The annual MLB Draft is an exciting time for baseball. Dozens of high school and college players convince fans that they have the potential to be future All-Stars, and teams make selections to stock their farm systems with talent to win in the future. But obviously, not every pick can be savvy, and the majority of these selections turn out to be regrettable. The best a team can do is make rational choices to put themselves in a position to succeed. I decided to take a look at the draft classes in the 1990s to see if teams were making these rational decisions. I chose this decade because it’s the most recent one that is almost exclusively filled with players who have finished their careers.
In the 1990s, there was a fairly even distribution of pitchers and hitters selected with early draft picks. Since roster makeup isn’t skewed much in favor of either group, this seems to make sense. Teams are just as eager to get elite pitching as they are to acquire top-tier hitters. This year, 6 of baseball’s 12 highest paid players are pitchers, 6 are hitters.
It’s not surprising that during the ’90s, 45 of the 100 Top 10 picks were pitchers. In hindsight, this seems like it was probably the result of some pretty big mistakes. There are certainly some successful examples. In 1999, Josh Beckett was selected 2nd overall, Barry Zito was 9th, and Ben Sheets was picked 10th. The hope that a pick can turn into a future ace is enough to tempt any GM to take a pitcher. But that usually didn’t go well.
I gathered the career WAR for every draft pick, and here is the expected output for each Top 10 selection.
This does not paint a pretty picture for teams who decided to go with pitchers. No matter where on the chart you look, picking a hitter gives a team a better expected outcome than a pitcher, and it’s not particularly close. The average hitter taken in the Top 10 achieved a career WAR of 16.0. The average pitcher reached 7.0. That’s a big gap, and the disparity was made on a large scale.
Here’s a year-by-year average for draft picks at each position:
1999 was an excellent year for pitchers, as I already mentioned. In fact, it was the best year for pitchers. But if you add it to the list of years for hitters, it would rank 6th out of 11.
Clearly, picking hitters seems like the preferable strategy of the ’90s. But teams opted not to do so roughly half the time.
Similar to what position someone plays, there’s another core attribute about a player outside of his scouting reports: whether or not he went to college. College players will be more developed and will have less room to grow. High school picks are considered riskier with higher upside. The data seem to support that. Unlike the difference between hitters and pitchers, the age of a draft pick had a more nuanced effect.
High school players taken at the top (of the top) of the first round are more promising than college players. This is because elite players like A-Rod, Chipper Jones, and Josh Hamilton don’t often slip under the radar when they’re 17 or 18. But what’s interesting is when you make your way to the bottom of the Top 10, college players have a better expected career WAR. I don’t want to make too many guesses why, because honestly I’m not sure. But it’s a very noticeable trend. No matter the reason, it’s clear that teams should be more eager to draft high schoolers with picks 1-5, and college players with picks 6-10. But look at the frequency of high school draft picks by selection.
Teams do the exact opposite of what they should. The earlier in the draft, the more likely a college player is to be selected. 32.5% of Top-4 picks are drafted out of high school, while 68.3% of picks 5-10 are.
To a strong extent, this analysis is not fair to these teams. I’m looking at these numbers in 2014, and it’s easy to go back in time and point out what mistakes teams made in drafts. But these aren’t scouting report mistakes, isolated misjudgments, or bad luck decisions. Teams in the 1990s made consistent poor strategic decisions on a large scale in the draft that were often indefensible.
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