Revisiting Imbalanced Drafting Strategies

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Photo by user “Tsyp9”, via Wikimedia Commons.

At Hockey-Graphs, we like to provide data-based answers to questions. It’s what we do. But it’s also good to recognize issues in the analytics world that haven’t yet been addressed. Sometimes that’s the case because we don’t have the data we need available, and sometimes it’s because the question has yet to be properly framed. It’s important to know what we don’t know, and to talk about it regardless.

There has been some great draft work done at our site and elsewhere in the last few years, and one of the findings has been the volatility of drafting defensemen relative to forwards. Couple that with claims that forwards have more of an impact on shot rates than defensemen, and one would be tempted to claim that avoiding defensemen altogether would be a solid draft strategy (though I’ll note that most analysts think this is taking the conclusion too far).

The Edmonton Oilers, not entirely of their own choosing, have been stuck in a pattern of drafting forwards high, and continue to struggle without any of the stud blueliners that tend to accompany Stanley Cup champions. It’s an anecdote and an incomplete one; we don’t have examples in hockey of teams that have exclusively drafted forwards.

But in baseball things are a little different. Teams have become more willing to go to extremes to try and get an edge. I wrote my first ever post at my blog, AP Hockey, about the Chicago Cubs and their unique strategy of mostly ignoring pitchers at the draft. Position players, like forwards in hockey, have been shown to be more projectable and thus better bets as draft picks. I wrote about how it might be worth looking into a similar strategy in hockey, where a team emphasizes drafting forwards, and then trades for young defensemen like Nick Leddy, Nathan Beaulieu, Jake Gardiner, Sami Vatanen and others who have been traded or have been rumored to be on the block in recent years, once they’ve shown some promise.

Following the Cubs’ defeat in the NLCS, the public is now asking questions about the Cubs’ strategy. The Chicago club was thoroughly outclassed by a Mets team with more pitching depth, through a combination of high draft picks, slow developing sleeper prospects, and trade acquisitions. Conventional knowledge is that pitching – like defense in hockey – wins in the playoffs. The Cubs had the hitting, but they didn’t have that pitching.

So where does this leave on the Cubs’ approach? What does it mean for Sham Sharron and for those that claim a top pick should never be used on a defenseman?

As teams invest more in analytics, it is going to become harder to trade for young talent – guys like a Leddy on the block will become even more rare – so the idea of trading to even out a talent deficiency at one position will likely become implausible. Maybe the Cubs could have traded some of their hitting for a young arm or two, and maybe they now will, but good luck finding a team willing to give one up.

So let’s frame this question, so that it can be discussed and researched further.

“Can imbalanced drafting strategies be corrected for through trade, delivering higher expected prospect value than conventional thinking?”

As I mentioned at the top, I don’t have an answer to this question, but it’s something to monitor going forward. Will the Cubs stick to their plan and find ways to correct their flaw? Will the Oilers manage to improve their defense corps enough to drive their young forwards into contention? The question has now been asked, let’s hope the case studies come next.

5 thoughts on “Revisiting Imbalanced Drafting Strategies

  1. To be fair, the Cubs actually have some pretty extraordinary pitching, it just abandoned ship during the postseason. But WRT picking only forwards…I think the Franson deal is a pretty big indicator that teams still are leaving defense talent lying around for the picking, in the same kind of way that the Cubs can scoop up pitching talent. Now if only we could figure out a “teach him to pitch a cutter” strategy for defensemen.

    • Well I dunno about extraordinary. It was good, but there was clearly something of a lack of depth. And Lester they only got cause most $$$. Dunno whether Arrieta was luck or something else, but maybe that’s a point in their favor. And yeah guys like Franson are out there, but real no. 1 dmen rarely are. And teams just don’t seem to do much in the playoffs without them (except for rare exceptions).

      • Maybe #1 d-men are rare, but when Franson was available, it’s not like we saw a feeding frenzy. So identifying them is still not particularly sharp.

  2. Good question. In game theory, a population would never select a single option or they risk being wiped out due to being homogeneous, rather create some sort of evolutionary stable strategy. A evolutionary stable state would be something like teams draft the share of forwards they need (13/23) adjusted for risk factors, whether they are development based (which you alluded to) or transfer agreements.

    Like you said, teams can trade talent for talent, but you would expect teams to extract a premium out of the assets they have taken risks with or development time with (D). A single team may have some room for improvement with this knowledge, but I imagine the system functions fairly close to an ESS as a whole.

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