Part 2 - How the Cardinals compare to other NL Central teams in "draft and develop"

Editor's note: Hey! I have been neglecting Fanpost Friday, but today I saw one I thought you all might enjoy from ORSTLcardsfan comparing NL Central teams' drafting and development results! Enjoy and have a great weekend!

This past spring, I did a deep dive into 20 years of Cardinal drafting and development (2000-2019), seen here - Would a top pick help the Cardinals?

This article includes the methodology I used for evaluating a draft and develop team discussed below.

Based on the data I covered, I came up with a couple of rules of thumb:

1. A decent draft produces 1 player who accumulates 10 or more career WAR. A very good draft is a draft that produces 2 players who go on to have notable careers and a great draft is one that produces 3 or more notable players or one Hall of Fame (or near HOF) player of 40+ WAR or more.

2. I’ve generally heard that one can’t truly evaluate a draft until 5 years after it happened. As I look at the data, I think you can’t really evaluate a draft until more like 10 years after.

3. Draft position doesn’t consistently matter. I was struck by how the Cardinal’s "worse" draft position always produced the better drafts (as measured according using total accumulated WAR from Baseball

4. Drafting good players and trading from depth to acquire talent to fill areas of weakness is a mixed bag, at best. Begins to look like a draft-and-develop team coming off script. In other words, while going "all in" sounds sexy, it doesn’t appear draft-and-develop teams can make that work reliably.

5. Finally, the best pathway to success long-term is to draft guys that produce 40+ WAR. They should do that more.

This article expands the analysis to compare not only the 20 drafts of the Cardinals, but also to compare the same 20 drafts for other NL Central opponents (Milwaukie, Chicago, Cincy, and Pittsburgh). After some consideration, I included Houston as they were in the NL Central during part of this era.

What starts to emerge is not only what is a good or bad draft for the Cardinals, but how does that compare to other teams. Over time, I will evaluate and compare all 30 teams, but that takes a little time, so for now I will publish results from the local group – NL Central teams.

To do that, I had to expand the methodology and come up with some comparative metrics. Here are the categories I evaluated and scored, with brief explanations.

1. Total WAR – This counts the total accumulated WAR of all players drafted (or signed as International FA) by each team, whether or not they ever played for the original team. This seems like a good marker to evaluate how good a team is a spotting talent.

2. # of Notable Players – This category filters out only players with > 10 career WAR. This moderates the first category a bit, in that one or two unicorns such as Albert Pujols can make a team’s total WAR look really good, but a higher number of notable players is at least suggestive of better analysis of talent than is one or two lucky hits.

3. Team WAR – I filter total WAR down to WAR that accrued while the player was with their original drafting team. This number begins to reveal not only how well a team drafts, but how well they evaluate their own minor league talent as well as how well they develop it to their own benefit. A good example of this is the Pirates, who were 2nd best in the NL in identifying talent (Total WAR) but dead last in having that talent occur in a Pirate uniform (Team WAR).

4. International FA notables – This updates drafted players and adds international FA signings to the pile of data. I awarded points to teams that fared better in the international market based on the number of notable players they produced through this route.

I scored each of these 5 categories by ranking teams from best to worst and awarding points based on relative rank, then comparing total points to rank the group as whole. In a couple cases, I needed a tie breaker. I used the draft position as the tie breaker. If teams acquired same/similar WAR, I awarded more points to the team that had lower (worse) average draft position over the time period.

The results?

Over the 20 year span, the Cubs have been slightly better in the draft-and-develop model. They have had a little better eye for talent to draft (total WAR of 570 vs. Cardinals 530), and also better success in the International FA market (6 notable players vs. 4 for the Cardinals). Note that the Cardinal’s drafted-and-developed better than everyone else, even though their draft position was materially worse. Note that the Pirates do acceptably well identifying talent (total WAR of 565), but they do quite a bit worse is retaining that talent (Other WAR of 363) leads the pack by a fair amount – this number represents talent they drafted but the WAR accumulated with other teams, either because the Pirates didn’t sign the talent they spotted, or traded them away before the development fully occurred or let them get away in FA before the big time WAR started rolling in.

For fun, I evaluated the same teams over just the last 10 years. Over the last 10, the Cardinal’s have been the best draft-and-develop team in the division. I left the Astros in here because I had the data, even they weren’t in the division during this time. Note that the Cardinals were well ahead of the other NL Central teams during this period. Enough to give them a strategic advantage.

I observe that the Pirates continue to have problems giving away talent, lapping the rest of the division (Other WAR of 137). I also observe that among this group draft success is almost inversely related to draft position across the board.

NOTE: Readers should recall that more recent drafts are more difficult to evaluate, as many of the players involved are still accumulating WAR, and the overall WAR numbers and the number of notable careers will be lower than the earlier era (2000-2009). This is part of why the analysis stops at 2019, so that drafted players have had 4 to 14 years to establish who they are or might be.

Overall, the rules of thumb hold up even as the sample size increased to 120 draft outcomes (6 teams, 20 drafts). An OK draft contains 1 notable player. A good draft has more. A great draft has 3 notables or 1 HOF (or near HOF) contributor of 40+ WAR (that accumulates to the drafting team!).

To wit, look at the blue bars in the Astros drafting history.

Note the dearth of notable players in the early 2000’s, which correlates to the Astros abysmal performance in the early 2010’s. In 2007, once they started regularly acquiring a notable player or two each year, they started seeing success in the mid 2010’s and have continued that steady success, both in drafting and on the field. This is a pattern that repeats across multiple teams.

One specific Jeff Lunhow observation to make. Since this is social media, I gotta throw at least grenade, don't I? I think he has the reputation of being a superior draft and develop guy. The data suggests the Astros drafting is steady but ordinary over the Lunhow time period, with the one exception of hitting the jackpot in 2015 draft with 5 notable players (Bregman, Tucker, Valdez among them). One good year a reputation makes? All those years of #1 drafts, and the output isn’t really all that exceptional. I see this outcome repeat with many teams and I’ve begun to wonder if teams change their draft approach if they have a top draft pick in a way that isn’t helpful to the end result.

Think about that if the Cardinals get a super high draft choice this year. Based on the data I’m looking at, I find myself hoping they don’t get a top pick. Maybe teams lower in the draft order focus more on acquiring quality and obsess less over trying to reach for the brass ring or playing into the hype that a 1st or 2nd overall pick comes with. Total speculation on my part, but the data is striking.

I still have to get a complete 30 team analysis done to better understand how the overall depth of a draft affects drafting performance. Next in the series, I will expand the analysis to the National League overall. This will bring in the Dodgers, Nats, and other teams with good histories.

One tease for the last part of this series - the American League. It turns out that the Moneyball Oakland A's are the worst at "draft and develop". By a lot. But only in the last 12-15 years. It is fascinating how the hype and reality can diverge so much. More to come....