clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The first overall pick in the draft does not guarantee a star player

Ken Griffey Jr. will be the first-ever first overall pick in the MLB draft to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The third-greatest number one overall pick ever and first to Cooperstown.
The third-greatest number one overall pick ever and first to Cooperstown.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The election of Ken Griffey Jr. to the Baseball Hall of Fame last week was historic in that he appeared on a record 99.3 percent of ballots. Griffey also became the first-ever number one overall pick in the MLB Draft to be elected to the Hall of Fame. While the draft has been around only since 1965, the absence of a single first pick in Cooperstown is surprising. One would imagine that since the first pick is in theory the top talent in that year's crop of players, that slot would produce a disproportionate amount of Hall of Famers, but that obviously has not been the case.

While having the worst record in baseball and securing the number one overall draft choice gives a team a very good chance at securing a good player, it is far from a guarantee. Of the 51 first overall picks, three have had Hall of Fame-worthy careers - Griffey, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez. Eight active MLB players have varying degrees of Hall-worthiness depending on the way the rest of their careers play out - Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez, David Price, Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and Carlos Correa. Many more had nice careers but will not or have not been considered among the all-time greats - Darryl Strawberry, Harold Baines, B.J. Surhoff, Rick Monday, Darin Erstad, Josh Hamilton, Mike Moore, Andy Benes, etc.

Then there are the six players taken number one who never made the majors. Three - Dansby Swanson, Brady Aiken, and Mark Appel - haven't seen the show because they were drafted too recently. Steve Chilcott (1966 - Mets), Brien Taylor (1991 - Yankees), and Matt Bush (2004 - Padres) can't say the same.  Bush recently made headlines for his comeback attempt, and hopefully he has altered his life and can get his name off this short list. But this group of six has been better off than Tim Beckham (2008 - Rays), Bryan Bullington (2002 - Pirates), Matt Anderson (1997 - Tigers), Al Chambers (1979 - Mariners), Shawn Abner (1984 - Mets), and Danny Goodwin (1971 - White Sox and 1975 - Angels), all of whom had career rWARs in the negatives.

Of the 44 number one picks who have appeared in the major leagues, the average career has resulted in 21.9 rWAR. While that is respectable, it is hardly a career that would be called a cut above the rest. Because of the 13 active number one overall picks ranging from grizzled veteran Alex Rodriguez to Tim Beckham and Carlos Correa, each with fewer than 100 MLB games played, this number may not be the best to use for an expected career of a number one pick. Using only the retired players, the average is 20.1 rWAR among 31 major league careers*. To add perspective, that is a career worth two seasons of Mike Trout or the entire 17-year career of Chan-Ho Park.

Barring unforeseen setbacks, both of those numbers should be on the rise in upcoming years with Rodriguez set to retire and the aforementioned group of 12 active picks continuing on.

One of the things that sticks out when poring through these data on number one overall picks is that the seven highest rWAR totals are all posted by players drafted out of high school. While these players have the added bonus of youth to assist in their accumulation of WAR, it's eyebrow-raising because high school players are generally considered riskier to draft than college players because of where they are in their development.

High school players picked first have averaged 26.9 rWAR, although the median rWAR of 11.5 demonstrates how skewed right the distribution is. The college players who have been taken first overall have averaged 17.2 rWAR with a median of 18.8. College players taken first overall have been generally safer bets, but to this point none has gone on to have a star career like the first overall pick is often expected to have. Meanwhile high school picks often lead less productive careers but have far more often become superstar players. For perspective, the most rWAR for a first pick from college is B.J. Surhoff at 34.3. You could double Surhoff's career rWAR and he still wouldn't crack the top three.

Again, developments over the past several years will alter this - Bryce Harper and David Price will both likely pass Surhoff.  Even though Harper was 17 years old when he was drafted, having played at the College of Southern Nevada he gets lumped in with the college players despite being more characteristically a high schooler. This is something to consider when factoring his career into these analyses.

Even with that, high school players taken number one overall generally have notably higher ceilings than college players. The higher ceiling comes with a higher risk, but it is usually so high that teams are willing to gamble. Though on historical average a high school player will produce 9.7 more wins than a college player, there is wider variation.

Of course, that applies only to players who actually made the major leagues. The first overall picks who never made it eventually succumbed to injuries related to playing (Steve Chilcott), injuries related to fistfights (Brien Taylor), and poor life choices (Matt Bush). All three of those players were selected out of high school. Every college player taken first overall has either made the majors or is still working his way through the minors.

Chilcott, Taylor, and Bush were excluded from the data sets referenced throughout this article. The purpose for this was to show what the expected return on the picks is for the team. There is an inherent risk of a player busting, but it is such a rare occurrence that hinges on many factors that I didn't want to skew the data with these outliers. Including Chilcott, Taylor, and Bush drags the average down to 20.5 rWAR and the non-active average to 18.4 rWAR. High school players now produce an average of 23.6 rWAR with an 8.3 median, while the college numbers remain the same. The conclusion is largely unaffected - a solid but unspectacular mean, and high school players have higher ceilings but carry a higher degree of risk. Teams with the first overall pick are by no means guaranteed a superstar, but they'll almost certainly get a player who can help.

*Danny Goodwin, who was selected number one overall twice and amassed -1.7 career rWAR, was counted only once in these samples.


Joe Vasile is the Assistant General Manager and Voice of the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League. He is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter here.