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Buyer Beware with number-one draft picks

Bryce Harper is the exception, not the rule.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In next week’s MLB Draft, Auburn right-hander Casey Mize should be the first overall pick. The 21-year-old college ace possesses a dominant splitter, which helped him lead NCAA Division I with a 12.1 K/BB ratio. In theory, he should move quickly to the front of the Detroit Tigers rotation.

But history is not on his side. 17 pitchers have had their names called first overall in the draft.* There have been a few hits but even more misses. Those 17 pitchers averaged just 1126 major league innings and 13.3 bWAR for their careers (including 3 who never reached the majors at all). That’s just 1.77 bWAR/150 IP, roughly the equivalent of a fourth starter. The expectations for Mize will be significantly higher than that of a rotation filler, but the hopes for his predecessors were just as high.

Position players drafted first overall fare only a little better. There are 33 of them altogether (not including recent draftees Mickey Moniak and Royce Lewis), who average 24.5 bWAR over 4920 PA. That’s worth 3.0 bWAR/600 PA. A 3-win player is a solid contributor to the starting lineup, but certainly not a star.

Top draft picks range from complete flameouts (Mark Appel) to Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr.) and everywhere in between. All were projected to be superstars, but most fell short. Instead, they fit neatly into tiers; a taxonomy of #1 overall draft picks.

Tier 1: Busts

There are just three first-overall picks who never reached the major leagues. In 1966, the Mets infamously drafted Steve Chilcott instead of Reggie Jackson. 25 years later, the Yankees had high hopes for Brien Taylor until he ruined his shoulder in a bar fight. More recently, 2013’s first pick Mark Appel retired just a few months ago, having never graduated from AAA.

The aforementioned trio are the most egregious busts in draft history, but they aren’t alone in this category. Astonishingly, 5 top picks have negative bWAR! Danny Goodwin (drafted first overall in both 1971 and 1975), Al Chambers (1979), Shawn Abner (1984), Matt Anderson (1997), and Bryan Bullington (2002) all failed to achieve replacement level.

The final member of the Bust Tier is David Clyde. The high school lefty was picked first in 1973 by the Texas Rangers, then immediately promoted to the major leagues. He wasn’t anywhere close to ready, got blasted in his first two seasons (and probably hurt his arm), then retired a few years later at age 24.

Tier 2: Fringes

Are you a former number-one pick who’s settled in as a utility infielder or backup catcher? If so, consider yourself a member of the Fringe Tier! The early years of the draft are largely responsible for populating this group, including Ron Blomberg (1967), Tim Foli (1968), Mike Ivie (1970), Dave Roberts (1972), and Bill Almon (1974). From 1966-75, top picks averaged only 4.2 bWAR for their careers.

More recently, Delmon Young (2003) and Luke Hochevar (2006) joined this tier as well. However, the most surprising fringe player is Matt Bush. He was drafted out of high school as a shortstop in 2005 by his hometown Padres. His winding road swung through four organizations and a prison stint before he debuted with the Rangers as a 30-year-old reliever. He’s not pitching too well in 2018, largely due to a 14.9% BB-rate, but at least he’s ascended beyond the Bust Tier.

Tier 3: Solid Contributors

Think of this as the Shawon Dunston group. He was one of the most heralded prospects in draft history and a no-brainer #1 pick for the Cubs in 1982. He stuck in the major leagues for 18 seasons and even made the All-Star Team twice. However, his lifetime .269/.296/.416 slash line and 85 wRC+ suggest he failed to reach his lofty expectations. He averaged 1.1 bWAR/600 PA, which makes him a useful player but not really a good one.

Actually, about half of all number-one picks belong in this group and nearly all of the pitchers. Examples include Mike Moore (1981) and Ben McDonald (1989). Position players joining Dunston in the Solid Contributors Tier are Jeff King (1986), Phil Nevin (1992), and several others.

Tier 4: Hall of Very Good

Sure, every team wants to draft a Hall of Famer with the first pick in the draft. But would you be disappointed with 119 wRC+ and 38.7 bWAR over 22 seasons? That’s what 1977 selection Harold Baines accomplished in his career. He’s joined by fellow outfielders Darryl Strawberry (1983) Darin Erstad (1995) and Josh Hamilton (1999) in this category.

There are also a few active players that have settled into this group. 2000’s Adrian Gonzalez has 42.7 bWAR, fifth most among all #1 picks. Justin Upton (2005) is exactly 10 bWAR behind him, but at age 30 has a good shot at moving ahead in the next few years.

What you won’t find in this tier are any pitchers. Until recently, no pitcher topped Andy Benes (1988) with 31.6 bWAR, who belongs squarely in Tier 3. However, we are currently witnessing a group of hurlers that belong in their own category...

Tier 4.5: Modern Aces

Indisputably, the three best pitchers ever selected 1st overall are active right now: David Price (2007), Steven Strasburg (2009), and Gerrit Cole (2011). Price has a career 3.36 DRA and 38.3 WARP. If he has a resurgence in his mid-30s, he could ascend into the next tier. Strasburg (2.57 DRA, 35.4 WARP) and Cole (3.37 DRA, 20.6 WARP) are still in their 20s with plenty of time left to write their stories.

Tier 5: Legends

There are exactly four players in Tier 5. Ken Griffey Jr. (1987) and Chipper Jones (1990) have already reached the Hall of Fame and need no introduction. Neither does Alex Rodriguez (1993), who leads all number-one picks with 117.8 bWAR.

The fourth member of this category is Joe Mauer (2001). His 54.9 bWAR lags well behind the others, but his 46.9 JAWS is seventh-best ever by a catcher. He’ll be a free agent following the 2018 season, but only Chipper and Griffey accumulated more WAR for the team that drafted them.

Bonus Tier: To Be Determined

This goes without saying, but there are several recent #1 picks who have yet to solidify which tier they will join. Will Bryce Harper (2010) and Carlos Correa (2012) end up in Tier 4 or Tier 5? For that matter, does Tim Beckham (2008) belong in Tier 2 or Tier 3? And what do we make of Dansby Swanson (2015)?

Then there are the prospects. Three number-one’s currently play in the minors. 2017’s Royce Lewis is the #19 overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. On the other hand, Brady Aiken (2014) and Mickey Moniak (2016) haven’t fared nearly as well.

A fourth number-one pick will soon join Lewis, Moniak, and Aiken in the minors, most likely Mize. His career is pure projection at this point, but expectations are through the roof. However, the bar is considerably lower if he merely wants to be one of the best first-overall pitchers ever drafted.

*-Not including Matt Bush.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983