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Reflecting on Recent Blue Jays Draft Strategy

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It is a maxim that baseball is half run scoring and half run prevention. Ignoring pitcher hitting, position players are exclusively responsible for run scoring, but through defensive contributions they are also responsible for some of the latter. The split between position players and pitchers is theoretical and a matter of debate, but most estimates put pitching at 40-45% of the overall. FanGraphs for example, awards 1,000 WAR per season, with 43% going to pitchers and 57% to position players. Baseball-Reference and others deviate from this somewhat.

For this discussion, the exact breakdown is unimportant; the point is merely to establish that logically, position players collectively must contribute more value than pitchers collectively. Therefore, it would follow that teams should allocate resources accordingly, in general investing more in position players than pitchers.

But as we have seen, when it comes to the draft this hasn't been the case since Alex Anthopoulos took over. While they draft roughly equal numbers of each, the Jays have spent 63% of their draft dollars on pitching. They're spending almost twice as much money as on hitters, for something that makes up less than 50% of the game. In a single draft or two, this could simply be about taking the best players available; coincidence rather than grand strategy. But over five drafts, this is unlikely to be the case. That raises the question: is this a good strategy to build a farm system and ultimately contending team?

In my view, there's two groups of factors that need to be considered. The first concern differences between pitchers and position players in terms of value, risk factors, etc. The second are Blue Jays specific -- strengths of weaknesses of the organization. We'll start there.

The Blue Jays, of course, play in a hitter friendly park and in the AL East, a division full of hitter parks and generally strong offensive lineups. For those reasons, Toronto's not going to be a choice destination for free agent pitchers, especially mid-tier pitchers looking to build value towards a future contract. This makes filling out a rotation more difficult. Conversely, Toronto is attractive to position players -- the Bautistas and Encarnacions of the world whose skill sets fit a park where the ball flies, but also veterans like John Buck, Alex Gonzalez, and Justin Smoak. Not the mention the Jays have had success with reclamation project hitters. While draft picks, like free agents, cannot be compelled to sign, they have a lot less choice and if the money's right do sign.

Moreover, looking back historically, the Jays have a much better track record of drafting/developing pitchers than position players dating back to when J.P. Riccardi came in (while he's no longer around, a lot of the front office folks involved in drafting and particularly development are). The last average regular the Jays developed was Aaron Hill, and he debuted a decade ago. Adam Lind turned out well too, but as a platoon rather than full-time player. And there were a lot of high picks that didn't turn out: Russ Adams, Travis Snider, Kevin Ahrens, J.P. Arencibia, Justin Jackson and David Cooper to focus only on first rounders.

By contrast, the record has been better drafting and developing pitching. Shaun Marcum lost a lot to injuries, but had a good five year run. Ricky Romero will forever be considered a disappointment considering the alternative, but three good-or-better season and ~10 WAR is about the expected value. Casey Janssen and Brett Cecil had limited success as starters, but provided significant value as elite relievers. That's to say nothing of the latest promising but not established wave headlined by Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Dan Norris, Marcus Stroman. There's been plenty of misses too, but the ratio has been a lot better, and I'd go as far as to say better than most, especially recently.

If an organization has a particular strength at something, it's logical that they do more of it. While it's neither practical nor desirable to totally abandon drafting hitters, it makes sense to focus on an area of competitive advantage and so committing an oversized amount of draft dollars to pitching makes sense. But this is only half the story, and I find the other half perhaps even more compelling.

When it comes to injuries, especially serious arm injuries, pitchers are much more at risk and the impact can be severe both in terms of flushing money down the toilet but also just blowing a hole in the roster at inopportune times for extended periods. And this is becoming worse given the increasing rates of elbow injuries and Tommy John surgeries and no clear causes and precautionary measures.

Consequently, this makes long-term, high dollar pitching contracts -- the kind sought after free agents can command- very, very risky. I would suggest inordinately so, something to be avoided wherever possible. Under the labour agreement, players are controlled on a year-to-year basis by their team until they hit six years of service, generally within a couple years of age 30. Not only is this when players are leaving their expected performance peaks, but for pitchers it means they've accumulated thousands of innings pitched on their arm. Not surprisingly, the record of big contracts given out to pitchers over 30 is pretty abysmal.

On the other hand, if a team builds a deep pipeline of pitching, then it will be able to avoid having to hand out huge contracts to aging pitchers. In a best case scenario, they keep good pitchers by leveraging the inherent risks faced to sign extensions that lock in guaranteed dollars at a discount, or without committing to huge salaries five or six years out. If the pitcher isn't interested in an extension, then there's other guys to step up when he leaves or is traded, Worst case, if and when a catastrophic injuries do occur, there's replacements to step in and likely not a guaranteed contract. The high risk is reduced essentially through diversification. In a sense, this is basically just the Tampa Bay model. Trade Matt Garza, get Chris Archer. Trade James Shields, get Jake Odorizzi. Trade David Price, get Drew Smyly.

Taking all this together, I think it makes a lot of sense that the  Blue Jays have focussed on pitching in the draft. While it risks creating holes on the other side of the ball, they're in a better position to address and mitigate that through free agency. They've also filled some of the holes on the amateur side internationally, where they've generally spent more on position players.

When the 29th pick comes up Monday night, there figures to be a lot of intriguing pitchers available. Even with great depth at pitcher already, don't be despaired if the Jays go right back to the well.