• Feb

    Great Expectations

    by Kerry Leibowitz

    Great Expectations:  Are They Reasonable When It Comes to Baseball's Amateur Draft?


    There aren't many components of Major League Baseball designed to assist relatively poor clubs in their attempts to turn themselves around.  One of the very few is represented in each year's amateur draft, which seeds draft slots in inverse relation to each team's previous season's record.  This is one opportunity for comparatively bad franchises to "get well," particularly for clubs who do a lousy job of leveraging the international player market (something that, not coincidentally, describes a certain major league baseball team based in Baltimore exceptionally well over most of the past 40 years).

    But what constitutes a reasonable level of expectation for each draft?  The vast, vast majority of material that has been circulated about the draft, the players who come out of it and their relative success (or lack thereof) has fallen squarely in the "anecdotal" category.  I found this frustrating, if not unsurprising, given the historic lack of accessible information about the draft.  So 12-odd years ago, I started dipping into what material there was in a systematic way to see if I could answer some of my own questions and perhaps provide a tiny bit of insight.  (Since then, the available resources have exploded.  Baseball Reference now has a complete set of draft data, going all the way back to the first year of selections (1965).)

    The Typology

    In 2004, I did some work, analyzing picks for each of the first 38 drafts (1965-2002), in an attempt to determine historic benchmarks of relative draft success.  Doing so required me to classify players based on their success (or lack thereof) as major leaguers.  I ultimately created a player success classification scheme that looked like this:

    Nominal Grade



    Never reached the big leagues


    "Cup of Coffee" at the big league level


    Major League journeyman


    Major League Regular


    Major League Star

    There's a degree of subjectivity to some of these categories--the biggest point of significant contention is between regulars and stars.  I tried to employ objective criteria but I found too many cases of false positives and negatives--instances that lacked what is known in the methodological field as "face validity."  (You can think of this as cases that simply didn't pass the eyeball test.)  The typology is designed to be all-inclusive with mutually exclusive categories;  a player falls into one and only one category.

    • The "never reached the big leagues" category is self-explanatory.
    • A "cup of coffee" player is someone who never appeared in more than a few dozen games in any given season and probably appeared in fewer than five different seasons.  An Orioles franchise example would be someone like Drungo Hazewood or John Stephens.
    • A journeyman is someone who had fewer than five seasons as a "big league regular" in his career, but more than a cup of coffee.  Orioles examples:  Floyd Rayford or Rick Bauer.
    • A major league regular:  five plus seasons as a starting position player, starting pitcher or regularly called upon reliever without quite reaching star quality.  Orioles examples include Rich Dauer or Sidney Ponson.
    • Stars are regulars who were among the best players in baseball at their position for at least five years and (almost without exception) played a minimum of at least 10 big league seasons.  By definition, this includes Hall of Famers, such as Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, Jr.  But a player need not be a Hall of Famer to reach star caliber by this typology.  Some Orioles performers who fall into this category would include Mike Mussina, Bobby Grich and Ken Singleton, among others.

    (While there might be some disagreement on a few classifications, I've found through some testing, with the criteria expressed as above, a remarkable amount of consensus all told.)

    For the sake of brevity, in the table below, I'll collapse the cup of coffee and journeyman players into a single grouping. 

    The Findings

    Here's the record, as I established it back in 2004:

    MLB AMATEUR DRAFT, 1965-2002 (ASSESSED IN 2004)


    Total Selections

    Never Reached Big Leagues

    Reached Big Leagues in Any Capacity

    Cup of Coffee/Journeyman










    % of selections







    I wouldn't take the exact numbers above too seriously.  The number of selections that reached the big leagues is surely higher than 7.2%.  Remember, I was assessing draft classes as late as 2002 in 2004.  More players reached the big leagues in ensuing years.  (I just don't have the time or the inclination to go back and do any re-rating right now.  My apologies.)  But the number is almost certainly no higher than 15%.  Essentially, a quick and dirty guide is that at least 85% of amateur draft selections never reach the major leagues, in any capacity at all, let alone as contributing players.  The sub-categories above are also almost certainly a bit low, but not by much.  The two biggies--regulars and stars, the categories that form the backbone of any successful major league team--is probably not much more than a total of 3% of draft selections.  The overall practical draft selection washout rate--those selections that fail to reach "regular" or "star" designations--is somewhere in the neighborhood of 97 percent.  (I use the term "selections" rather than "players" intentionally, because some players are selected more than once in the draft.  Consider the high school player who is drafted but goes to college and is selected again, three or four years later.)

    If you think about it, the estimated complete washout rate of about 85% (selections who never reach the big leagues in any capacity at all) makes some sense.  In recent years, roughly 1500 players are selected in the draft each year.  (Until the number of rounds was capped at 50 in 1999, the number of selections was hundreds higher.)  That 225 different players, on average, that are chosen every season eventually make it to the big leagues passes the "face validity" test.  There are only 1200 roster spots (that's using the 40-man roster as the multiplier) at any given time in major league baseball; and remember that hundreds of these roster spots are made up of players who were never subject to the draft (i.e. players from places other than the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Canada).

    That's the big picture of the draft.  A team that drafts 50 players in a given year (again, there are only 50 draft rounds) can, on average, expect one or two of those players to turn into a someone who will meet the "regular" or "star" classification--overwhelmingly the former.  Of course sometimes a team will be more successful than that...and sometimes less.  (For instance, in 2000, the Orioles made 43 selections in the draft and not one of those players ever reached the big leagues, let alone became a "regular" or a "star.")

    A breakdown of success rates by round shows some very interesting trends--a subject I'll cover in the next installment of this series.

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