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The baseball draft as an ‘EVENT’ will never work

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The MLB Draft is too different.

Ashe Russell, 21st overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, puts on a Kansas City Royals jersey with assistance by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred
Ashe Russell, 21st overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, puts on a Kansas City Royals jersey with assistance by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred

Six years ago, I watched the Major League Baseball amateur draft on television for the very first time.

The Kansas City Royals owned the fifth overall pick in the draft, that spot solidified after yet another 90-loss season in 2011. In front of them were the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, and Baltimore Orioles, in that order. Houston drafted a young shortstop named Carlos Correa with the first overall pick, deeply stunning the TV draft commentators, who for sure thought that the Twins would go with outfielder Byron Buxton or pitcher Mark Appel.

This initial upset sent shockwaves down the next few picks. Minnesota, pleasantly surprised that Buxton was still available, snatched him up. Continuing the astonishment train, Seattle went with catcher Mike Zunino over any of the trio of accomplished and polished college pitchers—Appel out of Stanford, Kevin Gausman out of Louisiana State, or Kyle Zimmer out of the University of San Francisco. With the fourth pick, Baltimore plucked Gausman. And, with the fifth pick, the pitching-hungry Royals were blessed with the option to go with either Zimmer or Appel, a decision they almost assuredly did not expect to make when they woke up that morning. Kansas City chose Zimmer.

Visiting our 2012 draft day thread now is a rather amusing experience, especially with the gift of six years’ hindsight. Correa as the first overall pick was 100% the correct move; he’s a superstar, World Champion, and could end up in the Hall of Fame if he stays healthy. But other than Houston and Minnesota, none of the first ten picks went particularly well. There were good players in the rest of the first round, though; Oakland Athletics’ selection of Addison Russell at 11th overall was a solid pick, as was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ selection of Corey Seager at 18th overall and the Toronto Blue Jays’ choice of Marcus Stroman at 22nd overall.

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals
SURPRISE, AZ - MARCH 02: Starting pitcher Kyle Zimmer #45 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Texas Rangers during the first inning of the cactus leauge spring training game at Surprise Stadium on March 2, 2016 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Of course, none of us wanted the Royals to draft Seager, Stroman, or Russell, all of whom were still first-rounders and have had significantly better careers than anyone not named ‘Carlos Correa’ in the first ten picks. And, God, some of our takes in the comment section of that draft thread were really fantastically terrible, though some were great, but most were terrible. A sampling:

  • Fine with Zimmer | Safe pick, but Giolito will be the name we all remember
  • The more I hear about Zimmer the more I like him | He must have a fantastic arm—there’s no other explanation
  • nationals kill it again | adding the top talent in the draft at #16
  • the draft is such a crapshoot | any one of these next 8 pitchers could be hochevar or lincecum. No telling.

Six years later, Zimmer’s arm and body have utterly betrayed him to the point where the Royals managed to release him and send him through waivers without any other team claiming him, and Giolito has basically been a replacement-level pitcher across three seasons. Whoops.

Obviously the draft is difficult. All sports drafts are. And all drafts are extremely important and can make or break teams. But regardless of the difficulty, that importance translates directly into fan interest and represents hope for every team.

The National Football League knows this extremely well, and has cultivated its draft into an EVENT by taking advantage of that universal excitement for the future as well as a thirst for reality entertainment. 2017 first round draft coverage through ESPN and NFL Network earned a 5.5 TV rating and over nine million viewers, large numbers that don’t even include online video streams of the draft, soaring page click counts throughout the web, or a consistent gaggle of draft-related content in the weeks before and after the event.

NFL: NFL Draft
Arlington, TX, USA; NFL commissioner commissioner Roger Goodell walks off stage as Baker Mayfield is selected as the number one overall pick to the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball is not stupid, and is therefore quite aware of interest around drafts. So they have tried to make their draft an EVENT like the NFL. Its first televised draft was in 2007 on ESPN2, and in recent years (including 2018) has been on the MLB Network.

But despite the interest in the draft, and interest more broadly in prospects and farm systems, the MLB will never be able to convert their draft into something that actually works in the way that they think it will.

The NFL draft—and NBA draft, for that matter—succeeds because the NFL and NBA are wildly popular, of course, but also because the draft is familiar, relevant, and immediate. College football is extremely successful in its own right, and the top picks in the NFL draft have already become household names among sports fans, who have watched some of these college stars for multiple years. Ditto all those March Madness stars, who due to arcane NBA rules are required to play one year of college ball before declaring for the NBA draft.

But these players aren’t stashed somewhere to age like a fine wine until ready for NFL consumption. These players make immediate impacts on their teams, and top picks who don’t immediately make an impact on their team are usually considered busts or disappointments. Even middling draft picks can regularly carve out some sort of role on even successful teams in their rookie year.

MLB’s draft has none of those things in its favor. First, no team can trade draft picks, limiting the amount of day-of excitement that can occur. Second, baseball drafts feature over 1000 players, and if you’re lucky maybe one or two will make their big league debut within a year. Maybe. Top picks can make their debuts within three years or so, but that’s quite a long gratification process if you’re televising the event.

Wild Card Game - Oakland Athletics v Kansas City Royals
Brandon Finnegan, the only player to play in both the College and MLB World Series in the same year, and one of the only players in recent years to debut the same season they were drafted.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Most importantly, nobody has seen any of these players play, on TV and in person, and therefore has no emotional connections to nor any legitimate opinions of these young guys. What, like you’ve seen 2018 draft prospect Jeff Moreau make his high school starts from Alabama? What about David Anderson playing shortstop over in a prep high school in California? Has anyone outside of Chanute, Kansas seen Conrad Verner roam the outfield for Neosho County Community College? How many of you figured out that I wasn’t actually mentioning real baseball players and was actually just naming random characters from the 2007 Xbox 360 game Mass Effect before now?

Look: the actual mechanics of drafts are aggressively boring. A team picks a player, and then there’s 15 minutes of nothing until another team picks a player. This goes on for hundreds of picks over multiple days. There is no break in the monotony until the last pick of the day, no sixth-inning hot dog race for levity. That the NFL has made its draft into something that now earns bids from cities hoping to host it is absurd, but also a testament to how much people care about their team’s future and where their favorite college stars will play as a pro.

The MLB draft is fascinating and important, as it should be. It represents hope for every team, no matter how down on their luck they are, and it’s as good an event as any to get a group of fans together and pontificate about their favorite team. It’s just not a good televised EVENT, and it never will be.