The First Overall Pick in the MLB Draft: Pitchers vs. Position Players

Two years ago, I wrote the following introduction to a post on pitchers who were selected with the first overall pick in the draft:

If you are a major league general manager with the first overall pick in the draft and you’re thinking about selecting a starting pitcher to serve as the ace of your staff for the next ten years, let me give you some advice: don’t do it. History is not on your side.

Let the record show that exactly 24 months and three days have passed since those words were typed on my keyboard, yet if I were advising the Washington Nationals, I would wholeheartedly recommend that they take Stephen Strasburg with the first overall selection.  Funny how a little excess hype can get in the way of good old fashioned evidence.

Thirteen pitchers were taken with the first overall pick between 1973 (David Clyde) and 2007 (David Price), nine of whom played at least five seasons in the major leagues (Brien Taylor injured his shoulder in an off-field incident in the minors and was never the same pitcher; Bryan Bullington has appeared in 13 games spread over four seasons; and it hasn’t even been five years since Hochevar and Price were drafted). Four of those nine played more than ten seasons and won more than 100 games, including Mike Moore (161), Andy Benes (155), Tim Belcher (146), and Floyd Bannister (134); Moore (176) and Bannister (143) each had losing records.

So what are you getting if you take a pitcher in the top spot?  If this was the 1970s or 1980s, there would be a good chance you’d have some value coming your way, but the last guy to last more than nine years in the majors was Andy Benes, valedictorian of the Draft Class of 1988.  At least four of the last eight have experienced major arm trouble (and I’m not sure about McDonald), with Luke Hochevar and David Price hoping to stop the trend.

Year Player Team Yrs W-L SO ERA
2007 David Price Tampa Bay 2 1-0 32 2.20
2006 Luke Hochevar* Kansas City 3 7-15 83 5.51
2002 Bryan Bullington* Pittsburgh 1 0-5 25 5.08
1997 Matt Anderson Detroit 7 15-7 224 5.19
1996 Kris Benson* Pittsburgh 7 69-74 798 4.41
1994 Paul Wilson New York (N) 7 40-58 619 4.86
1991 Brien Taylor New York (A) DNP
1989 Ben McDonald Baltimore 9 78-70 894 3.91
1988 Andy Benes San Diego 14 155-139 2000 3.97
1983 Tim Belcher Minnesota 14 146-140 1519 4.16
1981 Mike Moore Seattle 14 161-176 1667 4.39
1976 Floyd Bannister Houston 15 134-143 1723 4.06
1973 David Clyde Texas 5 18-33 228 4.63

Given a chance to do it all over again, I’m not sure any team would take any of these pitchers with the first overall pick in the draft. Taylor and his unrealized potential might be an option (just keep him out of bar fights – or teach him to swing with his right hand), but who else stands out? Benes? Hochevar? Moore (terrible numbers early in his career with Seattle, averaged 16-17 wins a year in four seasons with good Oakland teams)?  Maybe Price, depending on how the next couple years go.  Most of the time, though, you’re better off taking a position player first and picking up pitching later.


Contrary to the performances turned in by the pitchers, position players drafted in the top spot are often solid and occasionally spectacular. A full 17 out of 31 played in the major leagues for more than ten seasons (plus several more who were chosen within the past ten years), including future Hall of Famers Ken Griffey, Jr., Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez (three out of the four position players selected between 1987 and 1993; the other was Phil Nevin).

Not everyone had a career as great as the three mentioned above, but many had at least one moment of fame during their playing days:

  • Rick Monday (1965), in addition to being the first ever draft pick, was best known for stopping two young men from burning the American flag on the field in 1975.
  • Steve Chilcott (1966) was the only position player selected first overall who never reached the major leagues (2004’s Matthew Bush became a pitcher – and thus slips through on a technicality – and 2008’s Tim Beckham doesn’t count just yet)
  • Ron Blomberg (1967) was the first designated hitter.
  • Jeff Burroughs (1969) won an MVP award and fathered Little League World Series hero Sean Burroughs.
  • Danny Goodwin (1971, 1975) is the only player taken first overall in two different drafts.
  • Dave Roberts (1972) and Bob Horner (1978) went directly from the draft to the major leagues. Horner later became one of the few men to hit four homeruns in one game.
  • Josh Hamilton (1999) was out of baseball before overcoming drug addiction, returning to the game and making his big league debut in 2007, and leading the American League in RBIs in 2008.
  • Delmon Young (2003) and Justin Upton (2005) are both the younger brother of a top five pick. Dmitri Young was taken fourth overall in 1991, while B.J. Upton went second in 2002.  Tim Beckham’s (2008) older brother Jeremy was drafted by the Rays in the 17th round of the same draft.
    Year Player Team Yrs HR RBI OPS
    2008 Tim Beckham Tampa Bay DNP
    2005 Justin Upton* Arizona 3 28 87 .831
    2004 Matthew Bush* San Diego DNP
    2003 Delmon Young * Tampa Bay 4 27 186 .723
    2001 Joe Mauer* Minnesota 6 56 336 .881
    2000 Adrian Gonzalez* Florida 6 119 368 .862
    1999 Josh Hamilton * Tampa Bay 3 57 201 .889
    1998 Pat Burrell * Philadelphia 10 252 844 .848
    1995 Darin Erstad* California 14 122 691 .743
    1993 Alex Rodriguez* Seattle 16 561 1629 .967
    1992 Phil Nevin Houston 12 208 743 .815
    1990 Chipper Jones* Atlanta 16 415 1402 .956
    1987 Ken Griffey, Jr.* Seattle 21 617 1788 .916
    1986 Jeff King Pittsburgh 11 154 709 .749
    1985 B.J. Surhoff Milwaukee 19 188 1153 .745
    1984 Shawn Abner New York (N) 6 11 71 .592
    1982 Shawon Dunston Chicago (N) 18 150 668 .712
    1980 Darryl Strawberry New York (N) 17 335 1000 .862
    1979 Al Chambers Seattle 3 2 11 .618
    1978 Bob Horner Atlanta 10 218 685 .839
    1977 Harold Baines Chicago (A) 22 384 1628 .821
    1975 Danny Goodwin California 7 13 81 .674
    1974 Bill Almon San Diego 15 36 296 .648
    1972 Dave Roberts San Diego 10 7 208 .643
    1971 Danny Goodwin Chicago (A) 7 13 81 .674
    1970 Mike Ivie San Diego 11 81 411 .745
    1969 Jeff Burroughs Washington 16 240 882 .794
    1968 Tim Foli New York (N) 16 25 501 .592
    1967 Ron Blomberg New York (A) 8 52 224 .833
    1966 Steve Chilcott New York (N) DNP
    1965 Rick Monday Kansas City A 19 241 775 .804

One general note on the draft: Tampa Bay selected first overall four times – Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young, David Price, and Tim Beckham. Only one of those players, Price, actually had anything to do with the team that went to the World Series last year (although Young was traded for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza).

One response to this post.

  1. That is one pretty post.


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