Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cain Through the Years: Baseball Prospectus on Cain, A Historical Perspective

Cain has been one of the key players, if not the main one, that Baseball Prospectus beats up the Giants for skipping draft picks and while reading through a past BP (yes, I collect them; as a saber you have to buy them I think) for a comment on Lefty Malo's great new site, I thought it would be interesting to see what BP had to say over the years about this player who they think is so great today.

  • 2003: Cain drafted. "He has a live arm, but many observers were surprised at how high he was taken, even those who don't believe in a hard-and-fast rule of avoiding high school pitchers." They noted that six-rounder Jesse English, another high school pitcher drafted by the Giants that same year, was much more impressive in the Arizona Rookie League that year, a subtle dig at the Giants for chosing Cain. The Giants have walked to the beat of a different drum in the draft, earning comments like this, but it has netted them Cain and Lincecum. It is an especially hard jab at them because they noted that even experts who are OK with drafting high school pitchers thought that Cain was a head scratcher.

  • 2004: "Baseball America named Cain the number-two prospect in the Giants' system. We don't rank him that high - chalk it up to squeamishness about 18-year-old pitchers who miss half a season with an elbow injury - but we understand the enthusiasm... The elbow, and injuries in general, are the concerns, as is always the case for pitchers fresh out of high school." As noted above, BP don't recommend drafting high school pitchers and they are clearly not on the Matt Cain bandwagon, thought they "understand the enthusiasm".

  • 2005: "While Tony Torcato makes a case for the Giants' strategy of sacrificing first-round picks, Cain makes that tack look terrible. The 25th-overall pick in 2002 has zoomed past Merkin Valdez to claim top-prospect status in the Giants' system... Granting TINSTAAPP, you're looking at one of the five best pitching prospects in baseball." He was 28th best prospect that year, behind guys like Andy Marte #1, Dallas McPherson #4, Casey Kotchman #5, Joel Guzman #7, Daric Barton #9, Jeremy Reed #10, Eric Duncan #13, Yusmeiro Petit #15, Michael Aubrey #17, Chris Burke #18, Lastings Milledge #19, Chad Billingsley 120, Edwin Encarnacion #22, Brandon McCarthy #23, Anthony Reyes #25. "The Giants have shown no ability to develop hitters over the past ten years, but pitchers are another matter." Well, finally some praise for the Orange and Black, though they had to turn in into a negative, backhanding the Giants for avoiding draft picks in the past.

  • 2006: "The second-youngest rookie in 2005 proved that he was worth the hype... If he figures out a decent change or slider - both of which come in way too fast and flat right now to be consistently useful in games - he could be outstanding. The Giants have worked with him on the changeup, and if the coaching takes, he'll do more than just survive in the major leagues in '06." He ranked 12th among prospects this year, behind some very good prospects this time, though Andy Marte is still ahead #7, Chris Young #8, Dustin Pedroia #11. "If Felix Hernandez is the King, then Cain may be the Crown Prince....With first-round draft picks like Cain, it makes you wonder why Brian Sabean is so eager to give them away." Again, praise with the backhand. By now, my study had been published on Yahoo, but they lack the fundamental understanding of statistics that distribution is not all bell curves but that the draft is really finding the needle in the haystack pretty fast in the draft, sometimes as soon as the 6th pick, sometimes as late as the 10th pick. Shouting out the Giants for avoiding the 29th pick overall is similar to getting mad at your friend for not buying a lottery ticket: "See that guy in the newspaper! He won a million bucks with his ticket, why didn't you buy a ticket?!?"

  • 2007: "Cain went into the 2006 season as one of the game's top-rated prospects - we called him the twelfth-best pitching prospect [SIC] in the game, Baseball America said tenth-best, John Sickels said third. After a full season in the majors, he was no longer a prospect, but, if anything, his reputation had risen even further." Wow, praise with no backhand this time. I think they made a mistake, they rated him the 12th best prospect, period, so that is what they meant for themselves and gives them more credit for recognizing his potential.
I always wonder about pundits, whether they ever read what they wrote before to at least acknowledge a shortcoming on their part, particularly since it is their "business" to point out the shortcomings of others. I think it is interesting to follow the evolution of their opinion on Matt Cain, going from obliquely criticizing his selection - even those who are OK with drafting high school pitchers question the pick - to jumping on the Matt Cain bandwagon whole hog - twelfth-best prospect for 2006.

Not that I'm knocking them for being reasonably cautious about Cain in the beginning. They had good reasons for it. Rather I wanted to note that he was not the slam dunk that they make him out to be today when they are knocking the Giants for selecting him (after knocking them in the first place for selecting him; can't have it both ways, they didn't see it at the begining and the Giants did).

As I hope to show in a future post, a rewriting of my draft study results for those who haven't read it and for those who didn't believe it the first time, draft picks in the range where the Giants had been picking when they were winning or competing strongly for the division championship, which typically puts you in the 20's overall, are pretty risky with low chance of getting any return on the player. So sometimes you pick a Matt Cain, most times you get a Matt Campbell (who happens to be the player the Royals picked with the pick the Giants gave up; he didn't even last a full professional season with them). It is all in the distribution, and the odds of finding a good player like Matt Cain would seem more random and lucky than insightful and well scouted, when you look at the results.


  1. I get your point about the potential non-value of low first round picks. I'm fairly ignorant on the subject; is the reason teams do it is that first rounders tend to get (big) signing bonses and, if the flop as you suggest is reasonably likely, it's just not worth it? And you can take take almost or just as good a risk in the second, third, fourth rounds without paying the (big) bonuses?

  2. The signing bonus in that range is around the $1.5M level - for comparision, we paid "only" $2.025M bonus for Lincecum at #10.

    I would not go so far as to say that it is not worth it - to make things perfectly clear, I've never wrote that anywhere. Clearly, drafting has value, a lot of value when they are a high pick, early in the first round.

    However, what I did say is that because the odds of selecting a good player in that draft pick range (21-30th pick overall) is so low, it does not hurt your farm system's chances of developing good players very much to skip one, two, maybe even three picks, in that overall pick range.

    I was saving this for a future post, but since you asked, I'll put it up here first. I dug into BP's research on draft picks, which came out after my study, and for the pick the Giants gave up for signing Tucker - 29th pick - the average WARP for the 29th pick was just under 5 WARP. A number of people refuted my study with BP's study saying, "see there, drafting players have value."

    As I noted, I never said that there was no value involved, just that there are tradeoffs in risk, reward, and costs. People seem to forget this point when they see my study, they just remember that I said it was OK for the Giants to skip their pick.

    Let's take that #29 draft pick. So for about $1.5M bonus, you get a career average WARP of just under 5. Typically, you had to wait 4-6 years for that player to make the majors plus you would be paying his salary during that time as well AND most importantly, that 5 WARP is not for one season, it is for his career, which probably at that level of career WARP, is for at least 3 seasons, probably more like 4-5 seasons. That's because 5 WARP is pretty good production, and 2 WARP is pretty decent too, so if he had done that in 1 or 2 seasons, it's likely he would play more seasons and earned more WARP, so he must have played more seasons, on average.

    In comparison, Michael Tucker had a WARP of 3.8 his first year with the Giants, 1.3 WARP his second year of his contract, for a total of 5.1 WARP. And that is about what he had been producing, he had WARPs of 2.9, 3.6, and 2.0 previously. So he produced 5.1 total WARP on our contract ($3.0M over 2 years) and had produced 5.6 WARP the two years before. That's proven vet production.

    So, it is just a matter of what you need. Pay $1.5M for a prospect, probably another $1.5M over the professional life of the prospect as he takes 4-6 years to develop and then the league miniumum of about $400K for 3-5 years as he produces nearly 5 WARP on average.

    OR you pay the same total money over the next two years, get a vet who earns 5.1 WARP, no waiting. And you need it now. Which would you chose?

    To top it off, Tucker was then traded for a pretty good pitching prospect from the Phillies, Kelvin Pichardo. He has done well in our system, he's young. I think he's in AA now, but struggling, but that's from memory, not absolutely sure.

    To close, I never said that there is no value to a draft pick, only that the distribution of good picks to bad picks is so low for the picks the Giants punted, that the odds are that you will pick one of the bad players and end up with nothing anyhow, so why not skip a pick or two and use the money instead on the MLB roster.

    And as I showed here, even if you assume the average WARP production for that pick, the tradeoff makes some sense.

    Lastly, I will note that the #29 pick could be a flukey low WARP. From pick 24 to pick 30, the WARP value was mainly in the 8-9 WARP range and averaged 8 WARP. Even at that, do you want to wait 4-6 years to get someone who produces 2 WARP a season for 4 seasons, or sign a vet that you are reasonably sure will produce 5 WARP for you over the next 2 seasons? Again, it depends on your needs, if you want to win now, you sign the vet, if you are rebuilding, you take your chances on the prospect.

  3. Oh, and regarding your last question on 2nd, 3rd, 4th rounds, those picks are not as likely to produce a good player, the odds just get worse and worse. From my study's results, by the 2nd-3rd round, the odds had dropped to 4% (vs. 11% for 21-30) and for the early parts of the 4th round (picks 91-100), the odds had fallen to 1.5%.

    I just did a hypothetical to show how skipping 2 picks in, say, 10 years would affect your production of good players during the 10 years. This is based on 11% odds.

    Percentage of 10 year period where you ended up with no good player selected: 39% for skipped, 31% for keep picks.

    Percentage of 10 year period where you ended up with one good player selected: 39% for skipped, 39% for keep picks.

    Percentage of 10 year period where you ended up with two good player selected: 17% for skipped, 21% for keep picks.

    Percentage of 10 year period where you ended up with three good player selected: 4% for skipped, 7% for keep picks. Beyond three, odds are pretty miniscule.

    So, there is some cost in terms of player production, but that has never been the issue for me because it is obvious there is some cost.

    The question is more, what do we get for the cost. The percentages do not change that greatly, as I just showed, between skipped and kept picks. There is a greater odds of no good player picked but you trade off on that by getting more certainty of production with the veteran player you just signed to a free agent contract.

    Again, it is a matter of what your needs are at the MLB level.

  4. Oops, forgot to correct a mistake on the draft bonuses. It is not just $1.5M for the 21-30 range picks overall, it is more that the range is $1.0-1.5M. So adjust numbers accordingly, but still, I think the total cost for Tucker's contract is approximately that of the average draft pick; if anything, I could argue that the prospect will cost more money, I was just trying to be conservative in any case.

    Thanks again for the question, happy to answer anything I can.



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