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In MLB Draft Lottery, No. 1 Pick Came Down To Final Ping Pong Ball

A little less than two hours before the results were announced on MLB Network, Major League Baseball conducted the actual selections for the draft lottery.

Fourteen ping pong balls numbered from 1 to 14 were placed in an airblown lottery machine provided by Smart Play. Smart Play is the same company that also provides lottery devices for the NBA and NHL draft lotteries.

A representative from PriceWaterhouseCoopers was in attendance to observe the procedure. MLB also invited a pool reporter, JJ Cooper of Baseball America, to witness the selections.

The 14 ping pong balls themselves were brought to the event in a carrying case that was sealed. When the time came to conduct the lottery, MLB’s John D’Angelo cut the wires that had sealed the case. The balls were then placed in the hopper. D’Angelo also videotaped the announcement of the date and location, while holding a Dec. 6 copy of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper to further verify the date of the lottery selection process.

The balls were then allowed to rotate for 15 seconds, before a button was pressed. That opened the top of the hopper. Every 15 seconds, the button was pressed again, until four balls had been collected. That four-digit code was then checked against a list of all 1,001 possible four-digit combinations. The first ball was 11, the second was eight, the third was 10.

Because the four-digit code would be read in numerical order, that code combination ensured that many teams remained in play for the first pick. If the number one ball came up in any one of the four slots, only the Nationals or Athletics would match that code. If the number two ball was the lowest number to come up in a four-digit code, then only the Athletics, Pirates or Reds could match that code.

But if only higher numbers appeared among the four ping pong balls, the teams with much lower odds would be selected. For instance, there were only two possible combinations by which the Brewers could win a top six pick: 10-11-13-14 or 10-12-13-14.

With no number under eight among the first three, many of the teams with lower odds remained in play. If the final ball had been the 13 or 14, the Red Sox would have picked first. If the final ball was the nine, the Twins would have the No. 1 pick. If the final ball had been the seven, the Angels would have selected first. If the six had come up, it would have been the Marlins. Five would have meant the Rangers would pick first. Four would have meant the Tigers would have the No. 1 selection, and three would have resulted in a Royals No. 1 pick.

The fourth and final ball was a two, which meant the Pirates, the team with the third-worst record, lept into the No. 1 spot, becoming the first winner of the MLB draft lottery.

The same process was repeated again. This time a one was included in the four-digit code (3-5-1-13), which meant the Nationals picked second.

The third pick saw 12-4-13-11 come through the hopper, which meant the Tigers picked third. The fourth time, it was 14-11-2-8, which was a Pirates code. Since they had already won the first pick, this was declared null.

The next time it was 10-5-8-9. The Rangers picked fourth.

The fifth pick saw 1-5-14-3. Since there was a one in the code, only the Nationals or Athletics could win with this combination. All the A’s needed as the fourth ball climbed through the output tube was for that last ball to be greater than five. But when a three popped up, it meant that the code was a Nationals’ match. That was also declared as a null selection.

The second try for the fifth pick saw the code 10-8-13-9. Since there were no low numbers, it meant that a team with lower odds would climb up significantly. The result was the Twins lept from 13th to fifth. Only nine of the 1,001 combinations would result in a top-six Twins pick. This was one of those nine combinations.

The sixth and final pick saw a combination of 10-1-11-12. That was one of the A’s 165 different available combinations, ending the team’s slide from being one of the three teams with the best odds (16.5%) to the final team to be selected in the lottery.

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