What is Mike Elias's Draft Strategy, Anyway?
It's more straight forward than you think
Fairly recently, there was another Orioles Twitter war. This one, in particular, had to do more with Elias’s overall draft strategy as a GM. There was a comment that raised my eyebrow, particularly around a critique of Mike Elias: that he wasn’t particularly good at identifying talent. Specifically high school talent. The comment went so far as to say that Elias read/watched a little bit too much Moneyball. Basically, saying that Elias’s strategy is simplistic/basic.
To those that aren’t entirely familiar with Moneyball (either the movie or the book), the draft strategy of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics GM, was one that shied away from high school pitchers. His particular reason is that high school pitchers were half as likely as college pitchers to reach the majors. It’s a risk adverse draft strategy as far as pitchers go, but it didn’t say much about as hardline of a strategy for hitters. The main logic against drafting high school hitters is that Beane wanted to stay away from drafting players that *looked* like ballplayers. He wanted to go off of *data* that proved that they could be major league ballplayers.
2019 - Draft Class
Flash forward to 2019, and its Elias’s first draft with the Orioles. Here are the first 11 picks:
By my count, there were 2 high school players drafted and 9 college players. However, 2 high school players were drafted in the first 5 rounds.
The Orioles have between the #1 and the #5 farm system (depending on which publication you favour). So, it’s perhaps pretty impressive that Gunnar Henderson is the O’s #3 prospect. Yes, a HS player.
2020 - Draft Class
The 2020 draft class was a small one due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of rounds was reduced from 40 down to 5. But of those 6 (the O’s had 2 picks in the first round which included a comp pick), there are some notable names on it.
Of those 6 picks, 4 were college, 2 high school. The 2 high schools picks: Coby Mayo (O’s #7 prospect) and Carter Baumler (29th).
2021 - Draft Class
The 2021 draft saw a return to the normal MLB draft - 40 rounds instead of the 5 during the start of the pandemic. And with it saw a very college heavy focus from Elias and team. 10 of the 11 picks in the first 10 rounds were college players with only Creed Willems standing out as the lone HS player.
Overall Draft Strategy - Orioles
Of the 28 MLB draft picks from Elias listed above, here are some takeaways:
4 pitchers, 24 position players
5 high school players, 23 college players
2 second basemen
2 third basemen
*For the position players, we are going off of primary position listed, although there is definitely position flexibility for a number of them.
So, what can we ascertain here? Well, it’s clear that Elias prefers college players…and that he prefers position players. 5 out of 28 high school players is roughly 18%. But only 4 pitchers? That’s astonishingly low.
Overall Draft Strategy - Astros
If we look at his days back at the Astros, the Elias/Orioles philosophy wasn’t 100% adhered to. In 2012, famously, he drafted Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers in the 1st round, both high school players.
If we look at the 2012-2018 drafts with the Astros, let’s see if there was a similar trend:
11 picks = 5 HS, 6 college - 5 pitchers, 6 position
10 picks = 3 HS, 7 college - 4 pitchers, 6 position
11 picks = 2 HS*, 9 college - 7 pitchers, 4 position
12 picks = 3 HS*, 9 college - 6 pitchers, 6 position
*Extra 1st round for Brady Aiken
10 picks = 1 HS, 9 college - 6 pitchers, 4 position
12 picks = 2 HS, 10 college - 6 pitchers, 6 position
10 picks = 1 HS, 9 college - 4 pitchers, 6 position
Of the 76 picks of the first 10 rounds from 2012-2018, 17 were HS players, 59 college. Only 22% HS. OK, that’s clearly a heavy preference for college. Very much in line with the 18% with Elias’s time with the Orioles so far.
But what about the pitcher side of things?
38 pitchers, 38 position. A perfect 50/50 split. So, what gives here? Elias and Company with the Astros didn’t have a preference or approach either way when it came between position and starting pitchers. But they clearly had a preference on the college vs. HS argument.
OK, so what can we gather so far? Things I’m fairly confident in: Elias prefers college players over high school. We have enough time between 2012-2021 to come to that conclusion.
Things I’m less unsure of: why is Elias going position player heavy in the last 3 drafts? Well, I’ll take a stab at things.
In 2018, Baseball Prospectus had the Top 10 Orioles prospects as the following:
Ryan Mountcastle, 3B
Austin Hays, OF
DL Hall, LHP
Chance Sisco, C
Cedric Mullins, OF
Hunter Harvey, RHP
Keegan Akin, LHP
D.J. Stewart, OF
Zac Lowther, LHP
Tanner Scott, LHP
If you look at that list (by 2020), everybody but Hall and Lowther made their major league debut. And it wasn’t a particularly compelling farm system. We are talking bottom 25-30. There desperately needed a new transfusion of talent into the system. But the main question I have is: why nearly exclusively positional talent?
Well, by the end of 2018, a number of prospects were added and/or drafted that altered the calculus of the Orioles farm system. Of particular note: Grayson Rodriguez and a number of other arms that were acquired in the Duquette Firesale (debacle). Duquette went for quantity over quality, but it did add a bunch of near MLB caliber pitching, even if it wasn’t necessarily high impact.
This left Elias having to do 3 things simultaneously:
Over-index on position players
Get college talent that is close to the majors to help jumpstart both an anemic MLB and minor league org
Rely on a bunch of the arms from the Duquette era: Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Bruce Zimmermann, Alexander Wells, Keegan Akin
It’s no surprise to me that this is a make it or break it year for Kremer, Lowther, Zimmermann, Wells and Akin. There’s Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Mike Baumann, Kyle Bradish waiting in the wings. But who is after them?
2022 Draft Predictions (and Beyond)
If Elias’s strategy was to overly index on position players, get college bats to try and supercharge a very depleted system *and* to force the Duquette starting pitching prospects/players to step up, the logical question is - what next?
Well, the consensus top 3 players in the 2022 draft are all high school players. And they’re all position players. Druw Jones (OF), Termarr Johnson (2B), Elijah Green (OF). I think Elias goes either Jones or Johnson.
So, that begs the question - what to do after that? They have 5 picks in the first 80. I think they start drafting pitchers more often.
But after that, with a loaded farm system made even stronger, you’ll start seeing Elias either sign starting pitchers or trade from their position depth in the farm system.
Summing It Up
Do I think Elias is bad at identifying young talent? I don’t think so. Players like Gunnar Henderson, Coby Mayo are going to be impact players for the Orioles. Carter Baumler, recovering from Tommy John Surgery, I anticipate will climb through the ranks more quickly than his #29 ranking would indicate.
On the other side of the coin, the MLB Amateur Draft is just one source of talent. 4 of the Top 30 Orioles prospects are international free agent signings: Prieto, Basallo, Hernandez, Arias. And Elias has buyin to spend all of their international allocation, in addition to having built a better international presence and infrastructure. There were also some savvy acquisitions from, say, the Andrew Cashner trade and elsewhere -i.e. don’t sleep on young, international signings like Moises Chace who isn’t yet on any prospect rankings.
If we look at some of the trades that have helped the O’s farm system, pitchers like Stallings, Pinto, Bradish, Brnovich, Peek have also helped buoy some depth.
I think if you look at the combination of international signings and trades, players acquired through trade, overall draft strategy, I don’t share any viewpoint that Elias has a basic strategy. No, I think it’s a mostly clear strategy based on the state of the Orioles when he became GM.
Now let’s hope that Druw Jones is the 2nd most beloved Orioles Jones to put on the uniform in fairly short order.