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What can we learn from Michael Holmes’ past drafts?

The Giants’ new Director of Amateur Scouting has a lot of work ahead of him as he tries to remake the organization’s farm system into something resembling talented and/or competitive and/or interesting.

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I am here to write a post which I have entitled, “What can we learn from Michael Holmes’ past drafts?” Before proceeding on to the body of my work, however, allow me to begin with a series of caveats:

Whereas —

  • Scouting Directors are responsible for making draft selections, strategic direction for drafting tends to come from higher up the decision making chain, so while a series of similar picks may look like a reflection of the scouting director’s inclinations, they may, in fact represent the philosophies of upper management and/or ownership;
  • and whereas — Michael Holmes played an important role in the A’s drafting hierarchy for many years, he was never actually their Scouting Director (serving as Assistant Scouting Director for nearly a Decade) and so didn’t fully have the final say on draft decisions;
  • and whereas — Holmes has filled two vacant scouting positions since being hired by the Giants, most of the amateur scouting crew beating the bushes are the same guys who have been doing the scouting for Giants drafts for many, many years;
  • and whereas — close examination of the A’s drafting proclivities over the past decade leads me to the conclusion that they have no tendencies whatsoever;
  • and whereas — Michael Holmes has never been a full Scouting Director, new National Cross-Checker Brian Bridges has, having run the past four drafts for the Atlanta Braves;
  • and whereas — in Bridges time running they Braves, they showed extremely strong tendencies;
  • and whereas...
  • WTF John Barr is still making decisions now? Who’s running this show?!??!?
  • and whereas — scouting and development are a classic chicken-and-egg riddle in which nobody can fully parse out how much a great pick is made in the ensuing development, or how much of poor development is the fault of the original selection;

Be it hereby resolved that the past is a muddle from which we can derive neither certitude nor clarity in our search for greater understanding.

Excellent. Now let us to proceed to the body of my post: “What can we learn from Michael Holmes’ past drafts?”

Prior to joining the Giants as the team’s Scouting Director — and rejoining with Farhan Zaidi — Michael Holmes had spent his professional career across the Bay with the Oakland A’s. Following a short minor league career in the A’s system, Holmes returned to the staff of his alma mater Wake Forest to begin his post-playing career. When it came time to move to pro ball he once again chose an organization that was familiar to him, joining the A’s scouting department — moving from area scout to East Coast crosschecker and finally to Assistant Scouting Director, a position that he held from 2009 until this past winter. Though Holmes never had final say on draft choices with the A’s — working always under the shop of Scouting Director Eric Kubota — Holmes was a strong and steady voice in the decision making team.

One of the many persistent post-Moneyball myths about the A’s is that their drafting philosophy prioritizes the quicker return on investment and lessened risk of college picks. And while they certainly have had notable successes picking from the college ranks (Sonny Gray, Matt Chapman) a survey of their selections over the last decade shows no particularly overt insistence on that phylum. They have used their top pick on a high school player three times this decade, and gone to the high school pool (including the dreaded HS pitcher pool!) in their top 3 rounds nine times, including the 2012 draft when all three of their top picks came from the high school ranks — future big leaguers Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, and Matt Olson.

As for risk, in Holmes final draft with Oakland, they took an extraordinary swing of the bat in selecting Kyler Murray with the 10th pick, a risk that sadly blew up on them in spectacular fashion when Murray made a remarkable run to the Heisman Trophy award and up the NFL draft boards.

So is there any identifying principal we can locate in the A’s draft history? Melissa Lockard of the Athletic wrote an excellent piece earlier this year, giving some historical insight on what Holmes might be thinking going into this year’s #10 pick. She noted that in his time with Oakland, the A’s had four top 10 picks, using them on Michael Choice an OF from UTexas-Arlington (where he was teammate of former Giant Dan Ortmeier), Forida LHP A.J> Puk, high school OF Austin Beck, and Murray.

While Holmes wasn’t the final call on those selections, his voice was one of the most important in the room. All four players are different but one unifying characteristic is that they all came with some risk. Choice came from a smaller conference and there were questions about his swing; Puk had two plus offerings but command questions; Beck missed the summer showcase circuit before his senior season while rehabbing a knee injury; and Murray didn’t have the long baseball résumé typical of top-10 picks because of his football commitments. The A’s philosophy when drafting in the top-10 has been to try to select a high-ceiling, potential franchise-changing player — even if that player comes with risk — knowing that they can’t sign one in free agency. Whether that philosophy follows Holmes and Zaidi to San Francisco given the Giants’ different financial situation remains to be seen.

This gets us back to caveat #1 of course. Picks may show predilections of a Scouting Director, or they may reveal organizational priorities — or some combination of the two. The A’s tolerance for risk in the pursuit of stars was intricately connected to their payroll, their ownerships spending limits, and their sense of themselves as competitors in the free agent market. How will the instinct for risk translate to the very different circumstances — and ownership — across the Bay? It will likely take a few years to get a handle on the answer to that question.

Complicating matters more are the colleagues with whom Holmes now finds himself — or has actively chosen to work with. As noted above, while Holmes himself has never run his own shop, one of his first moves to bring in Brian Bridges who was so unexpectedly shaken loose from the Atlanta Braves. Bridges has been a scouting director — and a very successful one, running the Braves’ drafts since 2015.

  • And interestingly, unlike Holmes and the A’s, Bridges Braves displayed an extreme consistency of vision. Bridges has made seven 1st round selections with the Braves since 2015 and of those:
  • 6 have been high school players
  • 6 have been pitchers
  • 5 have been high school pitchers

The list includes a couple of guys the Giants got very familiar with this week — RHP Michael Soroka and 3b/LF Austin Riley, as well as a couple of guys who have made their big league debuts but have yet to stick (Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard), as well as current cause celebre Carter Stewart (that’s a whole other article!). Add in even more high school players taken in the 2nd and 3rd rounds and you have a lot of the cream of Atlanta’s prospect crop (Ian Anderson, Drew Waters, Joey Wentz, Freddy Tarnok).

But on the other other hand, Holmes also still has the knowledge and talent of John Barr and Barr’s entire scouting department to work with — many of whom have been with the organizations for literal decades and have a long history of finding talent off the beaten paths of scouting.

Again from yet another excellent Athletic piece by Melissa Lockard:

“John was the first person I called after I was hired because it was important to me to reach out to him,” Holmes said. “I’ve known him for some time being on the other side of the Bay. I think the world of him not only professionally but also personally. I think he’s a tremendous person.

“At the Winter Meetings, we spent a lot of time together talking. It was a good opportunity for me to let him know that I still wanted him to be a part of this because the resource to have him around to run ideas by and talk over things and, most importantly, his history of evaluating is definitely something I want him to be a part of.”

Zaidi says of Barr remaining involved in the Giants’ draft discussions: “I think this is going to give us a chance to get the best of both worlds in terms of the evaluation process.”

So what does this all add up to? The Giants have historically liked to inject uncertainty into the draft, and now with a new regime in place predicting their behavior is even more a fool’s errand.

Will they look for an advanced college guy to join Joey Bart on a (hoped for) quick journey through the minors? Will the prioritize star potential even attached to a risky profile?

The 2019 draft seems to be coalescing around a solid 6-player tier at the top (Rutschman, Vaughn, Witt, Abrams, Greene and Bleday) and a less solid group after that of 3 to 5 players who scouts have less conviction on (Bishop, Lodolo, Langeliers, Stott).

That alignment might mean that the Giants are right at the edge of the consensus upper tiers of talent — although that could change if teams go after underslot deals near the top and push players down. If Bishop, for instance, is there at the 10 spot, he might offer the best combination of certainty and upside in the college group and be an easy choice. Behind Bishop at the very end of the upper tier college bats is Stott who seems much more likely to be there at 10, but garners slightly less conviction from scouts.

We know the Giants have been on Stott. IF they are convicted on him as a player, then the choice might be easy. He’s is there at 10; they believe; he’s theirs.

But if that conviction is lacking on Stott is there a bigger — or at least different — swing of the bat they might want to take? I’ll leave by noting one interesting connection between Holmes and Bridges — both started as scouts in the Southeast region and both still maintain homes in the southeast (Holmes in North Carolina and Bridges in Georgia). Given Bridges love of High School pitching and Holmes appreciation of high upside athleticism, let me toss another possibility that might fill all the buckets.

Florida Prep RHP Matthew Allan is a big bodied arm in the southeast area who seems like an absolutely prototypical Braves pick of the Bridges regime. HS RHP are a notoriously risky phylum at the top of drafts (and Giants brass has connected to WVU RHP Alex Manoah a lot this spring, too, if that might scratch the power pitching itch). But Allan, who brings a physique somewhat reminiscent of a young Matt Cain, has been steady all spring and boasts one of the better fastballs in the prep class.

If Stott’s not the guy, is Allan? Seems to fit with what we know of the past, but then, the past is a muddle from which we can derive neither certitude nor clarity in our search for greater understanding.