The Astros' Draft Strategy Becomes Apparent

Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE

Some complain of a boring Astros' 2013 draft class, but after two seasons and a historical look at GM Jeff Lunhow's approach with St. Louis, a winning strategy starts to become apparent.

Baseball is a game of reactions, both for the players on the field and for the fans. The Crawfish Boxes' draft staff performed at an awe-inducing level over the past couple months as they churned out about one hundred player profiles. Additionally, they combed college and high school box scores, read interviews, contacted scouts, and in many cases scouted the players themselves to insure maximum absorbency of information.*

I had the privilege, as a semi-informed insider, of watching the draft unfold. As the clubs made each pick, I enjoyed reading the email exchanges that took place among the writers. The depth of commitment the TCB staff dedicated to preparing for draft weekend predictably resulted in strong opinions and vociferous snap-reactions to the Astros' picks. Some writers described the Astros' 2013 draft as boring, comparing it against (in their words) the upside-laden haul of 2012. Others groaned when the Astros passed over writers' favorite prospects, like free-falling catcher Jon Denney, who the Astros skipped over not once, but thrice. One or two writers even became angry as Day Two unfolded.

In general, the staff's initial reaction to the Astros' 2013 draft was, "Blah!", and David Coleman even wrote a great article speculating that although we still trust in Astros GM Jeff Luhnow's plan, the honeymoon might be over. Picking favorites is part of the fun of prospecting, as is playing the hypothetical game of, "What would I do if I were in Luhnow's shoes?". Everyone defines their own criteria for estimating prospects' future successes, so this is hardly a shot at the reactions of some of our writers. Rather, their reactions are a testament to their absolute commitment to providing deep and quality coverage. Emotions are usually tied in when people invest themselves to that level.

Despite initial appearances though, the 2013 draft really was not all that different from the 2012 draft, nor should anybody have been surprised by the Top 10 selections given Luhnow's history running St. Louis Cardinals drafts. Take a look at the Astros' 2013 selections from the first 10 rounds (Click link for player profile):

1 Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford
2 Andrew Thurman, RHP, UC Irvine
3 Kent Emanuel, LHP, North Carolina
4 Conrad Gregor, 1B, Vanderbilt
5 Tony Kemp, 2B, Vanderbilt
6 Jacob Nottingham, C, Redlands HS
7 James Ramsay, CF, South Florida
8 Jason Martin, CF, Orange Lutheran HS
9 Brian Holberton, C, UNC Chapel Hill
10 Austin Nicely, LHP, Spotswood HS

Seven college players and three high school players. Four pitchers and six position players. Of the college players, all from universities in top baseball power conferences. Two pairs of players from the same schools (Gregor and Kemp from Vanderbilt, Emanuel and Holberton from UNC).

Compare that to last year's draft:

1 Carlos Correa, SS, Puerto Rico BB Academy
1 Lance McCullers, RHP, Jesuit HS
2 Nolan Fontana, SS Florida
3 Brady Rodgers, RHP Arizona State
4 Rio Ruiz, 3B, Bishop Amat HS, CA
5 Andrew Aplin, CF Arizona State
6 Brett Phillips, CF, Semiole HS
7 Preston Tucker, OF, Florida
8 Tyler Heineman, C, UCLA
9 Daniel Minor, RHP, TX A&M Corpus Christi
10 Joseph Bircher, LHP, Bradley University

Seven college players, four high school players. Except for Minor and Bircher, all college students from power conferences. Four pitchers and seven position players. Again, two sets of players from the same schools (Rodgers and Aplin from Arizona State, Fontana and Tucker from Florida).

Interestingly in both drafts, the Astros targeted 'other guys' from universities that also featured a top talent, rather than top players in weaker baseball conferences or schools. In 2012, with the third pick of the draft, the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino, a teammate of Tucker and Fontana. Rodgers was the top pick from Arizona state, but two other teammates went before the Astros drafted Aplin. In 2013, Colin Moran of UNC was drafted in the top 10, but the Astros picked Emanuel and Holberton behind him. Kevin Ziomek of Vanderbilt was drafted ahead of the Astros' picks from that school. Reading between the lines shows that the Astros believe that one key to drafting successful major league players is to identify college stars' teammates that may be overlooked by other clubs, due to the nearby bright shining of one pretty prospect.

By the numbers and by comparison, the two drafts look very similar. But while our snap reaction was to groan about the boring-ness of the 2013 selections, a glance at 2012 should make us feel excited about the results.

It's a lot easier to polish a diamond than it is to create a diamond out of coal.

By wRC+ (a Fangraphs stat that measures a players' offensive success), Fontana, Aplin, and Tucker all rank inside the Top 20 among hitters in the CAL League this season. Heineman would have joined them if he had the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the rankings, but Heineman did lead the NY Penn League in wRC+ last season, as its strongest offensive player. Rodgers wields a respectable FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) despite pitching in the most horrible pitching environment in baseball, and was a Top-20 starter in low-A last season. Bircher and Minor both are experiencing great success at Quad Cities.

In pitching, the Astros seem to be looking for durable pitchers who do not walk batters. Thurman, Emanuel, Rodgers, Minor, and Bircher all walked fewer than 2.5 batters per nine innings during their final years in college, and all kept their WHIP (Walks+Hits per IP) right around 1.00. These guys are control pitchers, perhaps without overpowering strikeout stuff, but definitely guys who have a high likelihood of becoming successful big-leaguers by limiting free base runners and inducing weak contact.

The college hitters drafted by the Astros also have similarities with each other. To a man, they all feature college strikeout rates around or below 12% (excellent), they all show the ability to draw walks at a reasonable-to-high rate, and all show either a bit of power or a bit of speed or both. This is evident by the way the Astros' 2012 draftees took the minor leagues by storm. Only a year after leaving college, Tucker, Fontana, and Aplin look not just like future major leaguers, but like guys who could someday hit at the top or middle of a decent major league lineup.

This strategy seems modeled on the long-term success of the St. Louis Cardinals when drafting and developing their own players. Despite losing Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, two possible Hall-of-Famers, the Cardinals continue to sit atop the National League every season with a collection of "where-did-they-come-from?" type college draftees.

Lance Lynn: Drafted 39th overall (Thurman was drafted 40th) out of Ole Miss
Trevor Rosenthal: 21st Round from a community college
David Freese: 9th Round from Univ. South Alabama
Matt Carpenter: 13th round from TCU
Daniel Descalso: 3rd round from UC Davis
Matt Adams: 23rd round from Slippery Rock Univ. (awesome school name...)
Allen Craig: 8th round from UC Berkeley
Jon Jay: 2nd round from Univ. of Miami
Jason Motte: 19th round from Iona Univ.

Does anybody really think that the Cardinals' rate of success with unsexy college mid-rounders in the major leagues is a coincidence or an accident? The Cardinals, whose drafts Lunhow oversaw for a majority of the picks listed above, executed a plan of drafting mature players with decent tools out of college. Those players had high floors, but not necessarily low ceilings, despite what a lot of scouting types say about such picks. These players did nothing poorly in college, everything well, but perhaps nothing spectacularly at the time. The Cardinals selected already-good college players and made them great through coaching and exposure to professional playing time. It's a lot easier to polish a diamond than it is to create a diamond out of coal and then polish it, and the Cardinals' and now the Astros' draft strategy reflects that idea.

Despite this, and contrary to prevailing opinion about the 2013 draft, the Astros still drafted several High Schoolers in order to play roulette with high-ceiling, high-risk players in hopes of scoring big. But by loading their draft with players more likely to reach the majors and turn their more mature skills into great ones, the Astros minimized the risk of such boom-or-bust draft picks.

* * *

I'll wrap up with a fun comparison involving my favorite pick of the draft, because everybody likes comps.

Player A: .328/.445/.449 with 9 HR and 32 SB in 180 games against top college competition.
Player B: .352/.457/.616 with 30 HR and 9 SB in 103 games against mediocre college competition.

Player A also hit .329 in the Cape League with 8 HR and 7 SB in 2012, and led that league in Home Runs and Walks.

Player A is Astros' fourth-round pick Conrad Gregor, who played 1B for Vanderbilt last season in the toughest conference in college. Player B is Arizona 1B Paul Goldschmit's college stats, when he played for Texas State in the Southland League, a far lesser baseball conference than the SEC. Comps don't mean nuthin', but at least one can see what the Astros are dreaming on when they draft these "boring" types of players.

*No professional scouts were harmed in the making of TCB's draft content, though a few egos may have been twinged by daring to suggest that amateurs can take a fun swing at their job for the good of this website.

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