Why the baseball draft is worse than the NFL Draft or NBA Draft

Unlike football and basketball where I eagerly await the drafts each year, study mock drafts in the weeks and months before, and try to envision who my favorite teams will select, I don’t feel the same anticipation with baseball.

I can’t remember the last time I cared to read a mock First-Year Player Draft in baseball. Where the NFL Draft is a multiple-day affair on ESPN, and the NBA Draft is known for blockbuster trades and some truly hideous fashions (it’s the sports equivalent of the red carpet at the Oscars), the baseball draft only recently started being televised, having previously been conducted via conference call. In football or basketball, a Top-10 draft choice is almost a lock to become a veteran if not a regular All Star. In baseball, No. 1 overall picks occasionally don’t make it out of the minor leagues.

I’ve briefly compared the drafts before, but with the NFL Draft a week away, I decided to go deeper. With my day off work on Friday, I spent a few hours analyzing the top ten picks of every MLB, NFL and NBA draft from 1990 through 1999. My goal? Determine how many of these picks went on to play at least five years.

Here’s what I found:

Top-10 picks from 1990-1999 who played at least five years All Stars Never played in the league
NBA 96 (out of 100 men picked) 41 0
NFL 91 (out of 100 men picked) 52 0
MLB 70 (out of 99 men picked (J.D. Drew was a Top-10 pick two years)) 28 17

There are a few reasons baseball doesn’t draft as well. Baseball tends to draft younger players, and the minors, which don’t exist to the same degree in football or basketball, can be an abyss. Football and basketball teams usually select pro-ready players who debut months later, while baseball clubs draft for potential and have no problem keeping prospects in their farm system for two or three seasons, sometimes longer. One reason I capped my analysis at 1999 is that ballplayers occasionally spend five years or more in the minors before going on to long careers.

Almost any year in the Nineties shows abysmal baseball draft results. Alex Rodriguez was the top overall pick in 1993, as he should have been. The remainder of the top ten that year reads like an independent league roster: Darren Dreifort, Brian Anderson, Wayne Gomes, Jeff Granger, Steve Soderstrom, Trot Nixon, Kirk Presley, Matt Brunson and Brooks Kieschnick. None were All Stars and two men never played in the majors; Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Chris Carpenter and Torii Hunter were among the next ten picks. In fact, good players often come much later. Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick his year, Matt Holliday was a 7th rounder and Ryan Howard was a 5th rounder.

In every baseball draft from 1990-1999, at least one player or two among the top ten picks never made the majors, including Brien Taylor, the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft. In 1999, four of the top ten picks never played in the big leagues, and that number would have been five had the top pick from that year, Josh Hamilton not finally debuted in 2007 after battling drug addiction. As it stands, Hamilton won’t have five years of experience until next season.

Don’t get me wrong, the NBA and NFL drafts aren’t perfect either, far from it. I think basketball might have the worst draft lottery in sports, with the worst teams having a better chance of landing the fourth, fifth or sixth pick each year than one in the top three. In football, top draft picks often make more than established players, and teams tend to draft a player high and then trade him for a low-round pick a few years later, even if he’s performing decently. If I were a football team, I’d stockpile low-round draft picks and use them to ply proven players from guileless teams.

That being said, I still think the baseball draft sucks.

Related post: An argument in favor of the Reserve Clause

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