased occurances of injuries.

Dan Agonistes said...

I think both points of view can be true. There may be a certain percentage of pitchers that will sustain injuries no matter which way they go and that number be lessened if all drafted pitchers went to the minor leagues. This makes sense to me.

However, that doesn't mean that it is cost effective to always draft high school pitchers. It could be that the percentage of those who will be injured no matter what is much greater than the odds of reducing injury through proper training at the professional level. In addition, the pitchers that have made it through college have also been "selected" for both physical and non-physical skills (maturity being the most important) that will help them get to the majors.

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