Baseball’s 50th amateur draft is underway! As far as organized baseball is concerned, the draft is actually a fairly recent innovation — baseball had been played professionally for roughly a century before 1965, when the league began allowing clubs to “draft” eligible players rather than simply sign them as free agents out of schoolyards and cornfields. The draft allowed those teams to save money, because it greatly reduces competition for players and thereby reduces the potential price to sign them: Once a player is drafted, there is only one team competing to sign him to a contract, rather than 30 teams.
Just as an illustration of how much money is being saved, consider that Bryce Harper was paid $9.9 million to sign with the Washington Nationals in 2010, while Masahiro Tanaka got paid $155 million to sign with the New York Yankees as a free agent from Japan in 2014. Both technically debuted as “rookies.” If Harper had been an unrestricted free agent, with all 30 teams bidding up his price, he might have signed for 10 times the amount he got.
As a result, there are few things more important to a team’s long-term success, and to its bottom line, than its ability to draft well and develop draftees into prospects who can help the team either as trade chips or as valuable contributors making the major league minimum.
But draft strategies have changed greatly over the years, as ESPN’s David Schoenfield noted in a Wednesday blog post. In the draft’s early years, a large proportion of the players drafted early were taken straight out of high school. That has changed markedly in recent years. Prior to Brady Aiken’s selection in 2014, no high school pitcher had been taken with the first overall pick since Brien Taylor in 1991.
For a comparison, I examined the first round of the drafts in 1974, 1984, 1994, and 2004 — the 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th amateur years of the amateur draft — to see how teams had made their choices, and how those choices panned out. (I focused on the first round of the June draft only, ignoring the supplemental round and the short-lived January and August drafts.) Over those years, the number of teams in baseball gradually grew through expansion: there were 24 teams and 24 picks in the 1974 first round, 26 in 1984, 28 in 1994, and 30 in 2004.
As it happens, 1974 was an unusually strong draft. Six of the twenty-four first-round picks went on to produce at least 25 Wins Above Replacement in their careers: Dale Murphy, Willie Wilson, Lance Parrish, Lonnie Smith, Rick Sutcliffe and Garry Templeton.
But it was an outlier draft. Only two players each in the 1984, 1994 and 2004 first rounds have gone on to produce 25 WAR in their careers. (That said, 2004 draftee Gio Gonzalez has 14.7 WAR since 2004, and he’s only 28 years old, which means he has a good chance of getting to 25 if he avoids more DL stints like the one he’s currently on.) In general, drafts are very up and down: While there was not a single player in the first round of the 1975 draft who produced as much as 10 WAR in his career, there were two Hall of Famers in the first round in 1973, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.
There were 108 players in the dataset I examined. Fully 20 percent were from California, 9 percent from Texas, and 8 percent from Florida. Two of them (2 percent) were from Puerto Rico, which was incorporated into the amateur draft beginning in 1990. The other 60 percent of players came from 28 states, none contributing more than four players.
Of the 108 players drafted in those four first rounds, the vast plurality, 36 percent, were right-handed pitchers. Shortstops came next, with 17 percent of the total selections.
But pitchers are notoriously fickle, and over the years many of them didn’t pan out.
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(Nearly all of the WAR at first base were produced by Mark McGwire; the other three men made the majors but none of them did much of anything. Most of the WAR at third base were actually produced by Lance Parrish, whom the Tigers drafted as a third baseman but switched to catcher in the minor leagues.)
As the years have gone on, a greater proportion of picks have made the majors. This is likely both because teams have invested more resources in scouting and because sports medicine has greatly improved, with the near-routinization of Tommy John surgery. But the average value per pick has gone down as the number of teams has increased.
Of course, many of baseball’s greatest stars are drafted long after the first round is completed, like second-rounder Giancarlo Stanton and eighth-rounder Paul Goldschmidt. But the first round is still the centerpiece of a team’s draft efforts, and the athletic talent available in the first round is still far and away the best. In the coming years, we’ll see how Brady Aiken and his draft classmates perform. And there will be a fresh new crop of sluggers and fireballers waiting in the wings for their names to be called.
Alex Remington is a product manager at The Washington Post and a writer for the Hardball Times. He has written for Fangraphs and Yahoo Sports, and currently manages Braves Journal.