For us fans the baseball draft is about dreaming. When your team drafts Lefty McFastball number one, you imagine him winning 20 every year, hoisting the World Series trophy, and retiring with 300 victories. All with your favorite club, of course.
Humans, however, nearly always fails us. The draft is as much, or more, about the busts than the booms. What can its history tell us about great, and especially Hall-level, players?
The Big Picture
MLB’s first-year player draft kicked off in 1965 (then styled the Rule 4 Amateur Draft). Since then, 304 players began a career that ended with 30 or more BBREF WAR. Frame of reference: Thirty WAR = Bobby Bonilla. Which is a damn good career. Some of those players are still active, of course. What can we glean from how they were acquired?
- 253 of these players were taken in the draft*, on average in the second round
- 7 draft-eligible players went undrafted and were signed as free agents
- 42 foreign-born players, ineligible for the draft, were signed as international free agents (this included Puerto Ricans prior to 1989 and Canadians prior to 1991)
- 2 fell into the “other” category: Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera were purchased from Mexican League teams, and I didn’t know what the diablo that falls under.
*For the sticklers: I counted Tom Seaver as a draftee, though a dispute about his draft status led to his being granted a limited sort-of free agency as an amateur. Or not. Whatever.
At this point we’ll say goodbye to our international free agent friends to focus on the draft. But for those interested, here are their lands of origin:
- Dominican Republic: 17
- Venezuela: 10
- Puerto Rico (prior to 1989): 8
- Canada (prior to 1991), Colombia, Cuba, Curacao, Japan, Nicaragua, and Panama: 1 each.
Back to the draft. Since 1965 teams have identified the best draft-eligible players correctly 97 percent of the time. If you did that well in the stock market, you’d be telling Warren Buffet where to put his money. Not only that, teams are getting better. The list of these seven undrafted free agents bears this out:
- Brian Downing (51.4 WAR)
- Toby Harrah (51.2)
- Tom Candiotti (41.5)
- Danny Darwin (40.5)
- Don Money (36.4)
- Frank White (34.7)
- Bobby Bonilla (30.0)
Bonilla, signed in 1981 by the Pirates’ Syd Thrift, is the last undrafted free agent to reach 30 Wins’ worth of value. MLB as a whole hasn’t failed to identify a player of this caliber and draft him since the Atari/Intellivision era.
So if a guy eligible for the draft doesn’t get picked these days, forget about him having any chance at the Hall, let alone an All-Star level career.
From Mere All-Stars to All-Universe
I picked 30 WAR as a floor only because I wanted a big pool to satisfy my curiosity with, and because 30 WAR players aren’t chopped liver. So I bucketed players like this:
- Inner-Circle Immortals (8 from Randy Johnson to Barry Bonds): 100+
- All-Time Greats (4 from Wade Boggs to Cal Ripken): 90–100 WAR
- Hall Locks (7 from Tom Glavine to George Brett): 80–90 WAR
- Easy Hall Selections (19 from Rick Reuschel to Curt Schilling): 70–80 WAR
- Good Hall Cases (33 from Keith Hernandez to Gary Carter): 60–70 WAR
- Fringe Hall Candidates…and Really Good Catchers (45 from Roy Oswalt to Vlad Guerrero): 50–60 WAR
- Hall of the Very Good (71 from Dave Concepcion to Fred Lynn): 40–50 WAR
- All-Stars (117 from Bonilla to Albert Belle): 30–40 WAR
WAR DRAFTED UNDRAFTED INT’L OTHER =================================== 100+ 8 0 0 0 90+ 4 0 0 0 80+ 6 0 1 0 70+ 17 0 2 0 60+ 28 0 5 0 50+ 35 2 8 0 40+ 56 2 12 1 30+ 99 3 14 1 ----------------------------------- TOTAL 253 7 42 2
It’s interesting that the further down the scale we go, the more likely a player came from an alternative talent stream. Maybe in the US, underage baseball is more competitive and players have more opportunity to receive best-quality instruction? Maybe the strain of adjusting to conditions in a new country holds foreign players back a little? Or maybe a higher percentage of foreign players come from poverty and may not have had the same access to nutrition or pediatric care that their US and Candian-born competition have?
Early to Draft, Early to Rise
Not surprisingly, when in the draft a player is taken makes a big difference. Among the 253 drafted players who earned 30+ WAR:
- 107 were first-round picks, 42 percent
- 29 were second-round picks, 11 percent
- 22 were third-round picks, 9 percent
- 158 combined came out of the first three rounds, 62 percent
- 196 combined came out of the first seven rounds, 77 percent
If you’re not drafted fairly early, you really are battling long odds to have even Bobby Bo’s career. It’s fair to mention that teams sometimes underdraft when they expect a high school player to attend college, but don’t hang your hopes on that.
#1 with a Bullet?
Does being #1 make a big difference? Number one picks get themselves on Baseball America’s cover and sometimes get special cards in Topps sets. But for every Ken Griffey, there’s a bunch of Bill Almons. So far, only ten of the much ballyhooed forty-eight #1s in history have cranked out 30+ WAR. Exactly half of them haven’t generated even 10 WAR (though some are too new to MLB to say much yet). Three who aren’t still in the minors never even made the majors.
The following players in our groups were taken #1 in their draft class:
- Alex Rodriguez* (1993): Group 1, 115.7 WAR
- Chipper Jones (1990): Group 3, 85.2 WAR
- Ken Griffey, Jr. (1987): Group 3, 83.6 WAR
- Joe Mauer* (2001): Group 7, 44.3 WAR
- Darryl Strawberry (1980): Group 7, 42.0 WAR
- Harold Baines (1977): Group 8, 38.6 WAR
- B.J. Surhoff (1985): Group 8, 34.3 WAR
- Adrian Gonzalez* (2000): Group 8, 33.3 WAR
- Rick Monday (1965): Group 8, 33.2 WAR
- Darin Erstad (1995): Group 8, 32.4 WAR
- Andy Benes (1988): Group 8, 31.7 WAR
*Denotes active player
Now the #2s:
- Reggie Jackson (1966): Group 4, 74.0 WAR
- Will Clark (1985): Group 6, 56.2 WAR
- Justin Verlander* (2004): Group 7, 40.3 WAR
- Jim Sundberg (1973): Group 7, 40.3 WAR
- Moises Alou (1986): Group 8, 39.7 WAR
- Burt Hooten (1971): Group 8, 35.9 WAR
- Robby Thompson (1983): Group 8, 33.7
- Josh Beckett* (1999): Group 8, 33.7 WAR
- Greg Swindell (1986): Group 8, 30.9 WAR
- Chris Speier (1970): Group 8, 30.5 WAR
Here are the #3 overalls for good measure:
- Robin Yount (1973): Group 4, 77.1 WAR
- Paul Molitor (1975): Group 4, 75.5 WAR
- Kirby Puckett (1982): Group 6, 50.8 WAR
- Matt Williams (1986): Group 7, 46.5 WAR
- Ken Singleton (1967): Group 7, 41.8 WAR
- Lonnie Smith (1974): Group 8, 38.4 WAR
- Evan Longoria* (2006): Group 8, 36.3 WAR
Remember when I mentioned above that first-rounders accounted for 42 percent of all the draftees with 30+ WAR?
- 66 were top-ten picks, 62 percent of the first rounders chosen
- 28 were top-three picks, 26 percent of all first rounders chosen and 42 percent of the top-ten picks.
- Top-three picks represented 11 percent of all draftees to reach 30+ WAR.
- 11 were #1 overall picks, 10 percent of all first rounders, 17 percent of all top-ten picks, and 4 percent of all draftees to hit 30+ WAR.
Who’s Better, Who’s Best?
But the guys we’re most interested in are the ones who have strong Hall-level credentials. In the groups I created above, that’s the 64 players in groups 1–5. Oh, and let’s add Mike Piazza (59.2 WAR) since the career value of catchers are always lower than other position players. Among drafted players to reach 60+ WAR:
- 25 were chosen in the first round, 38 percent of all draftees
- 42 went in the first three rounds, 65 percent of all draftees
- 53 were chosen in the first seven rounds, 82 percent of all draftees
- 17 were top-ten picks, 26 percent of all draftees
- 6 were top-three picks, 9 percent of all draftees
- 3 were #1 overall picks, 5 percent of all draftees.
We’re dealing with small samples here, so we can expect some variation, but despite the acclaim that #1s get, they don’t often end up becoming transcendent players.
What about those players about to percolate up into Group 5? Among the six active draftees with 45ish–59.9 WAR who are at an age where 60 WAR is still within reach, only Joe Mauer (#1 in 2001) was a top-ten pick.
What Are the Odds?
It’s a little unfair of me to lump in the most recent draft classes with those from nearly 50 years ago. These players’ careers haven’t fully flowered yet. In fact, Albert Pujols, a 13th round 1999 draftee, is the most recently selected player to enter our top five groups. So let’s knock out the 140 top-tens taken since his selection. That leaves 340 top-ten picks. The seventeen top-tens we mentioned above represent 5 percent of all the players chosen in that golden group. The observed odds, therefore, are 19:1 against your favorite team scoring a Hall-type talent with a top-ten pick. One top-ten every two years will be that special lottery ticket that pays off not just big but huge.
Actually, 19:1 is pretty good…once you consider that more than 50,000 players have been drafted since 1965. In fact, only six players with solid Hall-level credentials, have been drafted after the thirteenth round. Two deserve special mention, so here are the first five:
- Buddy Bell, 16th round of 1969: 65.9 WAR
- Kenny Lofton, 17th round of 1988: 68.1 WAR
- Ryne Sandberg, 20th round of 1978: 67.6 WAR
- John Smoltz, 22nd round of 1985: 69.5 WAR
- Andy Pettitte, 22nd round of 1990: 60.8 WAR
Like we saw earlier, the industry is improving at identifying the best young talent. Since Pettitte’s 1990 selection, Pujols and Jim Thome (both 13th rounders) are the only players drafted outside the first seven rounds to accumulate 60+ WAR. And only Mark Buehrle (38th round, 1998, 53.9 career WAR) is knocking on the door.
Now for our two special mentions, two guys MLB drafters pretty much whiffed on. Unlike the seven undrafted guys mentioned way above, these two have strong cases for induction.
Keith Hernandez was drafted in the 42nd round in 1971. The Cardinals nabbed the eighteen year old with the 785th pick overall. He fell due to concerns about his attitude after he sat out his senior year over a dispute with his high school’s coach. Hernandez’s glove was never an issue, but he hit surprisingly well in A ball in 1972. In 1973, he struggled in AA but was promoted anyway and strung together parts of three straight years hitting .333 or higher with a .900 OPS in AAA. By the third go-round in Tulsa, he finally forced the Cards’ hand. They traded Joe Torre, and Hernandez went on to an MVP and a career worth 60.1 Wins of value. And for twenty years, Hernandez was the shining example for low-level draft picks. That is until Mike Piazza came along.
Piazza was the godson of Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, who in 1988 drafted the 6’3” 18-year old from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, as a favor to Mike’s father Vince. Round 62, pick number 1390 out of 1433. Some favor! Piazza hit better than his leagues every season in the minors as he honed his catching skills then burst upon the scene with his 1993 Rookie of the Year campaign. He is easily the best player drafted anywhere near that low of a position. Hernandez and Orlando Hudson (round 43, pick 1280, 1997) are the only other 30+ WAR players drafted after round 39, and they can’t touch Piazza.
Obviously, low-end draftees making good is remarkably rare, but that rarity points up exactly how efficient teams are at locating top talent and drafting it.
A Hall Watcher’s Guide to the MLB First-Year Player Draft
About two months and change from today, MLB will hold its 49th annual first-year player draft. We all want our team to get the next Ken Griffey, Jr. We all want to dream big dreams, especially for the top draftees. Here’s what we can reasonably know and hope for.
1) The odds are some really good players will be drafted. MLB as a whole is getting better and better at identifying the good to great players, drafting them earlier and more often. But results vary from team to team, depending on how smart your GM and scouting director are.
2) Nonetheless, don’t expect too much. Even among top-ten picks, only 5 percent have an All-Star level career (30+ WAR).
3) Ditto for guys among the top-three overall picks. Only six top-threes have so far made it to a Hall-level career, that’s a 2 percent rate. You can be more sanguine about an All-Star type career though—a quarter of those careers come from top-threes.
4) Don’t forget about rounds 2–7. These guys put up 35 to 40 percent of Hall-level careers.
Here’s one more. I know it’s a no-duh, but if your team drafts a guy #1, and he holds his own in MLB at age 20, watch out. That’s your Griffey and A-Rod player. It’s not foolproof (Justin Upton, though he has time), but I wouldn’t fault fans of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado for making reservations in upstate New York starting now.