We are less than a week from the start of the Major League Baseball Rule 4 draft. Not that we normally know who the Phillies will take with their pick (we didn’t learn they liked Cornelius Randolph until the week of the draft), but right now we only have a group of players the Phillies like, and we have to try and interpret the picks in front of them to have any clue who they may take. General consensus is that the Phillies will take a college player, and right now this has been denoted in mock drafts with the Phillies taking University of Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith. Jeff Israel did a great writeup on Smith on this site last week, and you should read that first to get a primer on him before diving into this. I also don’t want to address organizational fit for Smith as a fast moving college bat in an organization with Tommy Joseph and Rhys Hoskins. What I want to talk about is why historically you shouldn’t take a college first baseman early in the draft.
Here are all the college first baseman taken in the first round the draft since 2000:
- Chris Shaw (2015 – #31): Hitting .297/.368/.492 across AA and AAA, too early to have deep opinions
- Casey Gillaspie (2014 – #20): Hitting .217/.284/.340 in AAA, made BA’s preseason Top 100, career high is 18 home runs
- C.J. Cron (2011 – #17): Has 1200 major league PAs and has hit .264/.305/.443, was demoted to (and then recalled from) AAA
- Yonder Alonso (2008 – #7): Having a breakout year at age 30 in his 3rd organization, hit .269/.334/.387 in his first 7 seasons
- Justin Smoak (2008 – #11): Traded for Cliff Lee, hit poorly for Seattle, was ok in Toronto for two years, and at age 30 is having a good year (3.0 career bWAR in 882 games)
- Brett Wallace (2008 – #13): Hit .238/.316/.389 in 1440 PAs, currently not with a major league team
- David Cooper (2008 – #17): Appeared in only 72 major league games and was out of baseball in 2015
- Ike Davis (2008 – #18): Had a huge 2011 season and then hit .224/.320/.393 in 484 games after that, appeared in 8 MLB games in 2016
- Allen Dykstra (2008 – #23): Appeared in 13 games MLB in 2015 after logging 715 minor league games, was out of baseball after the season
- Matt LaPorta (2007 – #7): Traded for CC Sabathia, then had a 92 OPS+ in 291 games for the Indians and has not appeared in a MLB game since 2012
- Beau Mills (2007 – #13): Hit .267/.331/.449 over 629 minor league games and never reached the majors
- Michael Aubrey (2003 – #11): Played in 46 MLB games between 2008 and 2009, has been out of baseball since 2011
- Conor Jackson (2003 – #19): Had a solid run of success from 2006 to 2008 with Arizona where he had a 107 OPS+ in 414 games, and then bounced around for 3 more years of mediocrity after contracting Valley Fever in 2009
- Nick Swisher (2002 – #16): Had a 12 season MLB career of being solid, putting up 21.7 bWAR in 1527 games, and ended up playing more OF than 1B
- Casey Kotchman (2001 – #13): Hit 71 total home runs in 939 major league games, and stuck around the minors until 2016
A couple of things jump out immediately. The first is that 2008 was an unmitigated disaster. Alonso and Smoak are having breakout years on their third teams, and while their first teams got some trade value out of them, they have been complete busts up until this season. The other is that the sample size is small. Clearly the industry creates some bias by avoiding this type of player early in the draft. Even with that selection, the only player with a notable career was Nick Swisher and he ended up not being a first baseman in the majors.
The high school side is slightly better with Christian Yelich (2010 – #23), Eric Hosmer (2008 – #3), Prince Fielder (2002 – #7), James Loney (2002 – #19) and Adrian Gonzalez (2000 – #1) all having some amount of a major league career. So let’s flip this equation around and figure out how many current MLB first baseman were drafted as college first baseman.
I went to Baseball Reference and I found the 30 players who primarily play first base for their team with the most plate appearances this year. I then graphed out how they got their start in affiliated baseball.
- Justin Smoak (1st)
- Yonder Alonso (1st)
- Paul Goldschmidt (9th)
- Brandon Belt (5th)
- Mitch Moreland (17th)
- Justin Bour (25th)
Of those, Goldschmidt is a bonafide star, and Belt is probably a first division regular and is normally 3-4 wins a year. We already talked about Alonso and Smoak. Moreland has had a bit of a strange career and is having a career best year in Boston, with a whopping 116 OPS+. Bour is actually an interesting story, because he was a minor league Rule 5 pick who managed to scrap his way to the majors and what looks like a solid career. The college first basemen still make up the largest group of players contributing to the pool, but it isn’t the clear pathway. First base is the bottom of the baseball spectrum, and so it just gradually gets the best hitters from all of the other positions.
Pavin Smith might be a great hitter, and he could buck the trend. He does have an uphill battle to fight, because he doesn’t have huge raw power, and so his approach needs to translate completely to pro ball. Approach is probably the hardest skill to project, especially given inconsistent competition for players. This makes Smith too risky for me to take in the top of the first round. Maybe if he was killing the ball like Seth Beer (who we get to have this whole conversation about again next year), it would make more sense, but we see you can find guys with tools that may be in the same ballpark as Smith either later in the draft or out of one of the other player pools.