Of all major North American sports, baseball has probably the hardest to swallow draft system. Who is this guy? When will he make it to the majors? What position will he play? These are all questions that most fans have when they see who their MLB club picked.
Sure, you have your Bryce Harper, or Ken Griffey Jr that crop up every so often and that’s good for the game in many ways. It also causes the casual fan to wonder why there aren’t more of them. When stacked up against the other leagues, it’s easy to see MLB has the least focused on and furthermore, least understood of all draft systems. Let’s look at the others and work our way back to MLB.
The NFL has seven rounds of their draft and by the end of it, most interested fans will have heard of half of them at least. College football’s popularity helps this situation tremendously. Fans are already familiar with at least the highlight reel that some of these players have banked.
Now, it is not a guarantee that you’ve arrived being drafted. Being selected in the first 3 or 4 rounds will get you a better than average chance of sticking with the club. 5 through 7 and you must outplay a veteran or perhaps were deemed a “project” in the first place and the practice squad is your best bet.
Teams can trade any and all draft picks with impunity, creating extra buzz in some markets that may get upwards of 7 out of the top 60 players selected. When you only play 11 men on a field at a time you can see how quickly that could make an impact.
There is no lottery to choose draft slots and this has become an issue in other sports, where tanking, essentially voluntarily stinking out loud for a season, to get the top pick dinged the integrity of the game. Football has largely avoided this because one player on a 53-man roster is hardly enough to turn the fortunes of an entire franchise around. See Cleveland.
The NBA benefits from the popularity of the college game too. In fact, the tournament that we sadly missed this March makes household names out of many who won’t even make the lottery. The NBA has had to address the tanking issue, and in 1985 instituted the draft lottery. Every team that misses the playoffs has a chance of “winning” the right to make the number one selection overall. Some years that means more than others, but it almost always means a franchise level talent coming into the system.
Here in Pittsburgh, of course we don’t have an NBA franchise so surely this audience will have a bit less interest in how this one functions, but nationally it is easily number 2.
Players drafted in either of the total of two rounds have an excellent chance of playing for the franchise that selected them. The NBA also has a pick trading system that is a bit different, you may trade future draft picks but may not do it in consecutive years.
If you are selected, making the club is pretty likely, starting not so much. The Lottery picks are the “sure fire” picks.
The NHL is probably as close to MLB’s cousin as you’ll find. This is mostly due to the fact that most players selected will either join a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to further develop or an equivalent in Europe. They could also potentially be sent to one of the organization’s minor league system teams, and some could even remain in college. Again, as with MLB there are of course your Conner McDavid and Sidney Crosby level players, but most won’t immediately jump into the league.
The NHL does have an interesting twist on this though, rookie players can play a number of games, essentially a trial period with the NHL club. If that threshold is met, they must stay. This exact scenario played out with Marc Andre Fleury back in the day. As ever the NHL strives to be the most complicated organization in the world, many of the arcane rules are constructed simply to protect the Canadian Junior Hockey system, see when the draft changed from 20 to 18 many feared players going to the AHL for development, so the NHL decided you had to be 20 to play there, hence keeping the QMJHL relevant.
Now, being drafted in the first round is no guarantee in hockey, there are significant hurdles to jump and teams swing and miss all the time. The developmental nature of the NHL draft has much the same effect as MLB for this very reason.
I told you we’d get back here. MLB’s draft will of course be altered this season but most of that won’t matter for this discussion.
A typical MLB draft consists of each club having an opportunity to select up to 40 players in 40 rounds. On top of that there are supplemental picks based on losing type A and type B free agents. This is intended to help the “small market” clubs to feel less compelled to trade players on expiring contracts. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked on the level they hoped.
NCAA baseball has seen a bit of an uptick in interest over the past half-decade but nowhere near the level of basketball or football, so MLB does not benefit from the name recognition of those sports. More than anything though, knowing the percentage of these players selected that will actually impact the team you love is daunting to get past. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed most as I read my partner Craig’s Prospect Port Hole columns is how frequently players are moved around the diamond, some on and off the mound. I’m not sure why this took me off guard to be honest, if you think back most of us who played baseball at any level remember the “best” athletes pitched and played at least one other position. Think about it, the only position on the field where having a great arm isn’t mission critical is first base, maybe second base? So, it stands to reason most would have pitched at some point.
It also means when your favorite team picks that top ranked Short Stop, perhaps we are out in front of our skis a bit when we lose our minds that we don’t need another middle infielder.
Another hitch in MLB’s giddy up is the selection of pitchers. It’s easy to get excited about the draft of that corn-fed Iowa boy who hits 100 on the gun and struck out 215 in his Senior year of High School, but what if he ends up being a back end of the bullpen arm? Many people feel that is a waste of a top pick, but there is upside. First, their progression through the ranks stands to be far faster than a starter, and second, there will likely not be much coaching to drop velocity in order to increase the number of innings that can be tossed. At the end of the day, you need those guys too and drafting players who will make the league is not easy, maybe that is enough.
There are some who will put mock drafts together for MLB and I know for a fact one of them works here. Just remember, this draft is a different animal. The Pirates can’t say, “hey, we need catchers, let’s make sure we get one in the first round” because there may very well be no catchers there. Think back and remember Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher, obviously he did not remain in that position.
As a general philosophy, when you are drafting players that might not push to make the height of the sport for 5 or 6 years, it’s wise to pick best players regardless of position.
Rob Manfred wants badly to have MLB create TV content that goes beyond playing games, and that wish predated the COVID-19 crisis. The draft would seem to be low hanging fruit. Perhaps they could look to create a show that follows the perceived top 50 picks in the draft to build some anticipation or name recognition out there.
I didn’t even touch on the fact that none of this takes international players into account, and that accounts for a whole lot of the players that make it to the league. It probably makes the odds even steeper for those taken in the draft.
A common phrase for years around here has been build through the draft. It’s a whole lot easier in other sports to do that and this all plays into the difficulty of being one of the teams that can’t afford to fill holes with money.