Let’s Hear From Ben Cherington, Brad Ciolek, Ty Madden, and Marcelo Mayer on the Draft

Baseball is cracking down on pitch-movement-enhancing substances such as, though not limited to, Spider Tack. I asked Pittsburgh Pirates GM Ben Cherington if that was a concern for his scouting staff going into this week’s amateur draft.

“We did what I think probably every team did, which was to try to learn as much as we could about whether guys were using anything, what it was, and what adjustments they were making,” replied Cherington. “We’re not naive to think that the sticky stuff was only inside professional baseball. We did some analysis on data we have from amateur pitchers in terms of spin-rate changes over time, to see if we could glean anything from that.

“Whether or not a pitcher has used anything to get a better grip on the ball is a piece of information,” continued Cherington. “But in no way does that mean… if they had to stop using something, that they can’t adjust and still be really good. These are the most talented pitchers in the world and they have a way of adjusting and finding new ways to compete and be better. So I think that it was a small piece of information that we tried to get at, but not a major driver in any decisions.”

Following up, I asked the GM about the level of pitch-analysis data they were able to get for high school draftees, including fourth-round pick Owen Kellington out of small-town Plainfield, Vermont.

“We had some data,” said Cherington. “[Kellington] was at the combine, and we have some high-speed, and obviously a scouting report. Obviously, we have less data on him than we would with a college pitcher, but we had a combination of our live looks, some data, and the work our scouts did. We felt like we had plenty to make an evaluation.”

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Scouting directors regularly talk about always taking “the best player available,” and while there’s a grain or more of truth to that, it’s clear that many teams go into drafts with particular strategies. That was never more evident than what happened this year. Under new GM Perry Minasian, the Los Angeles Angels used all 20 of their picks on pitchers. Per Baseball America it was the most pitchers selected by a team in the top 20 rounds; the Atlanta Braves selected 18 in 2015.

The Orioles went in a different direction. Baltimore’s 20 selections included players listed at all nine positions, and only one of their first 10 picks was a pitcher. I asked Brad Ciolek, the club’s Supervisor of Domestic Scouting, for his thoughts on the diverse strategies.

“That’s the beauty of the draft, I guess,” said Ciolek. “Everyone has their own unique way of doing it. There are multiple inputs we put into models, and ultimately, even though we’re kind of moving toward a more analytic… a lot of data in terms of picking these guys and developing a model, you’re still going to see things like that. That’s what makes it really interesting.”

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Ty Madden fell to the Detroit Tigers, who selected the University of Texas right-hander 32nd overall in the competitive-balance round. On the morning of Day One of the draft, both Baseball America and our own Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein had projected Madden to go 11th overall to the Washington Nationals.

A lack of a quality third pitch was a factor in the drop, but so too were questions regarding Madden’s fastball. While the velocity is plus, scouts have questioned the amount of movement it gets, particularly when elevated. I asked the 21-year-old hurler about that following his later-than-expected selection.

“It is a four-seam,” acknowledged Madden. “I think it plays with my arm slot and kind of the downhill angle I create — it plays really well at the bottom of the zone. We didn’t use the top of the zone a whole lot this year. I’m looking forward to using that more.”

Asked specifically about the movement profile, Madden explained that because his delivery is so over the top, his fastball is “pretty downhill and at the last second has late life to it.” He added that his heater doesn’t really get running action.

Madden had thrown sinkers early in his University of Texas career, and while he eventually went to just fours, he’d be amenable to reintroducing the two-seamer if the Tigers so desired. I asked Madden what led him to settle on the four-seamer during his Longhorn tenure.

“My catchers, and hitters I faced in summer ball, gave really good feedback when I switched to four-seams,” explained Madden. “They said that at the bottom of the zone, it looked like a ball out of the hand because of how downhill I am, and then it kind of catches at the last second. I had real good success with that on the Cape when I was switching from a two-seamer to four-seam, and my velocity kind of increased with it as well. It’s something I just felt comfortable with.”

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Marcello Mayer also fell in the draft, albeit by a smaller margin and far closer to the top. Mocked by most as the first overall selection, the 18-year-old shortstop from Chula Vista, California went to the Boston Red Sox with the fourth-overall pick. Lauded for his skills on both sides of the ball, Mayer possessed, in the words of Eric Longenhagen, “among the best hit/power combinations in the high school class.”

Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez has described his own swing as meticulously built, as opposed to natural. I mentioned that to Mayer, then asked to what extent his swing is one or the other.

“I think it’s both,” responded Mayer, who takes his cuts from the left side. “I was born with the natural ability to swing the bat, and to field a groundball, but I was also raised with the right coaches and they were able to fix my swing in the right way.”

Is the high-profile youngster tuned into hitting analytics?

“Not really right now,” Mayer admitted. “I’m 18 years old and haven’t really been exposed to all that stuff. As soon as I get there, I’m going to do whatever is possible to get to the big leagues.”

Asked by another reporter how soon he might sign a professional contract, Mayer said, “As soon as possible. I’m super excited.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yeah, that Orioles scouting director is not telling the whole story. In 2020, four out of their five picks were hitters (their first four). In 2019 their first seven picks were hitters. This is not a weird coincidence.

Someone tried explaining this to me before the draft and I didn’t believe it, but this is definitely a trend now. If you asked me if they would grab pitchers in 2022 I would be really torn because thinking that eventually they have to take pitchers and figuring that they will never, ever take pitchers. How can you have a farm system when you don’t draft pitchers? But that’s what it seems like they are doing.

bookbook
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bookbook

Two theories: 1, if you develop enough hitters, you can trade the surplus for pitchers. Because of injuries and greater unpredictability, it’s harder to reliably develop pitchers than hitters for most orgs. 2. It’s much more likely fir a late round pitcher to suddenly figure something big out and become a prospect. With hitters, what you see is much closer to what you’ll get. (See greater unpredictability, above).

gettwobrute79
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gettwobrute79

This feels right intuitively because I feel if you cash in hitting prospects for pitching, that pitcher is (probably) producing at the MLB level so he’s survived the injury monster that gets so many of them.

Chaise Kahlenbeck
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Chaise Kahlenbeck

Point one is basically the 2015-2020 Cubs, with the added caveat that you can also sign pitchers via free agency. That’s also partially how you get in predicaments like they’re now in – when bats don’t develop as hoped, the window to cash in or win becomes tight.