Draft : : General
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Draft and the Hall of Fame

Anup Sinha        

Every year, I become more interested in Baseball’s Hall of Fame selections. As a child, I remember players like Duke Snider and Al Kaline going in to Cooperstown. They were typical of the legends of the game—names that seemed so distant because I became familiar with them only after their retirement, not in their youthful glory.

While I enjoyed the selection process and hearing stories about the great players enshrined in the Hall, the whole process has become more special as the players being considered for election are those you’ve actually watched play.

Almost without exception, the players who have been inducted in recent years are players who came through the draft, which was instituted in 1965. While I did not see any of the players as amateurs, I do remember most as big-league rookies.

I grew up in Michigan, and I can still recall Detroit Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell pronouncing “Kirby Puckett“ for the first time and wondering who this guy was who kept running down fly balls in the cavernous center field of old Tiger Stadium. When I first saw on TV what the unusually-built Puckett looked like, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I also remember Wade Boggs’ first career home run, a game-winner against my Tigers. The talk among my Little League teammates the next day was, “How did we get beat by a rookie?”

January is a special time of year for many of us baseball fans because the current year’s Hall of Fame inductees are identified. It’s a time to relive and reflect on the memories of some of the game’s great players. That not only includes Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice, this year’s inductees, but players like Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell, Bert Blyleven, Dave Parker and Lee Smith, and so many more that come into our collective conscience. Simply debating the merits of these players with your friends or listening to talk shows rekindle the joy you had watching them do what they did best in years gone by.

So with Hall of Fame fever upon us, we turn to what we like to do best. Look at the Hall of Fame through the perspective of the baseball draft.

23 Draftees In Hall

With this week’s selection of Rice and Henderson, Cooperstown can now boast 23 bronzed plaques for players who are products of the draft.

Catcher Johnny Bench was the first Hall of Famer drafted, and the first to be enshrined. A second round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in the inaugural draft, he was inducted into the Hall in 1989.

Now that we have accumulated a nice sample of drafted Hall of Famers, it gives us an opportunity to investigate the player’s backgrounds. In other words, how were some of the greatest players that the game has produced perceived as amateurs by the scouting community?

It would be natural to assume that most future Hall of Fame players would be easy to identify prior to being drafted. Obviously, we’re not speaking simply of major league players, but some of the greatest to ever play the game. Surely, such players were standouts as amateurs.

But the truth is, scouting is not an exact science—no matter how dominant players appear to be as amateurs or as major leaguers. For instance, no No. 1 overall pick in any year in the draft era is in the Hall of Fame—though Ken Griffey (1987) and Alex Rodriguez (1993) will be slam dunks five years after they retire, and Chipper Jones (1990) is a strong first-ballot candidate. The highest draft pick ever to reach the Hall of Fame is Reggie Jackson, the second overall pick in 1966.

In chronological order, here are the 23 drafted Hall of Famers. The year they were drafted, the clubs that picked them and the round are noted. We’ve also added an extra wrinkle by including the players’ signing bonuses.

Year    Player                         Pos.    School                              Hometown                  Club (Round)         Bonus    Inducted

1965    Johnny Bench                   C    Anadarko HS                     Binger, Okla.                  Reds (2)                   $6,000            1989

1965    Nolan Ryan                   RHP    Alvin HS                            Alvin, Texas                  Mets (10)                $12,000            1999

1966    Tom Seaver                  RHP    U. of Southern California   Fresno, Calif.                 *Braves (Jan./1)     $40,000            1992

1966    Reggie Jackson              OF    Arizona State U.                Wyandotte, Pa.              Athletics (1)           $80,000            1993

1967    Carlton Fisk                       C    (No school)                       Charlestown, N.H.         Red Sox (Jan./1)    $10,000            2000

1970    Goose Gossage           RHP    Wasson HS                       Colorado Springs, Colo.                      White Sox (8)         $8,000    2008

1970    Bruce Sutter                 RHP    Donegal HS                       Mt. Joy, Pa.                    Senators (21)   did not sign            2006

1971    Jim Rice                          OF    Hannah HS                        Anderson, S.C.             Red Sox (1)            $30,000            2009

1971    George Brett                   3B    El Segundo HS                  El Segundo, Calif.          Royals (2)              $25,000            1999

1971    Mike Schmidt                   3B    Ohio U.                              Dayton, Ohio                 Phillies (2)               $32,500            1995

1972    Dennis Eckersley          RHP    Washington Union HS       Fremont, Calif.               Indians (3)         unavailable            2004

1972    Gary Carter                       C    Sunny Hills HS                   Fullerton, Calif.              Expos (3)               $35,000            2003

1973    Robin Yount                    SS    Taft HS                              Woodland Hills, Calif.     Brewers (1)           $60,000            1999

1973    Dave Winfield          RHP/OF    U. of Minnesota                 St. Paul, Minn.                Padres (1)              $65,000            2001

1973    Eddie Murray                   1B    Locke HS                           Los Angeles                  Orioles (3)              $25,500            2003

1976    Rickey Henderson          OF    Technical HS                     Oakland                         Athletics (4)           $10,000            2009

1976    Wade Boggs                   3B    H.B. Plant HS                     Tampa                           Red Sox (7)              $7,500            2005

1977    Paul Molitor                     SS    U. of Minnesota                 St. Paul; Minn.                Brewers (1)           $77,500            2004

1977    Ozzie Smith                    SS    Cal Poly                             Los Angeles                  Padres (4)                $5,000            2002

1978    Cal Ripken                       SS    Aberdeen HS                    Aberdeen, Md.              Orioles (2)              $20,000            2007

1978    Ryne Sandberg              SS    North Central HS               Spokane, Wash.            Phillies (20)             $25,000            2005

1981    Tony Gwynn                  OF    San Diego State U.            Long Beach, Calif.         Padres (3)              $25,000            2007

1982    Kirby Puckett                  OF    Triton (Ill.) JC                     Chicago                         Twins (Jan./1)        $20,000            2001

*Selected by Atlanta Braves in January, 1966 regular phase; selection was voided by commissioner’s office; New York Mets won rights to Seaver in three-team lottery

Here are some interesting facts about the 23 former draft picks, including Henderson and Rice, who are now in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

--Only five of the 23 players (Jackson, Molitor, Rice, Winfield and Yount) were selected in the first round of the traditional June regular phase while three others (Fisk, Puckett and Seaver) were first-rounders in the long-abandoned January phase. So 15 Hall of Famers were bypassed in the first round of the draft.

--Only five of the 23 are pitchers and all are righthanders (Eckersley, Gossage, Ryan, Seaver and Sutter). It should be noted that several clubs considered drafting Winfield, one of only two players to be drafted in three different sports, in the first round as a pitcher.

--Not a single pitcher drafted in the first round of the June regular phase has been inducted into the Hall. The most obvious candidate to end that distinction is Roger Clemens, a 1983 first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, but his Hall of Fame candidacy has come into question since his retirement.

--Of the four Hall of Fame pitchers selected in the June draft, Eckersley was the earliest pick in the third round. Seaver was the 20th and last pick in the first round of the January 1966 draft.

--Sandberg is by far the lowest draft pick of the position players. His 2005 induction-mate, Boggs, was a seventh-rounder and the other 16 non-pitchers were taken within the first four rounds. As a three-sport phenom at a Spokane high school, Sandberg had visions of playing baseball, football and basketball at Washington State. It’s apparent that signability was the issue that kept him out of the early rounds and, according to Sandberg’s autobiography, the Phillies had initially intended to select him in the third round. It’s interesting to note that Sandberg received a larger signing bonus than Ripken, a second-rounder in the same 1978 draft.

--The 1971 (Brett, Rice and Schmidt) and 1973 drafts (Murray, Winfield and Yount) are the only ones that have produced as many as three Hall of Famers thus far. Interestingly, Brett and Schmidt were selected with consecutive picks in the second round in 1971, while Yount and Winfield were taken back-to-back in ’73.

--Eight of the 23 Hall of Famers signed out of four-year colleges—not an unimpressive number considering most college players in the first 20 years of the draft went to college because they were deemed unworthy of playing professional baseball when in high school. In fact, only two of the eight college-developed players (Winfield and Molitor, both University of Minnesota products who attended high schools in nearby St. Paul) were even drafted out of high school. Fisk is considered a college product, though he dropped out of school at the University of New Hampshire in order to be eligible for the January 1967 draft. Puckett remains the only Hall of Famer drafted and signed out of junior college; he had gone undrafted out of a Chicago high school in 1980 and attended Bradley University as a college freshman.

--The Padres (Gwynn, Smith and Winfield) and Red Sox (Boggs, Fisk and Rice) are the only organizations to draft as many as three Hall of Famers to this point. The Orioles, Athletics, Brewers and Phillies have drafted and signed two Hall of Famers.

Scouting: An Inexact Science

The cliché ‘Scouting is an Inexact Science’ is as old as the game itself, and the results of some of the research we’ve compiled on Hall of Famers in the draft era only serves as confirmation. For me, it was a learning experience when I realized how many of these great players were not highly thought of in the draft.

If a scouting director picks first overall and firmly believes there’s a future Hall of Famer in the pool, he’s going to pounce on him. Yet we’ve shown that this has not been the case, that not a single one of these inductees was a first overall pick.

With only five Hall of Famers taken in the first round of a possible 19 that were selected in the June regular phase, that represents roughly the same percentage (20-23 percent) of all major leaguers who were first-round picks. In other words, a major leaguer who was originally taken in the first round has about the same odds of being inducted into Cooperstown as any other major leaguer taken in the draft.

And what about some of the players drafted just before or just after some of these Hall of Famers? How easily could another team have selected them instead?

Eckersley and Carter were both chosen in the third round in 1972, three picks apart. Taken one spot ahead of Eckersley was Alabama high school shortstop Gary Walls, whose career fizzled in the minor leagues. Taken with the two picks between Eckersley and Carter were California high school infielder Rickey White and Illinois high school righthander/catcher Jeff Scott. Taken right after Carter were Roger Alexander and David Embree.

If you’ve never heard of those five names, that is the point. They have zero days of big-league service. The only thing of consequence is Scott became a future major league scouting director.

So how on earth do two Hall of Famers fall into the cracks between five players whose careers peaked out in the minor leagues? And yet, the best scouting minds at the time had Walls, White, Scott, Alexander and Embree in the same ballpark as prospects as Eckersley and Carter.

Perhaps “inexact” is not a strong enough word when describing what a crapshoot baseball scouting can often be. Treacherous may be the more appropriate term to describe the nature of decision-making in the draft room.

Many times I have had one of my former scouting supervisors make a comment to the effect that, “All the impact players are gone after the first 10 (overall) picks”. Or, “We’re not trying to hit a homerun on every pick because there aren’t any major leaguers left”. Not only are there potential impact players and major leaguers still available beyond the first round, but there might even be a future Hall of Famer among them.

Nonetheless, there aren’t any terribly late picks among the Immortal 23. Sandberg and Sutter (a 21st rounder out of a Pennsylvania high school in 1970, but signed as a free agent in 1971) are the lowest drafts by a considerable margin behind Ryan. We’ve touched on Sandberg’s story to explain why he slipped in the draft, but Sutter may be even more a fluke to reach the Hall of Fame.

Sutter didn’t sign after the one and only time he was drafted. In fact, Sutter actually gave up on baseball to attend college strictly for academics. But a year later, he dropped out of school and began playing semi-pro ball around his home in Pennsylvania. With the Senators’ draft rights expired, the Cubs were able to sneak him away as a free agent in the fall of 1971. They signed him for a minimal sum.

Sutter pitched effectively in relief to begin his pro career, but an arm injury took away what limited fastball he had. On the verge of being released in 1973, Cubs minor league pitching coach Fred Martin introduced Sutter to the forkball. That pitch was the difference-maker in his rise from a release candidate to a Hall-of-Fame closer.

In defense of my scouting brethren, I can say that all of the Hall of Famers were at least “first day” draft picks. But just wait until Mike Piazza, a lowly 62nd-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, gets inducted!

Future Hall of Famers

Speaking of Piazza, we should see a flood of draft-era players being inducted into the Hall of Fame with practically every vote from here on out. I suspect that many of the patterns we’ve unearthed to date will change with time.

For instance, we should expect that either Tom Glavine (1984) or Randy Johnson (1985), both second-rounders, will become the first lefthander inducted from the draft era. Curt Schilling could join Puckett as another junior college-developed draft pick. Righthander John Smoltz (22nd round, 1985) would become an even later pick than Sutter if he is inducted.

The 1985 draft could conceivably produce more Hall of Famers than any other as Johnson, Smoltz, Barry Larkin (Reds, 1st round), Barry Bonds (Pirates, 1st round) and Rafael Palmeiro (Cubs, 1st round) all have the credentials to be enshrined—though the candidacy of Bonds and Palmeiro will be open to scrutiny.

And then there’s that losing streak with the No. 1 overall pick. Griffey and Rodriguez will obliterate that barrier. On the flip side, Piazza would become the lowest draft pick ever inducted.

Still, the inexactness or treacherousness of the draft is graphically evident. Hall of Famer Ted Williams often said that hitting a baseball is the toughest task in sports, but finding players who can hit a baseball (or throw a baseball) is its equivalent on the scouting end.

The NFL draft is much less inexact as it essentially deals with finished products, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a draft for the ages, took four Hall-of-Fame selections in the 1974 draft alone. The Steelers selected wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, linebacker Jack Lambert in the second, wide receiver John Stallworth in the fourth and center Mike Webster in the fifth. Their 1970s dynasty was driven largely by those four players.

To take nothing away from the phenomenal work of the Steelers in their windfall ’74 draft, the baseball draft is a vastly tougher nut to crack. If a team can draft a single Hall of Famer every 15 years, it’s considered way ahead of the curve.

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