Commentary

Beware, Stephen Strasburg

Our analysis indicates top pitching picks don't fare as well as position players

Updated: June 4, 2009, 1:47 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com

They say hitting is the most difficult thing to do in sports.

I beg to differ.

As the Nationals prepare to invest millions in Stephen Strasburg -- and, as Jim Caple writes, take on the risk of drafting a pitcher No. 1 -- we look at the history of pitchers selected high in the draft.

• Since the draft began in 1965, 101 pitchers have been drafted in the top five selections. (See full chart below.) Only 12 have won 100 games. (Josh Beckett is closing in, with 94; check back in a few years with Justin Verlander and David Price.) Of those 12, five finished with losing records.

• Those 101 pitchers have combined for just 68 seasons of 15 or more wins -- on average, less than one per pitcher.

• Those 101 pitchers have won two Cy Young Awards -- Dwight Gooden and Jack McDowell each won one.

• Not including the more recent picks, 46 pitchers failed to win 20 games in their careers. That means if you draft a pitcher in the top five, you're nearly four times as likely to draft a player who ends up with fewer than 20 career victories than one who wins 100 games. (See full chart below.)

Another way to look at the risk involved in drafting pitchers so high is to compare their success rate with that of hitters.

Let's use the 100-wins barrier as a barometer of a pitcher who has had at least a solid major league career. From 1965 to the present, 236 pitchers have won 100 games. Next, we generate a list of similarly successful hitters. Since a baseball team has regular eight position players for every five starting pitchers (a ratio of 1.6 hitters for every pitcher), we'll generate a list of 378 hitters (236 multiplied by 1.6).

Let's use runs created (taken from Baseball-Reference.com), a similar statistic to wins in that it identifies those players who were successful enough to have long careers. Our cutoff point of 378 takes us to 670 career runs created.

[+] EnlargeDwight Gooden
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesDwight Gooden is one of the few pitchers selected in the top to develop into a star.

Now, let's compare pitchers drafted in the top five to hitters drafted in the top five. Leaving off the last 10 drafts, since players haven't had enough time accumulate career totals, we're left with 77 pitchers and 92 hitters.

Pitchers
12 of 77 pitchers won 100-plus games: 15.6 percent

Hitters
29 of 92 hitters have 670-plus runs created: 31.5 percent

What does this mean for Stephen Strasburg? The historical data suggests a hitter drafted in the top five is twice as likely to develop into a good player. There is a good chance that North Carolina outfielder Dustin Ackley, the probable No. 2 pick to Seattle, will end up with the better career. Yes, Strasburg is not your typical top-rated pitching prospect. But he is a pitcher, prone to the inherent risks that come with firing 95-mph fastballs.

We'll also note that hitters have produced much more star power. The pitchers have produced just one borderline Hall of Famer (Kevin Brown), while the 118 hitters drafted in the top five have produced four Hall of Famers (Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Robin Young and Paul Molitor), four likely future Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Barry Larkin and Chipper Jones) and two borderline Hall of Famers (Dale Murphy, Mark Teixeira).

One final note: In case you're curious, the data does not change when looking at the sixth through 10th selections. Six of 91 pitchers in those slots have won 100 games, led by Kevin Appier's 169. (There is hope for Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum and John Danks.)

But check out some of the hitters drafted in those slots: Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, Mark McGwire and Derek Jeter.

David Schoenfield | email

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