The Case For Dustin Ackley

Just a quick programming note – I’ll be live-blogging the draft here on the site tonight, beginning at 5:45 pm. Feel free to come join us for live reactions to the draft as it takes place.

Today is draft day, or as it’s known in D.C., Stephen Strasburg Day. As a reward for their lousiness last year, Washington has been granted the right to call out Strasburg’s name tonight with the first overall pick, and then spend the next few months trying to get him signed. There’s never been a consensus number one pick in the draft like there is this year. Everyone, and I mean everyone, agrees that Strasburg should go number one tonight.

Well, maybe not everyone. I think there’s a not-too-ridiculous case to be made that the Nationals should draft Dustin Ackley instead.

There’s no doubt that Strasburg is an elite talent. His stuff is better than any college pitcher we’ve ever seen, routinely hitting 100 MPH with his fastball and blowing hitters away with a hard breaking ball. Unlike most other kids who can throw hard at age 20, Strasburg actually knows where the ball is going. His ability to throw strikes with that kind of stuff is remarkable. The performances match the reports – 19 walks and 195 strikeouts in 109 innings this year, putting even Mark Prior to shame.

No one doubts the potential. It’s very easy to see a scenario where Strasburg is the best pitcher in baseball in a couple of years. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to see a scenario where any number of factors (injuries, diminished velocity, mental breakdown, bad lifestyle choices, failure to learn how to pitch) cause him to fall short of his ultimate upside. He could be great, or he could end up as the next Dwight Gooden, Rick Ankiel, or Kerry Wood. It’s not just a binomial star-or-bust situation either – Felix Hernandez was destroying major league hitters with similar stuff at age 19, but hasn’t progressed as a pitcher, and is now having to adjust to having a fastball that averages 94 rather than 96.

In reality, history tells us there’s something like a 20% chance that Strasburg becomes what everyone hopes he can be. There’s also around a 20% chance that he gets knocked down hard early in his career, whether it be for health or mental reasons, and fails to get back up. That leaves the 60% middle ground, where he becomes a good, maybe great pitcher, but doesn’t live up to the best of all time hype. Or, if we translate those odds into Wins Above Replacement over the six first six years of his career, it would look something like this.

30-40 WAR: 25%
21-30 WAR: 25%
11-20 WAR: 25%
0-10 WAR: 25%

We’re giving him a one in four chance of becoming Randy Johnson, a one in four chance of becoming Jake Peavy, a one in four chance of becoming Kerry Wood, and a one in four chance of becoming Rick Ankiel. You can quibble the percentages a bit if you want, but not enough to move the conclusionary needle. The total expected WAR over six years of that package of probabilities, is +20. If you really think that Strasburg is different than all the previous phenoms, you could maybe push the probabilities to where the conclusion was +25. That’s about your limit, though. If the Nationals are expecting Strasburg to add more than 25 wins to their franchise before he becomes eligible for free agency, they’re probably headed for a disappointment.

So, all that said, let’s bring this back to Dustin Ackley. He doesn’t have anything like Strasburg’s upside. He’s a high average gap power hitter who has spent most of his time playing first base because his arm strength hasn’t returned after Tommy John surgery last summer. He’s athletic enough to play the outfield, but he doesn’t have much experience there, so the projections of him being an asset in center field are based on hope more than observation. The scouting report isn’t nearly as sexy.

However, the track record of established, premium college hitters is a terrific one. Unlike with the pitchers, you have to really look to find guys who were the best hitter in their class coming out of college and failed to do anything in the majors. For guys who just totally flopped, there’s David McCarty and Travis Lee, and that’s about it. Alex Gordon hasn’t hit as expected yet, so maybe he’s on his way to joining them. But the list of total premium college bats who have been total busts is very short.

Just to put this in comparison, Darin Erstad, who fell apart early in his career and was considered a less than elite #1 pick when he was drafted anyway, was worth 25.8 wins to the Angels from 1996 to 2002. A lot of people would consider Erstad’s career a disappointment, given how poorly he’s hit in his 30s, and his first six years were comparable in value to six years of pitching from a guy like Peavy or Josh Beckett.

Those are just the low-end guys. The high end is littered with players like Frank Thomas, Todd Helton, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria, and now Matt Wieters. No one thinks Ackley is as good as those guys, but even if you slice 20 percent of the upper end value off of those guys to reflect the power difference, you’re still talking about a premium upside. Let’s do the same probability breakdown for Ackley that we did for Strasburg.

31-40 WAR: 10%
21-30 WAR: 40%
11-20 WAR: 40%
0-10 WAR: 10%

With reduced potential but also reduced risk, we’re giving Ackley something like a 10% chance of being Todd Helton, a 40% chance of being Darin Erstad, a 40% chance of being J.D. Drew, and a 10% chance of being Travis Lee. The more certain, less volatile projection here has the exact same expected value as the one we listed for Strasburg above.

Again, you can quibble with the numbers if you want, but not that much. I think there’s room to argue that Ackley is as low as a +15 WAR and Strasburg is as high as a +25 WAR guy over their first six years. If you’re completely convinced that Ackley’s arm will limit him to left field and he won’t develop much power, and you’re convinced that Strasburg is significantly better than Prior/Wood/Hernandez were at similar stages of development, the difference in upsides would tip the scales in Strasburg’s favor by a comfortable margin.

However, I think it’s closer than most people think. Ackley’s significantly reduced risk makes up for a good chunk of the potential gap. When you toss in the cost differences (Strasburg is probably going to sign for $15 million more than Ackley), the gap closes even more. The present win value of $15 million in cash is something like three to four wins. If you have Strasburg as a +22 win guy and Ackley as a +18 win guy, then the cost difference essentially makes it a wash.

Even at the extremes, where Strasburg is +25 and Ackley is +15, the signing bonus requirements push it to within a reasonable gap of just 6-7 wins over six years.

Strasburg’s going number one, but I think there’s a pretty strong chance that we’ll look back in six years and realize that picking Dustin Ackley wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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14 years ago

As a Mariners fan, I’ve been hoping for some weeks that the Nationals take Strasburg so the M’s can have Ackley.

Strasburg is probably the better pick, but Ackley’s the safer pick, and I’ve had enough stress from draft picks. I want a damn hitter.