Major League Mythbusters: Assessing MLB Draft Performance Over Time

This article has been a long time coming. At the beginning of the winter semester in 2018, some M-SABR members set out to bust some MLB myths. We took to calling ourselves the “Major League Mythbusters.” Although we only got one project done for the semester, it was a good one. I suppose I already told you how this article will turn out though since we call ourselves “Mythbusters” not “Mythprovers.”

In recent years, fans and analysts alike have agreed that over the past decade, front offices have done a better job of drafting, even better than twenty years ago. And geez, what dark ages were we in thirty years ago? How did scouts and executives even know if a player was good then? With the birth and widespread use of analytics in baseball front offices, it logically follows that executives should be better than ever at drafting players now than before. No longer do we have to trust scouts and rely on their gut instinct as we search for the next stud. Let us look at the data to prove it.

Major League Mythbusters is on the case. For your convenience, we have put together an enormous spreadsheet that has our analysis of each draft class. As a group, we took each draft class from 1985-2010 and analyzed each player’s first five season’s in the MLB based on WAR. Before we get any further, I want to discuss some error in that process.

Firstly, WAR is a single statistic that attempts to encompass all of a player’s value. It does a pretty good job, but let’s be honest, we can’t sum up the value of a player with just one single number. It just doesn’t work. Baseball is too complicated a game for the answer to be 42.

Secondly, some players just bloom late. The most famous example in recent history? Barry Bonds. Bonds went on a historic rampage through the record books, but that wasn’t until after he had some MLB experience under his belt. Our test wouldn’t account for that level of production later in a career (it did still count Bonds as a perennial All-Star so it’s not as though we were that far off the mark). To combat that, we started with the first five years and dropped the lowest two yearly totals, but that still doesn’t solve the problem completely.

Third, we had to set boundaries for levels players would be considered at based on their average WAR values and those were, unfortunately, not researched as far as they should have been. We, the research team, decided that trial and error and some arbitrary group consensus would suffice for the cutoffs. We decided upon the following groups:

Bust: any player averaging less than 0.2 WAR per season;

Reserve: any player averaging between 0.2-1.0 WAR per season.

Role player: 1.01-2.0

Starter: 2.01-5.0

All-Star: 5.01-8.0

Perennial MVP candidate: 8.01+ WAR

Finally, the Mythbusters team only used the first round. Yes, we left off the other thirty-nine rounds, we know. That’s a lot of unused data. But the first rounders get the money and the spotlight (and have the highest chance of making the majors), so we chose to focus on them. Now that you know a few of the issues regarding our process, let’s get into it.

1985: Bust: 53%, Reserve/Role: 18%, Starter: 19%, All-Star: 7%, MVP: 0%

Barry Larkin (CIN SS), Will Clark (SF 1B [I love irony]), and Barry Bonds (PIT OF) were drafted this year. They were the three best players of the draft by a lot. For the rest of the draft, well, it was a 53% bust rate, 18% reserve player rate, and the rest were decent starters.

1986: Bust: 50%, Reserve/Role: 32%, Starter: 18%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

Similar to 1985, there was about a 50% bust rate and the rest of the players were low starters or role players with the exception of Greg Swindell (CLE LHP), Matt Williams (SF 3B), and Kevin Brown (TEX RHP) who were all decent starters but none of which were insane their first five years.

1987: Bust: 47%, Reserve/Role: 31%, Starter: 16%, All-Star: 6%, MVP: 0%

47% of the draft is a bust, another 25% are reserve players. There are a few starters mixed in, but only one standout: #1 overall pick Ken Griffey Jr. (SEA OF).

1988: Bust: 53%, Reserve/Role: 13%, Starter: 27%, All-Star: 7%, MVP: 0%

Starting to recognize a pattern? Robin Ventura (CHW 3B) is the standout in this draft although not far behind are Jim Abbott (LAA LHP) and Andy Benes (SD RHP). Nobody incredible stands out like Griffey, though Ventura had a long and fruitful career after his first five years. The rest of the draft, not so much.

1989: Bust: 60%, Reserve/Role: 20%, Starter: 13%, All-Star: 6%, MVP: 0%

A higher bust rate than the last few years at 60% and similar role player/reserve percentages defined the 1989 class. Frank Thomas (CHW 1B) is the diamond in the rough in this one.

1990: Bust: 60%, Reserve/Role: 20%, Starter: 15%, All-Star: 5%, MVP: 0%

Great baseball trivia question: #1 overall in 1990? That would be Chipper Jones (ATL 3B). Better trivia question: only other Mythbusters standout in the 1990 draft? The honor goes to Mike Mussina (BAL RHP). If you got both of those right, I applaud you. Otherwise, an almost identical bust and player percentage as 1989.

1991: Bust: 58%, Reserve/Role: 28%, Starter: 15%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

Here’s another Barry Bonds example: Manny Ramirez (CLE 3B) didn’t really start hitting his stride in the first few years of his career. He still clocked in as the highest value player in this draft, but not by much over Joey Hamilton (SD RHP). A little tidbit for the Moneyball-loving fans out there: Scott Hatteberg was the last pick in the first round of the ’91 draft, #43 overall to the Red Sox.

1992: Bust: 58%, Reserve/Role: 29%, Starter: 11%, All-Star: 3%, MVP: 0%

Talk about a bust of a draft. The most famous players to come out of it: Johnny Damon (KC OF) and Jason Kendall (PIT C). Oh, I guess that Derek Jeter guy, too. The rest was awful. One of the highest combined bust rate and role/reserve rates so far.

1993: Bust: 46%, Reserve/Role: 39%, Starter: 12%, All-Star: 2%, MVP: 0%

Jeter’s polarizing, future-Yankee counterpart went #1 overall this year. Alex Rodriguez (SEA SS) better known as A-Rod, was the only impact player in this draft. Others were low impact or busts.

1994: Bust: 53%, Reserve/Role: 41%, Starter: 3%, All-Star: 3%, MVP: 0%

Another draft with only one impact player, Nomar Garciaparra (BOS SS), went to the Yankee’s arch-rival. That’s about the only interesting storyline in this draft. Seems like chances are just as dismal as always.

1995: Bust: 63%, Reserve/Role: 10%, Starter: 23%, All-Star: 3%, MVP: 0%

Darin Erstad (LAA OF), Kerry Wood (CHC RHP), and Roy Halladay (TOR RHP) stand above the rest in this draft. However, they had a 23% starter rate this draft which was a slight uptick from the last few years. Less reserve/role players but a horrendous 60% bust rate even still.

1996: Bust: 51%, Reserve/Role: 34%, Starter: 11%, All-Star: 3%, MVP: 0%

Eric Chavez (OAK 3B) was the best player the first five years, but Mark Kotsay (MIA OF) and R.A. Dickey (TEX RHP) were both drafted this year and could be argued to have a better full career due to the error in our process. It’s for the folks at home to decide. Nevertheless, not much changed in the percentage rates.

1997: Bust: 73%, Reserve/Role: 10%, Starter: 11%, All-Star: 4%, MVP: 0%

Troy Glaus (LAA 3B) and Vernon Wells (Blue Jays OF) were the two premier players acquired in this draft. Interestingly enough, the bust rate went all the way up to 73% in this draft. What was everyone looking at in 1997?

1998: Bust: 63%, Reserve/Role: 12%, Starter: 25%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

Five years into their careers, Jeff Urban (SF LHP) and Corey Patterson (CHC OF) were the stars of this draft. Years later, we’re probably talking more about J.D. Drew (STL OF), Carlos Pena (TEX 1B), even Matt Thornton (SEA LHP), and, if I’m not wrong, the first active player I have come across… any guesses? CC Sabathia (CLE LHP).

1999: Bust: 61%, Reserve/Role: 26%, Starter: 6%, All-Star: 4%, MVP: 0%

A fair number of starting players were found in this draft. At least, more than in previous years. You have players like Barry Zito (OAK LHP), Josh Hamilton (TB OF), Josh Beckett (MIA RHP), and more. The bust rate is still about the same, though.

2000: Bust: 78%, Reserve/Role: 10%, Starter: 10%, All-Star: 2%, MVP: 0%

By now all these drafts are starting to ooze together in my head, but I believe Chase Utley (PHI 2B) now has the highest average WAR/season over the first five years at 7.4 WAR. The rest of the draft? Extremely unimpressive. Also, a new high 78% bust percentage. Ouch.

2001: Bust: 59%, Reserve/Role: 20%, Starter: 14%, All-Star: 7%, MVP: 0%

Here we are, three solid stars in a draft. Joe Mauer (MIN C), Mark Teixeira (TEX 3B), and David Wright (NYM 3B) steal the show while others like Mark Prior (CHC RHP) and Casey Kotchman (LAA 1B) weren’t quite as dazzling but were still solid starters at the beginning of their respective careers. Our bust percentage dips back to 59% and the role/reserve percentages get back to around 10%.

2002: Bust: 46%, Reserve/Role: 17%, Starter: 34%, All-Star: 3%, MVP: 0%

Scott Kazmir (NYM LHP), Cole Hamels (PHI LHP), Denard Span (MIN OF), Matt Cain (SF RHP), and Jeff Francoeur (ATL OF) highlighted the 2002 class. Zack Greinke (KC RHP), Prince Fielder (MIL 1B), and Nick Swisher (OAK 1B) would become just as big of stars, but not in the first five seasons. The bust rate was lower than usual this season at 46%. Maybe those analytics departments are starting to kick in just a bit?

2003: Bust: 41%, Reserve/Role: 46%, Starter: 13%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

Not a single player really stood out in front of the crowd in the first five years of their career from this draft. However, lots of them would become professional veterans and team leaders in the coming years. Adam Jones (SEA SS), Matt Murton (BOS OF), Nick Markakis (BAL OF), and Delmon Young (TB OF) were a few of those. Our bust percentage dropped a little bit this year, but so did our starter and anything higher. Most of these players were role/reserve players.

2004: Bust: 56%, Reserve/Role: 32%, Starter: 12%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

The most notable player from the draft is without a doubt future-Hall of Famer Justin Verlander (DET RHP). Other notable starters include Neil Walker (PIT 2B), Homer Bailey (CIN RHP), Billy Butler (KC 3B), Phil Hughes (NYY RHP), and Gio Gonzalez (CHW LHP). The bust percent went back up to 56 and the starter back down towards 10% just as normal, though.

2005: Bust: 50%, Reserve/Role: 19%, Starter: 23%, All-Star: 8%, MVP: 0%

Overall, probably the most successful draft so far. Ryan Zimmerman (WSH 3B), Ryan Braun (MIL 3B), Troy Tulowitzki (COL SS), Alex Gordon (KC 3B), Justin Upton (ARI SS), Andrew McCutchen (PIT OF), Jay Bruce (CIN OF), Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS OF), Jed Lowrie (BOS 2B), and Clay Bucholz (BOS RHP) were all in this draft. However, teams also had the most chances to get it right so far with 48 picks in the first round. The bust rate was still exactly 50%, but the ones that didn’t bust were much more likely to be impactful players for the organization they were drafted by in 2005.

2006: Bust: 55%, Reserve/Role: 37%, Starter: 10%, All-Star: 8%, MVP: 0%

Three budding stars stick out among the rest: Clayton Kershaw (LAD LHP), Tim Lincecum (SF RHP), and Evan Longoria (TB 3B). Max Scherzer (ARI RHP), Brandon Morrow (SEA RHP), Andrew Miller (DET LHP), Ian Kennedy (NYY RHP), Jeremy Jeffress (MIL LHP), Adam Ottavino (STL RHP), and Chris Coghlan (MIA 3B) would not turn into solid starters or stars until later in their careers. The bust rate remained stagnant at about 55%, once again, though.

2007: Bust: 62%, Reserve/Role: 25%, Starter: 9%, All-Star: 2%, MVP: 2%

David Price (TB LHP), Jason Heyward (ATL OF), and Josh Donaldson (CHC C) highlighted the 2007 first round draft class. Donaldson is our first player to average over 8.0 WAR per season. Many other starters were drafted but didn’t qualify as highly through the first five years including Madison Bumgarner (SF LHP), Mike Moustakas (KC SS), Pete Kozma (STL SS), Rick Porcello (DET RHP), Todd Frazier (CIN 3B), Sean Doolittle (OAK 1B), etc. Bust rate returns to north of 60%.

2008: Bust: 39%, Reserve/Role: 39%, Starter: 20%, All-Star: 2%, MVP: 0%

The bust rate in this draft went all the way down to 39%. But most of those players graduated only to the reserve/role player categories. The number of starters was actually down this year, too. The only player to make a significant impact in their first five years was Buster Posey (SF C). Other notable players drafted this year include Eric Hosmer (KC 1B), Pedro Alvarez (PIT 3B), Yonder Alonso (CIN 1B), Gordon Beckham (CHW SS), Gerrit Cole (NYY RHP), Jake Odorizzi (MIL RHP), Mike Montgomery (KC LHP), Lance Lynn (STL RHP), Wade Miley (ARI LHP), and Logan Forsythe (SD 3B).

2009: Bust: 53%, Reserve/Role: 29%, Starter: 16%, All-Star: 0%, MVP: 0%

In the best first five years of a career that the game has seen in a long, long time, Mike Trout (LAA OF) absolutely bombarded the league. He always has to outdo everyone doesn’t he? And 22 teams had the chance to pick him (the Nationals and Diamondbacks twice). He averaged a 10.2 WAR his first five seasons putting him a full point and a half ahead of Donaldson for the record. Lots of other notable players were drafted but here are just a few: Stephen Strasburg (WSH RHP), Zack Wheeler (SF RHP), Mike Leake (CIN RHP), A.J. Pollock (ARI CF), Shelby Miller (STL RHP), and Randal Grichuk (LAA OF). Although Mike Trout changed the record books, he couldn’t change the bust percentage on his own. It stayed at 53%.

2010: Bust: 68%, Reserve/Role: 14%, Starter: 12%, All-Star: 6%, MVP: 0%

You’ve made it. The final year we looked at. The bust percentage went all the way up to 68% in our final year while those who made it- made it big. Some real studs got drafted in 2010: Bryce Harper (WSH OF), Jameson Taillon (PIT RHP), Manny Machado (BAL SS), Matt Harvey (NYM RHP), Chris Sale (CHW LHP), Christian Yelich (MIA 1B), Noah Syndergaard (TOR RHP), and Nicholas Castellanos (DET 3B), among others. None of them approached Trout’s 10.2 WAR average but they definitely made an immediate impact on their respective organizations.

Now that you’ve made it all the way here, let’s look at everything we’ve found in a bigger picture lens. Here is a graph denoting the success and bust percentage of each draft year:

Bust rate.jpg

The red line is the bust rate of players, the blue is the success rate for anyone who made it to the Major Leagues, and the gray line is the rate of All-Stars/MVP level players found in the first round.

It is more than clear that the draft is just as unpredictable as ever from this one chart. The success rate is fluctuating, and the bust rate seems to bounce back up every time you think it’s coming down. It would appear that in the early 2000’s analytics had an impact on the bust rate of the draft, but it only brought it down for a few years and then it bounced back up again.

We judged a draft based on bust percentage versus success percentage. It is just as likely that a team will pick a dud as a stud in the first round of the draft. What scouts and analytics have clearly helped executives do is the talent that they do choose to draft, if they don’t bust, is clearly more elite than in the 1990s. However, in the previous five years from ’85-’90 it was about the same level it was now. That suggests a simple natural ebb and flow cycle and such is the game of baseball.

The conclusion the Major League Mythbusters drew was this: the success of organizations in the draft is actually less consistent than in older days. Although some years are more successful, some are more unsuccessful too. Therefore, front office executives have not gotten significantly better at projecting the next big stars and making successful draft picks. The bust percentages on players in the first round is almost as large as it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, and even thirty years ago. Scouts seem to be pretty excellent at what they do, and they have been doing it a long time.

Score Update-

Major League Baseball Myths: 0

Major League Mythbusters: 1

Categories: Analysis, Articles

1 reply

  1. The most efficient way to scout, evaluate talent, and achieve competitive balance is with psychometrics. Where sabermetrics is the math behind player contribution analysis, psychometrics is the math behind interactive analytics. As a member of SABR for just two years I seem to be the only certified psychometrician. Finding talent with psychometrics will change the game forever, again. I would love to assist in M-SABR projects. Let’s connect!

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