The MLB Draft is Daft

Rob Noverraz returns, bearing graphs…

The Major League Draft can seem like a strange beast to those who grew up with European Sports; whilst some will disregard it as ludicrous or daft it certainly has its benefits.

Let’s take football (European football, not what they call football over the pond) and consider how they approach adding young talent.  Typically football clubs run academies which are specifically designed to nurture the talent.  There are plenty of regulations governing who can sign for which club but essentially children can’t sign younger than 9 and must live within an hour of said academy.

Nine years old seems to be a very young age to be dealing with the pressure of being constantly evaluated and shaped for a potential career that you may not even want once you’ve matured as a person and there’s a lot of responsibility on a football club to get that balance right and help develop the person as well as the football player.  However, if the club is able to get that right, you could argue that these young people will be well prepared for the life of professional sports once they get there.

Alternatively to become a major league baseball player you must be at least 16 having finished your high-school education but can be drafted by any team in the majors regardless of distance or in some cases even country.  Whilst their official journey towards a career in sports won’t start until 16, the development and push towards pro sport in US schools is much more structured with a clear line of progression towards an eventual draft.

Both systems appear to have surface pros and cons for developing children within the game.  The academy model looks to formalise the process at a young age in a way that accepts yet exercises a modicum of control over exposure to the rigours of professional sport.  The MLB draft system doesn’t allow a club to mine commodities quite so young, but with the competitive nature and national interest in the high-school game, the pressures and focus involved may be levelled at players at a younger age.

The draft itself sees 40 rounds of picks.  40 rounds.  That’s roughly 1200 selections every year which is a staggering amount of people drafted with the hopes of making it onto one of just 30 teams.  Of course many of these people won’t sign with the club they were drafted by either selecting to continue education, deferring for a year or giving up on their dreams (in 2010 1,209 of 1,525 picks were signed.  The length of the draft has since been reduced to the 40 rounds and roughly 1,200 picks as mentioned above.)

To find the people suffering at the hands of this number you need to look a little further into the systems of the clubs.  If 1,000 people are signed each year, even before you consider international free agent acquisitions that’s 1,000 people having to leave the system between Rookie league and the Majors.  A few of them will be retiring Major Leaguers who’ve made their money, but an awful lot of them will be guys who’ve spent a few years slogging away between Rookie Ball and AAA for peanuts.

That large turnover of personnel goes some way to illustrating that not all draft picks make it; in fact, the majority of draft picks don’t make it.  I pulled the details of the above mentioned 2010 draft from Baseball Reference and created the below graph with the details of which players made it onto a major league roster, with the percentage change on the vertical axis, and the round drafted on the horizontal axis.

Whilst there are expected some deviances from the trend (including Kevin Kiermaier, Aaron Judge and Hunter Renfroe all being drafted in the 31st round.  Judge chose not to sign for the A’s in 2010 and was eventually picked in the first round by the Yankees in 2013), a quick search will turn up figures such as the below.

If a player is drafted in the second round, he only has a roughly 50/50 chance of making the majors. Is this really worth it?  Kevin Gowdy who was drafted 42nd overall in the 2016 draft by the Phillies can point to three and a half million reasons why it’s worth it and Braves 4th round pick RHP Bryce Wilson can point to a further one point two million reasons.

The business of the draft makes people rich before they’ve ever played a single game of professional baseball. Gowdy and Wilson could be phenomenal investments, they both could be all-stars or even hall of famers, however, the statistics suggest that at least one of either the Phillies or the Braves will have spent millions of dollars on a career minor leaguer.

With less than a 20% chance to make the majors by the time you hit the 6th round it’s easy to doubt the value of the draft continuing further beyond this point for the players, the clubs and even the fans, however there are still counters to that.

Some players have it written into their contract that the club will pay for their continued studies either during off seasons or at the end of their careers. Given the cost of university study in the US, taking a few years out to play baseball with one of these deals in the background may well be financially prudent.

For those guys who only ever appear in the minors, firstly, they’ve already beaten some very long odds to get there, especially those who get beyond rookie ball, and secondly they’re providing competitive entertainment in their own right.  The average attendances for 2016 were 6653 in AAA and 4126 in AA.

That’s comparable per game to League 1 and League 2 football in the UK which are considered standalone worthwhile ventures in their own right.  These guys aren’t just there to make up the numbers or give the high picks someone to play against, they’re doing their thing as functional minor league players in functional fan followed leagues.

Lastly, if we didn’t have the later draft rounds think of the players we’d be missing.  Here are just some of the late picks who are probably playing this week if not tonight:

Jose Bautista – 20th

Kevin Kiermaier – 31st

Albert Pujols – 13th

Ian Kinsler – 17th

Rajai Davis – 38th

Sergio Romo – 28th

Jarrod Dyson – 50th

JD Martinez – 20th

Jaime Garcia – 22nd

Add to them the likes of Mark Buehrle (38th), Wade Boggs (7th), Mike Piazza (62nd), Ken Griffey (29th), Nolan Ryan (12th) and many many more if you care to look for them, the game would be far less rich if they had never been drafted.


So is the draft system perfect?  No.  Is it a bit silly?  Probably.  But if you’re still reading this, it’s most likely because you love this slightly bizarre sport and it’s the Albert Pujols home runs, the Kevin Kiermaier web gems and the Mark Buehrle shutouts that keep us coming back and for that you have to thank at least in part a long and daft draft.

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