Baseball’s Draft Is More Than A Crapshoot

Baseball’s draft gets a bad rap.

There is the theory that it’s a crapshoot. Don’t buy it.

It is not a matter of a team getting lucky. It’s a matter of teams making the right decisions for the right reasons.

And if someone lets outside factors override scouting sense at draft time, it’s not the system’s fault. Blame it on the meddler.

Was it the system that drove San Diego’s decision to use the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft on shortstop Matt Bush? Is it the system’s fault that in the first 47 years of the draft, Houston selected only eight players who played in at least 500 big league games?

Phil Nevin is one of those eight, but his selection as the first pick in 1992 exposes a flaw in their decision-making.

In settling on Nevin, the Astros ignored the plea of scout Hal Newhouser, who lobbied for a Michigan high school shortstop named Derek Jeter. Newhouser said Jeter could be signed for $750,000, which then-owner John McMullen said was $50,000 too much. The Astros went down their draft list until they got to Nevin, who was fifth on the list, and he agreed to accept the $700,000.

Late-Round Finds

Oh, there are wonderful success stories.

Mike Piazza was a 62rd-round draft choice of the Dodgers, thanks to the pleading of longtime family friend Tommy Lasorda, and put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career.

He is often brought up as an example of the draft being more about luck than skill. Among current players,  Braves righthander Brandon Beachy, an undrafted player signed in 2008, is a similar story.

A corner infielder at Indiana Wesleyan, Beachy was pitching in a summer league when Atlanta scout Gene Kerns stopped in for a game and liked what he saw. After a few days of convincing the Braves front office, Kerns was able to sign Beachy for $5,000.

By September 2010, Beachy had made his major league debut, and he won a spot in the Braves rotation last year.

Those, however, are more the exceptions than the rule. There is more than luck involved in selecting the players.

Take the projected starting eight that each team submitted for the All-Star Game ballot before spring training, and the 74 pitchers who had an ERA lower than 4.26 on the eve of this year’s draft. Of the 314 players, 254 were draft eligible, including Beachy and undrafted catchers Rod Barajas and Ryan Hanigan. There were 13 players selected in the 20th round or later, including Orlando Hudson, a 43rd-round draft-and-follow selection of Toronto in 1997.

But consider:

• 109 of the players were first-round draft picks—42.9 percent of the draft-eligible players.

• 134 were first- or second-round selections—55.7 percent.

• 209 were selected in the top 10 rounds—82.3 percent.

And the impact of the draft is even stronger with pitchers:

• 35 of the 62 draft-eligible pitchers were selected in the first round, or 56.4 percent.

• 38 of the pitchers were selected in the first two rounds, or 61.3 percent.

• And 52 of the pitchers were drafted in the first 10 rounds, 83.9 percent.

Beachy led the major leagues with a 1.87 ERA, but 13 of the 22 lowest ERAs belonged to pitchers who were first-round picks, including Gio Gonzalez (2.04; supplemental round), Chris Sale (2.34), Stephen Strasburg (2.35), Clayton Kershaw (2.42), David Price (2.44), Justin Verlander (2.55), Jered Weaver (2.61), Matt Cain (2.62), Lance Lynn (2.63; supplemental), R.A. Dickey (2.69), Wade Miley (2.72; supplemental) and Cole Hamels (2.81).

Three of the seven other pitchers in the top 22 in ERA were international players who were never draft eligible. James McDonald, an 11th-round pick of the Dodgers who was traded to the Pirates, was the only one of the top 22 selected after the fifth round.

There are 59 foreign-born players among the group, about 18.8 percent, which is considerably below the 25.7 percent of the Opening Day roster spots filled by players who were not draft eligible when they originally signed.

The conclusions are unmistakable: While it’s nice to get lucky in the draft, it’s much better to be good.