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An Honest FAQ for the MLB Draft

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Earlier, we discussed the rules of the Draft.  Now, I’m going to answer some of the questions I’ve most often been asked about the Draft, and why it is the weird and ridiculous way it is.

The MLB Draft is confusing. I get it. For years, it’s been part of that nebulous area that fans are blissfully ignorant of called “The Business of Baseball”, something that happens but few fans really understand. But now that young players are becoming the heart and soul, and currency (which is the heart and soul) of baseball, fans are paying more and more attention. Earlier, we discussed the rules of the draft.

Today, I’m going to answer some of the frequently asked questions I’ve been asked over the years about the Draft, how it works and why it works (at least, ones that weren’t answered by yesterday’s post). And I’m going to be answering general questions about the draft, not ones specific to 2018.

Now, if you have a different one, please ask it in the comments. Or on Twitter at @SFLunaticFringe. And if the question is not sarcastic, I’ll give you a sarcastic answer. And vice-versa.

On to the questions!

Why don’t teams draft for need?

Because in 2008, when the Giants drafted Buster Posey, some people said “But the Giants have their catcher of the future, in Pablo Sandoval!”

Why don’t teams draft the best overall player remaining?

This is a tricky question, because the person asking is not saying what they mean. If you jiggle the knobs and turn the wheels on the Human Interface Translator™, the question you get is:

Why don’t teams draft the player I think is the best overall remaining?

And the answer is because you’re wrong. Don’t worry, chances are the team making the choice is wrong as well.

Quantifying two, active MLB players is hard. Even if you were talking about two players who play the same position. How does defense factor in? How do you compare a pitcher to a hitter? What about intangibles, like being a leader in the clubhouse versus being a Yasiel Puig? Statisticians are still trying to figure it out. Even what has become the most commonly accepted advanced stat, WAR, has different versions of itself.

Now, try to do that to compare college players, playing in wildly different leagues, conditions and competition often with little overlap. Or against teens playing in high schools, where they may not even play against a single other future pro ballplayer. Compare literally over a thousand of them.

Oh, don’t forget adding in the various summer leagues where they use different equipment, or have showcase coaches burning out pitchers’ arms and young minds.

Now, add in concerns about both past and possible future health issues.

So, who is the best player? The player who has the best chance of making the Majors? The player with the highest “ceiling”? The player who is most likely to be healthy enough to play that long out? How do you count that against huge bonus demands that would be for a player who is inherently a risk to even make it?

Yeah, so your opinion is almost certainly wrong. Because so are the opinions of the professionals paid meager journalistic salaries to review this stuff.

Utility player, or an All-Star, Gold Glove, World Series winner (and World Series-highlight maker)? And while I don’t mean to pick on Keith Law (well, I didn’t mean to but it was a happy bonus), this is the point. Projecting these players are hard. If you review that 2011 First Round again, there are maybe three players taken in the 32 picks after Panik that you might want in retrospect; and that’s before you talk about the dozen players taken before Panik.

Panik was an overreach, a boring pick that some thought would have been there maybe even multiple rounds later. But this is why the draft is frustrating, because you don’t know. Maybe no one does.

Why do teams have to lose draft picks when signing certain free agents?

Because, for some, there is still the opinion that free agency is a bad thing for some teams, supplying the “Haves” with the assets of the “Have Nots”.

Really, to understand why teams lose picks (and to understand why it’s such nonsense in how the system works today), you have to look at how it worked at the start.

Team A (probably big market) signs a key free agent from Team B (probably a small market, or Oakland). So, in the next year’s draft, baseball would take one of Team A’s draft picks and give it to Team B as “Compensation”. In other words, a forced trade.

While there were many versions of this system, trying to redefine which players were “worth” compensation and what level of picks were appropriate to give, the heart was still the same; For a team that lost a player, they’d get one back from the team their player went to in the form of a draft pick.

It wasn’t until recently that things went haywire. Two things began to happen.

  • The value of a prospect skyrocketed, making the enforced ‘trade’ seem less and less worthwhile, and thus affecting the signability of the free agent. (Teams were very heartbroken about this. There might even have been a tear shed.)
  • Baseball needed ways to limit payrolls without the very negative idea of a salary cap, which would never pass.

So, baseball made the draft weird. As you read in our previous post, when a team “loses” a pick, it disappears from the draft order rather than go to the other team. Also, if the signing team spends more money, they lose a higher pick (or even more than one!). The compensation pick gained by the other team, however, depends on how much money the signing pick spends, and the more money they spend, the further back in the draft the picks they get are. The compensation pick is almost always further down (in other words, worth less) than the pick lost by the signing team.

And that’s what has happened to MLB’s free agent compensation system. It’s turned the draft and losing picks into a punitive measure for spending a lot of money, rather than using it compensate teams who lose free agents because some teams have more money than others. And as such, it also punishes free agents.

(One note: there is one draft move baseball made that was good for free agents: When they eliminated compensation for players that became free agents after being traded mid-season. This had been used by some teams as a way to trade for picks as much as a temporary help, and by removing it, it helped some top free agents avoid this compensation deterrent to being signed.)

Why are teams not allowed to trade picks (like every other league can)?

This isn’t very clear, especially considering (as you just read) that baseball’s compensation system was meant to act as a de facto trade.

Here’s my guess:

  • Initially, the draft was complicated enough as it was, doing the drafts without computers and effectively not being much different from a fantasy baseball draft in 1984. Trading picks (and keeping track of who traded what) was probably too much work for something that probably was similar to a business meeting in a windowless conference room somewhere.
  • As systems got better, the lack of public visibility made changing the no-trade rule a low priority to change.
  • As drafts became more popular and profitable to other leagues, baseball’s draft and long path to the minors made it very difficult for anyone, even professionals, to properly gauge the worthiness of a pick. This meant, it was easier to get hosed with any draft pick trade. So even as many people will say how “Interesting” the idea of allowing draft pick trades would be, no one has really been so interested enough to open themselves up to doing an embarrassingly bad trade.

Side note: “Competitive Balance” draft picks are allowed to be traded, but they are the first kind to be allowed that status. The trades are still extremely rare. Why? Again, my guess is because those picks go to small-market/income teams. As in, teams for whom an extra $2 million in the draft pool might be more than they want to spend. So they have the option of trading it away for a more useful asset.

Why are International Players not a part of the Draft?

Well, Canadians are part of the draft, isn’t that international enough?

Okay, yeah, no they’re not, I know. Some seem to think they are more American than Puerto Ricans. (They aren’t.)

The reason international players aren’t a part of the draft is that there wasn’t a lot of international prospects when the draft started, and the international logistics in the 1950’s would have been near-impossible to manage. The reason it hasn’t changed since then is that there just hasn’t been a big motivation to from the teams and from the MLB Player’s Union (who do not represent minor league players). The logistics would still be very complicated, likely needing negotiation with the involved groups in several countries.

Today, the International Signing system is just as complicated and wrought with problems as the Draft is. It will start on July 2nd, and we can discuss that closer to the start of that period.

Why isn’t the MLB Draft a huge, televised event like other drafts?

First of all, it’s not like the NHL Draft is must-see TV.

But, there is a combination of factors at play:

  • Unlike football and basketball, college baseball is not a big deal, meaning the names aren’t as marketable as even the 9th best QB in an NFL draft. (And high school draftees are even less marketable).
  • The long minor league path for prospects, and high failure rate, reduce the importance of draftees to a causal fan compared to the NFL or NBA drafts, where most first round picks will play for the big league team next season.
  • The lack of draft day trades make for very little drama.
  • The MLB draft is looooooong. 40 rounds? (the NFL Draft is 7 rounds long, the NBA Draft is 2).

The NFL also already spreads its draft out ridiculously long with 7 rounds over three days. MLB used to do 50 rounds in two days. But, you know, the NFL milked every commercial they could into theirs. MLB’s later days won’t have any commercials. (That’s not altruistic, it’s probably because no one would pay for them.)

50 Damned rounds??? Why did they bother, with such low chances of making it?

Because Marvin Benard. Benard was a 50th round pick, #1,391 overall, and he had a career 8.6 WAR over 891 games. Which isn’t superstar level, but it’s better than about 1,300 other players taken in that draft.

What is the point of a Slot Value to an individual pick, if baseball doesn’t enforce a team to stick to it?

What’s the point of coaching boxes on the infield if first and third base coaches never stick to them? It’s pretty much the same idea.

Also, it’s really about calculating (or justifying) the Draft Pools for each team, which is important and enforced.

Why should I bother learning these names?

Because, dammit, it’s baseball.

The minor leagues are baseball. The struggle against all odds to make it (and many failing) is baseball. The Joe Paniks making tons of people look like idiots by making it is baseball. The future stars, or the future pinch-hit heroes, they are baseball. The silly names we laugh at are baseball. The fact not everyone can appreciate it, but when you start you can’t help but appreciate it, that’s baseball.

That’s why.

(Also, it gives me something to write about which give the company I write for ad views and money, so there’s that. That’s not baseball…and yet, it is, too.)

Have any more questions? Put it in the comments, or tweet it to @SFLunaticFringe!