The 2020 MLB Draft now stands 20 days away. On June 10th, teams will gather (remotely) to select the players that they hope will drive their franchise’s future forward. The Orioles have more in this than most teams, as they hold the largest draft pool among all 30 teams, with just shy of $14 million to spend on their 6 picks.
Yes, 6 picks is the number. Despite much debate and negotiations about the format and date of the draft, the lack of agreement between the owners and the MLBPA left the sides with the March deal of a 5-round draft and severely limited bonuses on undrafted free agents. Many parties—agents, players, scouting directors—weren’t happy with the arrangement, but the lack of a deal forced the situation.
The top of the draft has remained the same since Baseball America first put out their list in January. This isn’t surprising, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down play nationwide, drastically cutting down on player’s ability to move up and down the board. As such, we are familiar with the following five names topping the board: Arizona State 1B Spencer Torkelson, Vanderbilt SS/3B/CF Austin Martin, Texas A&M LHP Asa Lacy, Georgia RHP Emerson Hancock, and New Mexico State 2B/SS Nick Gonzales.
I’ve discussed the players briefly before, but I now want to discuss their draft profiles in depth. Added to their profiles are the debut of this year’s DRAFT (Data-Reasoned Amateur Future Talent) Model Scores. This is a model that I build annually in order to predict a player’s progression through the minor league system and MLB production based on biographical data, college performance, and summer league/showcase competition. The model mirrors in spirit similar decision-making tools employed by many front offices, albeit with more and better. This year I did a major overhaul of the model structure and its data sources, and I think the results are a great improvement. For reference’s sake, the DRAFT Model Score table is given below, with the Score reported in Runs Above Replacement (RAR), approximately ten times a player’s WAR.
|10||End of 1st Round|
|5.5||End of 2nd Round|
|2.2||End of 5th Round|
|1.3||End of 10th Round|
As a reminder, the Orioles do not fully control their own destiny, as the Detroit Tigers own the top pick in this year’s draft. This means of course that, assuming the Tigers act rationally, the Orioles will be left with their pick of several very similar options in terms of scores.
After spending much of the year ranked second to Austin Martin, Torkelson moved up to #1 in the latest Baseball America Rankings. It was a warranted move, as Torkelson has done nothing but hit from the moment he showed up in Tempe. In his Freshman year, he slashed .320/.440/.743 with 25 home runs, breaking the Freshman record for home runs help by Barry Bonds. He followed it up with 23 in his Sophomore year, joining Bob Horner as the only two players in Arizona State history with back-to-back 20 homer seasons. For those who don’t know, Bob Horner was picked #1 overall in the June 1978 MLB Draft, joined the Braves the same month (Skipping the minor leagues entirely), and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award that same year with 23 homers and 2.3 fWAR in 359 PAs. He played in the majors for 11 years; accumulating 19.5 WAR, 218 HRs, and one four-homer game.
Torkelson would have likely topped 20 one more time had he been given the chance as he roared out to .340/.598/.780 and 6 homers in 82 PAs. For references sake, that’s a Bonds-ian .440 ISO and 37.8% walk percentage (In an impossibly small sample size). The only downside in Torkelson’s profile is his place as a R/R first baseman.
Torkelson’s DRAFT Score comes in at 41.39, which is the fourth-highest score since 2009. Overall, his profile reads something like a first base Kris Bryant (Score of 48.96); high Adjusted ISO (.256 above expected versus .260 for Bryant), high walks (.102 above expected versus .085), slightly higher than expected strikeouts (.032 above expected versus .003). Torkelson’s positional profile reads almost exclusively 1B, with 84% of innings expected to come there or at DH, leading to a positional adjustment of -13.5 runs. Finally the model predicts Torkelson having a 99.8% chance of reaching the majors.
As we’ll see, Torkelson is a clear #1 pick, clearing his fellow prospects by over 15 runs. If Torkelson had a similar positional profile to Kris Bryant (41% 3B, 36% 1B, 24% COF; -6.1 positional adjustment), their scores would be nearly identical. Basically, Torkelson is a positional adjustment away from an MVP’s score, as well as the second-best score since 2009. Most mock drafts have Torkelson going to the Tigers at #1, meaning that the Orioles likely won’t get the chance to take him. However, if anything falls through, Mike Elias and crew should jump on the pick and take the clear best player.
For most of the year Austin Martin stayed at #1 of the Baseball America rankings. It wasn’t the first time Martin was ranked, as he came in at #134 as a high school shortstop during the 2017 Draft. At the time, Martin seemed like the type of player who would go to college at Vanderbilt and come out the other side as a first-round shortstop like his Vanderbilt predecessor Dansby Swanson. Strangely, he didn’t play short in college at all, spending time at 3B in his Freshman and Sophomore years, and then shifting to CF this season.
Martin’s top selling point is his hit tool. Taking advantage of his hands and bat speed, Martin batted .376 over 569 PAs over his three years at Vanderbilt, including a .410 average in his sophomore year. The power is still coming in, as his ISO was only at .145, but there is room to grow into it given his 6’0″-170 pound frame.
Martin’s DRAFT Score is 24.26, good for fourth in the class. He’s somewhat comparable to Ian Happ (21.20 Score) or Trea Turner (25.57 Score), just with a better hit tool (And less speed in Turner’s case). He walks (.005 above expected), avoids strikeouts exceptionally (-.099 below average), and still has room to go on his power (.008 above expected). He’s likely to make it to the majors, at a 99% chance according to the model.
The biggest question with Martin’s profile is his position. The model has no clue where to put him, slotting him in with time at every position except Catcher. This yields a positional adjustment of -0.42. If you remove any chance of Martin playing 1B or the COF, Martin’s positional adjustment jumps to 4.24 and he becomes the clear second choice in this year’s class at 28.51. If he’s a pure shortstop, his score rises even higher to around 32.00.
Martin’s likely to succeed, the major question is where. His floor is a high-average doubles-power at non-premium infield position. His ceiling increases greatly with his ability to develop his power and stick at the most premium position in fair territory.
Asa Lacy was another holdover from 2017, coming in ranked at 176th that year. Since arriving at College Station, Lacy has done nothing but strike batters out; 12.5 K/9 over 152 collegiate innings. His 2020 got off to an eye-popping start; striking out 46 batters, giving up 9 hits, walking 8, and allowing 2 runs in 24 innings. All this led to a #3 Baseball America ranking, moving up to the top pitcher in the class.
Lacy’s DRAFT Score is 21.44, seventh in the class. His profile is somewhat akin to A.J. Puk, another SEC lefty with big strikeout (0.160 above expected for Lacy) and big walk numbers (0.015 above expected). That little bit of wildness hurts Lacy in two areas; raw production and the expected start/relief usage.
Lacy’s predicted starting percentage is 70.9%, fairly low for such a highly ranked pitcher. This is due to his time in the Texas A&M bullpen his Freshman and his high walk percentage. Most top-3 pitchers have a predicted starter percent of 85%, with A.J. Puk being one of the lower predicted values at 80%. If you raise Lacy up to Puk’s predicted starting percentage, his score ups to 23.18. If it goes even higher to the top-3 average, he becomes a clear top-3 option in this year’s class at 24.92.
Everything with Lacy comes down to that question of controlling his walks and staying in the rotation. If he does, he can reach Puk or Carlos Rodon levels of performance. Without it, he still represents a solid top of the draft option with elite strikeout numbers and swing-and-miss stuff.
Lacy’s main competition for the top pitcher on the board has been Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock. Hancock was ranked #164 by Baseball America in 2017, completing the trio of ranked 2017 high-schoolers who went to campus who top this year’s rankings. Hancock stepped into Georgia’s rotation immediately, with each of his 33 appearances coming in a start. Hancock’s strikeout numbers aren’t as gaudy as Lacy’s, but his run prevention (1.99 ERA in 2019) and his raw stuff might have been considered better coming into the season. The run prevention fell off in four 2020 starts, but his strikeout numbers jumped up to 12.75 K/9 while his walks fell to 1.13 BB/9.
Hancock’s DRAFT Score comes in at 24.85, good for fourth in the class and the top pitcher. His profile looks a little like Brady Singer (24.47 Score in 2017), another SEC pitcher ranked #4 by Baseball America. The strikeouts are good (0.087 above expected) but not outstanding for a highly-ranked pitcher, the walks are well-controlled (-0.045 below expected). The starter percentage comes in at 85.3%, right around average.
Expected seems to be the word for Hancock. His numbers are what are expected, his predicted usage is what’s expected. It’s just that the expectation is a #4 ranked player’s expectation. That’s the type of expectation that leads to a top-100 prospect and a solid rotation piece.
After four players from power conferences we come to Nick Gonzales. He’s a player whose profile brings a lot of questions. His offensive stats are impressive, but they have to be considered in light of a hitter-friendly park and worse competition. He moved to shortstop his Junior year, but seems unlikely to stay there. Despite all this, it’s hard to ignore a nation-leading .432 batting average in 2019 and a .448 average (And .610 OBP) in 82 PAs to start the year. Even moreso, 7 homers and a Cape Cod League MVP Award implies that the bat is real.
Gonzales’ DRAFT Score is 25.61, the third-highest in the class and the second-best college bat. The best profile comp for Gonzales is another New Mexico product, D.J. Peterson (23.07 Score in 2013). There’s reason to think that Gonzales’ score is inflated for two reasons. First is that his adjusted ISO is .221 above expected, influenced somewhat by the environment in New Mexico and a .707 ISO to start this season. If his adjusted ISO decreases a little bit to account for the park and certain regression as the season went along, Gonzales’ score decreases to 23.61. This alone would put Gonzales down at sixth overall.
The other reason to doubt the profile is Gonzales’ positional adjustment. Gonzales switched to shortstop during his Junior year, and this raised helped his positional adjustment to be -1.17 runs with time at nearly every non-catcher position. If we remove Gonzales’ time at shortstop from the equation, that positional adjustment goes to -2.7 runs. This combined with the downgrading of Gonzales’ power profile would drop his score all the way down to 22.1, still sixth but within striking distance of Asa Lacy.
Gonzales’ profile all comes down to those questions. The bat is real, but unlikely to reach the heights he saw at New Mexico State. He spent time at shortstop, but is unlikely to stick there. No matter what, he profiles as an elite bat at whatever position he lands at, and represents an interesting option that’ll come off the board early.
The Dark Horse: Zac Veen
In all the scores, you’ll notice that the second-best score overall was missing. This honor goes to Zac Veen, a toolsy giant of an outfielder. Standing 6’5″ and 200 pounds, Veen actually has room to add strength. That’s an almost scary thought, as his raw power already stands at plus and may reach plus-plus. He combines that with a solid approach at the plate, exercising a good amount of patience. There is a little potential for strikeouts, but many scouts seem to think he’ll keep a solid hit tool.
Veen’s DRAFT Score comes in at 25.92, #2 in the class and the leading high school option by far. As a big tooled-up high school outfielder he brings a comp of Bubba Starling in 2011. While that name might cause some fear, recall that Starling represented a top-100 prospect for his first two pro seasons and was hailed as a five-tool talent coming into that draft as well. That said, Veen hasn’t split his time across two sports and has faced considerably better competition coming out of the Florida prep scene, including a home run against 2019’s top prep pitcher Matthew Allan.
The biggest question about Veen’s profile—other than the obvious questions inherent with drafting high school players—is Veen’s position. He plays CF in high school but scouts and the model project him in a corner spot, with the model throwing in some 1B/DH potential as well. This positional adjustment for Veen is -4.04 runs. If we were to cut his CF percentage in half, his positional adjustment would lower to -6.4 runs, taking his score down to 23.75. This drops him below Martin, Hancock, Gonzales, and Louisville lefty Reid Detmers (Who for reference’s sake comes in at 24.12). With all this in mind, Veen represents a very interesting option should the Orioles decide to go overslot at #31 or #40, as Veen could represent a $2.5 million savings if he were willing to sign for the #8 slot that Baseball America projects him for.
This year’s draft offers one seemingly sure option—which the Tigers seem likely to select—and several intriguing options available at #2, each of whom have a unique argument in their favor. Next week, we’ll look at the Orioles’ picks at #31 and #40 to see what players represent the best options to improve the farm system.
Dr. Stephen Loftus received his Ph.D. in Statistics from Virginia Tech in 2015 and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College. Prior to that, he worked as an Analyst in Baseball Research and Development for the Tampa Bay Rays, focusing on the Amateur Draft. He formerly wrote at FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. As a lifelong fan of the Orioles, he fondly remembers the playoff teams of 1996-97 and prefers to forget constantly impending doom of Jorge Julio, Albert Belle’s contract, and most years between 1998 and 2011.