Does this peculiar Google search signal the end of draft grading?

For once, the answer to a headline question is Yes, maybe.

The 2013 Major League Baseball draft came to a close yesterday, at the end of 40 exhausting rounds. Until two years ago, the draft lasted 50! — and even that number was down from the inaugural event, which stretched into the 72nd round.

But though its length has changed over time, another aspect of the baseball draft hasn’t: trying to evaluate its impact just days after it ends is a guaranteed waste of time. Back in 1965 — that first draft — the Reds picked Johnny Bench in the second round, and Nolan Ryan wasn’t picked until the 12th. If those future Hall of Famers had been recognized as such on draft day, they probably would have been picked ahead of Les Rohr (New York Mets, 2nd overall pick), who never even appeared in an All Star Game, or Alex Barrett (Houston Astros, 4th overall pick), who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.* The limited value of draft-day prognosis is little improved today.

*Granted, these are not the best measures of a player’s value.

There are a lot of reasons it’s hard to tell how the draft will turn out when it happens. For one thing — unlike in the NBA and NFL — the vast majority of players spend years in the minor leagues before they ever — if they ever — crack a major league roster. For another, the MLB draft is so long — compared to two rounds in the NBA, and seven in the NFL — and so many players are drafted (and draft-eligible), that it’s impossible for any one reviewer to evaluate every pick in context. Finally, the draft is governed by complex rules limiting signing bonuses that often prevent players from signing with the teams that drafted them. Basically, until the players sign and start to play, all you’ve learned is a list of unfamiliar names.

But though it’s impossible to judge how a team did on draft day, that hasn’t stopped many people from trying. To nicely illustrate the futility of the practice, I’m going to shift focus briefly to the NFL. Just one year ago, the Seahawks’ draft was roundly panned: Mel Kiper (ESPN) gave them a C-, Chris Burke (Sports Illustrated) gave them a C, NFL Network — the league organ! — also gave them a C. One year later, it looks like the Hawks came out with the best draft class in football, and Mel Kiper didn’t even wait for the season to end before retroactively upgrading his grade from C- to an A.*

*I’d complain this is against the rules, but that’s part of the problem: there are no rules, and no accountability… and I don’t care.

Meanwhile, it’s instructive to examine the one reviewer who had the Seahawks pegged correctly from Day One — Kenneth Arthur over at Hawks blog Field Gulls put together the following report card:

[Player], [Round]-[Overall]: [Grade]

Bruce Irvin, 1-15: A
Bobby Wagner, 2-47: A
Russell Wilson, 3-75: A
Robert Turbin, 4-106: A
Jaye Howard, 4-114: A
Korey Toomer, 5-154: A
Jeremy Lane, 6-172: A
Winston Guy, 6-181: A
J.R. Sweezy, 7-225: A
Greg Scruggs (for whom it has been a lifetime Scruggle), 7-232: A

Overall Seahawks Draft Grade: F because if you think that arbitrary grades from me or anyone else mean a damn thing, then you are batshit insane.

And if that’s true in the NFL, with its short draft that regularly sees recent picks start on Opening Day, that’s even more true of MLB. Jeff Sullivan, now writing for USSM, explained just before this week’s draft that the event just isn’t worth losing sleep over:

People want opinions. They want strong, certain, oftentimes provocative opinions. This is not a desire to give in to. This is a desire to fight. It’s good to have opinions. It’s great to have opinions! But it’s critically important to recognize when you don’t have an opinion, or when you’re not sufficiently informed. It’s important to not always declare a position on something. It’s important to not be afraid of uncertainty. In this way, trust can be established and built. In this way, actual strong opinions can carry actual weight, standing out from the ordinary baseline.

It seemed like draft day was the right day for this post, because draft day brings out a whole host of strong opinions. Let’s make one thing clear: when it comes to roster construction, drafts are the thing you know about the least. You’re not out there scouting draft-eligible players. Scouting itself is in large part a subjective exercise, which is why so many scouts differ on so many players. There are statistics, but they’re empty, and no one really cares about numbers in high school or college. Numbers matter a lot in the majors, and a little in the minors. Draft-eligible players don’t have a meaningful, statistical track record. If there’s one time to just defer to the organization, it’s when it’s conducting a draft. They know more than you do, by a lot.

Smart writers like Sullivan and Arthur have been beating this drum for years, and widespread acceptance of their argument is long overdue. Which is why I got curious this morning to see how quickly Respected Baseball Outlets (TM) would manage to post grades of their own — and was pleasantly surprised to see the backlash against the practice finally seems to be gaining some traction. Just look at what happens when you google “mlb draft grades 2013” — or, more instructively, where Google really wants you to end up:

1234

Changing the words around doesn’t produce a significantly different result – hell, Googling “mlb draft report cards” is even worse because report is right in the search and the name of the hated website.

But in contrast to these monolithic results, running a similar search for another year will turn up a mix of articles from, yes, Bleacher Report, but also from other, similarly misguided, websites. So too, the first page of results for “nfl draft grades 2013” — which, as explained above, at least makes marginally more sense than grading baseball’s draft — produces articles from Bleacher Report, NFL.com, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and Football Outsiders.*

*In fairness to the eminent website, it produced not a Draft Report Card, but a Draft Report Card Report.

What’s responsible for the shift? One possibility* is that the NFL draft took place a month and a half ago, and everybody learned their lesson back in April! And if the only place still doing draft grades for the baseball draft is Bleacher Report — and for those unfamiliar with the site, that’s pretty much all you need to know about Bleacher Report — we’ve come a long way in a very short time. Ken Yirbu.

*I refuse to entertain the possibility that Bleacher Report is just doing a really good job manipulating Google’s search algorithm.

But seriously, when was the last time you searched for a generally general term, and Google turned up only a collection of hits from a single website nobody should ever be reading under any circumstances whatsoever? Pretty crazy, I think.

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