The 2011 Major League Baseball draft will take place tonight, and hundreds of amateur athletes will be offered professional contracts to play baseball for an MLB organization. GMs and prospective players will be poring over the results, but for the average baseball fan the day will pass just like any other. Perhaps that’s not the biggest worry for baseball.
If you asked the average baseball fan to name five players in the MLB draft, they’d probably start a Google search on their smartphone. Despite shows like Grant Paulsen’s Minors and Majors and the Baseball America show on satellite radio, fans still aren’t fluent with the draft picks.
The reason for that is it’s like teaching yourself a university degree by cramming for your senior exam a month before. Fans haven’t been given the foundation for knowing the players. Hearing some names and facts in passing like Archie Bailey and 100 mph won’t replace following these players throughout high school and college.
Baseball just doesn’t have the same college following as the other major sports. March Madness ratings were the highest in 20 years, and the BCS football championships draw in tons of casual fans. Both sports captivate both the diehard fans and the average working man. Even the most casual fans will find themselves falling for March Madness hype and watching it on TV and being involved with office pools betting on the outcomes of the tournament.
That’s not the case when it comes to baseball. For whatever reason, baseball doesn’t have the same hype.
For one thing, college baseball doesn’t invest the same money into the sport. Football players are given full scholarships, some of those scholarship players not even making the active roster. In baseball, scholarships are given out sparingly, and often players receive at most a half scholarship. Either there isn’t the money put into baseball because there aren’t the tens of thousands of fans, or there aren’t the fans so they can’t put the money in. Either way, hype is down.
Another reason is that college baseball can still be called a different game. The most obvious difference is simply the use of metal bats, but for many baseball fans, this could be called a deal breaker. Fans will never accept the metallic ping of an aluminum bat over the crack of a good piece of white ash. When you watch a game live or on TV and you hear that ping, it creates that mental disconnect between real professional baseball and the sort of minor amateur baseball that still uses metal bats.
Some fans think a solution to adding hype and quality to college would be to mandate that all players must go to college before entering the draft. That’s a really bad idea as well. Consider how different Derek Jeter’s career would have looked had he gone to college for four years. Instead of chasing 3,000 hits, he’d be sitting somewhere near 2,400.
You’d also be missing out on some great young talent. Bryce Harper is the most exciting prospect in baseball, and he fast-tracked himself by getting his GED early. Even with a year of college, he was still only 18 when he was drafted. Another example is King Felix Hernandez, who made MLB when he was just 19 years old. Forcing these players through college to hype college would just be detracting from how amazing they could be in MLB.
But the biggest disconnect between college baseball and the other sports would simply be the popularity of the professional ranks. Many basketball fans prefer to watch the NCAA tournament to the NBA, and college football has a legendary following everywhere it’s played. When it comes to baseball, MLB is still the best game you can watch.
In terms of competition and popularity, it should mean that MLB is winning. You always want to cultivate fans and have them grow an all-out love for the sport, but at the same time you always want to be the most popular option. If a fan has a choice between watching MLB or the NCAA, shouldn’t they want to watch the very best?
MLB ensures the very best product by way of the minor league system, which brings us to another reason baseball fans don’t love the draft. It takes players several years before they even get a sniff at the majors.
For a typical drafted player out of high school, it’s a three- to five-year process for a very good player to reach MLB. For fans watching and keeping track of the players, that’s a very long time. Between trades, roster moves between the organization, Rule 5 picks, 40-man rosters and injuries, how are fans also supposed to keep track of players for a number of years?
The other factor with the minor leagues is how much talent can evolve and change. The Tampa Bay Rays passed on a chance to draft Albert Pujols. Top draft picks and first overall signings will often never materialize. Even after making it to MLB, Royals' first-round draft pick Alex Gordon took five seasons at the top level before he showed the potential the Royals had been looking for.
Compare that with Mike Piazza, who was drafted in the last round as a favor. It even took Jose Bautista until age 29 before he found his talent. Changing positions, injuries, falling short on potential—there are a hundred reasons why fans forget their prospects five years later.
One proposed solution to that problem would be to shrink the size of the minor-league system, and that would be an awful idea. MLB prides itself on keeping the quality of play at its highest possible standard, and rushing players too quickly to the big leagues will hurt that.
Consider Derek Jeter. Had he been rushed to MLB through a smaller minor-league system, his 56 errors in 126 games would have probably come at the major-league level. Fans don’t want to see that; they want to see well-played games.
Baseball is also a different game from the others in how often the minor leagues are drawn on during the season. Between ineffectiveness, trades, injuries, rehab, matchups and depth moves, baseball fans are assured the best possible game and lineup for each game. Sports like hockey, basketball and football draw much less on the minor-league system during a season.
Most importantly, for each level of the minor leagues that you remove, you would be removing 30 more teams from 30 more cities that follow baseball. Sure, players would join independent leagues, but having lived in a city that traded the MLB farm system for an independent league team, I know firsthand that attendance doesn’t remain. MLB farm systems are a far bigger draw than a Golden League team or a college team.
With this all said though, the MLB draft is still becoming much more of a big deal than it used to be. Organizations like Baseball America, Prospect Wire and MLB Trade Rumors profile prospective draft picks, and fans have more knowledge of who’s involved. Each draft round is published on the Internet, and fans tuning in can watch who was selected. Even prospects are more talked about, and blogs and websites everywhere are profiling and tracking the young players.
Baseball fans are definitely getting more knowledgeable about the sport; they’re just still moving backwards from MLB back down the ranks.
All in all, Major League Baseball does have a lot to be proud of. Perhaps the lack of interest on the draft is part of a larger problem, or perhaps it’s because MLB is so much more popular than other forms of baseball.
MLB still produces a top-quality product, and fan support is still larger than ever. Perhaps draft excitement will come in the future, but it should be far from baseball’s biggest worry.
They shouldn’t be worried over television ratings for the MLB draft. Maybe the other sports should be more worried about amateur athletes that are more exciting to watch than the national leagues.
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