First Pitch: Why is the MLB Draft So Confusing to Casual Fans?

The MLB Draft has a casual fan problem.

Every other draft in the other major sporting leagues offers a much more simple concept: Here are the new players your team selected, who you will probably see playing for that MLB-level team in the next year.

The minor league system in baseball offers a separation between prep and college athletes and the big leagues. It can take college players three or four years to go from the draft to the pros. It can take high school athletes four or five years to reach the big leagues. Often, it can take longer for each class of player to make it, in the rare event they do make it.

One of the biggest challenges with the MLB draft is that so few players make it to the majors.

A draft is considered good when you produce three MLB players from the entire group.

Not three stars. Not three starters.

Three players who stick in the majors.

The Pirates took 21 players this year. If 14% of those players reach the majors and stick, they will have a productive draft.

You would think that having the first overall pick would put the Pirates with different expectations for what their draft should produce. There’s not really a guarantee with the top picks in the draft.

FanGraphs did an article a few years ago, looking at the success rate by MLB slot. What they found was that 60% of players picked in the first five picks would bust. Only 29% of those players would go on to be superior players.

Granted, the odds are higher for the top picks than the bottom picks. The same article shows that picks 26-30 had a bust rate of 84%, while landing a superior player 11% of the time.

Obviously, the Pirates are expected to have some advantage overall. That advantage merely breaks down to the historic idea that Henry Davis has a 40% chance of not busting, and a 29% chance of becoming a superior player. For the purposes of the article, FanGraphs defines bust as less than 1.5 WAR per year, and a superior player with over 2.5 WAR per year.

Once you get beyond the first round, the odds of finding an MLB player at all go down to about 1%, or less the longer you go. The odds of finding a superior player are nearly non-existent. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s just very improbable.

Why does the MLB draft lead to so few players reaching the majors, while other sports see their draftees go right to the pros?

The simple answer is that baseball is unlike any other sport.

Football is the same game between high school, college, and the pros. The main difference is the game gets faster, and obviously players get bigger. But, the actual game itself looks the same, though on a smaller, slower scale as you go down the levels from the pros.

Hockey and basketball are similar. The concept of the game doesn’t change: Goals at both ends of the court/ice. The size and speed of players changes, but if you get a big enough, fast enough amateur player, they can go right to the pros.

Baseball is a different monster.

The game is the same at all levels in the sense that a pitcher pitches the ball, a hitter tries to hit it, and the fielders try to field it.

Baseball has things introduced between prep/college and the majors that massively change the game.

A changeup, for one.

Most of the top prep pitchers only need a fastball, and have a promising breaking pitch that can dominate at the high school level. The college pitchers might have a fastball and a few breaking pitches. But, there’s little need for a changeup at any of the amateur levels, especially facing metal bats.

The breaking pitches fall in a similar category.

You’ll see guys in the draft described as having a breaking pitch that “flashes plus” or can be a plus pitch in the future. Typically this means the player can spin the pitch, and has good shape on his breaking ball, but is inconsistent in getting that spin and that shape on the pitch.

Again, if you’ve got a slower pitch against a metal bat, it’s not going to end up well, unless it’s got a lot of movement to miss that forgiving barrel.

That’s the biggest switch from amateur to pro baseball: The switch from metal to wooden bats.

This switch changes the entire strategy of the game. Fastballs can be thrown inside to break the handle of bats. Off-speed pitches don’t have to be elite, because there’s much more forgiveness when a batter makes contact with a wooden bat. And when you’ve got a pitcher with a top fastball and a top breaking pitch? Well, that plays universally across all levels. Unfortunately, that pitcher can get by with two pitches until about Double-A, when he’s going to need a third or fourth option to remain a starting pitching candidate.

On the hitter side, the introduction of more off-speed pitches changes the scope of the game. A young power hitter might have just been good at hitting fastballs. As the hitter moves up to Double-A and higher, he’ll face more and more breaking pitches. Once he shows he can’t hit breaking pitches, he’ll face almost all breaking pitches until he learns to hit them.

Some players never learn how to hit breaking pitches.

Some players never learn the third pitch.

Some players never learn how to control their first two pitches. A college player might swing at a 97 MPH pitch just outside of the zone, or chase an 0-1 pitch in the dirt, but an MLB player is going to take those for a ball.

Some players outgrow the position they fielded in the amateur ranks and never find a new one.

Some players just get overmatched as they move up and face more and more easier players, with fewer and fewer non-prospects.

From the pitcher standpoint, you’re looking at the lineup almost in terms of “tough at-bats.” There might only be 2-3 tough at-bats in a given A-ball lineup. That might go up to 4-5 for a Double-A lineup, and you may only have a few “easy at-bats” remaining in Triple-A.

From the hitter standpoint, the opposing pitching staff is going to have tougher pitchers in the same way. In a series, you’re going to see fewer tough starters and fewer lights out relievers.

In short, as you move up the ranks in pro baseball, there is less margin for error.

The game at the amateur level allows for more error from batters who benefit from metal bats. It allows for more error from pitchers who benefit from free swinging, metal bat wielding hitters.

Everything shifts when the game switches to the less forgiving wooden bats. It then becomes imperative that pitchers control their pitches and throw them for strikes, and position players know to lay off bad pitches to hit, even if it’s a great breaking pitch for an early strike.

The result? It takes several years for amateur players to reach the majors, and many won’t make it.

MLB has made the draft even more complex for the casual fan with their bonus pool system. I may break that down further in the future, but the short of it is that teams have $X to spend on their entire draft, but $X is based on the individual pick prices for the top ten round picks. The teams can choose to pay those top ten round players according to their respective slot values, or they can move money around and pay people almost out-of-order.

This leads to crazy stuff, like the Pirates’ second best draft prospect from this year’s draft being taken with their fourth pick. Bubba Chandler will most likely receive the second biggest bonus in the Pirates’ draft class. It will be easier to explain why the Pirates drafted players in the order they drafted them once all players are signed and the bonuses are released. My thought on this year’s draft is that the Pirates knew Chandler would be there for them in the third round, but that Anthony Solometo and Lonnie White Jr. might have been gone before then.

The result of the bonus pool system is ultimately to reduce spending on amateur talent, and to restrict individual player bonuses. That’s why the Pirates will spend to their bonus pool this year with the number one overall pick, and yet still pay their picks less than they did ten years ago when they last had the number one overall pick.

Throw all of the confusion of the draft bonus pools, plus the certain uncertainty of every draft prospect reaching the majors, and you’ve got the MLB Draft: A very specialized event that turns off the casual baseball fan.

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**Card of the Day: 1957 Topps Bob Purkey

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