The No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft has a checkered past

It has yielded some good ones. Alex Rodriguez went No. 1 way back when, as did Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Darryl Strawberry and, more recently, Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

But yeah, there have been busts: Guys like Steve Chilcott, Brien Taylor, Matt Bush, Shawn Abner, Al Chambers, Danny Goodwin, Matt Anderson, Bryan Bullington and Luke Hochevar. It’s hard to think of them without making a sad face.

Avoiding a bust with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft is never going to be easy, but teams can start by A) praying to the baseball gods for good fortune and B) learning a few lessons from the history of No. 1 picks.

Such as…


Bats Are Better than Arms

If a team is in a position to choose between a stud position player and a stud pitcher with the No. 1 overall pick, it’s better off going with the position player.

Common sense, right? Somewhere along the line, baseball came to understand that position players provide significantly more value than pitchers. They play every day, after all, and are capable of doing many super-cool things with their bats and gloves.

But there’s more than just common sense at work here. The fact is that position players taken No. 1 have tended to fare a lot better than pitchers taken No. 1.

Not counting the first of Danny Goodwin’s two No. 1 selections in 1971 and 1975, 45 players were drafted No. 1 overall between 1965 and 2010. Of those, 31 were position players and 14 were pitchers.

Using’s version of the stat, here are their average WARs:

  • Average WAR of 31 position players: 23.01
  • Average WAR of 14 pitchers: 12.31

Comparing the WARs of position players and pitchers is comparing apples to oranges, sure, but the massive divide here certainly gives you an idea what we’re talking about.

Said divide shows up elsewhere too. Position players who have gone No. 1 have combined for 77 All-Star appearances and eight MVP awards. Pitchers have combined for seven All-Star appearances and one Cy Young award, won by David Price last year.

The most successful pitcher in the history of the No. 1 pick? As far as WAR is concerned, that would be Andy Benes with a career WAR of 31.4. Among pitchers who have come along since 1965, that barely places him in the top 100.

The best position player in the history of the No. 1 pick? That would be Alex Rodriguez with a career WAR of 115.7. Among position players who have come along since 1965, A-Rod is second behind only Barry Bonds.

There are your tell-all numbers, but we also have narratives to turn to.

There’s the Atlanta Braves choosing Chipper Jones over Todd Van Poppel in 1990, and the Minnesota Twins choosing Joe Mauer over Mark Prior in 2001. On the flip-side, there’s the Texas Rangers not choosing Robin Young over David Clyde in 1973, the Detroit Tigers not choosing Troy Glaus or Vernon Wells over Matt Anderson in 1997, and the Pittsburgh Pirates not choosing B.J. Upton over Bryan Bullington in 2002.

Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, but we all know that the risk factor inherent in taking a pitcher over a hitter doesn’t just apply to the No. 1 overall pick. Both hitters and pitchers can flame out, but pitchers are always going to be more at risk. Some just can’t hack it in the big leagues, and there’s not a pitcher alive who’s not at risk of blowing his arm out at any given moment.

These are things for a team with the No. 1 overall pick to keep at the front and center of its mind, but from here it’s a question of what sort of position player a team should look for with the No. 1 pick.

Here’s a hint: They should look for guys who can play in that area beyond the infield.


Target Outfielders…Even if that Means a Position Change

The best position players for teams to target with the No. 1 overall pick are outfielders. Hands down.

Outfielders, in general, are an athletic bunch, and athletic players are the ones who can provide value at the plate, on the basepaths and on the field. You’re more likely to find great all-around players roaming the outfield than you are anywhere else.

More common sense, in other words. But this would another area in which the track record of No. 1 overall picks has things to say in Numbersese.

Between 1965 and 2010, 10 players were drafted as outfielders, according to If we compare their average career WARs to the other 35 players:

  • Average career WAR of 10 outfielders: 24.07
  • Average career WAR of 35 others: 18.42

The collection of outfielders only features two true busts: Al Chambers and Shawn Abner. Assuming Delmon Young continues to be, well, Delmon Young, he’ll be the third when his career is in the books.

But the rest? They’ve all been solid to great, and Josh Hamilton and Bryce Harper are both active and not quite finished adding to their career numbers. Harper may one day supplant Ken Griffey Jr. as the best outfielder in the history of the No. 1 pick if he stops running into walls.

Elsewhere are the players who were drafted at one position and then moved to the outfield. The list is short, but it contains some names you ought to know.

Harold Baines was technically drafted as a first baseman in 1977. The White Sox moved him to right field and he went on to make six All-Star teams as a right fielder/designated hitter.

Pat Burrell was drafted as a corner infielder in 1998. The Philadelphia Phillies moved him to left field and he went on to have a career as an above-average power hitter.

Justin Upton was drafted as a shortstop in 2005. The Arizona Diamondbacks made him a right fielder, and he’s now an MVP candidate in left field for the Atlanta Braves.

If we add these three guys to the outfielder pot, the divide grows slightly:

  • Average career WAR of 13 outfielders: 24.14
  • Average career WAR of 32 others: 17.87

There’s not going to be a top-tier outfielder available in the draft year after year, nor is there going to be a top-tier talent cut out for the outfielder year after year. But in years when these players are available, history tells us that they’re going to be the safest possible picks.

But what about where the players are coming from? Is the best pool to draw from the college ranks or the high school ranks?

Let’s put it this way: That’s where this blueprint features a fork in the road with some gray area in between.


The College or High School Question

The No. 1 pick has been leaning towards college players in recent years. If we include Luke Hochevar in 2006 and Bryce Harper, who was drafted out of junior college, in 2010, five of the last seven No. 1 picks have been college players.

Evidently, baseball has learned that college players are safe bets.

Between 1965 and 2010, the split between college players and high school players was basically right down the middle. There were 23 college players taken No. 1, and 22 high school players taken No. 1.

Of the 22 prep players taken No. 1, three failed to reach the majors and another, 2008 No. 1 pick Tim Beckham, looks like he might not get there either.

But college players? They’ve all made it, and they’ve tended to enjoy long careers when they’ve gotten there. Of the 19 non-active college players chosen No. 1, only Bryan Bullington played fewer than seven seasons in the majors.

Three non-active prep selections lasted fewer than seven seasons: David Clyde, Al Chambers and Shawn Abner. And that’s not even counting the guys who didn’t make it.

The track record of college players as No. 1 picks says they’re the way to go in drafts where there is no clearly elite talent available out of the high school ranks.

The tricky part is this, though: If there is a clearly elite high schooler in the draft class in a given year, he’s worth a roll of the dice.

High school players have a decidedly mixed track record when going No. 1, but the good ones have tended to be really good. By WAR, the six best players in the history of the No. 1 pick were taken out of high school, and Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Hamilton both have a shot to join the club.

These guys are a big reason why the following divide exists:

  • Average career WAR of 22 prep players: 24.12
  • Average career WAR of 23 college players: 15.43

How about this for a wager? There’s the safe bet for teams to make, and there’s the risky bet that has the potential to pay off big.

Taking the safe bet is always going to be the, ahem, safe option. But if there’s a prep player with the talent of an A-Rod, a Griffey, a Strawberry or a Hamilton on the board, teams should not shy away from taking said player.

Whatever the case may be, talent should always be priority No. 1.


Prioritize Talent Over Dollars

In theory, taking the best player is more important in the MLB draft than it is in other drafts. There’s no telling how players are going to fare on the road to the majors and teams need as many good prospects as they can get to make trades, so prioritizing needs over talent is downright silly.

But prioritizing dollars over talent? That happens often in the MLB draft, even with the No. 1 pick. And the two most memorable instances of teams prioritizing money over talent also happen to be two cautionary tales.

I’m guessing that most of us know the Phil Nevin/Derek Jeter story from 1992. If not, you can read an excerpt about it from Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.

The story goes that Houston Astros scout Hal Newhouser desperately wanted the team to draft Jeter No. 1 over Nevin, but that the Astros didn’t want to pay Jeter’s $1 million or so price tag. They wanted Nevin because he could be had for a $700,000 signing bonus, and he’s who they ended up taking.

Nevin had some good seasons, notably hitting 41 home runs in 2001 as a member of the San Diego Padres. He just didn’t go on to become one of the great players and great winners the game has ever seen, as Jeter has.

Fast forward to 2004, and the Padres were on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated wrote in 2009 that the Padres wanted Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver, but that Padres owner John Moores didn’t want to do business with their shared agent: Scott Boras.

The Padres went cheap and drafted Matt Bush instead. He’s now arguably (or not) the biggest MLB draft bust in history, while Drew and Weaver have gone on to become productive major leaguers.

And while I still don’t recommend drafting talented pitchers over talented position players, Justin Verlander, the No. 2 pick in the draft in 2004, has also gone one to become a productive major leaguer. In fact, he would already be the most successful pitcher in the history of the pick had he gone No. 1.

The draft is different now. Teams only have so much bonus money to spend, and last year we saw the Houston Astros keep that in mind when they drafted Carlos Correa first overall. Per the Associated Press, he got a bonus worth $1.2 million less than No. 2 overall pick Byron Buxton.

The Astros could pull the same trick this year. ESPN’s Keith Law speculated in a recent mock draft (Insider required) that the Astros could pass up the likes of Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray and Kris Bryant to take North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran. They’ll save a couple million bucks for subsequent picks if they do.

If that’s what the Astros end up doing, time is going to tell whether their strategies in the 2012 and 2013 drafts were wise. But if the Nevin and Bush stories are any indication, the Astros could eventually be kicking themselves for not gravitating towards the most talented players.

Once teams have their top picks in the bag, there’s one thing they must not do next.


There’s No Hurry

All No. 1 picks might as well bear the following label: “Handle with care.”

To do that, teams simply have to be patient. No. 1 draft picks are extremely talented players, but there’s quite the gap between being talented and being ready for the major leagues.

There have been six players in the history of the draft who made their major league debuts the same years they were drafted: Dave Roberts in 1972, David Clyde in 1973, Bill Almon in 1974, Danny Goodwin in 1975, Bob Horner in 1978 and Ben McDonald in 1989. 

Of those six players, only Horner made an All-Star appearance in his career and only Almon played in the majors for as long as 15 seasons. However, Almon also posted a career WAR under 5.0. So did Roberts, Clyde and Goodwin. Horner and McDonald were better, but they were hardly all-time greats.

Their six case studies make it clear that it’s better for teams to be patient, and so do the case studies of the top seven players in the history of the draft. Out of the seven, only A-Rod made his major league debut fewer than two years after he was drafted.

And as I noted in my piece about No. 1 picks from last week, A-Rod is sort of an exception to an overall rule.


The jury is still out on David Price and Stephen Strasburg, but No. 1 picks not named A-Rod who made their major league debuts either the same year or the year after they were drafted have gone on to play slightly shorter and slightly less productive careers than players who debuted at least two years after they were drafted.

The good news? That’s that teams appear to have gotten the gist.

It’s a good thing that no No. 1 picks have debuted the same year as the draft since 1989, and between 1999 and 2005 there were no No. 1 draft picks to make it to the big leagues as quickly as one year after being drafted. Luke Hochevar, Price and Strasburg all debuted a year after they were drafted, but the Washington Nationals waited two years to unveil Bryce Harper and the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t yet unveiled Gerrit Cole. Carlos Correa is still years away.

A nice balance has been found when it comes to No. 1 picks, and it’s important that it stays this way. There’s now as much pressure on teams to debut the next big thing as soon as possible as there’s even been, but teams must continue to struggle against it.

Giving fans a top prospect to cheer and geek out over is easy. All it requires is a phone call.

But turning a No. 1 pick into a superstar? That requires a keen eye, a plan and patience.


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