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On the difference between picking #1 and #2 in the draft

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Josh VanMeter’s home-run this afternoon may be significant. Or it may not...

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Josh VanMeter’s walk-off shot at Chase Field this year prevented the team from tying the mark for losses in a season. But it also tied the team with the Orioles for the worst record in 2021. Under current rules, previous seasons are used to determine draft order. In 2020, the teams had the same 25-35 record. But in 2019, Baltimore were worse, and so they currently would get the first pick in the 2022 draft. Now, that may or may not be the case under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement - the current one expires at the end of this year, and many people think an NBA-like lottery will be introduced. But, for now, it appears the wins last night and this afternoon mean Arizona will pick second, rather than first, next summer.

The result of that will depends on the particular players chosen: we’re still a long way off, and a lot can change between now and then. But we can look at the history of the first and second round picks and compare the production across them, to get a broad idea of what to expect. Below, you’ll see the #1 and #2 picks in each draft since the very first June draft, in 1965:

#1 and #2 draft picks

Year Name Pos WAR Name Pos WAR
Year Name Pos WAR Name Pos WAR
2021 Henry Davis C Jack Leiter P
2020 Spencer Torkelson 3B Heston Kjerstad OF
2019 Adley Rutschman C Bobby Witt SS
2018 Casey Mize RHP 2.8 Joey Bart C 0.3
2017 Royce Lewis SS Hunter Greene RHP
2016 Mickey Moniak OF -0.3 Nick Senzel 3B -0.6
2015 Dansby Swanson SS 9.1 Alex Bregman SS 26.1
2014 Brady Aiken LHP Tyler Kolek RHP
2013 Mark Appel RHP Kris Bryant 3B 28.3
2012 Carlos Correa SS 34.0 Byron Buxton OF 16.1
2011 Gerrit Cole RHP 31.6 Danny Hultzen LHP 0.2
2010 Bryce Harper OF 40.0 Jameson Taillon RHP 10.1
2009 Stephen Strasburg RHP 33.2 Dustin Ackley CF 7.7
2008 Tim Beckham SS 3.8 Pedro Alvarez 3B 5.0
2007 David Price LHP 40.3 Mike Moustakas SS 13.9
2006 Luke Hochevar RHP 3.7 Greg Reynolds RHP -1.5
2005 Justin Upton SS 32.7 Alex Gordon 3B 34.4
2004 Matt Bush SS 2.5 Justin Verlander RHP 71.8
2003 Delmon Young OF 3.2 Rickie Weeks 2B 11.5
2002 Bryan Bullington RHP -0.2 B.J. Upton SS 16.8
2001 Joe Mauer C 55.2 Mark Prior RHP 16.6
2000 Adrian Gonzalez 1B 43.5 Adam Johnson RHP -1.1
1999 Josh Hamilton OF 28.2 Josh Beckett RHP 35.7
1998 Pat Burrell 3B 18.9 Mark Mulder LHP 20.0
1997 Matt Anderson RHP -0.6 J.D. Drew OF 44.9
1996 Kris Benson RHP 12.8 Travis Lee 1B 7.3
1995 Darin Erstad OF 32.3 Ben Davis C 2.9
1994 Paul Wilson RHP 2.0 Ben Grieve OF 8.4
1993 Alex Rodriguez SS 117.5 Darren Dreifort RHP 7.8
1992 Phil Nevin 3B 15.9 Paul Shuey RHP 6.8
1991 Brien Taylor LHP Mike Kelly OF 0.3
1990 Chipper Jones SS 85.3 Tony Clark OF 12.3
1989 Ben McDonald RHP 20.8 Tyler Houston C 1.4
1988 Andy Benes RHP 31.5 Mark Lewis SS -2.6
1987 Ken Griffey Jr. OF 83.8 Mark Merchant OF
1986 Jeff King SS 16.9 Greg Swindell LHP 30.5
1985 B.J. Surhoff SS 34.4 Will Clark 1B 56.5
1984 Shawn Abner OF -1.3 Bill Swift RHP 20.7
1983 Tim Belcher RHP 26.0 Kurt Stillwell SS 3.1
1982 Shawon Dunston SS 11.5 Augie Schmidt SS
1981 Mike Moore RHP 27.9 Joe Carter OF 19.6
1980 Darryl Strawberry OF 42.2 Garry Harris SS
1979 Al Chambers OF -0.4 Tim Leary RHP 12.0
1978 Bob Horner 3B 21.9 Lloyd Moseby 1B 27.5
1977 Harold Baines 1B 38.7 Bill Gullickson RHP 23.3
1976 Floyd Bannister LHP 26.4 Pat Underwood LHP 1.1
1975 Danny Goodwin C -1.7 Mike Lentz LHP
1974 Bill Almon SS 4.6 Tommy Boggs RHP 2.4
1973 David Clyde LHP 0.6 John Stearns C 19.7
1972 Dave Roberts 3B 0.4 Rick Manning SS 11.7
1971 Danny Goodwin C -1.7 Jay Franklin RHP -0.2
1970 Mike Ivie C 7.3 Steve Dunning RHP 1.9
1969 Jeff Burroughs OF 17.8 J.R. Richard RHP 22.2
1968 Tim Foli SS 5.6 Pete Broberg RHP -0.9
1967 Ron Blomberg 1B 9.4 Terry Hughes SS -0.3
1966 Steven Chilcott C Reggie Jackson OF 73.9
1965 Rick Monday OF 33.1 Les Rohr LHP -0.3

Some years, the #1 is clearly better. Some years the #2 is better. Sometimes, both end up being kind of meh or worse - in 2014, neither the #1 or #2 ended up reaching the majors. Sometimes, they are both awesome: in 1985, you got B.J. Surhoff and Will Clark, and we’d be fine with either of those. But I did the math. The average #1 has been worth 22.5 bWAR; the average #2 has been worth 15.1 bWAR, a difference of over seven wins. Now, that is skewed by the outliers. The #1s include two Hall of Famers in Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr, plus a third who would be in there if not for his PED issues, in Alex Rodriguez. They are all better than any #2 pick in baseball history.

So, perhaps it’s fairer to look at the median #1 and #2 - when you rank them by production, that’s the player who sits exactly in the middle. 50% of picks are better, 50% are worse. That gets us for #1 and #2 pics respectively to be Shawon Dunston and, ironically, Travis Lee. They were worth 11.5 and 7.3 bWAR, so you are still looking at 4.2 bWAR. That’s cheap production that the team will have to make up elsewhere, typically by paying for it in free agency. The cost of a win there is currently considered to be around about $8 million, so you could say that VanMeter’s homer at Chase Field cost the Diamondbacks over $30 million, in terms of the production drop-off at #2, lost wins which need to be covered.

However, it is worth noting that this difference is over the course of their entire career, and when you slice it up per season, it’s going to be rather less than one win. Now, one win can still be very, very important - just ask the Toronto Blue Jays tonight. But it’s not worth getting bent out of shape, in the way social media would have you believe [if you want a good demonstration of why Twitter is a cesspool of worthless takes, the team’s mentions tonight will provide more than ample evidence]. The #1 pick has, clearly, been better overall. The evidence from history is unimpeachable. But in any given draft that is definitely not guaranteed to be the case, and that’s what matters to the Diamondbacks

This is where I post the obligatory reminder that Mike Trout, the best player of the current generation, went 25th in the draft. 22 different teams had the opportunity, but decided not to select him. The Diamondbacks decided not to select Trout TWICE, choosing Bobby Borchering and A.J. Pollock instead. Hell, he wasn’t even the Angels’ first pick; they’d already selected Randal Grichuk when they chose Trout. This is perhaps where the MLB draft differs from other sports; there’s no such thing as a “guaranteed” prospect. So even if Elijah Green makes it to next summer as the #1 pick, his path from there to the majors, never mind Cooperstown, is a fraught one.

Indeed, the more recent history in the draft shows us this. The last time the #1 ended up being clearly better was back in 2012. when you had Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton as the first two picks. Since then, the #1 has been largely empty, while #2’s have included Kris Bryant and Alex Bregman. The latter was the #2 the last time the Diamondbacks had the first overall pick, and while Dansby Swanson had proven a serviceable major-leaguer, he’s no Bregman. So, first or second will definitely give the Diamondbacks a shot at picking a very good player. Hopefully, Mike Hazen and the rest of the front-office will do their research, and whoever they choose will end up more Reggie Jackson than Tyler Kolek.

The reality is, we just don’t know. Not tonight, and not next summer either. We won’t be able to look back and see what difference it makes, potentially not until 2030 or beyond. I strongly recommend not worrying about it tonight.