Is The Draft Really A Crapshoot? Not Exactly
All across the major leagues, there are stars who were drafted much lower than they should have been in hindsight.
Mike Trout wasn’t selected until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft. Mookie Betts wasn’t taken until the 172nd pick in the 2011 draft. Albert Pujols famously lasted until the 402nd overall pick in the 1999 draft.
Since the inaugural draft in 1965, there have been hundreds of mid-to-late round picks, and even undrafted players, who have gone on to more prolific careers than those selected before them.
This repeated outcome, naturally, has led to many characterizations of the draft as a “crapshoot.” To be fair, luck certainly plays an element in career outcomes, primarily with regard to injuries.
When looking at the full picture, however, that characterization doesn’t quite hold.
In advance of the 2022 draft, Baseball America examined the total Wins Above Replacement, as measured by Baseball-Reference, of every player selected at each of the top 200 picks from 1965-2020. To avoid double-counting players who were drafted multiple times, only players who signed are counted in each pick’s career WAR total.
Two notable themes emerged.
First, teams historically have an excellent track record of correctly identifying the top three players in each draft and selecting them in order. Teams also have a strong track record of correctly identifying and selecting the top seven players in a draft within the top 10 picks.
Outside of the top 10 picks, however, outcomes become extremely varied. For example, players picked No. 22 overall have a higher career WAR than those picked Nos. 11-20. Players picked No. 74 overall have delivered roughly equivalent production as those drafted No. 29. Players drafted with the 109th pick have exceeded the careers of those drafted at the Nos. 21 and 24 picks, selections traditionally made in the first round. Players drafted No. 200 overall have yielded a higher career WAR than more than half of the selections made in front of them.
In the opinion of longtime scouting directors and front office officials, it’s not necessarily that the draft is a crapshoot once you get past the top 10 picks. It’s that after the top tier of talent in a draft class, the margins between the remaining players are often much thinner than perceived.
“Whether it’s three or five or seven just elite, talented kids every year, they’re almost hard not to take or screw up,” one National League scouting director said. “And then after that, the margins are way smaller. Besides the benefit of just picking first of that same kind of group of players, which is a benefit, there probably is no benefit in talent overall (picking) from 10 to 30.”
It is particularly notable how much the players selected at the top of the draft have historically exceeded their peers. Players drafted first overall have produced 1083 career WAR, more than 400 career WAR more than players drafted at any other pick. Players drafted No. 2 (681.2) and No. 3 (630.6) are the only other selections to have accumulated more than 600 career WAR. The only five draft positions to produce at least 500 WAR come in the top six picks.
That isn’t to say there isn’t value outside of the top of each draft. The players selected at each of the top 32 picks have cumulatively produced more than 140 career WAR, as have the players at many additional spots later in the draft.
The differences between players just get smaller and smaller the later the draft moves on. The difference between players taken No. 1 overall and No. 10 overall is more than 600 career WAR, an average of more than 10 WAR per player since the draft began.
The difference between players taken No. 11 overall and No. 30 overall is only 61 career WAR—an average of just over 1 WAR per player since the draft began—with the No. 30 picks actually outperforming the No. 11 picks.
“Honestly, the margins are pretty thin,” another longtime NL scouting director said. “When you look at the very top, there are usually a handful of guys that truly separate themselves and have either real, real standout tools or they’re more complete players and balanced with the tools packages.
“I think once you start getting to pick 10 really all the way through pick 40, it’s a lot of what the teams are looking for, what they value, because each player is flawed in a way and it just depends on what that team feels they can do with the player’s strengths and deficiencies in the development process and kind of what they value.”
Even in that context, teams have generally done a solid job of sorting draft prospects into the tiers they belong in. Based on both average total WAR and average WAR per player, players drafted between Nos. 1-10 have outperformed those drafted between Nos. 11-30, who in turn have outperformed those drafted between Nos. 31-50, and so on.
While individual pick numbers have exceeded the range around them—the No. 185 overall pick, randomly, has been oddly lucrative for teams—clubs generally have been accurate in how they group players in each draft class.
“We always thought that (it’s) the first five or 10 players and then there is a line, and then there is another line probably around like pick 50, and then another line at pick 100 and then it’s all kind of almost the same,” another NL scouting director said. “But we’ve always used the mark of if we can get two of our top 25, which ends up usually being two players taken in the top 50 (picks), that was the goal. (Based on) some of our research and data, if you can get two of your top 25 on your board, that’s a winning ticket.”
MLB Draft Pick Outcomes By bWAR, 1965-2020
Average Total WAR
WAR Per Player
Even with the success of hundreds of mid-to-late round picks in the major leagues, a full accounting shows the draft is far from a crapshoot at the top, and that teams generally get it right.
Outcomes are much less consistent outside the top 10 picks, and there is an argument to be made that the draft is a crapshoot within certain tiers once you get past the top 10. But overall, teams generally at least get right which players belong in which tiers right through the top 200 picks.
Ten More Notable Minor League Top 10 Prospects Rankings
The top 10 Minor League Top 10 Prospects classes ever, as measured by WAR, plus 10 others that just missed the cut.
|Pick No.||Total WAR*||Average WAR*||Best Player|
|48||166.7||3.0||Cal Ripken Jr.|
*Only includes players who signed
Source: Baseball-Reference. All WAR totals are through June 12.