But Daedalus constructed wings for himself and his son, and enjoined his son, when he took to flight, neither to fly high, lest the glue should melt in the sun and the wings should drop off, nor to fly near the sea, lest the pinions should be detached by the damp. But the infatuated Icarus, disregarding his father’s injunctions, soared ever higher, till, the glue melting, he fell into the sea called after him Icarian, and perished.

- Apollodorus

Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.

- John Farrell

It’s always struck me as kind of strange that so many parables and idioms should be dedicated to limiting ambition. Maybe I take issue with it because of its conflict with the way my generation is constantly pigeonholed as being so expectant of success to the point of entitlement. Or perhaps it seems odd that we learn most of the tales while we’re young and in almost the same breath as our mothers telling us we can grow up to be whatever we want.

Judging solely by his family heritage, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the young general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Anthopoulos, is familiar with the myth of Icarus. Including his strategy at the Major League Baseball Rule IV Draft in one’s observation, it becomes certain that not only is Anthopoulos familiar with the commonly used story from Greek Mythology, but that he’s also able to turn it on its head and completely deconstruct it.

Imagine an Icarus with an army of experts at his side not only figuring out exactly how close to the sun he can fly, but also designing new wings, superior to his father’s, to take that flight even further. This should give you an idea of how the Toronto Blue Jays, with Anthopoulos in the captain’s chair and scouting director Andrew Tinnish at the helm, handled the 2011 first year player’s draft. Or if you prefer, consider Kevin Goldstein’s thoughts from Baseball Prospectus:

If the Blue Jays were any more aggressive in the draft they’d be punching someone with every pick.

In the first fifteen rounds of the draft, Toronto selected seventeen high school players. That’s as many as the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners combined. And these weren’t always the most easy to sign high schoolers being selected, either. The Blue Jays went after names like Tyler Beede and Daniel Norris, players with firm commitments to NCAA colleges who will cost serious money in signing bonuses to keep in the organization.

This wasn’t an accident by the Blue Jays. This draft was a culmination of sorts for Toronto. It’s the result of a plan that had been in motion since Alex Anthopoulos took over the reins as general manager and immediately moved to expand the scouting staff beyond what any other team in baseball had ever done before.

For other organizations, perhaps, drafting high school talent is a risky venture. It involves putting faith in a player who hasn’t fully developed, hasn’t faced the toughest of competition, and quite possibly hasn’t even been on their own, without his family, before. And on top of all that, he may just decide to turn down your offer and go to college where his stock could rise or fall.

However, its high school talent that often turn into the most elite prospects in baseball. And with the way that initial contracts work in Major League Baseball, it’s an elite talent that can be under team control for several years at an incredibly reduced rate.

The Toronto Blue Jays have found a way to mitigate the inherent risk in drafting high school players by going beyond their due diligence in putting together a profile for a prospective draft pick. We heard from ESPN’s Brendan Hall on our last podcast describe the lengths to which the Blue Jays went to find out all they could about Tyler Beede, including interviewing guidance counselors and teachers in addition to coaches and trainers. This is a direct result of the team’s investment in its scouting department and the manpower that it affords them.

Now, obviously, there are still risks involved, and in the case of Beede and Norris, it’s very possible that one was selected as a consolation prize in case the other doesn’t sign. However, the Blue Jays are targeting something with their strategy the likes of which Major League Baseball hasn’t seen before. Those who’ve read Moneyball or The Extra 2% know the importance of finding a market inefficiency and taking advantage of it.

The Blue Jays see the amazing possibility in attaining elite talent by investing in scouting and signing as a limited cost in comparison to the alternative for elite acquisitions: free agents. Where investments in scouting and signing create up to seven years of control at the Major League level, half of which at a minimum rate, and the other half at an arbitrated rate, large free agent signings often force the team to pay large chunks of money for a player during their decline as part of the cost of acquiring that player for one or two years of his prime, or during early part of their decline from it.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jays will never sign another free agent as they continue to build their system up through the draft. It merely means that instead of taking risks with the Albert Pujols or Prince Fielders that the Yankees and Red Sox salivate over, the team will be happy to take its risks in the form of the draft by selecting players that they’ve done more research on and have seen more than any other baseball team. The team will instead focus on using free agency for missing parts, for the right handed bat off the bench or the lefty reliever that left handed batter can’t hit.

We’ve heard the terms “sustained success” and “elite talent” often during the early years of the Anthopoulos regime, and we’ve caught glimpses of the team acquiring these types of players, or what they believe to be these types of players in the Roy Halladay trade, the Shaun Marcum deal and even the Adeiny Hechavaria signing. However, the 2011 draft was the first time that we saw the Blue Jays point themselves in the right direction and march specifically toward this goal.

I know that playoff baseball has been a long time coming in Toronto (only the Nationals, Royals and Pirates have had longer playoff droughts), and the last thing that fans want to hear is “only a couple more years,” but, unlike years past, this team is truly doing what it’s said that it would. And it’s doing it in a fashion that will not only ensure that it escapes from the playoffless labyrinth that it’s been confined to for too long, but also in a way that will potentially allow it to fly as close to the sun as it dares.

Or, to put it in John Farrell terms, you can be a hog as long as you eat where the butchers aren’t.

Comments (17)

  1. Whether we want to draft one or one hundred high schoolers, Prince Fielder would still look good in powder blue…

  2. cant believe they sent down drabek

  3. “The Toronto Blue Jays have found a way to mitigate the inherent risk in drafting high school players by going beyond their due diligence in putting together a profile for a prospective draft pick.”

    Do we have proof that this significantly mitigates risk? There may be serious diminishing returns to the amount of scouting effort you put on an individual player.

    Maybe “The TBJ’s BELIEVE they have found a way…” or “It is probably that the TBJ’s have found a way..” are more appropriate.

  4. @dc. Drabek got sent down? AA or AAA?

  5. There are a lot of baseless statements here. Just because the Jays drafted a bunch of high schoolers doesn’t mean they are somehow capitalizing on a market inefficiency – not sure how you could draw that conclusion.

    Here’s how I understand it: Billy Beane drafted college players because they were more projectable (?) than high schoolers. A’s got successful, Moneyball came out, and then everyone was drafting college players to the point where they were overvalued. Is that still the case? What’s the basis for assuming that it is?

    Taking risks on high schoolers is nice, but it would also be nice to temper some of that with more safe picks so your entire draft might not flame out.

  6. I agree with Ian on the market efficiency front. That doesn’t remotely make any sense, but maybe that’s because I am someone who spends way too much time studying the draft year in and year out.

    The most important thing with this is to take TB’s strategy of development. High school pitchers should never be rushed. Hellickson spent a year at each level. Moore has been the strikeout leader in the minors and is still spending a year at each level.

    If we are smart and patient with our high school prospects, waiting until a minimum of age 23 due to development purposes to bring them up here, we’ll have a better chance at finished products and not floundering by being much younger and moving up the ranks at a quick pace.

    Smart, steady development is the key here.

  7. They’re investing heavily in places where other teams aren’t investing as much which is leading them to making what other teams would consider more risky picks, but because they’ve invested so heavily in scouting, etc. they see them as being not as risky.

  8. @JRock: Returns and risk are different things. They’re going beyond normal process of scouting because their large staff allows them to. They go deeper than other teams for the purpose of making the picks less risky.

  9. @Parkes. Sorry, I threw in a term from economics and obviously I should’ve been more clear about what I meant. The returns in the way I used “diminishing returns” refer to getting less information (the return) on a player as you increase the amount of scouting effort (time) you expend on scouting them. Obviously increased information reduces uncertainty and mitigates risk. However, this may be a very small amount of increased information. Obviously AA and the Jays value the additional info or else they wouldn’t have collected it. Hopefully they are basing this on empirical work, because I would expect that the quality of information would also decrease as scouting effort is increased as well.

  10. “They’re investing heavily in places where other teams aren’t investing as much which is leading them to making what other teams would consider more risky picks, but because they’ve invested so heavily in scouting, etc. they see them as being not as risky.”

    Or they are more risk-loving than other teams?

    Or the Jays system is stocked with low-ceiling college prospects, so they need to add more risk into their overall portfolio of prospects?

    Or they are betting on the CBA imposing a hard slot, so they are taking advantage while they can?

    Or their picks are driven by having so many early picks?

    Probably all of the above. Scouting investment + CBA uncertainty + adding risk to the portfolio+ large # of picks

  11. You mean ‘Apollodorus’: it’s the author’s name. The book itself is known as The LIbrary.

  12. I enjoyed this. Nice read.

    Also, some of the comments helped reign in my enthusiasm. Not a bad thing.

    I certainly like the direction being taken here by AA and the Jays.

  13. @JRock and @Parkes. Gonna refute JRock a bit; in economics, two of the ways to build a sustainable competitive advantage is 1) incremental gains; and 2) continuous improvement. Diminishing returns are inevitable, but if the additional capital investment results in a 10% knowledge gap between the Jays and the next club, then you’re building a sustainable competitive advantage, as long as you maintain the spending to maintain the gap.

    As well, Parkes is talking about return-on-investment; sure, they’re spending x-million more each year on scouting & signing bonuses, but if it’s likely to save 3x-million in downstream free agent costs, that’s an awesome ROI.

    Great discussion.

  14. Awesome point and handle Ted_Williams’_Frozen Head.

  15. Also Farrell’s quote reminds me of one of my favourite movies of all time: “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”. “Snort! “Ain’t no trains goin’ to Wichita, less ‘un your a hog” Snort! Huck!”

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