Does the 35th Pick in the Draft Almost Always Flop?

Every now and then a statement pops up in my daily baseball reading that just begs to have a column dedicated to it. About a month ago I came across such a line that grabbed my attention and try as I might to put it out of my head, I kept coming back to it.

It originated in a Joe Posnanski article about, among other things, how the wildcard has helped to shift the importance on the baseball calendar from the regular season to the postseason. I think Joe is right about this, but I think it goes beyond the implementation of the wildcard. As with most things in life there is more than one reason with regard to why things happen and in this case I think there has been a shift in sports society. More and more we are conditioned to view championships as the singular measure of success. Blame that on the wildcard, blame it on ESPN, heck blame it on the rain (Thanks Milli Vanilli for ruining that phrase for all eternity) but it is what it is.

I value what the Oakland A’s did from 2001 to 2003 when they won 301 games. That they didn’t win the World Series in any of those years is immaterial to me. When the Diamondbacks finished off the Yankees to become world champions in 2001, I was elated. It was a spectacular series and one that I will never forget, but the Seattle Mariners winning 116 games in the regular season stands front and center for me as the greatest team achievement for that year.

But to get back on point we need to go back to those Oakland A’s as this is the team Joe was talking about when he wrote the sentence that inspired this article.

Another thing I keep hearing people say is that the A’s got nothing out of the draft that was a centerpiece of the Moneyball book. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they draft Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen and Brad Ziegler that year? I think to rip Oakland for that draft is to have a basic misunderstanding about how the baseball draft works. The Cubs, just as a for instance, have gone multiple years in a row without drafting even a single player as good as Mark Teahen. Yes, 35th overall pick Jeremy Brown flopped. Guess what: The 35th pick in the draft almost always flops.

There’s actually a second statement that deserves it’s own article, you know the one about the Cubs not drafting a player as good as Mark Teahen. But the part that really stuck with me was that last line:

Yes, 35th overall pick Jeremy Brown flopped. Guess what: The 35th pick in the draft almost always flops.

I know it was a part of an aside mixed in the midst of a much larger article on an entirely different topic but my ears immediately perked up – as much as they can perk anyway. It this true? Does the 35th pick in the draft almost always flop? If so, is the success rate of the 35th pick really any different from that of the 24th, 32nd or 40th pick in draft history?

To answer that question we could go all the way back to the first draft in 1965 and examine each player taken 35th overall, but that wouldn’t truly be apples to apples as prospect evaluation and the draft have both changed and evolved quite a bit since then. It would also be quite a sizable undertaking. To make it manageable I decided to limit my investigation to the last 20 years, but on a more “global” scale if we look at the span from 1980 to 2007 we find that 22 of the 28 players selected 35th overall made it to the major leagues. That’s a pretty good success rate from the standpoint of prospect development and to me, if a guy makes it to the majors he wasn’t a flop.

However for the purposes of this column, I’m going to have to adjust my personal evaluation of what is or is not a flop since Jeremy Brown was one of the 22 that made it to the bigs and Posnanski’s statement centers around the fact that Brown was a flop. So I need a new standard to make all of this relevant, but first let’s meet the 20 players involved in this discussion.

WAR G
2011 Blue Jays OF Jacob Anderson HS – California
2010 Braves SS Matt Lipka HS – Texas
2009 Diamondbacks 3B Matt Davidson HS – California
2008 Brewers LHP Evan Frederickson HS – California
2007 Rangers OF Julio Borbon 0.6 215 HS – Tennessee
2006 Padres OF Kyler Burke HS – Tennessee
2005 Padres LHP Cesar Ramos -0.4 78 Long Beach State
2004 Twins RHP Matt Fox 0.1 4 Central Florida
2003 Braves RHP Luis Atilano -1.1 16 HS – Puerto Rico
2002 Athletics C Jeremy Brown 0 5 Univ. of Alabama
2001 Indians RHP J.D. Martin 0.6 24 HS – California
2000 Rangers OF Tyrell Godwin -0.1 3 North Carolina
1999 White Sox RHP Brian West HS – Louisiana
1998 White Sox OF Aaron Rowand 20.2 1,358 Cal State Fullerton
1997 Red Sox OF Mark Fischer Georgia Tech
1996 Braves RHP Jason Marquis 6 326 HS – New York
1995 Athletics SS Mark Bellhorn 7.7 731 Auburn
1994 Mets LHP Sean Johnston HS – Illinois
1993 Brewers OF Todd Dunn -0.1 50 North Florida
1992 Royals OF Johnny Damon 51.7 2,426 HS – Florida

Right off the bat, we know we can pull out the guys drafted between 2008 and 2011 as they are still making their way through the minor leagues. We don’t know what any of these players may or may not become just yet so they get set aside. The remaining 16 players can be broken into 3 smaller groups: the definitive successes, the no doubt flops and the middling mass.

The Definitive Successes are guys that reached and stuck in the major leagues for an extended period of time. From the list above this group is fairly obvious and includes: Julio Borbon, Aaron Rowand, Jason Marquis, Mark Bellhorn, Johnny Damon. Including Borbon here may be a slight stretch, but he’s just 25 and has already played 215 games in the big leagues. A number that would be even higher if he hadn’t been limited to 65 games between the majors and minors this past season. The other 4 have 50 seasons between them and, aside from Bellhorn, are all still active.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the No Doubt Flops. These are the guys who, for whatever reason, didn’t even reach the majors. That criteria makes this a quartet with Kyler Burke, Brian West, Mark Fischer and Sean Johnston the members. Burke maxed out in High-A and last played in 2010. West, who last pitched in 2006, logged 5.0 innings in Triple-A but otherwise maxed out at Double-A. Fischer stalled out in Double-A as well and – after 2.5 years at the level with little progress – called it a career in 2002.

Johnston had the most promising minor league career of the 4 reaching A-ball in 1995 but missed the next 2 seasons before returning in 1998. He did reach High-A in 1999 but was out of affiliated baseball after the 2000 season.

If you are keeping track that leaves 7 members that belong to the Middling Mass.

One of those 7 is of course Jeremy Brown, who by no fault of his own is the reason for this column. Not only that, he’s the poster child for “minimal” contribution amassing exactly 0 WAR in 5 games of major league action, but he did hit 0.300/.364/.500 in his 11 plate appearances for Oakland in 2006 and followed that up by hitting 0.276/.364/.469 with Sacramento (AAA) the following year. It was his best minor league season since his pro debut back in 2002 and yet the A’s designated him for assignment and outrighted him to the minors in May of 2007. Brown retired on February 15th, 2008 with a career line of 0.268/.370/.439 in 6 minor league seasons. He was 28 years old. Looking at his overall minor league career and factoring in that he was a catcher I feel really uncomfortable calling the guy a “flop.” I’m left wondering why Oakland didn’t give him more of a chance in the majors than they did, and beyond that why another organization didn’t give him a look when he was DFA’d by the A’s.

But what of the other 6 members of this esteemed group?

Matt Fox – now 28 – reached the majors but got just a glimpse. He pitched in just 4 games during the 2010 season – 1 as a starter with the Twins and 3 as a reliever with the Red Sox – and is still looking for his 1st big league strike out after 7.1 IP. He spent the 2011 season in the Red Sox system pitching for Pawtucket (AAA) with 21 of his 28 appearances coming as a starter. The results – 3.96 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9 and 8.5 SO/9 in 129.2 IP – lead me to believe that he will get another shot at the big leagues, either by landing with the right organization or as a call up from Triple-A to make an emergency start or series of starts.

Cesar Ramos is still active and spent 2011 with the Tampa Bay. All but 4.0 of his 47.2 IP this year came at the major league level and finished the year with a 3.92 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and ERA+ of 96. He was essentially league average but his 5.2 BB/9 and 6.4 SO/9 were anything but. Added to the 23.0 innings he threw for the Padres between 2009 and 2010 he has a career ERA+80. As you can see in the above table he’s got a career WAR of -0.4 in 78 appearances but he’s just 27 and a lefty so he’ll probably get a few more looks. His minor league track record is far from awe inspiring so his 2011 season may wind up being the high point of his career however spending almost an entire season in the majors while generating almost league average results means he can’t be considered a flop.

Luis Atilano made 16 starts for the Washington Nationals in 2010. A 5.15 ERA, 1.49 WHIP and 4.2 SO/9 in 85.2 IP led to an ERA+ of 79. The lackluster SO/9 is in line with his 4.8 mark in 9 minor leagues seasons and while he has good control, it’s hard to imagine that he will get many more opportunities in the majors.

Like Atilano, J.D. Martin made it to the major leagues as a starter with the Nationals. While his peripherals haven’t been all that different from the aforementioned Atilano, Martin has been nearly league average with a 97 ERA+ in 24 starts made between 2009 and 2010. Now 28 years old, he has a 3.47 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2.2 BB/9 and 7.3 SO/9 in 892.2 minor league innings. He’s shown himself well in both the majors and minors and I’d expect he will get another chance to pitch in the show as long as he keeps pitching.

Tyrell Godwin made 3 plate appearances for the Nationals back in 2005 and went 0-3. He hit 0.276/.347/.388 over 7 minor league seasons and was out of affiliated baseball after 2007. Of all the players as a part of this column, Godwin would be the one I’d most consider a flop.

Finally we come to Todd Dunn who earned 10 PA with the Brewers in 1996 and another 120 PA in 1997. The result of his service time was a slash line of 0.234/.246/.352 and a stunning 42-2 SO-to-BB rate. I think it’s safe to say he was over-matched. In 8 minor league seasons he hit 0.276/.352/.497 but even there he missed his share of pitches. In 658 games he whiffed 638 times. He hit 0.192 in 1999 and 0.215 in 2000 to close out his professional career.

So where does all the above lead us? Was Posnanski’s off-the-cuff statement, “that the 35th pick in the draft almost always flops,” accurate?

Given the success rate of players taken toward the top of the draft, I would say no. Of the 20 players taken 35th overall in the last 20 drafts, 4 have had long, successful careers and Julio Borbon looks to be on that path. Once we factor out the four players – selected from 2008-2011 – who are just getting their careers underway we get a success rate of 31.3% (5/16). But that assumes that we classify all seven members of the middling mass as flops and things aren’t that black and white. Four players among the 16 failed to reach the majors, and while injuries played a major role in that outcome for at least two of those guys, they still get classified as flops and they comprise 25% of the players included in this column.

If you’re keeping score at home this is where we stand:

  • Too Early to Tell (4): Jacob Anderson, Matt Lipka, Matt Davidson and Evan Frederickson
  • Definitive Successes (5): Julio Borbon, Aaron Rowand, Jason Marquis, Mark Bellhorn and Johnny Damon
  • Definitive Flops (4): Kyler Burke, Bryan West, Matt Fischer and Sean Johnston

Of the 7 players left I think we can split 6 of them out as follows:

  • Mild Successes (3): Cesar Ramos, Matt Fox and J.D. Martin
  • Mild Flops (3): Luis Atilano, Tyrell Godwin and Todd Dunn

The one player conspicuously absent in the above count is Jeremy Brown. I just don’t know which group he fits into. On one hand he had very strong minor league numbers for a catcher, had success is his very limited major league action and hung up the spikes with a lot of his baseball career in front of him. On the other hand he didn’t force the A’s hand to give him more of a chance in the big leagues and he went unclaimed when Oakland DFA’d him during the 2007 season.

I would argue that teams hit on 8 of the 16 players – for a success rate of 50% – and if you are pro-Jeremy Brown you can bump that up to 56.3%. You could also argue that a player just reaching the big leagues makes them a “not-flop” and in that case you’d have a success rate of 75%.

In the end it depends on your definition of a flop, and what standards you want to apply to that term, but just based on the five successes it’s clear that the 35th round pick comes nowhere near almost always flopping.

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Tags: Aaron Rowand Brian West Cesar Ramos Evan Frederickson J.D. Martin Jacob Anderson Jason Marquis Jeremy Brown Johnny Damon Julio Borbon Kyler Burke Luis Atilano Mark Bellhorn Mark Fischer Matt Davidson Matt Fox Matt Lipka MLB Draft Sean Johnston Todd Dunn Tyrell Godwin

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