National Treasure (Part 1)
April 10, 2009

Sometimes people would rather sell an interesting story than tell the truth.  I'll admit there are times when that is perferable, but most of the time the facts are interesting enough to tell a compelling story without all the embellishments.   The book Fantasyland comes to mind but I'll save that one for another day. 

For example, for the last 30 or so years there is a large segment of the scientific community that posits that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid colliding with the earth in a region on the coast of Mexico they call Chicxulub.  They say that meteor about 6 miles in diameter impacted the earth, creating an explosion 200 miles square and that the impact created 500 foot tidal waves, massive blasts of heat, thrust portions of the earth's crust into space which fell back to earth superheating the atmosphere and causing acid rain and hell fire to fall all around the earth wiping out the dinosaurs.  Their evidence is that there is a layer of clay with a high concetration of an element common in asteroids and meteorites called iridium all over the earth.  No doubt a big meteorite hit the Earth where they say it did, but was it really responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs worldwide?

One of the main problems with this theory is that they are attributing the enormous fluctuations in termperature that occurred around the world at roughly that time to an event that spanned barely .0001% of the surface of the Earth.  Those kind of extreme numbers are a bit tough to get one's head around so let's reduce it to human scale.  If a man six feet tall weighing two hundred pounds represents the surface area of the Earth, the Chicxulub asteroid is a bullet not much larger than a water molecule (roughly .0000645 millimeters in diameter).  A human pore is 50 microns across and a micron is .0001 millimeters.  It seems a bit far fetched that a missile that size, regardless of how fast it is going, is going to have the kind of effect they are suggesting.  Some other scientists combat that problem by saying that there were multiple impacts all around the world, which there were.  But again, we're talking about maybe a dozen or so molecule bullets, not thousands or even hundreds.  And while those impacts most certainly would have wiped out life in the immediate areas, to suggest that a meteor hit in Mexico would have wiped out life in Mongolia just seems more science fiction than science to me.

Here's another huge problem with their theory: dinosaurs were dying out at a pretty fast rate well before Chicxulub.  Six million years before the impacts, there is evidence of extinctions of many species around the world.  In fact, there is no evidence that any prehistoric species lived longer than 2 or 3 million years so to suggest that something wiped any of them out is ignoring the possibility that they were already in the process of being wiped out by natural causes.  Something else that calls the theory into question is the fact that there was a much bigger mass extinction 200 million years before but during that one there were no impacts.  So apparently a meteor isn't required to wipe out life on the planet.  Here's another problem for the impact theory: if the meteor created huge temperature changes and acid rain, why didn't it wipe out amphibians and turtles in the region?  Those animals are among the most sensitive to those kinds of environmental changes, yet the Chicxulub impact area has one of the highest concentrations of amphibians and turtles on earth.  Still, my biggest problem with the Chicxulub impact theory is that they attribute world wide temperature changes that affected the terrestrial world for 100,000 years to an event that took minutes, at most only hours, to unfold.  To me, a meteor impact just isn't going to have that kind of staying power to affect things for that long. 

However, a volcano that covers 500,000 square miles that erupts for at least 30,000 years and perhaps as long as a million years might.  That would change the atmosphere and global temperature for quite a while.  And wouldn't you know it, such a volcano called the Deccan Flats (located in present day India) was erupting during that period.  And the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian period, 200 million years before the mass extinction of the dinosaurs... yes, that period was marked by a significant increase in volcanism, too.  That may not have been the reason all of those critters died (there are several possibilities including an increase in number and virility of diseases) but that makes far more sense than the lone meteor theory.  It also makes me think that the money being spent by the federal government to study volcanoes, particularly the Yellowstone Caldera which is overdue to blow, might be money very well spent.

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I read Tom Boswell's recent column suggesting that the Nationals would be wise to pass on Stephen Strasburg in this June's amateur draft.  If you haven't read by now, Strasburg is widely considered not only the best prospect in this draft, but by many scouts as a singular talent (like ARod or Ken Griffey Jr) and perhaps the best pitching prospect ever.  At first I thought "Boswell can't be serious."  But then I thought maybe he was just trying to be controversial.  It's a common practice these days - when they don't have something useful to say, talking heads often say something ridiculous to create a buzz.  This is what often passes for analysis on the Fox Network, ESPN, with many sportswriters like Jason Whitlock and about 90% of the fantasy sports columns on the internet.  Boswell's reasoning was that high-pick pitchers never work out.  He rambled at some length about how even the best top pick pitchers had only a .500 winning percentage and that the others simply failed to measure up at all.  Meanwhile, taking hitters with the top pick nearly always worked like a charm.

There are a few flaws with this reasoning, the first of which is the most obvious: who would the Nats pick otherwise?  Four of the top five amateurs this year are pitchers.  Two position players are also highly regarded but USC shortstop Grant Green is having a woeful start of the season and UNC 1B/OF Dustin Ackley might not be anything more than a glorified singles hitter.  Everyone acknowledges that the talent gulf between Strasburg and the others in this year's draft is enormous.  What Boswell is suggesting is akin to passing on Roger Clemens in order to select Placido Polanco just because Clemens is a pitcher.  Correct me if I am wrong, teams still need pitchers to play the game and judging by the Nats' efforts so far this year with the majors second worst ERA at 9.38, they could probably use a good one, no?

Looking deeper into his reasoning reveals some seroius flaws with his methodology.  Teams that pick first in the draft are generally the worst teams in baseball.  Often a part of the equation that puts an organization in that position is having an incompetent scouting department.  Sometimes, as with the Nats, they actually have a good scouting department but the team has just run into some horrible luck.  Sometimes, like the recent editions of the Rays and Diamondbacks, as well as the Mariners a few years back, the talent emerges all at once but not before a few more lean years after their big pick.  But most of the time, as with the Pirates and Padres in recent years, the failed selection is a product of some mix of poor scouting, management and ownership.  Here's a list of all the first overall picks:

Year     Name               Pos  Team
2008     Tim Beckham        SS   Tampa Bay Devil Rays 

2007     David Price         P   Tampa Bay Devil Rays

2006     Luke Hochevar       P   Kansas City Royals
2005     Justin Upton       ss   Arizona Diamondbacks
2004     Matt Bush          SS   San Diego Padres
2003     Delmon Young       OF   Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2002     Bryan Bullington    P   Pittsburgh Pirates
2001     Joe Mauer           C   Minnesota Twins
2000     Adrian Gonzalez    1B   Florida Marlins

1999     Josh Hamilton      OF   Tampa Bay Devil Rays

1998     Pat Burrell        1B   Philadelphia Phillies

1997     Matt Anderson       P   Detroit Tigers

1996     Kris Benson         P   Pittsburgh Pirates

1995     Darin Erstad       OF   California Angels

1994     Paul Wilson         P   New York Mets

1993     Alex Rodriguez     SS   Seattle Mariners

1992     Phil Nevin         3B   Houston Astros

1991     Brien Taylor        P   New York Yankees

1990     Chipper Jones      SS   Atlanta Braves

1989     Ben McDonald        P   Baltimore Orioles

1988     Andy Benes          P   San Diego Padres
1987     Ken Griffey        OF   Seattle Mariners
1986     Jeff King          3B   Pittsburgh Pirates

1985     B.J. Surhoff        C   Milwaukee Brewers

1984     Shawn Abner        OF   New York Mets

1983     Tim Belcher         P   Minnesota Twins
1982     Shawon Dunston     SS   Chicago Cubs
1981     Mike Moore          P   Seattle Mariners
1980     Darryl Strawberry  OF   New York Mets
1979     Al Chambers        OF   Seattle Mariners
1978     Bob Horner         3B   Atlanta Braves

1977     Harold Baines      OF   Chicago White Sox

1976     Floyd Bannister     P   Houston Astros

1975     Danny Goodwin       C   California Angels

1974     Bill Almon         SS   San Diego Padres

1973     David Clyde         P   Texas Rangers

1972     Dave Roberts       3B   San Diego Padres

1971     Danny Goodwin       C   Chicago White Sox
1970     Mike Ivie           C   San Diego Padres
1969     Jeff Burroughs     OF   Washington Senators II
1968     Tim Foli           SS   New York Mets
1967     Ron Blomberg       1B   New York Yankee
1966     Steve Chilcott     C    New York Mets
1965     Rick Monday        OF   Kansas City Athletics

Case in point, I don't think anyone outside the Royals and Pirates thought that Luke Hochevar or Bryan Bullington (respectively) were the best talents of those drafts.  I doubt many inside those organizations thought those were the right guys, yet those are the guys who were picked first.  While we are on that topic, if a team is incompetent at evaluating talent, does it really matter if they take a hitter or a pitcher?  I mean, Michael Lewis wrote how brilliant that A's were for exploiting the market with their drafts in his book, Moneyball, yet with 10 (!) first round picks over two of the most talent-laden drafts in recent memory (2002 and 2003) they were only able to produce 4 major league players and none of them are stars.  The best of the lot, Nick Swisher, is currently a reserve on the Yankees.  But I digress... apparently Boswell didn't remember such luminaries as Matt Bush, Shawn Abner, Al Chambers, Danny Goodwin and yes, Steve Chilcott, who was taken one pick before Reggie Jackson.  Let's not forget the underwhelming careers of first overall picks like Bill Almon, Ron Blomberg, Tim Foli and Mike Ivie.  Honestly, how many times did Boswell cast his Hall of Fame vote for Shawon Dunston, BJ Surhoff and Jeff King?  Nice players certainly, but also certainly not the best taken in their respective drafts.  Those honors belong respectively to Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown (a pitcher!) in 1986, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin (1985) and Dwight Gooden (1982... hey, isn't he a pitcher, too?). 

But maybe we should look at the so called first round pitching "failures", to see if there is a connection between them.  Some of the "failures" were due to team mismanagement.  The Yankees picking Brien Taylor was not a bad idea; their mistake was not having a bodyguard do all his bar fighting, something that cost him a broken pitching arm and thus a broken career.   I guess they never saw "Bull Durham".  David Clyde, just 18-years old when he was selected, didn't get even one minor league start before he was thrown to the major league hitters as a "local boy makes good" publicity ploy.  Mike Moore spent less than a year in the minors before he was pitching against major league hitters.  Either one of those guys might have become pretty good had they been afforded a few years in the minors to learn their craft.

He cites Andy Benes as an example of the best a top-pick pitcher can do using his won-loss record as his baromoter.  That is either the height of ignorance or intellectually dishonest.  Even if Benes had pitched like the second coming of Walter Johnson he was not going to win more than 15 or 16 games pitching for some of those terrible fire-sale Padre teams.  When he did pitch for a pretty good Cardinals team, he won 18 games.  Funny how that works.  To be honest, Benes was another guy rushed to the majors who could have used a full season in the minors to perfect his craft.  Boswell's whipping boy Ben McDonald was a great college pitcher but everyone knew his fastball was as straight as a string.  He spent the better part of his major league career tinking with his grip in order to get movement on it.  Two minor league starts was all he was afforded before he was annointed as the savior of the Orioles' big league staff by, among others, Boswell himself.  All totalled, he made 14 starts in the minors over his first three seasons as a professional.  Perhaps a little more seasoning was what he needed rather than a lower draft selection.

The biggest oversight in Boswell's calculations is that he completely ignores the abuse that some of the pitchers endured during their first few years, usage that seems criminal by today's standards.  Take the number of innings Gooden pitched at an early age:

191 innings as an 18-year old at single-A Lynchburg
218 innings as a 19-year old in the majors the following year
276 innings in the majors as a 20-year old the year after that. 
250 innings in the majors at age 21 the year after that.

Is it really surprising after that kind of workload that he came up a little lame in 1987 and was never the same? 

As for the others, does he really believe that Paul Wilson's career would have bottomed out as badly as it did without Dallas Green's overuse sending him to the operating table?  He cites Ben McDonald as an example of a failed first pick but fails to remember the exorbitant pitch counts that he endured his final season at LSU.  Or Dusty Baker's criminal handling of Mark Prior, the #2 pick overall in 2001, down the stretch in 2003 where he topped 130 pitches nine times in the final two months.  Strasburg is highly unlikely to fall victim to this kind of workload as organizations are much more cognizant of the risks associated with overwork now.  In fact, Strasburg's current manager Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn already gets it and refuses to let him throw more than 115 pitches in any outing. 

Boswell sniffs at picks like Tim Belcher, but fails to acknnowledge that the next 10 picks in that draft - Kurt Stillwell, Jeff Kunkel, Eddie Williams, Stan Hilton, Jackie Davidson, Darrel Akerfelds, Robbie Wine, Matt Stark, Ray Hayward and Dave Clark - weren't exactly Hall of Famers.  Belcher was clearly better than any of them, both as an amateur and a professional by any objective measure.  Six of those guys are hitters so the teams picking the supposedly safe hitters went 0-for-6.  If you include Ron Delucchi, Terry Bell, Stan Jefferson, Gary Thurman, Ricky Jordan, Mark Doran, Jim Lindeman and Russ Morman, teams picking hitters in the first round that year pretty much went 0-for14 as far as finding a better player than Belcher, whereas teams picking pitchers at least came away with two guys they could count on for a few years: Belcher and the guy that turned out to be the best pick of that draft, the #19 overall, Roger Clemens. 

What is clear from looking at the list of top picks is that the most important factor in a successful draft is who is picking, not who is being picked.  The Rays had four #1 picks in the last 10 years and Hamilton is already one of the best players in the game.  Young, Price and Beckham certainly seem to have the talent to join him. While Roger Jongewaard was with the Mariners, he had two #1 picks (1987 and 1993) and he nailed both of them.  Mike Rizzo of the Diamondbacks had one opportunity at a #1 in 2005 - and coincidentally he's the same guy who will be picking for the Nationals this year - and he nailed it.  Conversely, looking at the Pirates and Royals history, it wouldn't matter if Babe Ruth in his prime was available, they would have whiffed with their #1s.   

It goes without saying that drafting is as much art as science.  However, it is clear that some teams are getting much better at figuring out which players are going to have long term value.  The reason they are getting better at it is because they have people who know talent when they see it doing the picking.  The Nationals are fortunate to have one of the best crews in this regard so to suggest that they abandon their good senses because some sportswriter decides he knows more about drafts than they do because he's done a little reading is patently absurd.  Strasburg is clearly the best pick in this year's draft, and high bonus demands or not the Nats should take him, get a deal done, and hope that his career turns out as well as some of the other singular talents of the last 30 years.  Just as with the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the correct answer for the Nats is probably the most obvious one. 

Part 2 - What's wrong with the 2009 Nats?

Part 3 - That Good?

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