Major League Baseball’s draft is fast approaching—it starts this Monday. In preparation of that, I decided to ask a question that has been asked before, but research it in my own way just to demonstrate the value of drafting: What type of success can you expect out of draft picks?
Everyone knows that the first round picks are the most important, and it’s fairly obvious why. The players taken first should, in theory, be the best ones. But just how much better? If your team doesn’t have a pick until the later half of the first round, could it still strike gold? Well, yes, but it might be harder than you think.
My methodology was looking at the top 25 position players for each of the last 11 years (from 2000 to 2010), and compare them against their position in the draft. As a quick reference, I used Baseball-Reference.com and sorted top position players by Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. WAR calculates a players total contributions through batting, fielding, games played and position, although here it was mostly used as a quick way to find a year's best set of players. Then, I figured out what round and pick number each of those players was drafted (or, if they were an international free agent, marked them as such). Then, I did some rough tabulations on the data and came across the following.
The first overall pick is extremely important.
You probably knew this to some extent. What you might not know is just how important. On average, out of a given year’s 25 best players, 2.5 will be former number one overall picks. This group has included names like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr., Joe Mauer, Chipper Jones and Josh Hamilton. There is a very good chance these guys will be good and for a long time. This may seem low, considering how many first overall picks should be playing at any given time (my guess would be somewhere around a dozen at any one time). First of all, this data doesn’t include pitchers, and, second, this is easily the most well-represented draft slot. For example, the second overall pick didn’t show up at all under position players and only five times was one the third overall pick a top 25 player (Troy Glaus and Evan Longoria twice, and Jose Cruz, Jr. once). All told, in the last 11 years, the top 25 position players have included 27 seasons by a number one overall pick, meaning number one picks represent 9.375 percent of these seasons (288 seasons are counted, as there were several ties).
Envy the Rays.
The Rays get 10 first round picks this year, thanks to a savvy front office. That’s good for them because Round 1 is far and away the most important. Of the top seasons since 2000, a whopping 38.5 percent have come from just Round 1; the rest of the draft combined only produces around 37.5 percent. So, you really have to hope your first round pick is good. Having a successful draft after botching your first round is a bit like managing the Cubs to a World Series: You can probably do it, but you’re already starting at a disadvantage, and it will probably take a miracle (although one of the two will require a much larger miracle).
...But the Diamondbacks might be even better off.
As they couldn’t sign their first pick last year, the Diamondbacks get a compensation pick at number seven to go with their third overall pick. This is extremely good for them. What the first round is to the rest of the draft, the first 10 picks are to the remainder of the first round—that’s how important the first 10 overall picks are. Players drafted in the first 10 slots comprised 25.7 percent of the best seasons since 2000. It would make sense, as the worst teams get these slots in order to speed up rebuilding. How much better are the first 10 picks than the rest of the first round? We can assume that these spots averaged 2.6 percent of the best seasons each (in case you were wondering, that equals 7.5 seasons per slot). That leaves 12.8 percent for the rest of Round 1, based on what I calculated earlier. Assuming all 30 teams get a first round pick, that would leave at least 20 picks in the first round, meaning slots 11 through 30 average .64 percent of the best seasons each (meaning, in this case, each gets a little under two of the best seasons since 2000).
However, Round 1 also includes a sandwich round—compensation picks for teams that lost free agents, if they offered arbitration to the players—of varying numbers of picks; that’s how players like Aaron Rowand, David Wright and Brian Roberts are considered first round picks despite being drafted 35th, 38th and 50th overall. So, in reality, the percentage per slot for the rest of Round 1 is even lower than .64 percent. In case you were wondering, Round 1 this year is 60 picks.
International free agents are the second best source for building from within.
Sixty-nine of the top seasons (24.0 percent) came from an international free agent, or about 6.3 per year on average. That was just an interesting fact I found while researching. Analyzing international free agents would be an entirely different task, due to the fact that the process is not at all similar to the draft.
Rounds 2 through 5 are your team’s last real chance to recoup a lost draft.
On average, 4.4 of a season’s top 25 players will come from these rounds, or about 16.7 percent. For another way of thinking of it, each one of these four rounds averages about 4.2 percent of the best players in any year, or one player per round. Overall, 48 of the 288 seasons came from these four rounds. However, the biggest thing that I noticed is that these players were much less likely to reappear on later lists. Only four players from this group showed up in more than two years: Jason Giambi (three times), Grady Sizemore (four times), Scott Rolen (four times) and Carlos Beltran (six times). It’s also worth noting that only Grady Sizemore was drafted later than Round 2 (and even then, he was pick 75, so he would have been a second rounder in some years). Granted, my arbitrary endpoints likely cut out some other players with good seasons in the 1990s or future successes to come: Jeff Bagwell, John Olerud, Curtis Granderson, Carl Crawford, Justin Morneau, Brian McCann and Joey Votto, etc. However, this is more to give a rough idea of just how important each round is. Rounds 2 through 5 may produce occasional superstars, but it’s much more likely to produce role players who may have one really good season.
Albert Pujols is not the rule.
Everybody knows the legend of Prince Albert and how he rose from a lowly Round 13 pick to be the best player in baseball. Obviously, this doesn’t happen very often. Since 2000, 60 of baseball’s top seasons have come from players drafted after the first five rounds, an average of around 5.5 per season. This contributes about 20.8 percent of all seasons. This may sound promising—heck, that’s even more than Rounds 2 through 5 had! However, keep in mind that the MLB Draft goes on for dozens of rounds. Rounds 2 through 5 are only four rounds; meanwhile, the latest round I could find on any player to make this list came from Marcus Giles, who was drafted in Round 53.
So, these 60 players represent what is easily the largest category on this list. Also, like Rounds 2 through 5, this group of leftover players only has a few players who managed to represent the group more than twice. Pujols (Round 13, 1999) contributes 10 of the 60 seasons. Jim Edmonds (Round 7, 1988) is next with five. Jim Thome (Round 13, 1989) and Jorge Posada (Round 24, 1990) each bring four seasons to the group. Travis Hafner (Round 31, 1996), Brian Giles (Round 17, 1989), Mike Cameron (Round 18, 1991) and Matt Holliday (Round 7, 1998) have three each. So 35 of those 60 seasons are made by eight players. Unlike Rounds 2 through 5, there isn’t a lot of promise that this number might significantly change.
I might have missed a few seasons in the 90s from Jeff Kent (Round 20, 1989). Kevin Youkilis (Round 8, 2001) needs one more season to join the group, and he’s off to a good enough start this year that he might make it. Ian Kinsler (Round 17, 2003) is another two-timer who might make it. Jose Bautista (Round 20, 2000), Ben Zobrist (Round 6, 2004) and Matt Kemp (Round 6, 2003) all have one season and a good start to this year, but they still have a ways to go.
Really, even with these few successes, you can pick up on a few patterns. For the most part, all of the players with three seasons or more under their belt were drafted in the late 80s or early 90s. I’m not an expert on the field of scouting, but I would wager that it has changed quite a bit since then. Also, not every member of this group feels the same-the round six, seven, and eight players seem much more like round two through five players than they do the round thirteen,eighteen, twenty, etc. group. In a lot of these cases, too, it almost feels like you can see why the player went as low as they did. Youkilis’ story as the undervalued Greek God of Walks was made famous in Moneyball. Posada and Kent have had questions about their defensive skills or possible lack thereof. Thome and Hafner’s defensive shortcomings have long since gone from questions to definitive answers. Bautista and Zobrist have stories about retooling their swings. Posada was drafted as a second baseman. Holliday had a scholarship to play quarterback at Oklahoma before he was drafted, which almost certainly affected his “signability.”
The point is, there’s a reason these players are rare. Hoping your team finds one of these players is almost guaranteed to fail. The draft went on for 1,350 picks after Round 5 ended last year. Multiply that by however many draft years you feel might be represented during the time span I covered. Out of that many players, these 60 seasons were all that made the top seasons. So, the lesson is: Don’t waste your first round pick, especially if you have a top ten pick. If you’re lucky, you might find a good player or two in your next few rounds. If you pray, you might, by some miracle, find a Pujols.