With the help of Baseball Reference’s draft database, I have compiled a spreadsheet of every first-round (and first supplemental round) pick ever (June regular draft when applicable).
First, some rudimentary data regarding first-round picks:
Percentage of first-round picks that reached the majors: 59 (914/1547) — this includes picks from 2009 and 2010, for whom it would be unreasonable to expect to reach the majors at this point
Number drafted out of high school: 828
Number drafted out of junior or four-year college: 719
Average WAR of first-round draft pick: 4.65
So, merely having a first-round pick is worth over four and a half wins on average. Assuming, of course, that the team signs the player and controls them for their entire career. Still, even with that caveat, Tampa Bay’s exploitation of free agent compensation to end up with eleven first-round picks looks incredibly smart.
Well, maybe not quite as smart as it appears on first glance. The average WAR of a top ten pick is 8.48. The average for picks outside the top ten, as all of Tampa’s are, is a comparatively small 3.03. This doesn’t mean that Tampa Bay doesn’t have an incredible advantage over organizations with only one or two picks in the first round, but the likelihood of all eleven picks making it and having successful careers is slim.
Which brings me to my next point: 41% of all first-round draft picks never make it to the majors. On picks outside the top ten, that number increases to 49%. Inside the top ten, the bust rate is lower, dropping to just 27%.
All this seems to be common sense: the more talented players are more likely to get to the majors, and are also more likely to be taken early. Therefore, players who get taken early are more likely to get to the majors. But perhaps in the past teams have taken safer picks with higher draft choices, following the logic that the higher a team’s pick, the less they can afford to pick poorly. The safest pick is generally considered to be a college hitter, so let’s see if more teams picked college hitters, and if so, did they have more or less success?
Of the 95 college hitters drafted in the top ten picks since the beginning of the MLB draft, only eight failed to make it to the majors at all, a bust rate of just 8.4%. Three of those eight were taken in 2009 and 2010 and will likely see the majors someday. A ninth player, JD Drew, did not sign when first drafted, but signed the following year and has had success at the major league level. The average WAR for college hitters is 14.92. If outliers (top 10%) are removed, that number drops to 8.52. A substantial drop, certainly, but can any other player type match the production and safety of college hitters?
For college pitchers, there have been 108 drafted in the top ten, of which 20 have failed to reach the majors, a bust rate of 18.5%. The average WAR is 4.63, 2.4 with outliers removed. Of the 96 high school pitchers, 37, or 38.5% never reached the majors. The average WAR of the 95 taken is 4.99, and 2.28 when the top 10% are discounted. Finally, of high school hitters, there have been 160, of which 35.6% didn’t make the big leagues. High school hitters have an average WAR of 8.7, 3.32 after removing the top 10%.
So what does this mean? Well, several things, most of which were already assumed to be true. High school players generally have higher ceilings and lower floors than their college counterparts, hitters are safer than pitchers, and college hitters are the safest picks. What interested me, though, was just how small the difference between high school and college pitchers is. High school pitchers taken in the top ten were actually better on average than college pitchers. Apart from arriving in the majors faster, and being more likely to arrive at all, there aren’t a whole lot of benefits to taking college pitchers over similarly talented high schoolers. They’re slightly safer, sure, but that safety has, in the past, come with the price of reduced performance.
And what can we learn from this? Honestly, not a whole lot. Most of what this data does is confirm what intuition and observation already told us was true. And there’s lots of room for misinterpretation in this data. The fact that college hitters taken in the top ten have been the most successful does not mean that a team with a top ten pick should always take a college hitter. College hitters taken in the top ten are rarely busts because they have the talent and refinement to be taken in the top ten. Reaching for a college hitter does not automatically grant them top ten talent. The same applies everywhere else: the best players are more likely to reach the majors, regardless of draft position. Taking high school players will always be more of a risk than college players, but it may offer a better reward. So teams should not pass up on a talented high school player for a less talented player simply because he is older. Especially not when it comes to pitchers.
In terms of this year’s draft: don’t pass up Bubba Starling for Jackie Bradley, Jr., but if Anthony Rendon falls, grab him. If you think Dylan Bundy will be better than Tyler Anderson, why take Anderson over Bundy? There are 40+ years of history that confirms that while scouts are not always right, they understand the big picture very well.