April 18, 2012
Was Brien Taylor the Worst Number-One Pick Ever?
To date, six of the 46 players taken with the first-overall pick in baseball’s annual Rule 4 draft have not played in the major leagues. Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, and Tim Beckham—the top choices in three of the last four drafts—remain active, while a fourth, Matt Bush, currently resides in Charlotte County (Fla.) jail as police investigate a series of hit-and-run accidents on March 23 that left a 72-year-old motorcyclist comatose.
Only two former number-one picks have retired from the game without reaching the big leagues: catcher Steve Chilcott, taken by the Mets in 1966, and left-hander Brien Taylor, the Yankees’ top choice in 1991. Both players’ careers were derailed by injury, though Chilcott’s performance, even when healthy, inspired little confidence in his major-league future. Taylor, on the other hand, quickly established himself as an elite prospect before tearing the labrum in his left shoulder during an altercation in December 1993. Rehabilitation cost Taylor the 1994 season, not to mention eight miles an hour from his fastball, and the arm that changed the draft never realized the potential of what some consider the greatest high school pitcher they’ve ever seen.
Brien Taylor: Before and After Shoulder Surgery
Taylor’s transition from professional baseball player to just another member of society hasn’t been graceful, and the legal troubles he’s faced since retiring have only exacerbated his tragedy. When the drama is removed, however, is Brien Taylor truly the worst number-one pick of all time?
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I typically turn to wins above replacement for quick, broad player comparisons. None of the players we’re investigating reached the major leagues, however, so we’ll have to explore other evaluation methods. Our goal is to arrive at a single value for each pick that represents its value relative to other picks in the same draft as well as picks in different years.
For this study, we’ll consider first-round players who signed among the top 30 picks from each draft between 1965 and 1997. We’ll evaluate the strength of each class and determine relative class strength by comparing the average career WARP earned per pick against the average per-pick WARP of all classes. To determine the average WARP constant, we’ll divide the total WARP accrued by the total number of picks in the study:
Then, we’ll compare per-pick WARP to the overall average of 6.74 to arrive at a strength score for each class:
Class Strength = (Class WARP/Number of Picks in Class) / 6.74
The first round of the 1985 draft is by far the strongest in the study, outpacing the second-strongest class (1987) by nearly 45 percent. Five players who would go on to be worth at least 30 WARP were taken among the first 22 picks that year: Barry Bonds (160.70 WARP), Barry Larkin (64.31), Rafael Palmeiro (58.91), Will Clark (50.09), and B.J. Surhoff (30.51).
Next, we need to assign values to picks within each class. The method of we’ll use to determine the value of picks relative to one another is borrowed from Rany Jazayerli’s draft age study and is as follows:
Pick Value = 1/SQRT(Overall Pick)
Using this formula, the first-overall pick receives a value of 1.00 and is twice as valuable as the fourth pick (0.50). The fourth pick is twice as valuable as the 16th pick, and so on.
To calculate the value of each class-pick, we’ll want to weight its generic Pick Value by the strength of its class. By doing this, we’re able to assign more value to picks in classes that produced significant major-league value, and less value to picks in underwhelming classes. The formula we’ll use to determine each Weighted Pick Value looks like this:
Weighted Pick Value = (Class Strength * Pick Value) / 0.319504
The denominator 0.319504 represents the average Pick Value of picks 1-30. Given that the 1985 draft is considered the strongest in history, it isn’t surprising that the most valuable pick in our study is that year’s first-overall pick. The Weighted Pick Value of 1985’s top pick is 44 percent greater than the next most-valuable number-one pick, which the Mariners used to select Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987. Note that while drafting team, player name, and player WARP are referenced below, none is a factor in determining the Weighted Pick Value of their respective picks.
Full results can be viewed in CSV format here.
By this method, the pick used to select Steve Chilcott in 1966, with a Weighted Pick Value of 4.87365, was 31 percent more valuable than the one (3.71822 WPV) the Yankees spent on Brien Taylor a quarter-century later. It could even be argued that outfielder Mark Merchant, taken by Pittsburgh with the second pick in 1987, was a bigger bust than Taylor because Merchant was taken in a class that turned out to be significantly stronger than the one Taylor fronted.