Editor’s note: Please welcome the latest from Alex Putterman.
Rick Monday was a solid Major League Baseball player, accumulating 32.7 lifetime WAR, about half of which while playing for the Athletics franchise that in 1965 made him the first pick in the history of the Major League Baseball amateur draft. While Monday will never be mistaken for a Hall of Famer, his career was certainly respectable, even by first overall pick standards. In fact, the success of the Monday selection would only be accentuated as the years passed and number one picks consistently failed to achieve their potential or even stick around the majors. The more time that passed, the more apparent the A’s fortune became. A superstar Monday was not, but almost any top pick for the next 20 years would have gleefully swapped careers.
We’ve written before about how the baseball draft has a noticeably worse success rate than that of football or basketball. And the trend may have been there from the start. It certainly wasn’t long until baseball learned that being picked first was not a harbinger of stardom. With the first overall pick in the second annual MLB draft, the New York Mets selected Steven Chilcott, and thus began a succession of failed top picks. Chilcott would never reach the Major Leagues, one of two ever number one picks, along with the Yankees’ Brien Taylor in 1991, to fall short of the Show (not counting Matt Bush, Tim Beckham, Bryce Harper and Gerrit Cole, all of whom are currently playing in MLB organizations.)
The next eight drafts would yield first picks ranging from disastrous (David Clyde, Danny Goodwin, Danny Goodwin again) to almost decent (Jeff Burroughs, Mike Ivie, Rom Blomberg sort of), an overall uninspiring group. Things got better from there, with five of the six first picks between 1976 and ’81 finishing their careers with at least 24 WAR (though the sixth, Al Chambers, was worth -0.7 WAR). In fact, Darryl Strawberry, number on pick in ’80, was, according to WAR, the most successful top pick selected prior to 1987, when Ken Griffey Jr. ushered in somewhat of a golden age for first picks.
Post-Griffey picking has been far from perfect, but several superstars have been taken number one overall in the past 25 years. Three years after Griffey came Chipper Jones and three years after that A-Rod. The 1999-2001 drafts saw a trifecta of MVP-caliber players taken at the top, with Josh Hamilton, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer selected first in successive years. Matt Anderson, Bryan Bullington, and others were certainly egregious busts, but a number of other number ones of the past 25 years (Andy Benes, Phil Nevin, Darin Erstad, and Pat Burrell among them) enjoyed successful careers. More recent drafts have produced Justin Upton, David Price and Stephen Strasburg, three top picks currently enjoying various levels of stardom, and the sky is considered the limit for 2010 number one Bryce Harper.
So what do these successes and failures of former number one draftees tell us about the draft process? Well, drafting first is undeniably somewhat of a crapshoot. Any time you can pick a shortstop and be unsure whether you’re getting Alex Rodriguez or Bill Almon you know there’s not much method to the madness. But there are some distinguishable patterns to selecting first. While several aforementioned position players have become stars after being taken number one, no first-pick pitcher has even achieved more than 30 WAR, nor has any pitcher taken with the second or third overall pick (well, at least until Josh Beckett and Justin Verlander reach that number this season), suggesting that highly-drafted hurlers are less likely than hitters to be worth the selection.
Not that picking at the head of the draft isn’t better than the alternatives. The 47 players selected first have combined for 799.2 WAR according to baseball-reference, significantly topping the 506.9 combined WAR of the 47 players selected second and well over twice the 286.7 WAR of all-time number five picks (in an interesting statistical anomaly, number five picks have been dramatically worse than number six picks, and number 10 picks have been more productive than number five, seven, eight, or nine picks).
So if your team finds itself picking first in an upcoming draft, consider the slot a legitimate silver lining of their futility, but be don’t be surprised to end up rooting for the next Shawn Abner, not the next Ken Griffey Jr.