As the Washington Nationals sit atop the standings, holding the best record in the major leagues, the inclination is to view the amateur draft as the catalyst of the team’s success.
Washington, after all, had the No. 1 picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, a testament to a lot of bad baseball that landed them the top picks. Those seasons just happened to have obvious No. 1 picks, and Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have played key roles in the growth of the Nationals.
This is a franchise that has yet to reach a World Series in its 44-year history. A franchise that has one postseason appearance — in 1981, when it was in Montreal. A franchise that has yet to finish above .500 during its time in Washington.
And now it is the best team in baseball.
So with Strasburg carrying a 12-5 record and 2.97 ERA, and Harper batting .251 with 10 homers at the age of 19, it’s time to examine the nature of baseball’s draft. The Nationals could have ended up with Matt Bush or Bryan Bullington, both of whom have been No. 1 picks in the past 11 years and have done little or nothing in the major leagues.
Unlike the NBA and the NFL, baseball’s draft often is a crapshoot.
Choosing among recent high school graduates or players who have been in college for several years, baseball teams are assessing potential rather than immediate impact.
That has resulted in players such as Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Chipper Jones being No. 1 overall picks, along with Brien Taylor, David Clyde, and Steve Chilcott. Some of them you might have heard of.
Baseball’s first amateur draft was held in 1965, a mere three decades after the NFL’s inaugural draft. It was designed to spread the wealth among teams, and it’s no coincidence that the draft immediately followed an era in which the Yankees won 14 pennants in 16 years.
The Kansas City Athletics made Rick Monday the first draft pick in MLB history. More important, the A’s took Sal Bando and Gene Tenace in later rounds, establishing a solid drafting philosophy that would result in three consecutive World Series titles within a decade.
Tenace, Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Vida Blue were drafted in a three-year period. They joined Joe Rudi and Catfish Hunter, both of whom were signed as free agents in 1964, to form the foundation of championship teams from 1972-74.
Yet despite the nefarious nature of baseball’s draft, it has evolved over the years. With baseball’s new math, the kind that statistically examines the game and questions conventional wisdom, teams are reluctant these days to draft players out of high school; they are particularly reluctant to draft high school pitchers in the first round.
Several studies have demonstrated that high school pitchers are poor investments and are extremely unlikely to have productive major-league careers.
That wasn’t a problem for the Nationals. Strasburg was a pitcher out of San Diego State; Harper was a hitter coming out of high school.
They were obvious No. 1 picks, and they could provide the foundation of a successful franchise for years to come.
Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne