So How Important is the Top Draft Pick Anyway?

As has been stated time and again on this blog, I am a Detroit Tigers fan. Life is pretty hard for us right about now. The Tigers only won 47 games last season. The highest-paid pitcher on the team, Jordan Zimmerman, finished with a 1-13 record and an ERA just shy of 7. In a season that saw multiple home run records shattered, the Tigers hit just 149 long balls, better only than the lowly Marlins. Brandon Dixon led the team with 15 home runs, and let’s be honest; you didn’t know there was a professional baseball player named Brandon Dixon, let alone that he led the Tigers in home runs.

But all that futility and suffering resulted in a golden ticket: the number one draft pick in this summer’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.

I’m happy the Tigers have the number one pick. They’ll be able to draft a top prospect who (hopefully) will arrive in the majors in a few years and be a key component of the next successful Tigers squad. But I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched loss after loss after loss last September, was the number one pick really worth it? Surely in baseball a top-5 pick, or even a top-10 pick, can be just as transformative as the number one selection?

Last year’s number one overall pick Adley Rutschman, in uniform for the Short Season-A Aberdeen Ironbirds.

If there’s any sport where there would be more parity throughout the draft, it would be baseball. Baseball is the only major American sport where the top drafted players don’t start at the highest levels of the sport, but instead begin their pro careers at Rookie Ball or Single-A, four levels below the major leagues. The nature of the game itself, where size, speed, and strength aren’t foolproof barometers for success, results in a situation where many lower draft picks develop into superstars–and, conversely, some high draft picks fail to make the show. The fact that players enter the draft from both high school and college means that no MLB scouting team can adequately scout every single player, meaning that some inevitably slip through the cracks.

In short, is there such a major advantage to tanking and getting the number one draft pick over playing the standard level of bad baseball and getting a top-five pick?

Since the ongoing global pandemic has left me with a lot of time on my hands, I dug into the data. I went back and looked at the first round of every MLB draft since 1990. I used 2017 as the final entry, as only one player from the first round of the 2018 draft (Nico Hoerner) has made an appearance for his major league club. I then compiled the wins above replacement (WAR) from Baseball Reference of each drafted player into a spreadsheet. If a player failed to make it to the major leagues, I entered their bWAR as zero. From there, I calculated the median bWAR of each draft pick stretching back to 1990. I used median instead of average to eliminate outliers like Mike Trout, far and away the most successful 25th pick of all time. You can go through the entire spreadsheet here, but here’s a table of the medians for the top ten draft picks.

Draft PositionMedian bWar

Or, for those of you who are more visual learners, here’s a line graph of the data:

The data suggests that the typical, median number one pick is worth around double what the number two pick is worth, and the number two pick is worth a bit more than double what the number three pick is worth. The data from picks three to thirty lack any strong correlation.

In other words, having the first or second pick is far more valuable than having any other pick in the first round.

The ramifications of the data are fairly stark: if you’re going to lose, lose big. Lose everything. Lose all of your games, in the hopes that you’ll end up with the top draft pick. If you only lose enough games to end up with the third pick, you may as well be picking in the middle of the first round. Tanking works.

This is all somewhat depressing for a fan of competitive balance. So let’s try and leave you with a bit of a silver lining. Recently, the number one pick has been less of a golden ticket. Since the 2012 draft, only one player drafted first overall has appeared in the majors, that being Dansby Swanson. The others have either failed to sign with the team that drafted them, or struggled in their development to date. Perhaps as analytics becomes a more critical component of both the scouting and developmental processes, the distance between the number one draft pick and other first rounders is diminishing.

International stars like last year’s World Series hero Juan Soto have perhaps diminished the importance of the MLB Draft.

Also, unlike the other American sports leagues, baseball has a separate avenue for international players to enter the league. International players enter MLB as free agents and can be signed by major league teams from a separate pot of money dedicated to international signees. MLB has also long wanted to institute an international draft, where the top pick would rotate between divisions rather than fall to the team with the worst record from the previous seasons. Many of the superstars in Major League Baseball today entered the league as international free agents rather than through the domestic draft. Teams don’t need to tank for the number one pick if they can sign potential superstars at will from overseas.

I’ve wrote before that every team is trying to do one of two things: win now, or win later. The data compiled here suggests that if you can’t win now, one of the best ways to build you team to win later is to tank, and tank hard, to ensure you get the first pick in the MLB draft. Perhaps the long summers of watching loss after loss can be worth it — look at Cubs fans and Astros fans who recently celebrated World Series titles — but no rebuild is guaranteed to succeed, even with the top draft pick, and sometimes those summers of suffering produce nothing more than a generation of malaise and missed opportunities.

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