The 1999 MLB amateur draft was approaching. Tampa Bay – coming off their first ever season in franchise history – owned the first overall pick. They had their eyes on two particular prospects. Both were high school prospects hailing from the Southeast part of the country; one a right handed pitcher from Spring, TX, the other an outfielder from Raleigh. NC.
On the surface, both seemed like can’t miss prospects. The pitcher from Texas – going into his junior year – had been named by Baseball America as the best prospect in the country. As a senior, he was named High School Player of the Year by USA Today. His bravado and blistering fastball overpowered high school hitters, tossing three no-hitters his junior year. He had committed to play baseball at Texas A&M, but it was well known he would not be attending college. The only question was if he were to go first overall to Tampa, or second to the Florida Marlins. If he were to go first, he would make MLB Draft history. No high school right handed pitcher had ever been taken first overall.
His competition from North Carolina also shared a strong arm, but his bat is what made him special. During his senior season, he hit .529 in 25 games with 13 home runs, 20 stolen bases, and 35 runs batted in. His 60 yard dash clocked at a 6.7. He could throw a baseball 97 mph from the outfield. He regularly parked baseballs on to his high school’s football field – some estimated over 500 feet. His mesmerizing strength and power earned himself a nickname: “Hambone.”
When it came down to both prospects, the talent was undeniable. The differentiator was in the intangibles. The pitcher from Texas had no shortage of swagger. He was good – his fastball touching 99 mph – and he wasn’t afraid to let you know. This bravado created a layer of concern for Tampa Bay, giving the outfielder from Raleigh a slight edge. His personality anything but matched the swagger of his play: Straight edge kid, excellent grades, no drugs, alcohol, or girls. He even skipped his senior prom, worried he would get caught in the wrong crowd at the wrong time. Tampa Bay was sold. The talent would get him to the bigs. The character would keep him there for a long time.
With the first overall pick in the 1999 MLB Draft, Tampa Bay selected the outfielder from Raleigh giving him a then-record $3.96 million signing bonus. Four years later, most of it had been spent on crack cocaine. He didn’t play a single day in the big leagues for Tampa Bay. His name was Josh Hamilton.
The young man from Texas went second overall to the Florida Marlins. His name was Josh Beckett. Beckett made his big league debut in September of 2001. In 2003, he helped Florida win their first ever World Series in franchise history. He was named World Series MVP.
“If this works, then stats are really for losers, I guess.”
We’d seen this script before: Big, strong, mobile quarterback. Born and raised on the west coast. The best arm in the draft – maybe in the entire NFL. Can make all the throws. Has the ability to run through defenders or run circles around them. Dual sport athlete growing up, playing baseball through high school. Tremendous leader with strong intangibles – the first to show up and the last to leave. He’s the kind of prospect that most scouts salivate over.
That is – if you’re comfortable taking on the baggage.
For everything he possessed, this prospect had notorious issues with accuracy. In his last season in college, he completed 55.4 percent of his passes. He never eclipsed 60 percent. Instead of hanging in the pocket, he would bail early and rely on his athleticism to make plays. He had a tough time reading the field and making good decisions, often locking in on one receiver. He struggled against tougher competition, but also didn’t have a ton of skill options at his disposal. The consensus? Huge boom or bust potential. Has all the makings of a star, but a few glaring issues that need improvement. Picking him was real world Russian Roulette: If you hit, you become a Super Bowl contender. If you don’t, your franchise gets set back three years.
On draft day, this young man wasn’t the first quarterback taken off the board. He didn’t go in the top five picks. He eventually landed in the top 10 with a team from the AFC. No – his name was not Josh Allen. His name was Jake Locker, former standout quarterback prospect from the University of Washington. The draft year was 2011. Cam Newton went first overall to the Carolina Panthers. Locker went eighth to the Tennessee Titans.
Over four NFL seasons, Locker started 23 games for the Titans. He won just nine. Locker completed 57.5 percent of his passes, surpassing 60 percent just once in 2013 (in seven games). He threw 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, throwing more picks than touchdowns two separate seasons. He failed to throw for 2,000 yards in all but one. In 2014, Locker was replaced by LSU standout quarterback Zach Mettenberger. It was the last down of professional football he ever played, retiring in March of 2015.
Maybe that’s why we – myself included – were so harsh on Allen when the Bills took him seventh overall in 2018.
You can go down the list: Drew Lock, Ryan Mallett, Christian Hackenberg. All of these prospects had big arms, great mobility, and were tremendous leaders – but none could overcome their glaring issues with accuracy, decision making, and pocket presence. If you inserted Allen’s name into Locker’s draft report, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Their evaluations were interchangeable.
Their success has been anything but.
In Allen’s rookie season, he completed 52.8 percent of his passes and threw more picks (12) than touchdowns (10). Two seasons later, he finished second in the NFL MVP voting. In 2020, Allen completed 69.2 percent of his passes – the greatest single year improvement in NFL history (he completed 58.8 percent in 2019). He threw for 4,544 yards yards, 37 TD, and lead the Bills to their first playoff victory in 25 years. This past August, he penned a six year $258 million extension that will keep him in Buffalo through 2028. He’s the odds on favorite to win NFL MVP in 2022. He was the third quarterback taken off the board in 2018.
Five different teams – Cleveland, New York Giants, Jets, Denver, Indianapolis – had an opportunity to draft Allen before Buffalo did. Since then, only two have made playoff appearances. One (Cleveland) has won a playoff game. The other – Indianapolis – lost to (guess who) Allen’s Bills. This fall, Indianapolis will feature its fifth different quarterback under center over the past five years. If only they picked the right one five years ago…
At least they weren’t the only team that missed out on a prospect named Josh.
Josh Allen’s rise to fame isn’t just a reflection of a calculated gamble. It’s evidence of a situation most of us were completely unprepared for. Allen had all the red flags – accuracy issues, poor decision making, over-reliant on athleticism. As it turns out, these red flags weren’t fixed traits. They were fixable. Accuracy isn’t something that stagnates after high school. It’s a skill that can be improved. Teams didn’t miss out on Allen because of what he possessed. They missed out because they couldn’t get over what he did not. We predicted his path before giving him a chance to carve out his own.
We were wrong – but it’s not because teams failed to do their research. They just didn’t have the right comparison. Prospects like Allen don’t often pan out, so we used stories from the past to predict his future. Our inclination to draw comparisons caused us to draw the wrong comparison. Just imagine how different his draft stock would have been if Locker had blossomed into an NFL star.
Which makes Josh Hamilton’s story even more interesting.
It’s very similar to Allen’s, but for opposite reasons. Instead of red flags, Hamilton possessed all the green ones – polish, clean cut, no girls, drugs, or alcohol, great family, strong work ethic. The red flags he possessed were largely hidden. They only appeared when he got involved with the wrong crowds while rehabbing an injury. The character that ultimately separated him from Beckett ended up deteriorating after a few bad decisions. His unexpected downfall is a lesson in hindsight, but with critical foresight: The events with the largest ripple effects aren’t the ones we all predicted. They’re the ones no one could have.
Hamilton was everything we were taught to admire in a prospect – and then he wasn’t. Allen was everything we had been taught to avoid in a prospect – and then he wasn’t. In a world of white swans, Allen and Hamilton are black swans. They’re the outliers that broke the system.
Which means they’ll help us build a better one.
The amateur draft is arguably the biggest crapshoot in all of professional sports. Every year, teams spend hundreds and thousands of dollars, hours, and sweat equity evaluating prospects. Boards are built out months in advance. Day by day, names are added and erased. Film is assessed. Interviews are collected. Scouts are deployed. Local, national, and cross-checker scouts are all in constant communication. The objective is well-known: Find players that are going to help win championships.
The execution is where it gets a little messy.
To put the difficulty of this feat into perspective, over 600 young men will hear their name called this July in the 2022 MLB Amateur Draft. Four out of five will never make it to the show. Of the ones that do, seven out of ten will be out of baseball within six years. This means if you can get four of your 20 draft picks to the show and one of those to a second contract, you’ve outperformed the majority of the league. You wouldn’t listen to your local weatherman if he batted .200 on his forecasts. We celebrate scouts that do.
The biggest problem with drafts isn’t what we know. It’s wrestling with what we do not know. We’re not betting on where the prospect currently stands. We’re making an educated guess on what they’re going to look like in three to five years. This starts by eliminating guess work, since our decision is ultimately a guess. Models are built out and constructed using characteristics from prospects that blossomed into stars. We gather data on current prospects – subjective and objective – and cross-reference it against previous ones to look for patterns.
As we gather more information about each prospect, we build out a narrative. Giving a young man millions of dollars is a huge risk. Our best strategy to alleviate that risk is to give him a story. We’re constantly giving prospects a script to live up to (e.g. this kid reminds me of x big leaguer). You just have to make sure you give him the right one – which is where we were blatantly wrong on Hamilton and Allen.
The stories we craft are heavily dependent on the stories at our disposal. It’s why any white quarterback New England drafts after the fourth round gets a Tom Brady comparison (sorry Jared Stidham). Draft comps aren’t just a fun game to play. They’re how we paint a picture for a specific prospect. Calling 2022 NFL Draft WR prospect Garrett Wilson a “dynamic prospect with playmaking traits” doesn’t really differentiate himself from the pack. Comparing him to Buffalo’s All-Pro WR Stefon Diggs does.
People were largely skeptical of Allen because of the narratives around prospects with big arms and accuracy issues. It’s widely accepted throughout football that most quarterbacks don’t improve on their accuracy beyond college – some even claim high school. It’s not that it’s physically impossible. We just don’t often see it. As a result, we leaned on the stories we knew to be true – such as Locker’s.
When you’re making a draft pick that has franchise changing implications, it’s tough to lean on a story that’s not too popular. The right narrative alleviates the perception of risk. The lack of one only adds to it. You could argue this same reason is why Josh Beckett didn’t go first overall to Tampa Bay. Historically speaking, there isn’t a first round pick more volatile than the high school right handed pitcher. You can go down the list – Tyler Kolek (2014, No. 2 overall), Ashe Russell (2015, No. 21 overall), Kohl Stewart (2013, No. 4 overall), Riley Pint (2016, No. 4 overall). Whether it’s injury, stuff, or intangibles – we know high school arms often have huge boom or bust potential. If you’re picking first overall, you don’t want a player that might pan out. You need a player that will.
When faced between two picks of risk, you’re going to default to the one that’s safest – even if the other is more intriguing. You bet on the floor at the expense of the ceiling. In Hamilton’s case, the green flags he possessed alleviated enough doubt he wouldn’t pan out. His narrative was safer to trust. Beckett’s was riskier.
If we look at the 2018 NFL Draft, we see a similar pattern. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and USC’s Sam Darnold separated themselves as the “safe” picks in the draft. Allen, on the contrary, was much risker. Coming out of high school, Allen had zero Division I offers – opting to go to junior college his freshman year. He later transferred out to Wyoming; a small school in a conference not well known for producing top tier NFL talent. In reality, it was his only choice. He was awarded second-team all conference his sophomore year, but only mustered 1,812 yards and 16 TD during his final season. He was not an all-conference selection. For reference, Mayfield threw for 4,627 yards and 43 TD. Darnold totaled 4,143 yards and 26 TD. Mayfield completed 70.5 percent of his passes. Darnold completed 63.1 percent. Allen completed 56.3 percent.
Mayfield was a touch undersized at 6’1”, but you could see the fit – e.g. Russell Wilson. He played with a swagger that his teammates fed off, leading Oklahoma to two separate College Football Playoff appearances. His senior season, Mayfield famously planted Oklahoma’s flag on midfield at Ohio State after defeating the ranked Buckeyes on the road. For some, it was too much. Mayfield didn’t really care. He was going to bring it day in and day out, which made him an appealing option for a franchise craving a leader under center.
Darnold, on the other hand, was the dream quarterback prospect. He checked pretty much every box imaginable – 6’4” 220 lbs., hailing from a school (USC) with a strong lineage of NFL talent (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart). Smooth, natural passer, excellent footwork, strong intangibles, and a track record of success – famously throwing for 453 yards in a comeback win against Penn State in the 2016 Rose Bowl. His regression in 2017 was enough to make Cleveland take a chance on Mayfield, but it didn’t create enough doubt for the Jets to pass him up at three.
As it turns out, the safe picks weren’t so safe after all.
This past offseason, Cleveland traded for QB Deshaun Watson – meaning Mayfield’s time with the team has more than likely come to an end (pending Watson’s current legal situation). The Jets have since moved on from Sam Darnold, drafting BYU product Zach Wilson with the second pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Darnold is currently on Carolina, but lost his starting job last year to a familiar face in Cam Newton. Of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, two are still with the team that drafted them – Allen and 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson (Baltimore). Just like Beckett – the riskier picks ended up being the better picks.
Maybe it’s time we stop looking at where all the chips have been placed and start looking for where they have not.
If we learn anything from the 1999 MLB Draft and 2018 NFL Draft, we need to be cautious of the narratives we assign to prospects. What seem “safe” is not always safe. There’s inherent risk in every choice we make. We’re never going to take risk out of the equation – and we shouldn’t strive to. We can only seek to alleviate it as best as we can. All prospects will have their downfalls. Our job is to recognize the baggage they possess through a thorough evaluation and ultimately determine what we’re comfortable taking on. After all, traits are paradoxical.
While Tampa Bay loved the dedication and discipline from Hamilton throughout high school, you could argue these qualities fueled his downfall. When Hamilton first got hurt, he no longer had the ability to throw himself into baseball. If you’re not playing baseball games every evening, you’re going to find other ways to fill your time. This put him in a vulnerable situation with the wrong crowd at the wrong time. One bad decision ended up compounding into many bad decisions.
While people were concerned Allen didn’t play at a big school or put up big numbers in college, you could argue these traits became his biggest edge. He had been counted out his whole life, so he learned to never count himself out. Everything he did was done with a chip on his shoulder. All he needed was a foot in the door and the right situation, which Buffalo provided.
The stories of Hamilton and Allen illustrate one of the many paradoxes of life: The green flags can be red flags; the red flags can be green flags. The only thing left at this point is actually identifying these kinds of situations, to which an ugly truth presents itself: We’ll never know. We only know after they happen, which is the frustrating – but also exciting – part. They’re lessons in hindsight, but posses implications in foresight.
Let me explain.
Our system for evaluation is in constant calibration. The prospects we all get right aren’t the ones that have ripple effects on our decision making. They’re the ones most of us get wrong. We learn more from prospects like Allen and Hamilton than we do anyone else. They challenge everything we thought we knew because they defied everything we thought they were going to be. If you can guess right when everyone else guesses wrong, you’ll never have a better return on your investment.
While Allen and Hamilton have since updated our filing system of players, be sure of this: We are due to run into prospects with no precedent. They might have a unique niche or a glaring issue. Whatever it is, we are going to have to give them a grade. With that grade, we’re going to have to assign them a story. This story will dictate our attitude towards them, which makes it so important we don’t jump to the wrong one. If we don’t know the destination, we shouldn’t feel like we have to give them one. The stories we assign are the one we’re most familiar with – which ultimately becomes the problem. Everyone should have the opportunity to write their own story. If you script out the ending before they have the chance to write it, they never will. Or, better yet, they’ll write their own without your permission.
Plot twists are great entertainment until we become the entertainment.
We thought we knew what would happen to Hamilton and Allen based on what we knew from the past. We didn’t consider an alternative reality because it didn’t exist to that point. It’s only a matter of time before we run into this problem again. A story left untold is better than the wrong one that gets told. Most will learn these lessons in hindsight. Your goal should be to learn them with foresight.
Drafting will never going to be easy, and it never should be. Group think doesn’t differentiate yourself from the pack. Risk taking does. The amateur draft is the one consistent area of professional sports that is littered with taking chances we’ll never be certain of. The goal isn’t to be right. It’s to be less wrong year in and year out – because we will be wrong again.
Maybe stats are for losers, after all.