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Identifying The Best MLB Draft Picks To Hit For Average And Power

Image credit: Frank Thomas (Photo by Focus On Sport)

The goal of every team is to find impact players in the draft. Whether drafting from college or high school, pitchers or position players, organizations seek elite players who can impact games.

To do that, scouts hone in on players’ tools, grading them on a 20-80 scale to project their potential impact. To give a player even average (50) grades means he can be a solid, everyday major leaguer. Giving him plus (60) grades indicates the belief the player has all-star-level tools.

But only the cream of the crop receive 70 grades, and only the elite of the elite receive a coveted 80 grade. Players with that level of tools are the ones we talk about as perennial all-stars, MVPs and potential Hall of Famers.

Scouts are understandably wary of putting such high numbers on any amateur, simply because so few players ever reach that level of performance.

Still, 70 or 80 grades in the draft are occasionally realized in the major leagues. The question is: how often?

To find the answer, we examined every draft from 1965-2011 to find how many 70-grade (or better) hitters there were in each draft and how many 70-grade (or better) power hitters there were, as measured by major league performance.

We set a minimum of 3,000 career plate appearances to avoid small sample bias. The goal was to find 70-hit and 70-power grade performances over the course of a player’s career, not just individual seasons.

Players from the 2012-19 drafts are largely in the early stages of their careers or have yet to begin them, and thus were not included in our study.

Based on research of historical trends and league averages, we set a .300 batting average as the threshold for a 70-grade hitter, as most major league organizations do.

For 70-grade power, we set the thresholds at 30 home runs per 500 at-bats or at least seven seasons of 30 or more home runs.

70-Grade Hitters

Just 32 players ever drafted have become career .300 hitters through the end of the 2019 season. The rest predate the draft era or signed as international free agents.

That’s an average of just over one 70-grade hitter every two drafts.

The most career .300 hitters ever selected in one draft is three: Chipper Jones, Frank Thomas and Rusty Greer in 1990.

Seven other draft years featured two. In more than half of drafts (24 of 47), zero 70-grade hitters were drafted at all.

Notably, teams appear to have improved recently at identifying future .300 hitters in the draft. Eleven of the last 14 career .300 hitters were drafted in either the first or second rounds. The exceptions are fifth-rounders Michael Young and Mookie Betts and 13th-rounder Albert Pujols.

Comparatively, just six of the previous 16 career .300 hitters were drafted in the top two rounds. Wade Boggs (seventh round), Don Mattingly (19th), Mark Grace (24th) and Mike Piazza (62nd) are among the notable mid-to-late round finds.

70-Grade Power

Given the steroid era and the launch-angle revolution, there have unsurprisingly been more players drafted with 70-grade power.

From our 1965-2011 sample, 28 draftees averaged 30 home runs per 500 at-bats in their careers through the end of the 2019 season. An additional seven players didn’t reach that threshold but had seven or more seasons of at least 30 home runs.

That’s 35 draftees who realized plus-plus power in the major leagues, for an average of three 70-grade power hitters every four drafts. The rest predate the draft era or signed as international free agents.

The most 70-grade (or better) power hitters drafted in a single year is three: Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Mo Vaughn in 1989. Eight other draft classes featured two.

At least one 70-grade or better power hitter was selected in 11 consecutive drafts from 1984-94. That group played the bulk of its career in the steroid era and includes Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Jason Giambi.

Overall, teams have had similar success rates identifying 70-grade power hitters in the draft across different eras.

Eight of the last 14 draftees to produce 70-grade or better power in their careers were selected in the top two rounds. Ten of the 14 were selected in the top five rounds.

Comparatively, nine of the 14 previous plus-plus power hitters were selected in the top two rounds. Twelve of the 14 were drafted in the top five rounds.

70 hit, 70 power

Finding a player who combines 70-grade hitting ability with 70 power is exceptionally rare.

Just five draftees ever drafted have reached the thresholds for 70-hit and 70-power over their careers: Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza. The rest predate the draft era or signed as international free agents.

That’s an average of just under one 70-hit, 70-power (or better) player every nine drafts.

If we lower the threshold of a 70-grade hitter from a .300 career batting average to .295, it adds four players to the list: Bonds, Bagwell, Rodriguez and Albert Belle.

Such players are no more common on the international front. In the draft era (1965-present), just two international signees have crossed the thresholds for both for 70-hit and 70-power in their careers: Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Cabrera.

Lowering the threshold of a 70-grade hitter to a .295 average yields only one international addition: Juan Gonzalez.

In short, a 70-hit, 70-power (or better) player from either the draft or international free agency comes around about once every nine years, on average, under the strictest standards and about once every five years, on average, even when the terms are defined by the loosest of standards.

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