A Junkies Guide to the MLB Draft

By David Weiss

As many of you know, the MLB draft will begin tomorrow. This draft is far less exhilarating that the NBA or NFL drafts. There are many rounds and thousands of picks. Here is a list of the questions you wanted to ask but were too ashamed to do so:

Question: Who is eligible for the draft?

Answer: Players are divided into three categories:

  • High school graduates- Most of these players are 18 years old.
  • Four year college players- Most are around 21 or 22 years old. These are players who have finished their junior of senior years of college ball. Freshmen and sophomores are not eligible.
  • Junior college players- Anyone who plays for a junior college is eligible for the draft. Overall, few players are in this category.

Question: Why is it that only American and Canadian players are in the draft? What about Latin American and Asian players?

Answer: The draft applies only to the US (and its territories like Puerto Rico) as well as Canadian players. There is a different system in which teams can sign international players. The international signing system with Latin America is very different since players can sign when they are under 18. Asian players have their own separate system. Both are beyond the scope of this article.

correa draft
Carlos Correa became the highest draft pick from Puerto Rico in 2012.

Question: Why does the MLB draft have so many rounds? It is kind of absurd.

Answer: Fair point. The NBA has two rounds. Their rosters are up to 15 players and they have the G league as their only minor league. The NFL has a 53-man roster but no official minor league, which is why they only have seven rounds.

Question: So why does the NHL also have seven rounds? They have minor leagues just like in baseball.

Answer: Simply put, baseball has more minor league levels than hockey. The teams also have a slightly larger roster. More importantly, not every MLB draft pick signs. This is particularly true for high school players taken in later rounds, which will be discussed later.

Minor league
A list of the Mets minor league levels from Wikipedia.

Question: Why would a high school player not sign with a major league team if drafted?

Answer: There are several reasons:

  • Often a player who gets drafted in a later round will not get much of a signing bonus. If he tries again in a few years when he is more valuable, he will get more money.
  • A player gets a lot of valuable experience playing in the NCAA.
  • A high school graduate will usually start at the lower levels such as rookie ball, which is not fun.
  • Many players value an education. No one can assume that he will have a prosperous career.
  • Some players are simply not mature enough to live on their own so far from home. The NCAA baseball teams know that they are dealing with teenagers.
Justin Dunn turned down a chance to be a Dodger in 2013. In 2016 he got $2,378,800 from the Mets.

Question: Is college ball like the minor leagues?

Answer: A good NCAA division I team is comparable to a minor league team on the A+ level. This is generally why most good college draft picks start around A level ball. However, not all college players nor teams are on that level.

Question: Can you compare a high school team to any level of the minor leagues?

Answer: Maybe if you had two top teams, they would be around rookie ball. The problem with high school is that every roster has guys who are not good enough to play serious college ball. On the other hand, you can have a small number of players good enough to play in A ball or above.

Question: What are the advantages of signing out of high school? This refers to guys who aren’t blue chip picks and don’t get big signing bonuses.

Answer: Again, there are a number of reasons:

  • You are in the pros. A big part of the path to the big leagues is just getting scouts to notice you. Once signed, you passed that stage.
  • A good high school player may not get the attention of college scouts. As a result, he’ll miss his chance.
  • The minor leagues have a system in place where a player can grow. The best player in college must wait until they complete their junior year just to enter the draft. In other words, the path to the majors is faster.
  • A college athlete must balance studies and sports. In the minors you can focus exclusively on baseball.

Question: Do high round picks have an easier time making the big leagues that the lower round picks?

Answer: No. Baseball is a meritocracy. No one wants a loser on the big-league club just because experts once thought he was good. Josh Edgin was taken by the Mets in round 30 in 2010. Two years later he made it to the majors and was a solid pitcher for a most of his career. Blake Forsythe and Cory Vaughn were taken with the Mets second and third overall pick that year. Neither made it nor are playing in the minor league system.

Question: After the drafting is over, how long does a team have to sign a player?

Answer: The deadline is 11:59 PM (EDT) August 15. If a player doesn’t sign, he must go to college ball and can only reenter the next draft at the earliest if it is a junior college. If a high school grad goes to a four year college, he must wait until after his junior year.

Question: What is the story with TJ Rivera? How was he signed but not drafted?

Answer: This is a bizarre one. Rivera graduated college in 2011. He entered the draft but was completely missed. Former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser had been Rivera’s coach and advised the team to sign him. The rule is that if a player graduated college and is not drafted, he is a free agent. The Mets signed Rivera and it turned out to be a brilliant decision. This is extremely uncommon.

TJ Rivera was one of the few players to not get drafted but make it to the majors anyway.

Question: If a team is constantly bad at turning draft picks into good players, does this mean that they simply have poor scouting?

Answer: Not necessarily. There is usually a consensus on who the first-round guys are. It could be that they simply do not invest properly in their minor leaguers and that their player development is the problem. Also, injuries ruin minor league players just like major leaguers.

Question: Why do so many first-round picks never make it to the big leagues and others do but don’t pan out? Why is that?

Answer: Baseball is a tough sport. The average fan doesn’t realize how much of a gap there is from one level of the minor leagues to the next. It is not uncommon to have a player do well in AA but have a rough time in AAA. Scouts can tell how good a player is now, but projecting them long term in tough.

(For the next round of questions, I focus on the top 30 picks from the drafts between 2000-2009. The reason is that from these drafts, we can more or less close the book and declare teams to have made good or bad choices.)

Question: What percentage of top picks did not play a single game in the majors?

Answer: A shockingly high 24% never did. Another 6.3% played in 20 or fewer games. In other words, every team is bound to have a huge bust or two.

Question: Which team is the worst at drafting with a top 30 pick?

Answer: In this period, the White Sox strike me as the worst. Three of their top picks never made it to the majors. Of the seven who did the only player to have any success was Gordon Beckham, and even he was never that great. They finally broke this streak with Chris Sale in 2010.

White Sox fans
The White Sox have struggled for a decade. Much of this is due to bad draft picks.

Question: Which team has had the most first round success?

Answer: I will go with Royals. During this period, they took future all stars like Greinke, Butler, Gordon, Hosmer and Moustakas. On the other hand, they had top ten picks on eight separate occasions, so one can make a case that they weren’t geniuses. They lost enough to win (if that makes sense). The Diamondbacks had some really great picks and only twice had top ten picks. Quentin, Upton, Scherzer and Pollock were all excellent choices.

First round picks Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer went from top prospects to champs.

Question: From a team’s perspective, does it make more sense to draft a college or high school player?

Answer: There is no right answer here. Experts have debated this for years and the conventional wisdom is always changing. In a nutshell it looks like, college players make it to the big leagues faster and are less likely to be flops. However, they are less likely to be the best players in the game. With high schoolers, the data indicates that they are more likely to be stars. However, they take a lot longer to reach the majors and are more likely to be busts. Many will dispute this theory.

If you look at it mathematically, in the ten years given, 68.4% of high school guys made it to the majors. Of those who did, the average WAR is 10.5. Of those who went to a four-year college, 82.3% made it, but their WAR 8.3 on average.

Question: Does the ‘cream of the crop’ usually come out of high school of college? I want to know about guys who are hall of fame material.

Answer: It seems that the answer is high school. If you rank the top 7 players to be taken in this time, five came from high school. They include Kershaw, Greinke, Trout, Mauer and Hamels. The only two to come out of college were Utley and Verlander. If you look at the top 42 players in terms of WAR, half came from high school despite the fact that most players went to a four-year college. Being that many of those high school stars are still playing, while the college stars are ending their careers, the numbers will likely shift more towards the high school guys.

Greinke Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both went from top high school picks to Cy Young winners.

Question: Does it make more sense to draft a player of a certain position?

Answer: Not really. Most teams just go for the best player available regardless of position. There is no such thing as too many good players. In addition, players can learn a new position. You can never predict injuries or which players will underperform. Considering that in the best of cases, players end up in the majors after 2-3 years, just take the best player available. The Mets took Steve Chilcott from high school in 1966 because they felt that they needed a catcher. The player they passed up was Reggie Jackson. OOPS!!

Steve Chilcott was taken by the Mets instead of Reggie Jackson

Question: Your data ends at 2009. Aren’t you missing a lot?

Answer: Of course I am. The reason I did this is because it is still too soon to close the book. Take Brandon Nimmo for example. He was taken in the first round in 2011 and only now is having an impact. Again, high school players can take a while to develop. Jameson Taillon was the second overall pick in 2010 and only played his first full season last year. As time goes on we will learn more and more.

Seven years after being a first round pick, Brandon Nimmo is making a big league impact.

Question: Are teams getting better at drafting early?

Answer: By and large yes. Teams are taking the draft much more seriously. The number of busts is declining. If you look at the years since 2009, there is a trend in the right direction but too soon to say anything definitively.

Question: Name the biggest draft bust.

Answer: Mark Appel was the number 1 overall pick in 2013 by the Astros. This is an extreme case since the previous year the Pirates took with the eighth overall pick but he turned down their $3.8 million offer. He went back to college and waited until he became the 2013 top pick and got $6.35 million. After struggling in the minors, he was traded to the Phillies. He had a bad 2017 season in AAA and retired without playing a day in the majors.

Danny Hultzen is bad but not as extreme. He was taken by Seattle with the second overall pick in 2011 Mariners. He is yet to play in the majors and has had arm problems. He is in the Cubs system and may eventually make it.

Mark Appel- A big league bust.

Question: Who should the Mets aim for with the sixth pick? (Within reason)

Answer: Jonathan India is my choice. If you don’t know who he is, look him up.

(David Weiss is a lifelong Mets fan. He has lived in Israel since 2008 and runs the Facebook page Jewish Mets Fans.)

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