How Valuable is the First Overall Section in the MLB Rule Four Draft?
What do Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves (2014), Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts (2012), and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (2015) have in common?
Answer: They are all recent household names that were chosen with the first overall pick in their respective draft class. Yet, unlike the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, much less attention is paid to the first-year player draft by fans in Major League Baseball. Correspondingly, notwithstanding exceptions such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, there is also considerably less hype associated with the first overall selection in the Rule Four draft on the whole.
As America’s pastime, how is it possible that the grand old game’s annual amateur drafts consistently fall behind the other three North American major professional sports when it comes to media exposure? Why is it that interest among fans on the top pick of MLB drafts pale in comparison to that of the NBA, NFL, and the NHL?
Several explanations have been presented by analysts, including the facts that:
(1) the majority of potential top draftees, typically comprised of high school and college student athletes, were “unknowns” to the lay public because high school and college baseball are nowhere near as popular as college football, college basketball, and college/junior hockey;
(2) high MLB selections would almost certainly be assigned to minor league-affiliated ball clubs (either Rookie or Class A) in order to refine their skill sets, whereas top draft picks in the NHL, NBA, and NFL have a good chance of starring in their leagues right away in their draft year; and
(3) the overwhelming majority of prospects taken in the first-year player draft, including numerous first round picks, would end up never appearing in a single MLB game, whereas significantly more drafted players in the NHL, NBA, and NFL, including some of those who are late-round selections, would reach their destiny in due course.
Although these assumptions all have merits to various degree, I construe that the dual trends are the direct result of the more volatile nature of the first-year player draft (relatively speaking in comparison to the NBA draft, the NFL draft, and the NHL entry draft), which makes the process more difficult to yield a “can’t be missed” generational player when compared to the other three North American major professional sports.
Dating back to the first Rule Four draft in 1965, there has been a total of fifty-one first overall selections. To this date, this short list has produced twenty-three all stars. By all accounts, the results are quite encouraging, as the chance of landing a player who would go on to be named an all star at least once in their MLB career is a generous 45.10% (23/51).
Rookie of the Year Award Winners:
While all star selections are the benchmark of elite players, one question that we need to ask is how many of these players can actually make an immediate impact to their respective ball clubs? Historically, we should look to past American League and National League Rookie of the Year Award Winners to answer this question, seeing that the Rookie of the Year Award is the highest form of recognition to new players who are making contributions to their teams straight away in very meaningful ways.
Of the aforementioned fifty-one first overall picks, twenty-three of whom were named all stars at some point in their MLB career, only three were winners of the Rookie of the Year Award:
(1) Horner, the National League winner in 1978;
(2) Strawberry, the National League winner in 1983; and
(3) Harper, the National League winner in 2012.
Sadly, this means that the probability of choosing an eventual Rookie of the Year Award Winner with the first overall selection is only 5.88% (3/51). Although this phenomenon could be purely circumstantial, it is noteworthy that no first overall pick (as of 2015) has ever been named as the winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award!
National Baseball Hall of Fame:
On the other side of the spectrum, an equally interesting question is how many of the fifty-one previous first overall selections can make a long-lasting contribution to the ball club(s) that he has played for over his MLB career. Here, we ought to look to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as being inducted into Cooperstown as the ultimate form of acknowledgment for a player in terms of honouring his sustained excellence and longevity in the big league.
Among the aforesaid fifty-one first overall selections, only one of them was ultimately enshrined into the Hall of Fame: Griffey, Jr. In other words, the odds of choosing an eventual Hall of Famer with the first overall pick is a minuscule 1.96% (1/51). That said, I gather that adjustments are needed as including first overall selections who are still active players into the computation would distort the outcomes. There are seventeen such players who are still playing in MLB. If we were to leave them out, then the possibility of being able to reap a future Hall of Famer utilizing the first overall pick would increase to an ever so slightly better 2.94% (1/34).
While the short-term outlook of getting an impact player who can pay immediate dividends in the form of a Rookie of the Year Winner is bleak to say the least at 5.88%, the good news is that there is close to a coin flip (fifty-fifty) chance of drafting an all star player with the first overall selection of a first-year player draft at 45.10%. However, when it comes to the long-term outlook, the likelihood of obtaining a future Hall of Famer is highly improbable at 1.96% pre-adjusted and 2.94% post-adjusted.
For comparison’s sake, if we look to the left tail of the MLB and NHL distribution curves, the chance of an MLB ball club landing a Rookie of the Year Winner with the first overall pick in a Rule 4 Draft, at 5.88%, is a sizable 12.99% less (or more than three times worse) than an NHL team finding a Calder Memorial Trophy winner in an Entry Draft at 18.87%. Likewise, the probability of an MLB ball club being able to draft an eventual Hall of Famer with the first overall selection of a first-year player draft, at 1.96% before adjustment and 2.94% after adjustment, is a considerable 11.25% (or nearly seven times worse) and 16.48% (or more than five-and-a-half times worse) less than an NHL team unearthing a Future Hall of Famer in an entry draft at 13.21% prior to adjustments and 19.44% after adjustments. Accordingly, the results seem to back up my hypothesis that the Rule Four draft is inherently more unpredictable when contrasted to the NBA draft, the NFL draft, and the NHL entry draft, which in turn renders the procedure of uncovering a “can’t be missed” generational player harder compared to the other three North American major professional sports.
Even though the likelihood of picking a player who fails to have at least a short stint in MLB is remarkably low at 3.92% (2/51), as only two players who were taken first overall in the first-year player draft failed to play a single MLB game—(1) Steve Chilcott, picked by the New York Mets in 1966 and (2) Brien Taylor, drafted by the New York Yankees in 1991—the reality, much like in the NHL, is that the likelihood of being able to discover that “can’t be missed” diamond in the rough appears to be an imperfect science regardless of how we break down the fifty-one first overall picks in past Rule Four drafts. Now do you want to choose heads, or tails?