Trying to Predict the Unpredictable: The MLB Draft

By Matt Appel

At approximately 7 P.M. on June 6th, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig will put the Houston Astros on the clock with the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. Months, if not years, of scouting have come together at a head, and finally, a player is about to be selected. Even though there are 40 rounds, it is a team’s first round pick that sets the tone for the minor league system for years to come.

One would assume that with so many hours of scouting done on virtually every player, teams would walk away from each year’s draft oozing with confidence in the player they consider the best available at the time they selected. While that is the goal, that is not the way it unfolds a startling amount of the time. Based on even a quick skimming of recent history, it is rather apparent that, in a lot of ways, the MLB Draft is a guessing game.

To examine just how unpredictable the MLB Draft has been, we will look specifically at the time period of 1996-2008. We really can’t go past 2008, as there are many prospects taken after ’08 that are likely to make an impact at, or at the very least, reach, the Majors sooner rather than later, but are still playing in the Minors. Keep in mind that it is extremely hard to determine what a “bust” is for baseball’s annual draft (because as you will see shortly, even making the majors is somewhat of an accomplishment). The average-to-above average baseball fan will recognize most of the names taken in the 1st round of the 13-year span we’re looking at, but it is the names that don’t ring a bell, and how many of them they are, that highlight this Russian Roulette-esque phenomena.

Between 1996 and 2008, there were 386 players taken as first-rounders, not including compensatory picks at the end of the first round. Of those 386, 111 never reached the Major Leagues. That boils down to a percentage of 28.7% of first round selections. So basically, from 1996-2008, teams had roughly a 3/10 shot of never seeing their “best” player in a given draft never do much of anything for them. The peak, or valley I suppose, of this trend came from 1999-2001, when 41/90, or 46%, of first rounders never made it to “The Show.” 1999’s class featured 16 non-Major League players, the most over this time span.

Not even the #1 overall pick, of which the Astros own for the second consecutive draft, is immune to this problem. Two of the top picks from ’96-’08 have yet to reach the MLB. One is Matt Bush, who went #1 in 2004 to San Diego as a shortstop, and thanks to a 51 month prison sentence for a DUI hit-and-run, it doesn’t seem likely he is to play at the highest level anytime soon. Bush managed to make the Rays’ 40-man roster following the 2011 season as a pitcher, but that appears to be the height of his professional success. The other is Tim Beckham, a 2008 selection of the Rays, who so far, has drastically underachieved. Considered a “can’t-miss” shortstop, Beckham is currently with AAA Durham, and projects more as a utility infielder in the Majors, should he ever make it. Beckham’s professional career included a 50-game ban in 2012 for a second positive drug test.

Those two represent the worst-case scenario for picking at the top spot. However, even if a player who went #1 overall reaches the Majors, there is no guarantee they will perform at the level expected of them. Even though he pitched as recently as 2010, Kris Benson (1996) had an injury-riddled career, and only once had a sub-4 ERA. Matt Anderson (1997) only pitched in parts of 7 seasons and finished with a career ERA of 5.19. Luke Hochevar (2006) was twice drafted before going #1 to Kansas City. Now in his 7th year, Hochevar has career totals of 38-60 with a 5.33 ERA. Bryan Bullington, the Pirates’ nod at #1 in 2002, made only 26 career appearances, the most recent coming in 2010.

All other #1 picks not listed above could be considered at least moderate successes, but most are/were bonafide great picks. Of the remaining group, Pat Burrell and Delmon Young are the most average. Josh Hamilton (1999-yes, you’ve known about Josh Hamilton for that long)-multiple time All-Star, has an MVP, and would have been a Hall of Fame-bound legend if not for his substance abuse issues. Joe Mauer (2001)-one of the greatest hitting catchers ever. Adrian Gonzalez (2000)-top 1B over the past 10 years. David Price (2007)-2012 Cy Young winner. Justin Upton (2006)-one of the game’s elite outfielders and All-Star for year’s to come. Mind you, this group does not even mention Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper (2010), both of whom are already stars in the making. I think the most incredible stat about the history of the #1 pick in the MLB Draft is that none, zero (0), zilch, nada, of the players ever taken with the top pick are currently in the Hall of Fame. Ken Griffey Jr. (1987) will break that trend when he is eligible for induction in a few years, but to think that since 1965 when the draft began, not a single player who was considered the “best” in his class has received baseball’s highest honor is truly remarkable.

A little more statistical analysis shows that if you’re looking for an All-Star in the first round, there’s only a slight advantage in picking a position player. The 1996-2008 1st rounds, through the start of the 2013 season, have produced 56 All-Star players. Of those 56, 29 have been position players, while the other 27 (obviously) are pitchers. That is about as close as it can be without being split evenly. However, teams searching for multiple time All-Stars (as I would imagine most teams would be) should explore position players with their first pick even more. Those 56 All-Stars have accounted for a total of 123 Midsummer Classic appearances. 69 of those come from position players, as opposed to only 54 from hurlers. Both the 2002 and 2007 1st-rounds had 7 All-Stars, the most over this time span. The 1999 draft, ironically the one with the most players that never saw the Majors, has the most All-Star appearances with 16 (Josh Hamilton, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, and Alex Rios make up all those selections). 2013 has seen an emergence of dominant young pitchers, so the discretion between hitters and pitchers should even out within the next few seasons.

Houston’s 2012 top overall choice, SS Carlos Correa, who is not yet 19, is making a steady progression through the minors. By 2016 at the latest, Correa should have made his MLB debut. So for the time being, that appears to be on the “good” side of recent draft history. With the Astros due up for another #1 overall pick in just a matter of days, your guess is just as good as mine as to how bright the future is of whomever they select. Whether it is a pitcher (Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray, Stanford’s Mark Appel) or a position player (San Diego’s Kris Bryant, UNC’s Colin Moran), that player will receive a big paycheck and even bigger expectations and pressure to succeed. Based on the history of the draft, one could suggest the Astros might as well just flip a coin.

“There are three types of baseball players: Those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.”-Tommy Lasorda

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