In an ideal baseball world, the number one pick in the draft is the best player available and most likely to succeed in the future. The number two pick is also star material, but not quite as good of a player as the number one pick. The third pick should be pretty good as well, but not quite as good as the first and second picks, and so on. However, reality does not work that way. Sometimes a team makes a bad decision and passes up the best available player. The reality is not a video game, and there is no “power meter” telling teams who the best available player is when it comes time for them to make a choice.
As an outsider to the scouting and drafting process, all I can do is look to history to evaluate each player’s chances of making it in the big leagues.
First of all, let’s define “success.” In my opinion, a successful professional baseball player is a player who has made it to the Major Leagues, then did well enough to earn a spot on the All-Star roster at some point in his career.
When we cross-reference MLB All-Star appearances with former draftees, we find some interesting results. Hitters tend to hold up better than pitchers. There seems to be a certain magic about the 10th pick for generating All-Star-caliber players, as Mark McGwire, Ted Simmons, and Tim Wallach were all 10th picks. On the other hand, the number 3 spot seems cursed, because players selected at the number 4 slot have historically done better than those selected at number 3.
Perhaps the reasons are pure chance due to luck and a small sample size, or perhaps there are real advantages to picking at certain spots in the draft order. Maybe once the field gets narrowed down a little, and the few obvious choices are chosen, teams work a little harder to make a good pick.
That’s not to say a number 3 pick is a sure-fire bust because plenty of players selected at number 3 have succeeded, including Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, and more recent picks Manny Machado and Evan Longoria. However, there have simply been more successes coming from number 4 than from number 3, such as Hall of Famers Barry Larkin and Dave Winfield, and other notables such as Thurman Munson, Kevin Brown, Ryan Zimmerman, and Kerry Wood. We’re talking probabilities here, which means that even if you have only a 1-in-20 chance of succeeding, there is no reason why you can’t be that “1” where another 19 have failed.
Looking at the first 48 MLB drafts, I estimated the likelihood of each player being successful based on two factors: 1) hitter or pitcher? and 2) draft order. Pitchers have traditionally been harder to scout and more risky choices than position players, so whether the pick is a hitter or pitcher has a big effect on the chances of success. Even though the draft order is not flawless (how do you explain Mike Piazza being picked 1,390th, while Bryan Bullington was taken 1st?), generally speaking, the sooner a player is taken in the draft, the better his prospects.
Looking to history, the top ten most sure-fire draft picks would be:
- a first pick hitter, like Bryce Harper (52% chance of success)
- a second pick hitter, like Pedro Alvarez (46%)
- a fourth pick hitter, like Ryan Zimmerman (37%)
- a tenth pick pitcher, like Madison Bumgarner (36%)
- a first pick pitcher, like Stephen Strasburg (33%)
- a third pick hitter, like Manny Machado (32%)
- a fifth pick hitter, like Buster Posey (32%)
- a tenth pick hitter, like Jason Castro (29%)
- a fourth pick pitcher, like Jason Grilli (28%)
- a fourteenth pick hitter, like Jason Heyward (28%)
So going by historical chances of “success” based on draft order and player position as outlined above, I can predict the following ten players from the 2017 Draft as being the most likely to succeed in the Major Leagues:
- Royce Lewis (52%)
- Brendan McKay (37%)
- Jordon Adell (39%)
- Nick Pratto (28%)
- Hunter Greene (27%)
- David Peterson (25%)
- Austin Beck (24%)
- Shane Baz (24%)
- Pavin Smith (23%)
- Logan Warmoth (22%)
Royce Lewis has an over 50% chance of being a future star. Probably one of the group consisting of Brandan McKay, Jordon Adell, and Nick Pratto will make an All-Star Game.
I have no explanation why, but third picks have traditionally been bad at making All-Star games. Third pick MacKenzie Gore doesn’t crack the top 10 here with a 15% chance of making an All-Star game. Likewise, 22nd pick Logan Warmoth has a better chance than you might think (22%).
Nothing is certain in prospecting, but it looks to me like loading up on Royce Lewis baseball cards now might not be such a bad idea. Only time will tell.