The Major League Baseball Draft, which starts Thursday evening, is about upside. Ultimately, it's also about finding players who actually will reach their upside—or at least come close.
After all, what good is a dream if it never comes true, right?
The challenge for draft day decision-makers, then, is striking the right balance between the two.
While there are plenty of factors to consider when it comes to selecting an amateur player in the first round—background, age, signability, lefty or righty, high school versus college—one of the most basic choices is whether to draft a position player or a pitcher.
Nothing is guaranteed, especially when it comes to selecting amateur baseball players. But let's peruse the past and see if it can help predict which way teams should lean in the future.
First, let's get a baseline based on history.
The MLB Draft began in 1965, so there have been 48 first rounds in total heading into the 2013 draft. In those 48 first rounds, here is the breakdown of the total number of picks, including supplemental first-rounders and compensation picks, and how many have been hitters and pitchers:
That's a pretty even split. It makes sense that more position players were drafted in round one than pitchers simply because, in theory, pitchers are a riskier proposition due to potential injuries. But the difference is fairly minimal.
From there, let's determine the percentage of hitters and pitchers who went from first-round picks to the major leagues. That table looks like this:
If we're not rounding, though, position players have a slight edge at 59.3 percent, compared to 58.7 percent for pitchers. So maybe hurlers aren't that much riskier after all, at least when it comes to turning a first-round selection into a big leaguer.
But what about a productive big leaguer? It's one thing to make the majors, and a whole different thing to perform well.
Here, then, is a look at the average wins above replacement (WAR) earned by both hitters and pitchers who were drafted in the first round and went on to play in the bigs:
Our first noticeable disparity.
Whatever your thoughts and opinions of WAR are, it is an effective statistic for putting a value on player performance, as well as comparing player performance across different eras.
As you can see from the above chart, position players drafted in Round 1 have proven to be more productive, on average, than pitchers.
With that established, is it "safer"—in the loosest sense of the word—to select hitters or hurlers and hope for a home run?
For this, let's stick with WAR. Going by Baseball Reference's all-time WAR leaders, it's evident that reaching the 50-WAR mark gives a player at least a reasonable shot at making the Hall of Fame. So let's start there:
In other words, nearly three times as many position players drafted in the first round went on to accumulate 50-plus WAR in their careers, compared to pitchers.
Since more hitters have been drafted overall, the percentage of each to get to 50 WAR is a bit closer. Still, among the elite former first-rounders, hitters rule the day.
What if we set the bar a little lower to 20 career WAR?
This is where we really start to see a separation—and the payoff for drafting a position player over a pitcher in the first round.
The evidence, then, is pretty clear. In the history of the first round of the MLB draft, position players and pitchers have been selected at a fairly even percentage and have also made it to the major leagues at a comparable rate.
Once there, though, hitters have more success than hurlers. While the total numbers are still small, a larger percentage of position players go on to have elite, Hall of Fame-caliber careers. And if you're looking to get a productive major leaguer for several years in the first round, well, it's "safer" to opt for a hitter over a pitcher.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed when talking about 18-year-old high-schoolers or 21-year-old college players, and every team's player evaluation and draft strategy is different. But safe is better than sorry.
When in doubt, go with a bat.