Sports On the Major League Baseball Draft
posted by June 8 at 10:46 AMon
As astute readers may have surmised, Fnarf and I, along with Dylan and a few other commenters, are devout Seattle Mariners fans. And don’t think our fandom’s restricted to watching FSN, reading the fishwrap, and mentioning the Mariners once or twice on Slog.
Fnarf and Dylan are loyal readers of the fine, well-written and researched Mariners blog USS Mariner. I pop in there and get in arguments with Dave CamERRRRRR, offer some commentary from time to time, but my Mariners blog of choice is Lookout Landing, run by a young, prolific writer named Jeff Sullivan who has also helped popularize the use of Win Expectancy statistics. He makes charts (often decorated with some topical photos) after every Mariners game (a sample).
I suddenly and, admittedly, inexplicably took on the responsibility of writing the Minor League Wrap-Up, a recap of how the Mariners minor leaguers are doing at their respective levels, for the LL blog. A fellow writer named Devin previously handled the duties, but life’s complications intervened and he had to abandon it midway through last year. I had wanted to see someone else take it on, but seeing that no one else did, I decided to take matters into my own hands. The results have been better than expected.
Since I’m displaying a clear inability to get to the point today, I’m moving along: I’m no expert, but I think I have done enough research and possess enough knowledge to say this with some sort of credibility:
The Major League Baseball Draft is not a big deal.
Yesterday, for the first time, MLB televised the first round of the draft. Seeing the obvious success of TV coverage for the NBA and NFL drafts, MLB decided to go for it this year. There are, however, some obvious problems and differences:
1. Nobody knows who the hell these kids are. Okay, sure, educated bloggers probably know the top 40-50 names on the draft board, but these are high-school and college kids. High schoolers obviously receive no real TV coverage and the only time we see college baseball on a mainstream level is the College World Series, and that’s just the eight best teams out of hundreds. It’s not like college hoops with the constant TV games and the NCAA Tournament. It’s not like college football, where the sports world stops on Saturdays in the fall to watch these kids play on network TV. College baseball players play in near-total anonymity. Last year, UW had one of the best pitchers in the country, Tim Lincecum, and outside of Conor Glassey, myself and a few others, no one in Seattle knew who the hell he was. You think if UW basketball had an All-American center or UW football had an All-American QB, that he’d be as anonymous?
2. The draft pool is far too large. The NBA Draft is only two rounds long, which means only 60 guys are getting picked, which means that the networks can focus their coverage on the best players. The NFL Draft is larger, at seven rounds, but given the coverage and focus from each college team’s fanbase, and given the numerous roles filled on a football team, you can still focus on a handful of guys at each position and gain familiarity. Plus, of the dozens of players who graduate, only a handful of them are good enough to gain attention from scouts and get drafted.
The MLB Draft lasts an astoundingly long 50 rounds, plus compensation rounds (teams that lose players to free agency often get compensation draft picks in return). And it used to be LONGER: once-great slugger Mike Piazza was a 60th-round selection back in the day. Remember, every college, every high school, every community and junior college, graduates dozens of kids who have enough skill to warrant consideration for a draft pick. The marginal difference in skill between players gets negligible even at the top of the class. Imagine the sameness of the peloton for a draft pool with a couple thousand baseball kids.
Add in the lack of general coverage for these kids pre-pros, and there’s no way the casual fan can decipher one player from another.
3. Even the best draft picks are a long, long way from the majors. For the uninitiated, baseball’s minor leagues are composed of several levels resembling Dante’s 7 Levels of Hell. There’s Triple A, the closest level to the majors (most big-league callups come directly from Triple A… Double A (not all of them, though: last year’s laughably bad Mariners backup catcher, Rene Rivera, is currently stashed at AA West Tennessee)… and then separate levels of Single A: High Single A, Single A and Short Season Single A. And then there’s Rookie ball and Extended Spring Training, which usually take place in Arizona.
With very few exceptions, basically every player drafted gets put in either rookie ball or is used to fill out the Short Season A squad, which starts play, coincidentally, a few weeks after the draft. You need to do well or show skill improvement to earn a callup to the next level.
With the top draft picks, and I mean the first round and that’s it, it’s only a matter of time before they reach the bigs unless you’re a bust. For everyone else, the chances are dim even if you do well out of the gate: 90-95 percent of minor leaguers never reach the bigs, and many of those that do reach the bigs don’t stick around for long. Between the sameness of your fellow competitors, the injuries that derail baseball careers, players who succeed at one level and hit a wall the next… trying to get to the bigs is like running across a battlefield without a weapon or any body protection.
It’s hard to get excited for kids who may never step on a big league ballfield. Compare this to the NBA, where the draft pick can step in and play immediately, but usually at least gets a spot at the end of the big club’s bench (or at worst, a year of seasoning in the D-League)… or the NFL, where top draft picks are usually taking the field immediately. And in both cases, kids sometimes become instant stars. That doesn’t happen in MLB.
It’s been done, but the names on this list indicate that, even then, glory isn’t likely.
4. As a result, the waste-time-and-talk format of draft coverage just doesn’t work. NFL and NBA work off their own clocks and, when a team’s ready to pick, they can walk up there before their time was up. But ESPN insisted on making MLB wait the full five minutes between picks during their first-round coverage, to mix in commercials and analysis. Before coverage, the picks were made in bang-bang fashion. The TV coverage slowed down a speedy process and had nothing to offer in the interim other than the same commercialized crap. Plus, all that other stuff I said.
This fails. Take it off TV.