The 2017 MLB First-Year Player (or “Rule 4”) Draft is among us, a time when many young, talented ballplayers will get signed over the next three days. “Many” might even be an understatement: There are up to an astounding 40 (!) rounds, plus compensatory picks, which is mind-boggling, considering that is more than double the number of rounds than the NFL (7), NHL (7), and NBA (2) drafts combined. This year, the Minnesota Twins, by virtue of their abysmal league-worst 59-103 record last year, were bestowed with the almighty and shiny First Overall Pick (ooh, ahh), with which they drafted shortstop/outfielder Royce Lewis from JSerra Catholic HS in California.
The selection may come as a bit of a surprise, as Hunter Greene, an electric RHP/SS (also from California), was considered by several outlets, including Keith Law, to be the consensus top prospect available. However, the Twins apparently did not get a slouch with their top pick: Lewis reportedly has great tools, including high-end speed and plus power. There are concern he might not hack it at shortstop long term, but his tools may translate well in center field. The Twins held the first overall pick in 2001, with which they selected Joe Mauer.
So the Twins, by fortune of their misfortune last year, got to pick first yesterday, with the hopes of obtaining a future superstar and core player for which to build around.
Or did they? Sure, they got first dibs, but this is not fantasy baseball, where the first overall pick guarantees the team a stud. Quite the contrary, just like the draft as a whole, the first overall pick can be quite the crapshoot.
Baseball likely has more uncertainty and variability regarding draft success when compared to other sports. Estimates are that roughly 2 out of 3 first round picks will ultimately make it to the Majors. What about the first overall pick?
Let’s look back at all of the hitters taken with the first overall pick in the last 30 years, and see their levels of success.
Quite the grab bag. Griffey, Jones, and A-Rod had clearcut Hall-of-Fame careers (well, in A-Rod’s case, at least on paper), but for every Griffey, there is a Delmon Young, who stunningly produced negative WAR in his ten year career. There is a good mix of good-to-great active players on this list, including a few former MVPs in Josh Hamilton and Joe Mauer, and a few perennial MVP candidates in Bryce Harper and Carlos Correa.
Given the staggering WAR totals of Griffey, Jones, and A-Rod, as well as the limited playing time of some of the younger picks, the average career WAR for these 16 hitters is a bit misleading and skewed. Rather, the last column prorates their career WAR over 600 plate appearances, an arbitrarily-chosen benchmark roughly equal to a full season. The results are quite good overall, producing an average and median WAR north of 3 per 600 PA. Undoubtedly, given the uncertainty of the draft, most teams would sign up for that level of production every day.
However, there is never any guarantees for success simply because a player was picked first in the draft. Injuries, off-the-field altercations, or both can affect the lives and careers of anyone.
Matt Bush, drafted as a shortstop by San Diego in 2004, never actually played a game at shortstop for the Padres. He had his fair share of legal troubles, leading to suspensions, releases, and incarcerations throughout his career. He ultimately made his major league debut last year with the Rangers as a relief pitcher, where it appears he finally has carved out a niche in baseball.
There is also the sad tale of Brien Taylor. An electric lefty with gaudy high school numbers (1.25 ERA and 213 K in 88 IP while maxing out at 98-99 MPH; good lord), he was selected by the Yankees with the first overall pick in 1991. To this day, people, including Scott Boras, claim that Taylor was the best high school prospect they had seen. The Yankees, including then-suspended owner George Steinbrenner, did everything in their power to draft Taylor, to the point where “The Boss” was famously quoted that if they were to let Taylor get away, “they should be shot”.
The Yankees thought they had the next Doc Gooden on their hands, and planned to progress Taylor rapidly through the minor leagues. After two seasons of reasonable success in the low minors, Taylor was expected to start 1994 in AAA, and potentially be in the Majors by 1995.
In December 1993, Taylor irreparably damaged his career after attempting to defend his brother in a fistfight. The Yankees doctor, Dr. Frank Jobe, called the injury “one of the worst” he had seen, as he suffered a torn capsule and glenoid labrum in his left shoulder. When he returned, his once-electric stuff was gone, having lost 8 MPH on his fastball. As a result, his command was non-existent, leading to some obscenely high walk rates. He stuck around the minors without much improvement, leading to his eventual release in 1998. He bounced around the Mariners and Indians organizations briefly before retiring, having never thrown a pitch in the majors.
Taylor’s tale is a sobering reminder that first overall picks are no less human than anyone else, and that nothing is a guarantee in sports (or life). That being said, when taken in aggregate, those first overall picks that did crack the majors ultimately had success, averaging over 3 WAR per 600 PA. While that might still seem disappointing with respect to the lofty draft position, that is still quite good. For comparison, the list of players that tallied around 3 WAR in 2016 include Yoenis Cespedes, Ryan Braun, and Matt Carpenter. The careers of all-time greats like Griffey set an impossible standard for which to hold subsequent first overall picks. Like with many things, the most likely outcome here is somewhere in between complete bust and Hall-of-Famer, and that’s still something teams and fans should be excited about.