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Draft Study: How Likely Are Your MLB Dreams?

It should be fairly obvious that players drafted out of the college ranks reach the major leagues at a higher rate than players drafted out of high school. After all, college players are older and therefore more advanced, with longer track records of performance against a better-known quality of competition. Past studies, such as Allan Simpson’s 2002 analysis of draft results from 1965 to 1995, have shown that college players are more likely to get to the big leagues, and common wisdom suggests those trends haven’t changed.

But common wisdom wasn’t good enough for Rick Karcher, a professor of sports management at Eastern Michigan University. Karcher has studied the draft extensively and provided expert testimony on lost earning capacity damages of professional baseball players in numerous personal injury cases and two well-known law suits challenging the NCAA’s “no agent” rules — the Andy Oliver and James Paxton cases. So Karcher set out to update Simpson’s research to determine a drafted player’s chances of making the major leagues from 1996 to 2011 (he stopped there to give players five years to reach the big leagues). He also delved deeper to compare the chances of position players and pitchers to make the majors out of each round. Karcher and his research assistant, Joseph Barroso Jr., analyzed the top 20 rounds of the draft from 1996-2011 and then shared the results with D1Baseball.

“I was very familiar with the previous study that Allan Simpson did at Baseball America on drafted players between 1965 and 1995. I had used that report on some of the cases I’d been involved in with respect to calculating damages for baseball players, lost earning capacity for a future career,” Karcher told D1Baseball. “One of the things I wanted to do was pick up from that standpoint, do a brand-new study since 1995, to see if there are any differences in the past 20 years or so, see how it compared to Simpson’s study. And then secondly, I wanted to take the study even a step further and see how it looked when you break it down by high school vs. college guys, and by position, pitcher vs. position player, to see whether the percentage chances of making it to the major leagues and making it for more than three years — were there were any variances in that regard? So my study does that piece too.”

While the results aren’t particularly surprising, we think they are of interest to our readers. A couple of key conclusions Karcher drew from the data: (1) In the first five rounds, college players have a greater chance than high school players of both making it to the major leagues and playing more than three years, and (2) college position players have a greater chance than college pitchers of both making it to the major leagues and playing more than three years. But more pitchers are drafted in the top five rounds, in spite of or perhaps because of the higher rate of attrition.

A couple of things to note before we get to the data. First, Karcher’s study noted whether or not players reached the big leagues for at least one game, and whether they played in at least one game during three separate seasons. He did not attempt to gauge what kind of impact players made in the majors. And it’s worth noting that some of the very best high school players can provide exceptional impact, making it worth the risk of drafting them early even if they are statistically less likely to reach the big leagues.

Let’s begin with some charts that compare the likelihood of reaching the big leagues (and spending at least three years in the majors) for college and high school players drafted in the first five rounds.

So college players reach the big leagues at a higher rate than players drafted out of high school, and the difference is most pronounced in the first two rounds. Of college players drafted in the first round, 74.3 percent have reached the majors, compared to 58.2 percent of high schoolers drafted in the first round. In the second round, 59.1 percent of college players make it, compared with 39.9 percent of high school players. Similarly, 51.6 percent of college first-rounders made the majors for at least three seasons, compared with 36.8 percent of high school first-rounders. In the second round, 34.9 percent of college players made it for three years, compared to 24.4 percent of high schoolers.

But it’s interesting to note that the gap shrinks after the first couple of rounds — college players still get there at higher rates, but there is a less pronounced difference. The “safest” picks are college position players selected toward the top of the draft. Karcher writes:

College pitchers are the most drafted players in the first five rounds; they made up 31.1 percent of all players drafted in rounds 1-5 combined from 1996 to 2011. However, their chances of making it to the major leagues, and playing more than three years, are not as good as college position players drafted in the first five rounds. Signed college position players have a 6-7 percent greater chance than signed college pitchers: 350 of the 647 position players (54.1 percent) compared to 390 of the 810 pitchers (48.1 percent) played in the major leagues, and 234 of the 647 position players (36.2 percent) compared to 237 of the 810 pitchers (29.3 percent) played in the major leagues more than three years.

• Karcher compared his results to Simpson’s and discovered that players selected in the top five rounds between 1996 and 2011 had essentially the same chances to reach the majors as players drafted in the top five rounds between 1965 and 1995. The differential was just +/- 0.1 percent. Players drafted in rounds 6-10 between 1996 and 2011 had a 20 percent chance of making the big leagues, compared with a 20.4 percent chance from 1965-1995. In rounds 11-15 combined from 1996 to 2011, 12.7 percent played in the major leagues (compared to 12.1 percent from 1965-95). And in rounds 16-20 combined from 1996 to 2011, 9.9 percent played in the major leagues (compared to 9.8 percent from 1965-95). So it’s fascinating to note that the chances of reaching the big leagues have remained static for players drafted in the top 20 since 1965.

• However, Karcher noted that players in his sample who were drafted beyond the top five rounds had a lower chance of playing three years in the big leagues compared to the players in Simpson’s study. The percentage of players in the three cohorts from 1996 to 2011 who played in the major leagues more than three years was 9 percent for rounds 6-10 combined (compared to 11.4 percent from 1965-95), 5.2 percent for rounds 11-15 combined (compared to 6.1 percent from 1965-95), and 4.4 percent for rounds 16-20 combined (compared to 5.6 percent from 1965-95).

• Finally, Karcher noted that players are more likely to sign with the club that drafted them than they were in the old days. Obviously, teams are more careful with their picks in the top 10 rounds under the current system, which makes it imperative to sign those picks or else lose the bonus pool money allotted to the picks. Karcher writes:

A higher percentage of drafted players in all rounds signed from 1996 to 2011 than from 1965 to 1995. In Simpson’s study of drafted players from 1965 to 1995, the percentages of players who signed were 95.8 percent in the first round, 89.4 percent in the second round, 86 percent in the third round, 84.1 percent in the fourth round, 81.3 percent in the fifth round, 76.1 percent in rounds 6-10 combined, and 65.8 percent in rounds 16-20 combined. In this study of drafted players from 1996 to 2011, the percentages of players who signed in those rounds were 97.2 percent, 94.8 percent, 93.5 percent, 92.9 percent, 92.1 percent, 91.25 percent, and 81.6 percent, respectively.

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