The ugly truth: MLB's draft can't match NBA, much less NFL

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I will: baseball’s amateur draft doesn’t seem all that interesting to me.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. “The draft” is highly interesting in a theoretical or historical way. I’m fascinated by the history of the draft – and by the way, when is someone going to write a good book on that subject? – and I’m fascinated by the theory of drafting. Just this spring, there were some articles about the NFL Draft (for example, this one) that fascinated me ... and I couldn’t care less about the NFL.

The takeaway from articles about the NFL Draft? Nobody knows what they’re doing. No team or executive has consistently “beaten” the draft. There’s an average value for each draft pick, historically, and there’s no real evidence that anybody’s smart enough to beat that average.

Which is sorta shocking, right? Doesn’t there have to be a big enough spread between the canniest executives and the non-canniest to show up in the draft results? You would think so, yeah. But apparently there is not. It seems the only way to “beat” the draft is to stockpile draft picks.

In the NFL, you stockpile draft picks by “trading down”: trading a higher pick for lower picks (which means, by the way, that “trading up” is generally a losing strategy). In baseball, you can’t trade draft picks!

Actually, that’s no longer true. You can trade “competitive-balance” draft picks, and in fact the Marlins just traded theirs to the Pirates. So hey, bonus points to the Pirates for being smarter than the Marlins. And there used to be another great way to stockpile picks: Trade for a prospective free agent in July, offer him salary arbitration in November, and then happily collect the compensation draft pick when he declines the offer and instead becomes a free agent.

Alas, that loophole’s been closed. While teams can still collect draft picks, it’s not nearly as easy as it used to be, and any additional value is marginal.

So there’s really no way to beat the draft, unless you’re just better at judging talent than the other teams.

Are baseball teams good at judging amateur talent? Recently, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton looked at all the draft picks ($) and their signing bonuses (or most of them, anyway) from 2003 through 2008. If teams are really good at judging talent, there should be a strong correlation between a player’s signing bonus and his eventual performance. Carleton:

If all 30 teams had magic crystal balls and could somehow know exactly what each draft-eligible player would produce once he got to the big leagues, then in an efficient market, there would be a price structure that developed around those wins. We would see a very close relationship between the signing bonus that a player received and his contribution. And in some sense, that’s the whole point of the scouting system, to try to predict what’s going to happen. Maybe in 2003, people weren’t thinking in terms of WAR, but we should at least see some relationship, right?

Carleton runs through a bunch of maths, which includes a reference to something called “Nagelkerke’s pseudo R-squared” which I’m pretty sure he just made up because he could. I do buy his results, though: Within particular rounds, there’s no correlation between bonus money and performance. “In other words,” Carleton writes, “teams are in effect drafting grab bags.”

Granted, we do know there’s a great deal of talent in the FIRST ROUND of the draft, especially early in the first round. Even there, though ...

Let’s look at the first round of the 2009 draft. That was five years ago. Even the players drafted out of high school are now 22 or 23; if they’re going to be stars -– which is what you’re looking for in a first-round draft pick –- they should have reached the majors by now, or be top prospects on the verge of reaching the majors.

Here’s the complete list of 2009’s first-round picks who have reached the majors and been at least 1 win better than replacement-level, ranked by rWAR:

Mike Trout

Stephen Strasburg

Mike Leake

Dustin Ackley

A.J. Pollock

Mike Minor

Shelby Miller

Drew Storen

Aaron Crow

Nick Franklin

Chad Jenkins

So far, that’s it: 11 out of 32 first-round picks have actually been good ... and of course that’s being charitable, since I set the bar so low. In truth, only the top seven have been anything like stars, and we might reasonably argue that only two are stars.

To be sure, some of the others will become stars. Zack Wheeler, now pitching for the Mets, was the sixth pick in that draft (by the Giants) and has a great deal of potential. The same is supposedly true of Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson (although his ridiculously low strikeout rate through 21 major-league starts is not encouraging).

Let’s say the number of real stars from the first round of the 2009 draft winds up being five. Again, that’s charitable. But sure, why not? Five. Which will take more than five years.

Now do you understand why I can’t get real worked up about the draft? All the hype is a sort of promise, and that promise usually is not kept. There’s now a cottage industry determined to treat baseball’s draft like professional football’s and professional basketball’s. But this will never work, because the baseball draft is nothing like those other sports’ drafts.

Two years ago, MLB Network’s Greg Amsinger compared Padres draft pick Max Fried to Barry Zito, and John Hart compared Fried to Cole Hamels and Clayton Kershaw. Today, Max Fried remains a fine prospect. Before this season, he was generally rated among the 60 best prospects in the minors. He’s also 19, and hasn’t pitched an inning above Class A. His chance of becoming Barry Zito or the love child of Hamels and Kershaw remains, as it was two years ago, minuscule.*

* In fairness to Hart, it now does seem conceivable that Michael Wacha will be a better pitcher than Jon Garland.

Max Fried might make it, someday. If he doesn’t hurt his shoulder, he probably will pitch in the majors. But unless you’re an obsessive Padres fan, when Fried does reach the majors, will you even remember that he was the seventh pick in the whole draft back in 2012? The payoffs are just too ephemeral, too distant and often simply nonexistent.

Then again, maybe I’m just subconsciously bitter because of Bubba Starling.

Rob Neyer is consciously bitter about many things, most of which regularly appear in his Twitter feed.