A few weeks ago, our own Chris Perry put together a great article here chronicling the success rates of picks by player type near the top of the draft. In short, his analysis showed that hitters, particularly college hitters, had a much better average return-on-investment than pitchers, and for that reason Chris has been an advocate for Kris Bryant as the #1 overall pick rather famously around the Crawfish Boxes writer e-mail threads. Bryant may be a safer bet to become a major league fixture, but teams don't win championships without taking gambles. Is taking a pitcher at the top of the draft a worthy roll of the dice?
There is nothing more valuable in baseball, in my opinion, next to the very most prolific of hitters, than a true ace pitcher. WAR favors hitters, and during the regular season bats likely are more important, but that's not where rings are earned. Rather, championships are decided by the playoffs, a tournament that takes place in such a small sample that even the best hitters in baseball can fall cold for its entirety. Hitting comes and goes throughout a regular season and the best players end up with fine final figures, but even Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout can go cold for ten games at a time, and in the playoffs, that can spell the end for a team.
Pitchers, however, don't play in 162 games even if they are a picture of perfect health. The most rubber-armed workhorses of the major leagues will take the ball just over 30 times, and as a result they tend to have a lot less statistical variation from start to start. To illustrate, Justin Verlander, the name most synonymous with "ace" in the last few seasons, allowed over three earned runs in just twelve of his 67 starts between 2011 and 2012. When the playoffs come around, having a dominating arm who can be depended on for an over 80% chance at keeping your team in the game on his own is much more valuable, in my mind, anyway, than a hitter who could leave you out to dry with a cold streak.
The playoffs are a fickle thing, and, as we've seen over the last few years where the pitching-heavy San Francisco Giants have taken home two titles in three seasons, great hitting is often trumped when befallen by bad luck or untimely cold streaks. The 2012 World Series serves as a microcosm of this idea- while the Tigers do have the aforementioned Verlander on their roster, their lack of starting pitching behind him was their downfall against the Matt Cain/Madison Bumgarner/Ryan Vogelsong trio that the Giants brought to the fight, as well as the bullpen heroics of Tim Lincecum. Not even Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder could fill that hole.
Aces in baseball are like quarterbacks in the NFL. Teams with great ones win assuming the right supporting cast is in place, and teams without them can only go so far. In the football analogy, number one starters are the quarterbacks, gloves are offensive skill position players, the rest of the rotation is the offensive line, and bats are the front seven. Miguel Cabrera may be Reggie White in this parallel football universe, but for his ten first team all-pro selections and thirteen pro bowls, the late great White ended his career with only one ring- a ring he earned in one of his final years in the league- and it came when he was finally paired with an elite quarterback in Brett Favre.
Pitchers may not have the highest rate of success at the top of the draft historically, but ace pitchers must come from somewhere, yes? In recent years, from where have the top pitchers most often been plucked? I chose a collection of hurlers who are widely considered legitimate aces, or were for a significant chunk of their careers, excluding those such as Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez who had not been eligible for a first year player draft at any point. The list is as follows, accompanied by the pitchers' draft positions and the high school or college they were selected from:
Justin Verlander- 2nd overall pick, 2004, Old Dominion University
Roy Halladay- 17th overall pick, 1995, Arvada West HS (CO)
Clayton Kershaw- 7th overall pick, 2006, Highland Park HS (TX)
Cliff Lee- 4th round, 2000, University of Arkansas
Randy Johnson- 2nd round, 1985, USC
C.C. Sabathia- 20th overall, 1998, Vallejo HS (CA)
Tim Lincecum- 10th overall, 2006, University of Washington
David Price- 1st overall, 2007, Vanderbilt University
Curt Schilling- 2nd round, 1986, Yavapai College
Roger Clemens- 19th overall, 1983, University of Texas
Adam Wainwright- 29th overall, 2000, Glynn Academy (GA)
Greg Maddux- 2nd round, 1984, Valley HS (NV)
Zack Greinke- 6th overall, 2002, Apopka HS (FL)
Tom Glavine- 2nd round, 1984, Billerica Memorial HS (MA)
Obviously, there are a lot of borderline players that could be placed on or not on this list, and guys like Lincecum and Greinke are rather borderline. However, out of this list of fourteen, nine were first round picks, and only Cliff Lee has ascended to the stature of a true ace while being drafted after round two.
Just as with hitters, excellent pitchers come from all over the place. But the very best of the best, at least from the 2000s until now, have largely come from high selections. Just as with quarterbacks, pitchers go highly every year and they bust often, but they are crucial to team success. Selecting pitchers highly in the draft is a gamble, that is undeniable, but aces rarely come out of nowhere. You can't pick left tackles every year just because they're safe bets to be great- just like you can't wait on pitching every year because you're afraid of a first-round bust.