Yesterday, Pat “The Bat” Burrell retired, seeing his playing days end due to a combination of chronic foot problems and a lessening need for a bat-only player who flopped in his one audition as a DH. Burrell finishes his career with 6,520 plate appearances and a .253/.361/.472 line, good for a 117 wRC+ and 21.9 WAR. If you offered nearly any player a 12 year career with those kinds of numbers, they’d probably jump at them, as Burrell had a nice run as a quality player for the Phillies.
However, Burrell wasn’t just any player – he was a member of an exclusive club of players selected #1 overall in the June draft. When you’re taken first overall, expectations are high. You’re not just supposed to be a nice player – you’re supposed to become a star. Anything less could be perceived as a disappointment, and given that Burrell never made an All-Star team and only had two season where he posted a WAR above +3.0, his career could be construed as a failure to live up to those lofty expectations.
Are those expectations fair, though? What is the normal performance for a position player taken with the top overall pick in the draft? I wasn’t sure, so I decided to use the Custom Player List function on the leaderboards to find out.
|Ken Griffey Jr.||11304||0.284||0.370||0.538||0.385||133||-39||83.9|
That list contains the names of all the non-pitchers (pitchers are an entirely different animal, so we’ll just deal with hitters) selected first overall between 1965 and 2005 – recent picks Tim Beckham and Bryce Harper have been excluded for obvious reasons. There are 29 names on that list – actually, there are 28 names, but one of them is repeated, as Danny Goodwin was the first overall pick in the draft on two separate occasions. Still, those 28 players represent 29 first overall selections, and give us a pretty good idea of what should be expected from a player taken in that position.
For fairness sake, we’ll take the median performance so that the three all-time greats (fun side note – Rodriguez, Griffey, and Chipper have combined for +284 WAR, while every other player on this list has combined for +448 WAR) at the top of the list don’t skew the numbers by themselves. The median #1 position player had a career that spanned 4,758 plate appearances, hit .274/.349/.454 for a wRC+ of 117, and produced +17.8 WAR during his career.
Interestingly, Burrell’s career offensive line is the median. He’s exactly what you should expect from a hitter if you take one with the top pick in the draft, though his career WAR was a little higher than the median because he racked up an extra 2,000 plate appearances.
Now, what if we throw out the six guys who basically didn’t have big league careers and focus only on the 24 who made it? Essentially, we can acknowledge that there’s a roughly 20% chance that any top pick will just become a bust due to injury or failure to develop, but if we assume a top pick stays healthy and follows something resembling a normal development path to get to the Majors, what should we then expect from them?
The median of the 24 guys on the list who got 1,000+ PAs in the Majors gives us 6,276 PA, a 119 wRC+, and +21.6 WAR. Again, for all intents and purposes, Burrell (6,520 PA, 117 wRC+, +21.9 WAR) is the median. His career is exactly what you should expect a top pick to produce in the big leagues.
Or, if we wanted to break this down a bit further, we could build an expectancy matrix for the various odds of several outcomes based on the historical data. It would look something like this:
Superstar, long career, HOFer: 10%
Superstar, longevity issues: 15%
Nice player, long career: 20%
Nice player, longevity issues: 20%
Useful role player: 10%
Burrell is basically the definition of a nice player with a long career. He was never a superstar, but perhaps expecting the top pick in every draft to become a superstar simply is unrealistic. Of the 28 careers that have been played under that kind of pressure, we’re only looking at three guys whose on the field performance puts them in Cooperstown. Mauer, Upton, and Gonzalez could potentially push that total to six, but even that best case outcome would still only represent one-in-five of these guys ending up enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
In most years, there isn’t a greatest-of-all-time candidate waiting to be scooped up, and we shouldn’t expect those kinds of careers from a guy simply because he was taken first overall. While Burrell simply topped out as a solid regular, he was a useful starter for about 10 years, and lived up to the realistic expectations of what a position player taken first overall should actually do in the big leagues.