MLB Draft: Best Athlete? Not That Simple.


The MLB Rule 4 (“first year player”) draft starts this upcoming Monday.  There has been the usual flurry of speculation about which team will pick which player, and the usual discussions about high school vs. college, and pitching vs position players.

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One argument that seems to occur every year is whether a team should simply select the best athlete, or whether other factors should be taken into account.  Even though the former is more politically correct, the latter appears closer to the truth.  When you look at the prognosticators who provide both a list of top prospects and a mock draft, it becomes clear that the two are not the same.  For example, fangraphs provides a

list of top prospects

as well as a

mock draft for the first 26 picks

.   In only 10 of the 26 mock picks does the drafting team take the highest ranked player available.  And the

Baseball America mock draft version 4.0

has Phil Bickford ranked 27th but taken 14th by the Braves and Cody Ponce ranked 36th but taken 16th by the Yankees.

All of which begs the question:  what factors do teams take into consideration in making their selections?

As a

invitation for flaming

starting point for discussion, I would like to suggest the following formula.

Baseball talent – 50%

Some writers like to focus on baseball tools when discussing baseball prospects, while others believe that baseball skills are more important.  Either way, the talent of the draft prospect is clearly the single biggest factor in determining their draft position.

Health – 15%

In 2014, Jeff Hoffman was considered a top-3 talent.  He dropped to the Jays at 9th overall due to the increased risk associated with his Tommy John surgery.  In 2015, Mike Matuella was being discussed as a possible #1 overall, until he was found to need Tommy John surgery and (perhaps more important) to have spondylolysis, a fractured vertebrae which can sometimes lead to spinal fusion surgery.  After hearing of this double whammy, officials with two teams indicated that Matuella was essentially off their draft boards.

Health issues do not have to be as serious as spondylolysis to have an effect.  In 2014, Houston drafted Brady Aiken with the first pick overall only to reduce their bonus offer when his physical revealed an abnormally small ulnar collateral ligament.  R.A. Dickey was drafted 18th overall in 1996, only to have his $810,000 signing bonus reduced to $75,000 when doctors discovered that he did not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow joint.

Signability – 15%

Drew Hutchison

slipped to the 15th round when drafted in 2009 due in part to his $400k signing bonus demand. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, Baseball America ranked Jacob Bukauskas as their #32 prospect.  With a fastball that touched 100 mph and comparisons to Greg Holland, he was considered a possible first round pick.  But when he emailed all 30 teams that he wanted to honour his commitment to North Carolina and said he would not sign (at least, not for the money that would be offered) he went undrafted until the 600th pick, when Arizona selected him on the off-chance he would change his mind (spoiler alert: he didn’t).

The Jays took a similar gamble with Keith Weisenberg.  Ranked #68 by BA, the Jays drafted him 1138th overall hoping (unsuccessfully) he would forego his full scholarship at Stanford.

In 2015, the hard-sign no-sign could turn out to be  Justin Hooper.  A 6’7″, 18 year old LHP with a mid-90s fastball, he is ranked highly – #39 by Baseball America, #31 by – but is reported to be seeking a minimum $4 million signing bonus (which is top-5 money).

Philosophy – 10%

Deck McGuire

was drafted out of the Georgia Institute of Technology – one of few college-level early picks by the Jays in recent years. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Certain teams go into a draft with preferences which affect their drafting decisions.  The Blue Jays, for example, have prioritized high school players (especially pitching) in recent drafts, though it remains to be seen whether 2014 (where the first two picks were both college players) is an aberration or the beginning of a trend.  The Rangers tend to favour pitchers in the Rule 4 draft, targeting position players more frequently in the Latin American market.  The Angels, whose farm system is ranked 28th in baseball, are expected to prioritize quick-fix college players over longer-term high school talent.

The Rest – 10%

Was the Jays’ selection of

Dalton Pompey

in the 16th round of the 2010 draft influenced by his passport? Even if so, well done Jays! Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are many other factors which could influence a team’s drafting decision, particularly with a high pick.  If a team’s system is already “full” of highly-ranked players at a particular position, it might be difficult to find playing time for additional draftees.  This could induce a team to favour a player at a less crowded position.  A team whose minor league system is already strong, or who has multiple picks, might be more inclined to gamble on a Brady Aiken-type player.  A team who believes themselves to have a developmental strength in a particular area – such as the Jays with their weighted ball program – might be more inclined to gamble on a player with that particular weakness.  Priorities can change over the course of a draft, as when the Jays drafted Matt Smoral 50th overall in 2012 but were forced to “punt” rounds 5-10 to pay for his $2 million bonus.  And of course there is the Piazza situation, where factors other than baseball have an influence.

The bottom line?  If it were as easy as just taking the best player available, teams could just mail in their lists and watch the draft on TV.  As with any major baseball decision, the reality is that the selection process is far more complex.