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Hacking Games: Cardinals and Astros 2014 draft fallout

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The Cardinals had inside access to the Astros draft board in 2014. How did their drafts stack up against one another? The results might surprise you.

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Saturday I was reading Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports' excellent column about the details and repercussions resulting from the guilty plea by ex-Cardinals Director of Scouting Chris Correa in hacking the Astros' proprietary database.  The charges and plea reveal that among other things, Correa accessed the Astros' database multiple times, reading and modifying files pertaining to draft strategy, player evaluation, player bonus compensation, and trades.  Such a blatant act of corporate espionage has not been seen before in American professional sports, and is made even more unbelievable by Correa's status as a high-level director reporting directly to Cardinals' GM John Mozeliak.

One passage of Passan's article jumped immediately out at me.  I Tweeted it, and it became my most-retweeted Tweet ever:

The Cardinals' draft placement, plus the admitted-to accessing of Astros' draft rankings and reports gave the Cardinals a unique advantage, and a chance to play merry hell with the Astros' own plans.  I jotted down possible implications, as it pertains to the draft:

  • While the Cardinals might not necessarily have viewed the Astros' draft and scouting information as superior to their own, they certainly could have used the Astros' data to corroborate their valuation of players.  A player highly rated on both Cardinals and Astros draft boards might be bumped up several spots.
  • Access to the Astros scouting reports and draft rankings would certainly uncover interesting players that the Cardinals might not have scouted themselves.  The benefits are obvious - it's like having twice as many scouts, deepening the pool of evaluated amateurs.
  • Commissioner Manfred has a tough job levying punishment and reparations in this case.  How does he does one evaluate the degree of competitive damage?  And how does one fairly compensate?  And how do you do it without a major upset to league-wide competitive balance?
  • Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, having helped develop much of the Cardinals' own decision sciences and scouting departments, is bound to share the desire for certain traits and follow similar strategies to his old club.  So this access to the Astros' data could be even more damaging in that the Cardinals and Astros generally target similar types of players.
  • Without more information, such as an employee stepping forward and saying that Correa pushed for certain players that they had little internal information of their own on, it is impossible to gauge if the Cardinals "sniped" players high on the Astros' draft board that they would not otherwise have had ranked so highly.  But it seems likely the Astros' valuation was at least a data point in the mind of Correa.
  • Even if no other individual within the Cardinals organization knew about the data breach, Correa was still in the position of being able to send his scouts out to look at particular players that the Astros had ranked more highly than the Cardinals.  This could easily yield new and better recommendations from their own scouts, who would not know why their boss sent them to evaluate those players.  This seems like a very likely usage of the stolen information.  The end result of that could be scouts arguing for drafting players that they would not otherwise have seen, significantly affecting draft day for both the Cardinals and the Astros.
  • One would think that within the first five or so draft rounds or so, the stolen information likely had little impact on either draft.  The Astros were alotted $13,362,200 for the first ten rounds, and the Cardinals about half that at $7,087,200.  However because of the so-called "Aiken Debacle" that resulted in losing over-slot pitcher Jacob Nix, the Astros did not hand out any bonuses that were meaningfully over the slot recommendation in 2014   The Astros ended up spending only $4,890,500 on their top 10 rounds.

The 2014 Draft

In light of this, and purely for a thought exercise, I thought I'd evaluate and compare the Cardinals' and Astros' 2014 drafts.  I daresay that most of the Cardinals' picks were "their own" or else the Astros would have become suspicious and reported that the Cardinals were sniping way too many of their highly-ranked picks for it to be coincidence.  Or who knows?  Maybe that happened, and we aren't aware.

One takeaway from the 2014 draft is that the Cardinals' draft was awful.  I mean, it really was inexcusably bad.  If Correa and his stolen information impacted the draft, they did a pretty terrible job of it.  In 43 picks, the Cardinals failed to sign a whopping 14 players, or 33% of them.  That's pretty unbelievable.  The Astros failed to sign only five.

I am making no allegations or conclusions about whether certain players certainly were sniped out from underneath the Astros intentionally.  Rather, this is simply an interesting comparison with some "what-if" scenarios explored.  Most of the stats I reference are from 2015 only, so that a full season of information from a more advanced level can be examined.

Rounds 1 through 10

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Luke Weaver is just the Astros' type of pitcher.  He has solid strikeout numbers, but more importantly he seems allergic to walks.  His 2015 results (2.28 FIP in 106 IP at A+) smell like a potential #2 quality starting pitcher.  It would be impossible to say if they bumped him up on their board to keep him from the Astros - the Cardinals have drafted this type of pitcher for ages.  The Astros did not suffer too much, though.  Derek Fisher looks like a five-tool center fielder who projects to be an average to above-average major league regular.  Given the choice though, i bet they'd rather have Weaver.

Beyond that, some of the Cardinals' draftees from this set had very strong 2015 seasons, notably Megill (drafted by the Padres after going unsigned), Gomber, Seferina, O'Keefe, Thompson, Poncedeleon, and Diekroeger.  That's a lot of solid-performing players picked right in front of the Astros.

The Astros, on the other hand, received epic production from their top three college bats, but only fair-to-middling results from the others.  Mengden struggled in 2015 and was ultimately traded for Scott Kazmir.  Nix ended up not being signed. Dykxhoorn and Boyd had nice seasons, if unremarkable.  Gause and Velazquez barely played, tallying less than 40 innings together despite both being college draftees and skipping Rookie Ball.

Aside from Reed, Fisher, and Nix saving the Astros Top 10 rounds from being an abject disaster, it's pretty easy to argue that the Cardinals' top of the draft, by pro results so far, was superior to the Astros'.  Is this because of the competitive advantage of knowing who the Astros had on their board?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But maybe.

Next 10 picks

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What the heck, Cardinals?  Six of these picks went unsigned!  There's not even an applicable bonus cap to these picks - you could have given them all $100,000 or more (if you wanted to tap into leftover cap space from the first 10 rounds).  Instead, you have six wasted picks in the heart of the draft for which you receive no compensation.

A more paranoid and less logical person would wonder if the Cardinals picked some of these guys on purpose, knowing they can't sign them, simply to prevent Luhnow from choosing them.  While extremely silly, it's worth noting that the Astros almost certainly would have had the extra cash to pay any or all of these guys whatever bonus demand they reasonably expected.

Anyway, Radack looks like a nice player after posting a 133 wRC+ at Advanced A in 2015, and Pearce is another Astros-esque pitcher who doesn't allow walks.  Outside of that though...sheesh.

Did the Astros dodge a bullet in this round by having the Cardinals poach them?  Or did the data breach have little impact?  Either way, these middle rounds of the draft look favorable for the Astros.  If Jamie Ritchie can continue doing what he's doing as a catcher (never posted a wRC+ lower than 142 during his pro career), he could wind up one of the steals of the entire 2014 draft.  Tanielu, Goedert, and Woodward have punished opposing pitchers.  Marshall famously was the third pitcher unsigned due to fallout from Brady Aiken's bum elbow, and Ben Smith has yet to appear in competitive ball.

Next 10 picks

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More unsigned picks from the Cardinals with Casey and Gillette.  Turgeon put up huge numbers in 2014 before struggling with BABIP this season, but they might have something with him.  Beck and Bray both look like nice pitchers with a future.  Outside of that, there's a lot of players who did not play or barely played this season (Dunnington, Dobzanski).  Wirsu and Lankford both struggled mightily, and Grayson was quite old for his level (Low A) and didn't provide enough power to project as a first baseman.  Pretty weak showing for the Cardinals down in these picks.

Muniz has consistently put up giant wRC+ as a pro (154 in 2015), but with the same lack of power as Grayson.  Two punchless college 1B's with excellent plate discipline going back-to-back?  Seems fishy.  These guys look like identical players at this point, though Muniz is two years younger.

None of the Astros' pitchers in these rounds performed in any noteworthy fashion.  Most of these guys entered pro ball as relievers.  Both McMullen and Hyde have taken care of business, including well-above-average wRC+'s two levels, peaking at Advanced A.  McCall batted well at Tri Cities this season as well.

In all, the Astros haven't returned much (so far) in terms of pitching from these picks, but all of the drafted batters except Gonzalez have over-performed other players at the same league level.

The End of the Draft

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The end of the draft is a crap shoot anyway, but hitting on a draft pick or two down at this point is big business.  The Cardinals have FIVE MORE unsigned picks in this lot, so....honestly, I don't even know what to say about that.  Were Cardinals fans livid about this draft?  Good grief.  For the the Astros, only Foster and Antchak went unsigned from this bunch.

But the thing is, a couple of the players the Cards signed look like the real deal.  Schumacher looks like a complete steal at pick 1,095.  He's a high-strikeout pitcher who's never posted a BB/9 above 1.95 at any level, and whom Steamer projects would earn a 3.93 ERA in the major leagues right now.  True, at 25, he's been very old for his level, but he looks like a hidden gem at this point.  Kuebel also looks like he'll play in the majors as a high-strikeout, low-walk reliever.  Again, old for his level, but it's tough to argue with results.

The Astros did quite well with their own pitcher selections down here - shockingly well, in fact.  None of the five pitchers they drafted failed to post an ERA under 3.00 during 2015.  All remain names to watch over the next couple seasons - there may be some good major leaguers in this bunch.

Conclusion

I did not embark on this comparison expecting to draw meaningful conclusions about whether or not any of the Cardinals' drafted players were stolen out under the Astros' nose due to knowledge of their draft board.  There are a number of players that obviously fit the profile of the type of players (pitchers in particular) the Astros tend to target, but since those types of players are targeted by many clubs including the Cardinals, that's not particularly meaningful either.

However, I ended up drawing a big conclusion.  Considering the Cardinals' director of scouting committed a felony in engaging in competitive espionage, the fact that their 2014 draft looks like a disaster makes the whole episode(from their point of view) even more sad.  To have full access to another clubs' scouting and draft information, and to have fifteen unsigned picks and only a handful of players who have performed in pro ball as if they have any sort of future whatsoever - it should be embarrassing.  Correa potentially heading to jail seems like no more than saving the Cardinals the trouble of canning him over the awful job of scouting that it now appears the organization achieved prior to this draft.

Did the Cardinals affect the Astros' draft through inside knowledge, illegally obtained?  Impossible to say from the outside.  Maybe they did.  Maybe they didn't.  Either way, outside of the Top 10 rounds, the Astros seem to have handled their drafting business fairly well under the circumstances.