Round 1, Pick 1: Rutschman, Witt…or Vaughn?
The Orioles have been on the clock for over 7 months, and now crunch time has begun. The draft is a little over two weeks away, and a good portion of the franchise’s future rides on the results of those 36 picks made over three days. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be discussing some of the choices that the Orioles face, focusing in on 1) Round 1 Pick 1, 2) The rest of Day 1, Round 2 and Comp. Round B, 3) Day 2, Rounds 3 through 10, and 4) Rounds 11 through 35.
In evaluating these players, I will be using one main tool: a player’s DRAFT (Data Reasoned Amateur Future Talent) Score. This score is the output of a model designed by myself, similar in spirit—if not in particulars—to the draft models that I helped create as an Analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays. The particulars of the model will be discussed at a later point, but I will give a quick summary below.
In its simplest form the model takes inputs about Amateur players eligible for the Rule 4 draft and predicts their future production—or talent—based on these inputs. The inputs are things including assessment about player’s talents—draft rankings from agencies such as Baseball America—college statistics adjusted for college opponents—available for Division I players—biographical information—age, height, weight, etc.—and other information about a player’s accomplishments—participation in elite Summer showcases, National Team participation, etc. After collecting all this information, it is used to predict two quantities: a player’s probability of ever reaching the majors and how many Runs Above Replacement (RAR) a player should put up in an average season given that he gets there. These two predictions are combined into a single score which represents a player’s average contribution to the team, accounting for the chance that they do not make the majors and that they fail to perform at a level that team’s are willing to play them.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Generally, the scores are positive, with the average score being quite low—much less than 1. This is unsurprising, as the majority of drafted players will never make the major leagues, and even if they did would likely not produce much value. A player putting up a score greater than 1.00 has value, as this usually means he has a distinct possibility of putting up value for his team. A player with a score of 5.00 or more usually deserves first-round consideration, and over 10.00 is a top-15 pick. Top-10 picks have scores consistently topping 20.00, with #1 overall picks usually coming in right near 30.00. Pitchers—due to the extreme variability inherent in their evaluation—rarely top the list of scores, but they usually have a run once the top-15 or so batters come off the board.
But enough discussion of the model, let’s look at the results of this year’s class, particularly the three players expected to top the boards for most organizations: Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr., and Andrew Vaughn.
Rutschman has long been thought to be the top pick in this draft. Everyone has had him topping the rankings since February, and he has done nothing to dissuade those evaluations. After slashing .408/.505/.628 as a sophomore, he has improved in each one of those categories. His hit tool hasn’t degraded, and he sits fourth in the NCAA for batting average at .433. He has remained selective, improving his walk percentage by over 10 points, from 17.2% to 27.6%. Even scarier for pitchers, Rutschman has started to tap into his raw power more, going from 9 home runs to 16 home runs so far, slugging a ridiculous .793.
Even after adjusting for opponents, Rutschman has walked 15 percentage points more, an ISO .230 points higher, and struck out 8 percentage points lower than would be expected. The scouting grades are incredible, with it being likely that Rutschman will grade out at 50s and 60s in all categories save running—which isn’t exactly a worry for catchers.
Rutschman is simply the most talented amateur catcher that we have seen since Buster Posey in 2008 and Matt Wieters in 2007. His scores show that, with his DRAFT Score coming in at an impressive 30.81. The model gives him a 99.6% chance of making the majors in come capacity, and given that he makes the majors, he’d be expected to put up 31 RAR—approximately 3.4 WAR. This 30.81 score puts him in a category with several very impressive hitters, with similar scores include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Carlos Correa.
Rutschman represents something so rarely seen; a middle-of-the-order hitter with good defensive skills behind the plate. Scouts like his makeup as well, focusing on his leadership ability as one of Oregon State’s captains. Rutschman represents everything you want out of a top pick, and his score makes clear why he is so valued.
Bobby Witt Jr.
The son of a 16-year MLB veteran pitcher, Bobby Witt Jr. is a continuation in a long line of talented high school shortstops to top draft rankings over the past few years—a line that includes such names as Manny Machado, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Royce Lewis. Witt has a complete toolshed of skills, with a plus arm and soft hands in the field, excellent speed, and serious power potential. The only question that Witt has encountered is about his hit tool. He comes with a little more swing-and-miss than one might hope for from a top high school draft pick, but he has gone about much of late-2018 and 2019 fixing those concerns. In addition, he is a little older than the average high school draftee, turning 19 in June. While this might not seem like much of a concern, younger players—after adjusting for the academic class of the player—at the time of the draft usually turn out to be better players on the average.
Besides his obvious toolset, the success of highly drafted high school shortstops makes someone of Witt’s ilk highly coveted. With his DRAFT Score of 25.37, he comes in a little behind the tier of Machado-Correa-Lewis, but comfortably ahead of Seager. Due to the extra uncertainty in projecting high school players, Witt “only” has a 96% chance of making the majors, and given that he makes it he could be expected to put up 27.03 RAR. No question, an excellent score, even if it falls a little behind Rutschman.
Bobby Witt Jr. may put up over 20 home runs a year. He could put up serious value in the field at the most demanding position in fair territory. If both of those abilities come together at once, that’s a franchise quality player. If he reaches his ceiling, Bobby Witt Jr. could easily be the best player in this draft.
If you are going to be a RHB-Righty throwing first baseman standing at only 6 feet tall, you better be a special hitter. Andrew Vaughn is definitely a special hitter. His batting eye is incredible, as he’s walked 94 times the past two years compared to only 46 strikeouts. He has grade 80 raw power with a pretty swing. Even better, he has performed using the wood bats, batting .308 with a .346 ISO in the Cape Cod League in Summer 2018.
The biggest questions for Vaughn come with his profile. Again, he’s a righty-righty first baseman, and that doesn’t leave much room for error even before you account for his short and stocky stature. But scouts haven’t cared, seeing a special bat that can play in the pros. Baseball America has had him as high as #2, surpassing even the aforementioned Witt.
The DRAFT Score is also impressed by Vaughn, seeing the high regard scouts have for him combined with an impressive statistical profile. With a 99.1% chance of reaching the majors and a 29.1 expected RAR, Vaughn comes in with a score of 28.77, higher even than Witt’s impressive 25.36. It is distinctly possible that Witt has a higher ceiling due the extra variability inherent in all high school evaluations, but that is offset by the extra certainty that Vaughn’s college performance brings.
Andrew Vaughn will doubtless come with questions. Questions of stature, of position, of potential. But it’s hard to deny that he’s consistently put up numbers against some of the best competition college baseball can afford, and hard to deny what scouts see in him. Put it all together and you get a score that is equally hard to deny.
Where Does the Team Go?
There are potentially other options for the Orioles with this top pick. I didn’t mention J.J. Bleday—DRAFT Score of 25.24—the Vanderbilt outfielder leading college baseball in home runs with 23 while competing against the best collegiate pitching. He could conceivably represent an underslot option at the top of the draft. C.J. Abrams—DRAFT Score 23.27—is another prep shortstop, although one whose profile leans more on hit tool and speed than raw power.
But despite the other potential options, Round 1 Pick 1 truly comes down to the three players we discussed in detail. Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr., and Andrew Vaughn represent the top of this draft class, with Rutschman being a clear tier above the other two. While Witt and Vaughn have their strengths and supporters, Rutschman is a special player with scores that compare to some of the best prospects that we have seen in the past 10 years. These are players that have shaped the landscape of Major League Baseball, and Rutschman has that capability. Given all financial constraints can be met and the team does not have any underslot plans—more on that discussion later—the team should pursue Adley Rutschman, as it seems they likely will.
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 currently writes at FanGraphs and Baltimore Sports and Life, with previous work available at 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.