clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is the first draft pick really that important?

Unlike the NFL and NBA drafts, the first pick doesn't change a team's fortunes immediately. But how much does it matter?

Spring training does not count.
Spring training does not count.

The Chicago White Sox are going to finish the season with one of the bottom five records in all of baseball this season, a feat they haven't accomplished since 1989. Barring some sort of miracle run by the Sox or epic collapse by the Mets, Phillies, Twins, Angels, Brewers, or Giants, the Sox will have a top three draft pick for the first time since the 1977 draft. They had the top overall pick that year and drafted Harold Baines, which seemed to work out pretty well for everyone involved. So for most of us non-ancient fans, this is pretty much uncharted territory we're about to explore.

One of the more frustrating things about having to explain why I'm more than okay with the Sox more or less losing out for the rest of the season is the general assumption the layperson has about the MLB draft. I don't know how many times I've heard over the past month or so "Yeah, but draft position in the baseball draft doesn't really matter". I'm sorry, but that's never been true. It wasn't true before the new budgeting guidelines and it most definitely isn't true after. The Houston Astros had the first overall pick last year and were allotted $11,698,800 to spend on their first ten picks. The Twins, who drafted fourth, were given $8, 264,400 as their budget for signing ten picks. Having $3.6MM more to work with is a pretty huge difference, and that's without even accounting for the talent disparity.

There have been 49 first overall picks in MLB draft history. Of those 48 players (Danny Goodwin holds the rare distinction of being the only player drafted first twice), only six never played a single game in the majors. Two of those six were the last two years' top picks, Mark Appel and Carlos Correa, both of whom should move out of this sextet soon enough. The other four will be covered in greater detail later in this post. 87% of those drafted first overall have played in the majors and have averaged 20.7 bWAR for their careers. Obviously outliers like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, and Ken Griffey Jr skew this figure, but the point remains the same: the cream usually rises to the top.

Let's compare those numbers to the second and third overall picks. 41 second round picks have made the majors, good for an 83% success rate (four that haven't have been the most recent four, so this number should change). So the rate of reaching the majors isn't too much lower than that of the first overall picks, but the average bWAR takes a pretty substantial dive down to 14.2. This is largely due to the fact that the second overall pick has only produced one Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson. The third pick is slightly more interesting, to me at least. Almost the same amount of third picks have reached the majors as second picks thus far, with only the 2013 (Jonathan Gray) and 2009 (Donovan Tate) being the recent draft choices to not have done so yet. The 81% success rate has resulted in an average of 12.3 bWAR per draftee, so that's still pretty great and the number should go up as Manny Machado continues to evolve.

The Sox getting the first overall pick would be huge for helping accelerate the needed minor league turnaround. There's of course the chance that Rick Hahn could manage to draft the sixth first overall pick to be worth a negative WAR, but the odds are against it. More interesting to me is the four who never made the majors. Of those four, Tim Beckham still has a shot. The first choice in the 2008 draft has been in AAA since late 2011 and could get a cup of coffee this September. The two picks after him have combined to play more than 800 games combined, though to varying levels of effectiveness (Pedro Alvarez and Eric Hosmer).

The other three stories are a bit more sad. Sometimes choosing the local high school product instead of the expensive college pitcher works out pretty well (Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior). And then sometimes you have the 2004 draft and the Padres pick Matt Bush instead of Justin Verlander. Hell, even the third pick would have been a better choice and he was Phil Humber. Bush had a minor league career OPS of .569. He never made it past AA, tried being converted into a pitcher and failed and had numerous legal issues and is currently behind bars in Florida until 2016.

Brien Taylor was supposed to be the next Doc Gooden, drafted 1st overall by the Yankees in 1991. He was doing well enough in the minors until he decided to confront a man who fought his brother. He wound up dislocating his left shoulder and tearing the labrum. His fastball was no longer fast and he couldn't control his curveball. He hung around the minors until 2000, but never made it past A ball again. He was arrested for trafficking cocaine in 2012 and is currently in jail in New Jersey. The picks immediately after Taylor didn't amount to much either, but at least Mike Kelly and Dave McCarty made the majors.

Steve Chilcott was only the second first overall pick ever. The New York Mets chose the high school catcher, allowing Reggie Jackson to fall to the Athletics with the second pick. Mr. October wound up being an established regular for the A's as soon as 1968. Sure the Mets won it all in 1969, but it's not like they couldn't have used Jackson's 5.2 bWAR in right field or his stellar production for the next ten years or so. And in all fairness, Chilcott's career ended more in line with Taylor than Bush. A baserunnning injury in 1967 all but ruined his right shoulder, which is a fairly important body part for a catcher. He was out of baseball five years later.

The first overall pick isn't without risk, but the success rate is so much higher than any other pick that it's absurd to suggest draft position is somehow unimportant in the MLB draft. The Sox landing a top three pick would be a tremendous boon, so you might want to get comfortable cheering for a little bit more 2013 failure than you'd normally be okay with. It's for the greater good.