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MLB Draft a Crapshoot - Part 1?

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The Twins suck. Sorry, had to be said. I do consider myself a bit of a shock-jock, so this is fitting. However, the reward for sucky teams is a good draft pick. I was talking with a friend of mine and he said, "who cares about the draft, it's a total crapshoot." This got me wondering; is the draft a crapshoot?

Yeah, probably.

However, is the MLB draft more of a crapshoot than the other 3 major sports' drafts? I did some research to see if any one league has a more crapshooty (crapshootish?) draft than any of the other sports.

I wasn't able to do any super extensive research, as I do have a pretty awesome social life to maintain (Netflix, Dog Walks, Couch, etc.). As a result, I looked at a 10 year sample of MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA drafts. I looked from 1981 to 1990, so that most players would be done with their careers. I am going to spit this up a bit, to give me time to do my shoddy research properly.

I will investigate 3 different factors:

What is the percentage of 1st round picks that made an All-Star team?
How does the average career length of Top 10 picks compare to the average career length of a player in that league?
Where do MVPs come from?

While these are obviously not perfect measures, I feel they give some sort of data to look at and then analyze. Some might accuse me of cherry-picking, but I could give one rat's behind about that. This isn't a research journal, last time I checked.

So, here are the results:

Question 1 - What is the percentage of 1st round picks that made an All-Star team?

This was the easy one to figure out. I just looked at draft results, all-star appearances and did some simple division. Full disclosure: Excel did the division for me. Here is a chart of the results:

Chart 1 - Percentage of 1st Round Picks that became All-Stars from 1981 to 1990.

MLB Total
# of 1st Round All Stars 52
# of 1st Round Picks 269
% of 1st Round All Stars 19.33%
NFL Total
# of All Stars 118
# of 1st Round Picks 275
% of 1st Round All Stars 42.91%
NBA Total
# of All Stars 61
# of 1st Round Picks 244
% of 1st Round All Stars 25.00%
NHL Total
# of All Stars 46
# of 1st Round Picks 189
% of 1st Round All Stars 24.34%

Well, obviously this is a flawed design. This is true for a couple of reasons. Not all drafts have the same amount of rounds. Not all leagues had the same amount of teams. Not all leagues have the same rules for player eligibility. Not all all-stars are created equal. Draft strategies could be evolving and changing since the '80s. However, in a perfect world, the first round would produce the most talent, regardless of these differences.

It does appear that in this decade, it was more difficult to find an All-Star in the MLB draft first round than in any of the 3 other leagues first rounds. There doesn't seem to be any trend data throughout the years as the percentage was pretty stable from '81 to '90. Over 40% of first round picks in the NFL became All-Stars. The number is under 20% for MLB, the lowest of the 4 leagues. Obviously, I am using the terms All-Star and Pro-Bowler interchangeably.

The total number of All-Stars from the 1st round are pretty comparable when you compare MLB and NHL. However, there were fewer players drafted in the 1st rounds overall in the NHL. So, the 1st round of the MLB draft is a bit of a crapshoot, especially when compared with other leagues. However, does this mean that the top end of the draft is a crapshoot? If not, it might point toward teams being even more likely to try to get the top end picks. Here is another chart:

Chart 2 - Number of Top Ten Picks that became All-Stars between 1981-1990.

MLB Total
# of Top Ten Pick All Stars 30
NFL Total
# of Top Ten Pick All Stars 54
NBA Total
# of Top Ten Pick All Stars 35
NHL Total
# of Top Ten Pick All Stars 43

Since there were a total of 10 Top Ten picks in each draft, the total number for the decade would be 100. So, all these numbers are equal to the percentages as well. Therefore, we can see that Top Ten picks are easily more likely to become All-Stars than just 1st round picks. That makes sense as the top ten should be the real cream of the crop. However, the gap between leagues widens slightly between the MLB and NFL, significantly between the MLB and NHL, and narrows between the MLB and NBA. When you consider that far fewer NBA All-Stars are named each year, the narrowing seems less significant. 70% of MLB top ten picks failed to become All-Stars. When you think of it that way, it is a bit worrisome for teams looking for All-Star players.

My main problem with this data is that the MLB draft is just so much longer than other drafts. The player pool is so much larger. The top ten of 1500 players is a much smaller percentage than the top ten of 250 players. So, I thought it might be interesting to look at a percentage-based player pool.

Here is another chart:

Chart 3 - Number of Players selected in the Top 5% of Drafts
that became All-Stars between 1981-1990.

MLB Total
# of Top 5% All-Stars 72
NFL Total
# of Top 5% All-Stars 78
NBA Total
# of Top 5% All-Stars 32
NHL Total
# of Top 5% All-Stars 47

Just for explanation sake, I took the total number of players drafted, multiplied by 5% and then counted the number of All-Stars taken within those pick values.

Ah, perhaps a point in the MLB's favor! When you look at all players selected in the top 5% of these drafts, the number of MLB All-Stars is much higher than the NBA and NHL and right in line with the NFL. Maybe this simply means that we have to consider the size of the player pool, in order to see that the MLB draft is not a crapshoot. Well, maybe not. Here is another chart:

Chart 4 - Percentage of Players selected in the Top 5% of Drafts
that became All-Stars between 1981-1990.

# of Top 5% Picks # of Top 5% All-Stars % of Top 5% Picks All-Stars
MLB 538 72 13.38%
NFL 167 78 46.71%
NBA 79 32 40.51%
NHL 123 47 38.21%

Giving you all the data is quite important, eh? Now MLB doesn't look so great. When you look at the top 5% of any NFL, NHL, or NBA draft, there is close to or more than a 40% chance that a team will get an All-Star. In the MLB, that number is under 15%. Yikes.

According to this data, if you wanted to draft an All-Star in the 80s, you should have been a terrible team the year before and had a top ten pick. Even then, you were going to fail to get an All-Star 70% of the time. Once you leave the Top Ten, the numbers are pretty awful. There were only 22 players drafted in the first round, but outside the Top Ten from 1981 to 1990 that became an All-Star, only about 2 players per year. It appears that the MLB draft is a bit of a crapshoot, and much more of a crapshoot than any of the other leagues.

This does not surprise me though. Well, one part does. The NHL seems like it should have had numbers more in line with MLB. After all, their player pool seems to be the most similar, with high school players and young foreign players making up a lot of their first rounds. I guess the one explanation would be the glut of Club and Junior Level teams that younger players could play for. These types of teams produce a higher level of competition than simply high school teams that future MLB draftees would play for. If I had no life whatsoever, I might investigate High School vs. College, but that seems like a huge undertaking.

To me, the MLB draft is more about upside than the others, especially in the very early picks. NFL and NBA teams have the benefit of watching their players in college. The NHL teams can see how players fare in either Junior, Club or College hockey. These leagues can have a pretty good idea of what type of player they are getting. MLB is often relying on high school leagues, which would seem to have the most volatility. The MLB draft lacks certainty, almost by its design and structure. However, I am 100% certain that no team would ever want to create a system where high school players are not drafted, so the uncertainty is here to stay.

I wish that I could travel ten years in the future to do this same exercise with the 1991 to 2000 drafts, but many players (especially in the later years) are still active and the data points for All-Star appearances could change over the next few years. Someone please remind me in 2022 that I have work to do.

You can see the full charts here, with each year shown individually:


Please feel free to question my methods and criticize my lack of devotion to the Scientific Method. Part 2 will investigate career lengths in the Top Tens of these drafts.


  1. PopRiveter's Avatar
    It's like the end of Lost when you find out it actually was what you thought it was all along.
    Fun read, though
  2. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    The Scientific Method often leads to sadness and disappointment. It is much more fun to manipulate research, but alas...
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