Jaws around baseball dropped when the Red Sox selected Nick Yorke with their first-round pick on Wednesday.
With the 17th pick, the team bet on a player it believes has special offensive potential. Red Sox northern California area scout Josh Labandeira saw in Yorke echoes of former Mets star David Wright, a player against whom Labandeira competed in the minors in 2003 and 2004.
Other teams recognized Yorke as a solid to excellent hitter, someone with an ability not just to pull the ball but to drill it to center and right-center. But questions loomed about his power potential, whether the second baseman would be able to stay in the middle of the field or eventually move to an infield corner, and about the health of his surgically repaired shoulder.
MLB.com had Yorke pegged as the No. 137 prospect in the draft, while Baseball America placed him at No. 99. A survey of scouts from different organizations offered an array of views about where they had Yorke — one in the second round, one in the third, another in the fourth or fifth.
But the Sox saw something different. The team was aware that its view of Yorke as one of the top 20 prospects in the draft was not aligned with public perception or with that of many other teams. To commit to Yorke, it had to confront a question: Why?
“It’s not comfortable,” Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni said of the split between where the team had Yorke on its board and where publications had placed him. “If you’re thinking rationally, there’s a serious argument to be made for wisdom of the crowds. You think to yourself, ‘Why is this happening? Why might this be the case?’ ”
Ultimately, the Red Sox came to a conclusion based on two elements: Trust in the views of their many scouts and evaluators who’d seen Yorke and trust in the processes that led them to buck industry opinion.
Labandeira had a history with Yorke dating to the Area Code games following the infielder’s sophomore season. As a coach for Yorke’s team, the scout got to sit in the dugout with the player and discuss what the player was seeing — an opposing pitcher’s patterns, his out pitch, what he might do with two strikes.
That attention to detail was complemented by a professional approach in the batter’s box —the purposeful batting practice complemented in games by strong pitch recognition and strike zone judgment, the ability to manipulate the bat to create consistent hard contact not just by selling out his swing and hitting to the pull side but also by staying with pitches and driving them around the field.
“He’s always had a unique kind of power,” said Labandeira. “He reminded me of David Wright, how his bat worked, his approach at the plate, the consistent, hard contact, his takes — he had professional takes and would see the ball early. He didn’t have a lot of chase. He just really, really knew how to handle the stick.”
Over time, the industry got glimpses of those traits — but mostly in small doses. He put up great numbers at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., hitting .500/.586/.837 with nine homers in his sophomore and junior years. But his exposure to the national showcase circuit was relatively limited thanks in part to the fact that Yorke had shoulder surgery prior to his junior year in 2019.
He served as a designated hitter all of last season and had only about 10 plate appearances in showcase games last summer. That limited number of at-bats likely influenced Yorke’s industry perception, while also limiting the sort of batted ball data (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.) that moves players up draft boards.
But Labandeira’s enthusiasm for Yorke entering his senior year, shared by other Sox evaluators who’d seen him and met him at the Area Code Games, ensured that the team would pay close attention to his campaign. Serendipity also helped. Toboni is a Bay Area native, and so when he visited family over the holidays, he worked out Yorke multiple times.
Entering the year, the Sox had him as a priority follow — someone who might be an early-round pick. As such, the team lined up several scouts to get looks at the start of his senior season — with Labandeira attending three of his five games, and crosscheckers likewise well represented, the Sox getting reports from perhaps about 10 of their evaluators.
There wasn’t a ton of data on Yorke given his absence from much of the showcase circuit. But the Sox had an unusually large contingent that saw that handful of games and saw Yorke excel.
He hit .533/.632/1.000 with two homers and a double off the top of the fence in center — an offseason spent adding 15 pounds of muscle contributing to growing power. He also regained looseness in his shoulder to answer some of the team’s defensive questions.
“I think our process was a lot more robust, I would guess, than any other team,” said Toboni. “And that allowed us to gain comfort with him, especially in that limited spring.”
The Sox had seen a similar phenomenon in 2015 with Andrew Benintendi at the University of Arkansas. As a draft-eligible sophomore, he went from obscurity to a mid-round consideration to a first-rounder during a breakout season that had many teams scrambling to get mid- and late-season looks at a player whom they hadn’t evaluated in any meaningful fashion.
With a full senior season, might Yorke have followed a similar trajectory? The Sox believed so — even as they recognized the potential dangers of such a conclusion on the basis of five games.
The Sox had to ask themselves, might he slip to the third round? And if so, might they be better off drafting another player they liked such as Pete Crow-Armstrong, then trying to grab Yorke later?
Crow-Armstrong (taken by the Mets at No. 19) would likely have required at least slot value to sign. Thus, even in the event that Yorke slipped to the third round, the Sox wouldn’t have had the available budget to sign him to an over-slot bonus to convince him to forgo a scholarship at the University of Arizona.
Put another way: If the Sox viewed Yorke and Crow-Armstrong as comparable talents, then by taking the player likely to command the lower bonus, it gave the team more financial freedom to try to secure a major talent with its subsequent picks. The team would be getting a player it loved in Yorke, while also preserving the greatest chance of making an impact with its three Day 2 selections.
Will it work? Time will tell, and other teams will be curious for an answer.
“[It] definitely will be a fascinating industry watch,” said a National League evaluator.