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Mommy, Where Do Baseball Stars Come From?

Twenty-four picks were made before the Angels selected Mike Trout in 2009. Pirates took Tony Sanchez, if you were curious. Photo via International Business Times by Getty

Twenty-four picks were made before the Angels selected Mike Trout in 2009. Pirates took Tony Sanchez, if you were curious.
Photo via International Business Times by Getty

The June draft is where small-revenue teams like the Pirates must find their future stars. Each draft pick is like a lottery ticket that teams look to cash in. But it’s not true that every 1st round pick turns into a star. The corollary is also true in that not every star was a first round draft pick. Using Fangraphs, I sorted the Top 10 batters of the last five years (2011-15):


Before we delve into who came from where, take a minute to marvel at Mike Trout at number 1. Keep in mind, this list compiles all time from 2011 to 2015. Trout only debuted in August 2011 and he had a very inauspicious start to his career with 40 games and 0.7 WAR. So essentially, he’s done all this in just four years. Let’s look at each player’s draft round and draft position:

  • Mike Trout (1st round, 25th overall)
  • Andrew McCutchen (1st round, 11th overall)
  • Miguel Cabrera (international free agent)
  • Adrian Beltre (international free agent)
  • Joey Votto (2nd round, 44th overall)
  • Jose Bautista (international free agent)
  • Robinson Cano (international free agent)
  • Buster Posey (1st round, 5th overall)
  • Alex Gordon (1st round, 2nd overall)
  • Ben Zobrist (6th round, 184th overall)

Kind of telling that no pick that went 1-1 is in the top 10. Gordon and Posey are the only top 10 picks at all. Four international free agents make their presence known. The four international free agents had signing bonuses that ranged from large at the time ($1.9M to Cabrera from the Marlins) to a pittance (Bautista’s $20,000 from the Pirates). And there’s Ben Zobrist as the outlier high-achieving 6th rounder.

This is the same exercise, but with pitchers:

Five years pitchers

  • Clayton Kershaw (1st round, 7th overall)
  • David Price (1st round, 1st overall)
  • Felix Hernandez (international free agent)
  • Max Scherzer (1st round, 11th overall)
  • Justin Verlander (1st round, 2nd overall)
  • Zack Greinke (1st round, 6th overall)
  • Cole Hamels (1st round, 17th overall)
  • Chris Sale (1st round, 13th overall)
  • Madison Bumgarner (1st round, 10th overall)
  • Jon Lester (2nd round, 57th overall)

With pitchers, it is much more apparent that aces come from the draft, as five of these pitchers were drafted in the top 10 and a 6th pitcher at number 11. Pitchers have an incredible bust rate due to injuries and ineffectiveness, but you can see where the mantra “grow the arms, buy the bats” comes from.

Teams are very reticent to sign free agents attached to qualifying offers, as they are forced to give up their first round pick (as long as it is not in the top 10, those are protected) and you can see why. There are a lot of teams and picks not represented here in these lists, of course, but it’s better to have the potential pick than to give it up. Unless that team is signing one of these stars, I suppose, and then they may not care.

The end result is that the first round is where teams make their hay in terms of landing cornerstones, but through careful scouting and player development, teams can extract talent from many other places in the draft and the international markets.

About Kevin Creagh (263 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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