I didn’t watch last night’s game. (It’s called having a life, guys. Just kidding, it’s called hanging out with my parents.) So this is A Very Special Episode of Annotated Box Score, focused on just one topic sort of barely tangentially related to the game.
I see Jason Isringhausen, and like everybody else I think of Generation K, which actually has its own Wikipedia page somehow. Generation K makes me think of Paul Wilson, which makes me think of failed No. 1 overall picks, and makes me wonder how close Wilson — a sometimes useful Major League pitcher — was to the average No. 1 overall pick, and who actually is the average No. 1 overall pick anyway? So I set out to find the median for the 39 players taken No. 1 overall between 1965 and 2004. I’m going to count down from the outer edges — The best first, then the worst, then the second best, and so on as we converge to the center.
Aside from the first and third and probably fourth guys on this list, every other one represents disappointment in some way. That includes, obviously, Paul Wilson. Here we go:
1. Alex Rodriguez: 103 Wins Above Replacement, 146 OPS+. From a story in 1993 about the high school phenom:
Steve Butler, who has signed with Florida State, marvels at Rodriguez. ”He has to perform every time out,” Butler said. “A classic case was last Saturday night. He struck out twice looking, and the crowd was on him. He does the littlest things wrong and they get on him.”
I wonder if any scouts watching him jotted down, “No matter how good this guy gets, people will hate him. Even I hate him.”
39. Matt Bush: Never played above high-A as a hitter. Now in Double-A as a pitcher, where he has a 3.24 ERA in eight innings, with nine Ks and seven walks. There are busts you continue to root for long after they are likely to make it in the majors. Matt Bush is not one of those.
2. Ken Griffey, Jr: 78.5 WAR, 135 OPS+.
38. Brien Taylor: A few minor league seasons, never above Double-A.
I always knew the story of Brien Taylor as: Drafted No. 1, immediately the best prospect in baseball, got in a fistfight, hurt his shoulder, never pitched again. I didn’t realize that he did pitch again, and was still pitching in the minors seven years after the injury. In one of those years, he walked 43 batters in 16 innings. The next, he walked 52 in 27 innings, and in both seasons he would have been one of the oldest players in the Low-A Sally League. His last try, he was 28 in low-A ball and walked nine batters in two innings. In all, 111 post-injury innings, 184 post-injury walks.
3. Chipper Jones: 81.1 WAR, 142 OPS+. Those numbers on the left say he should be ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr., but I just can’t do that. Jones never had a season with more than 8 WAR; Griffey had two over 9. The higher ceiling outweighs the greater accumulation.
37. Steve Chilcott: seven minor league seasons, never made a Major League appearance, .719 minor league OPS. Probably the shortest Wikipedia page of any of these players, though it does tell me he invested his $75,000 signing bonus in real estate.
4. Joe Mauer: 38.6 WAR, 135 OPS+. By Baseball Reference’s WAR model, Mauer is one good half-season away from passing Jim Rice (41.5).
36. Al Chambers: 57 games, -0.7 WAR
5. Darryl Strawberry: 42.9 WAR, 138 OPS+. Mauer shouldn’t be too confident about passing Rice, though. Darryl Strawberry had 41.4 WAR through the age of 29. (Mauer, at 38.6, is 28.) After 29, Strawberry was worth 1.5 WAR.
35. Bryan Bullington: 81 Major League innings, 77 ERA+. He has a 3.28 ERA for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp so far this season, though.
6. Adrian Gonzalez: 22.6 WAR, 136 OPS+. Underrated worst trade of all-time:
- July 11, 2003: Traded by the Florida Marlins with Will Smith (minors) and Ryan Snare to the Texas Rangers for Ugueth Urbina.
Especially amazing about that trade: Urbina was a free agent at the end of the season. They traded 21-year-old Adrian Gonzalez, ranked by BA the 31st best prospect before the season began, a former No. 1 draft pick, for a rental closer who at that point had a 4.19 ERA for the season. It makes this trade look almost sensible by comparison:
- January 6, 2006: Traded by the Texas Rangers with Terrmel Sledge and Chris Young to the San Diego Padres for Billy Killian (minors), Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka.
34. Shawn Abner: Six seasons, 65 OPS+, -1.3 WAR
7. Harold Baines: 37 WAR, 120 OPS+. Until Griffey, there really hadn’t been a superstar drafted No. 1 overall. In the first two decades of the draft, Baines was the best thing No. 1 had produced.
33. Danny Goodwin: Seven seasons, 84 OPS+, -1.0 WAR. Goodwin was actually the No. 1 pick twice, first by the White Sox — he chose to go to college instead, the only No. 1 pick not to sign — and then by the Angels. From Ross Newhan’s Complete History of the Anaheim Angels:
The Angels had harbored high hopes for Goodwin when they made him the No. 1 selection in the 1975 amateur draft and gave him a $100,000 signing bonus out of Southern University. He was sent to their El Paso farm club and soon joined by instructor Vern Hoscheit. The young catcher had not thrown in a competitive situation for several months and was attempting to bring his arm along slowly. Hoscheit, a regimental assistant to Dick Williams, thought Goodwin was malingering and demanded he throw hard for nearly 20 minutes. Goodwin’s arm was never the same and neither was the Angels’ investment.
He never played a game at catcher in the majors, but he also never hit, so that story might be a bit of a stretch.
8. Rick Monday: 32.7 WAR, 125 OPS+.
You have to admit, this is some pretty inept flag-burning:
Why not put the gasoline on the flag before you run out onto the field? And maybe don’t use matches, but a Zippo lighter? And if you’re going to use two men to burn one flag, shouldn’t one of them be on Rick-Monday watch? These idiots are a disgrace to Americans. True Americans are more resourceful than this.
32. Matt Anderson: -1.7 WAR, 89 ERA+ in 260 innings. Managed to go 15-7.
9. B.J. Surhoff: 34.4 WAR, 98 OPS+. Managed to get two Hall of Fame votes.
10. Andy Benes: 32 WAR, 104 ERA+. There aren’t as many pitchers drafted No. 1 overall — a little more than a fourth of our sample — and Benes is the best of them.
30. David Clyde: 0.4 WAR, 82 ERA+. “So at an age when most baseball heroes reach their prime, Clyde has landed quietly in Tomboll, where he works six days a week in his father-in-law’s lumber company and talks about bass. … Clyde’s story is also one of liberation. Until he left baseball, he didn’t know the fishing could be so good.”
11. Bob Horner: 21 WAR, 127 OPS+.
29. Paul Wilson: 1.1 WAR, 89 ERA+
12. Darin Erstad: 27.8 WAR, 93 OPS+. You probably think Erstad sucked, as he has been a stathead punchline the most of the past decade. But that was pre-WAR. Now it looks like Erstad was actually underrated, and something close to a star: He’s the Angels’ franchise leader in runs saved, and if he wasn’t the best defensive center fielder of his generation he was certainly in the top 2 or 3. And he’s the franchise leader in baserunning runs, too.
28. Tim Foli: 1.2 WAR, 64 OPS+. Foli played a staggering 16 seasons, staggering only when you consider his WAR total. Only six players since WWII have done 1,500 > games and < 2.0 WAR:
- Jim Spencer, 1968-1982;
- Willie Montanez, 1966-1982;
- Chris Gomez, 1993-2008;
- Lenny Harris, 1988-2005;
- Foli, 1970-1985;
- Alfredo Griffin, 1976-1993.
13. Josh Hamilton: 16.9 WAR, 137 OPS+. You could make the case he should be much higher on this list, but he keeps getting hurt and he turns 30 this month. As we’ve seen from Strawberry and Griffey already, you can’t assume anything about players after 30.
27. Bill Almon: 15 seasons, 2.7 WAR.
14. Ben McDonald: 19.8 WAR, 115 ERA+.
26. Delmon Young: 0.6 WAR, 101 OPS+.
15. Tim Belcher: 26.3 WAR, 115 ERA+.
25. Mike Ivie: 7.2 WAR, 110 OPS+. Mike Ivie — drafted as “the next Johnny Bench,” but moved off the position because he had a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher — announced his retirement three times before he turned 28. The latest was in June 1980, when he told reporters, “the big leagues aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” He returned to the Giants a month later.
The year before, at 26, he had had a .906 OPS and 27 home runs. He celebrated by slicing off his finger with a hunting knife during the offseason. He was worth -0.6 WAR the rest of his career.
16. Floyd Bannister: 24 WAR, 102 ERA+
24. Ron Blomberg: 8.7 WAR, 140 OPS+. Same OPS+ in his career as Ryan Howard, but he couldn’t play a position and he couldn’t stay healthy. Some ballplayers are content to merely give 110 percent. Ron Blomberg: “I gave 120 percent.” Boom. Blomberged.
17. Mike Moore: 25.9 WAR, 95 ERA+. Mike Moore led the league in a lot of stats. He led the league in losses, twice. He led the league in hits allowed, twice. He led the league in walks once, home runs once, and earned runs once. He led the league in wild pitches once. He did not lead the league in ERA, ever. /obvious
23. Jeff King: 14.7 WAR, 99 OPS+. There is a certain kind of fan that hates prospects. If I write about how awesome Mike Trout is, this type of fan will often tell me, “Gah, prospects, too hard to predict, Dallas McPherson, etc etc you moron.” It’s true that it is hard to predict how well prospects are going to do, but that’s because it’s hard to predict how any baseball player is going to do, whether he is in the majors or the minors. At age 33, Jeff King hit 24 home runs. He wasn’t a great hitter — he never was, really — but he slugged .459 and over the previous four seasons he had averaged 100 RBI, 25 home runs, an .803 OPS, a 107 OPS+. The next year, at age 34, he announced his retirement in the middle of May, because of back problems. You look down this list, and there are an awful lot of collapses: Griffey never led the league in any category after age 30. Bob Horner’s No. 1 Baseball-Reference comp at age 28 was Dale Murphy; he played 60 more games in his career. Strawberry produced as many WAR by the age of 29 as Jim Rice did in his entire career, and spent the next eight years at replacement level. Ben McDonald was worth 5.2 WAR in his age-28 season and retired when he was 29. Jeff Burroughs was an MVP at 23, a superstar through 27, and would compile three WAR after his 28th birthday. Tim Belcher threw nine shutouts in his first 62 starts, and nine shutouts in his next 311 starts. The problem with with predicting prospects isn’t that they’re prospects; the problem is that they’re baseball players.
18. Pat Burrell: 18 WAR, 116 OPS+.
22. Kris Benson: 11.4 WAR, 100 ERA+. Do a Google Image search of “Kris Benson” and the first 12 results are of his wife. Compared this to “Scott Podsednik,” with only two of the first 12 being pictures of his wife. Or Mark Kotsay: Four of the first 12. Brett Tomko, two of 12. Congratulations, Kris Benson, your career didn’t matter.
19. Jeff Burroughs: 17 WAR, 121 OPS+. Did you realize that Sean Burroughs is back in the minors after taking three years off completely? He’s 30 now and playing for the Diamondbacks Triple-A team.
21. Shawon Dunston: 10 WAR, 89 OPS+.
20. And so it is that our median No. 1 draft pick is Phil Nevin. The median No. 1 draft pick is a player who was almost exactly average in his career — he was worth 14 Wins Above Replacement, and an average player over 1,200 career games would have been worth about 15 Wins Above Replacement. The median No. 1 draft pick had a full career, but, at 12 seasons and five full seasons, not a long career. The median No. 1 draft pick was occasionally very good, hitting 41 home runs one year, getting down-ballot MVP votes twice. But the median No. 1 draft pick was only briefly great, making one All-Star team, producing one year with more than 5 WAR. The closest thing to a milestone the median No. 1 draft pick would reach was 200 home runs, and he would do it while playing for his third team in less than a year, and the AP game story wouldn’t note the achievement.