Las Vegas, Atlantic City and all those casinos up and down I-35 in Oklahoma have nothing on Major League Baseball when it comes to crapshoots.
Among this country’s three major pro sports, no draft is as much of a gamble as MLB. The NFL and NBA don’t come close.
Nearly every NFL first-round pick plays in the league as a rookie and more than 80 percent are still playing by their third pro season. Though there are plenty of first-round busts in the NBA, almost every player picked among the top 30 sees at least some time in the league.
But only two-thirds of MLB first-round draft picks who signed ever play in the majors, and 46.8 percent play in the big leagues for three or more seasons. That data was collected in the 2017 Baseball Research Journal, which examined MLB drafts from 1996-2011.
The percentages drop much lower as the draft progresses. The study showed only 49.4 percent of second-round picks played in the majors and 31.5 percent played three or more years. Among third-round picks, 39.7 percent played in the majors and 21.6 percent played three or more years.
And those are the top picks in a draft that lasts 40 rounds every June.
So why is pro baseball such a dicey career choice?
It’s much harder to project how a baseball prospect is going to develop after he’s drafted. Especially high school athletes. Even a pitcher who throws in the mid-90s as an 18-year-old might not have the control or pitching repertoire to be effective in the majors.
Many prospects are weeded out in pro baseball’s labyrinth of minor leagues before they ever get a shot at the majors. Injuries often end careers, especially pitchers.
Economics also play into it. While some of the top draft picks are allotted multi-million dollar signing bonuses, teams shell out much less cash as each round progresses.
For instance, the Baltimore Orioles were slotted by MLB to award an $8.4 million bonus to Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman as the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. By the 10th round, the top bonus is $147,900. It’s hard for many players to stick around in the minors for more than five years due to low salaries or because clubs are ready to give up on them.
The trend in the MLB draft is to choose more college players than high school prospects. In the 2018 draft, 66 percent of the players drafted were from four-year colleges compared to 25 percent from high school and 8.5 percent from junior colleges.
While the draft fills the majority of MLB rosters, 28.5 percent of players on 2019 opening day rosters were born outside the United States. That’s a lot of competition for the top jobs.
Among the 251 players on opening day rosters born outside the United States, 102 were from the Dominican Republic, 68 from Venezuela, 19 from Cuba and 18 from Puerto Rico. Both the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates had 14 internationally-born players on their opening day rosters.
Just a quick glance at some of the major league statistical leaders shows the diverse backgrounds of the players.
Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger, who leads the majors with a .376 batting average and ranks second with 20 homers, was a fourth-round pick out of Hamilton, Ariz., High School in 2013.
Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who has slugged an MLB-high 22 homers, was chosen 23rd in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Miami Marlins out of Thousand Oaks, Calif.
New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, who has pounded an American League-high 18 homers, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009.
MLB RBI leader Josh Bell of the Pittsburgh Pirates was picked in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Jesuit College Prep in Dallas.
On his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame after a spectacular career, veteran Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander is the majors co-leader with nine wins. The Detroit Tigers chose him second overall in the first round of the 2004 draft out of Old Dominion University.
Yankees pitcher Domingo German, who has also recorded nine wins this season, took a much different path to the majors after he was signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2009.
Dodgers pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, who leads the National League with eight wins and the majors with a 1.48 ERA, started his career playing pro baseball in South Korea before the Dodgers signed him in 2013 at age 25.
That’s quite a variety of backgrounds and cultures, which makes MLB one of the most international sports. But there isn’t a more difficult sport to reach the highest level. The draft is one way to get there, but far from the only way.