High school right-hander Hunter Greene is one of the top prospects in this year’s draft, but history pegs the potential No. 1 overall pick as a risk.
You think you’re an MLB draft expert? Then you probably know the answers to the obvious trivia questions: The only player to be selected first overall twice (that’d be Danny Goodwin), the first-ever player drafted (Rick Monday in 1965), how many players drafted in the first round have actually made the majors (63.5 percent).
Those are some good knowledge bombs, but how about some better ones? With the help of ESPN Stats and Information, we created Pick Value Score, a statistic that takes into account career longevity, wins above replacement per season, whether or not players make the majors and other factors in order to dive into the MLB draft in a way it hasn’t been analyzed before.
What we discovered, from the value of first-round picks to the flaws in the MLB draft setup, might surprise even the biggest draft gurus. Data was compiled from baseball-reference.com and basketball-reference.com.
The No. 1 pick is the only sure thing (usually)
PVS accounts for injuries and gives credit to career longevity while also accounting for young, high-impact players (see: Mike Trout, Kris Bryant). The stat also allows for comparison across sports. PVS is based on WAR per season, so a No. 1 pick PVS average of 1.5 doesn’t seem all that high — until you look at the rest of the draft.
No. 1 picks are twice as valuable, on-average, as any other first-round pick. That’s partially because, good or bad, the top choice is more likely to make a major league roster. From 1965 to 2012, only two No. 1 picks have failed to make the majors: Stephen Chilcott (1966) and Brien Taylor (1991). Every other pick has had at least five fail.
The No. 5 pick is surprisingly bad
If history’s any indicator, the Atlanta Braves are going to spend $5.7 million on a bust Monday. None of the six No. 5 picks since 2011 have made it to the majors; only the No. 30 pick has a worse streak going with seven. And only 29 players picked fifth — just more than 55 percent — have made it to the big leagues. Six first-round draft slots have a worse success rate, and all of them are in the back half of the round. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Mark Teixeira went fifth overall.
So, a draft lottery would probably help
The only way to truly get the most out of tanking in baseball is to tank entirely. A team that gets a No. 4 pick isn’t getting anywhere close to the value of a No. 1 choice, and without the option to trade up for that pick, teams have incentive to lose as many games as possible. That makes the bad MLB teams really, really bad. But a draft lottery, similar to the NBA, means there’s no guarantee that the worst team in the league gets the No. 1 pick. That encourages at least some effort on behalf of the teams at the back of the pack.
Teams are usually bearish on right-handed high schoolers
This is particularly interesting in regard to the coming draft. Hunter Greene, widely regarded as the top prospect going into Monday, likely won’t be the No. 1 pick. Why? Because teams are cautious — at times to their detriment — of drafting right-handed pitchers in the first round, especially out of high school.
Right-handed high school pitchers fail to make the majors roughly 45 percent of the time. The only positions that fail to make the majors at a higher rate are high school catchers and high school left-handed pitchers (among first-round picks). And the other top two prospects in this year’s draft are, you guessed it, college guys.
If you look at right-handed high school pitchers specifically in the top 10, the success rate jumps significantly; they make the majors just over 65 percent of the time. However, their college counterparts, when taken in the top 10, make the majors roughly 83 percent of the time.
Right-handed high school pitchers also produce less value on average than players at any other position in any other age group. The only position that does worse is high school second basemen, but only nine players have ever been selected as second basemen out of high school.
Greene is a transcendent talent for his age, but history isn’t on his side. The Twins have a tough choice ahead of them.
College infielders are the safest bet
High school prospects usually edge out college players because teams get more time to groom younger guys, and in the early days of the draft, top picks were almost exclusively reserved for those young players. But college prospects aren’t just a safer bet: They also, on average, provide much more value to major league teams in the long-term, mainly because they are more likely to make the majors. And while every team needs an ace or two, the likelihood of grabbing that guy in the first round of the draft doesn’t compare to a typical infielder’s chance of success.
One team has appeared to align themselves to this knowledge: the Chicago Cubs. Since Theo Epstein’s first draft with the team in 2012, the Cubs have selected four players with picks in the top 10, and all are position players (Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ).
There are five potential pitchers among the top 10 players in this Keith Law’s mock draft. Why? Because like NFL quarterbacks, MLB teams value the guy throwing the ball more than the ones fielding it.
The back half of the first round is barren
Trout, famously, was a No. 25 pick. But other than him, only seven players selected from 15-30 have a WAR above three in the past 20 years. That’s 2.3 percent, and it doesn’t even account for players that don’t make it. Of the 300 players picked from 15-30 since 1996, 146 made major league rosters, and five (including Gerrit Cole) decided not to sign.
The best MLB draft picks are more valuable than NBA players
PVS allowed us to compare the value of an NBA first-rounder to an MLB first-rounder, and the relative value of players in each sport was surprising.It’s easier to rack up value in the NBA, where a single player can make a bigger difference to his team. But it’s also more difficult for players to separate themselves from the competition in the NBA, mostly because it’s far easier for NBA first-round picks to play significant roles on their teams soon after being drafted. When PVS is adjusted to make players across leagues comparable, seven of the top-10 players in both leagues in terms of PVS were MLB players.
Mike Trout is already one of the best picks in MLB history
Using PVS, we were able to compare players across sports and match MLB players with their NBA draft counterparts.
Roger Clemens, for example, has a 9.4 PVS after being selected 19th overall in 1983, which makes him the John Stockton of MLB. Stockton was a No. 16 pick and has a PVS of 20.1. Trout is well on his way to topping Clemens in value, though, with a pick value of 6.4 seven years into his career. The best comparison for him? Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, who was picked 15th and has a value of 9.2. Both of those guys are below the cap for PVS and just hitting the prime of their careers.
Trout isn’t just a high value low-first-round choice; he might become the best pick in terms of PVS of all time.