A History Of Early Baseball Draft Picks

Pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg was scheduled to take the mound Tuesday for the Washington Nationals. Strasburg was the prize Washington earned for being baseball's worst team: the first pick in the draft. To discuss the history of early draft picks, Robert Siegel talks to Peter Gammons, an analyst with the MLB Network.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Washington, we have seen the future and it is better - but far from perfect. A little over an hour ago, a 21-year-old fast-balling right-hander named Stephen Strasburg took the mound at National Stadium in his Major League debut. Strasburg is the hope of the hapless Nats. After four innings, hes given up two runs on four hits to the Pittsburgh Pirates, with six strike-outs.

Strasburg is the upside of the Nationals' jumbo downside. He was the prize Washington earned for being baseball's worst team - the first pick in the draft. And last night, having richly earned that right for a second year running, the Nats picked a still younger phenom - Bryce Harper, a 17-year-old slugger from Nevada.

Which made me wonder, how good a predictor of success is being a top draft pick? So I asked Peter Gammons, an analyst with the MLB Network.

Mr. PETER GAMMONS (Analyst, MLB Network): Well, you know, it depends on the level of the player. I mean, there are some years where the teams sort of scratch their heads and say OK, we have five or six guys, we like all of them, which one is the best? And there aren't many in which you say, there is no doubt. I mean, if you polled every general manager in baseball, they would've said last year, Stephen Strasburg's the best player on the board.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GAMMONS: This year, it would've been unanimous again - that Bryce Harper would've been everyone's pick. Everyone would've picked Darryl Strawberry in 1980. Everyone would've picked Josh Hamilton in 1999. Each one had personal issues that sidetracked them.

SIEGEL: But you know, I looked at the list of the players who were the number one draft picks ever since this began, in the mid-1960s. In recent years, the record seems to have gotten better for producing stars - with Ken Griffey Jr., who just retired, actually, in there as a former first overall pick. And Alex Rodriguez, who's about to break all sorts of career records, it seems, in his career, in there as a first draft pick. You can't argue with finding many of the best players of their day.

But Albert Pujols, of the St. Louis Cardinals, was drafted in the 13th round in 1999. So there can be great talent that escapes the notice of all these scouts.

Mr. GAMMONS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you go to the all-star team, for instance, 16 of the I think it was 55 players who played in that game, in the All-Star Game last year, were first-round picks. But it goes all the way from 16 in the first round to four in the second round. Now, there were some others, obviously, Pujols was the 13th round and there were guys like Jason Bay, 22nd round.

But you still - I mean, I think scouting has gotten much better. If you go back and look at the drafts from the '60s and '70s, there were a lot of big-time misses, who had more of a tendency to go out - oh, like, that boy can really run, you know?

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GAMMONS: Look at him motoring. And now they have some many looks at guys. They have so much information.

SIEGEL: Is the information that all of the baseball teams have when they make their draft choices is most of it proprietary? That is, each team individually has come by its scouting information, or is a lot of it based on common scouting and common statistical analyses of how good the kids are?

Mr. GAMMONS: Most teams use their own people. There are teams that invest a great deal in just trying to find out every bit of information. I think what's interesting, too, and I find it more and more that with the college players, there's more and more time invested to try to learn about the young person's acceptance of advice and learning, and can this guy learn?

Because there's so much in sports where you do have to take instruction and learn. You know, some people just simply can't digest teaching. It's something the teams look into. Believe me, in the 1960s, nobody ever thought of that.

SIEGEL: Peter Gammons, analyst with the MLB Network, talking about scouting top draft prospects. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. GAMMONS: Thank you very much.

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