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2013 MLB Draft: History of the Third Overall Pick

Despite watching losing teams for the better part of two decades, Rockies fans are not used to seeing their team pick in the top three in the Rule 4 MLB Draft. What does history say the Rockies will get with a third overall pick?

A dead horse told me this scene (Evan Longoria mashing at Coors Field) could have happened a lot more
A dead horse told me this scene (Evan Longoria mashing at Coors Field) could have happened a lot more
Dustin Bradford

OverallThe Rockies have never drafted third overall in the MLB draft, but Rockies fans are plenty intimate with the impact player a team can select in that slot. In the only other year Colorado had a top five overall pick, the Rockies famously passed up drafting a third baseman from a SoCal college, Evan Longoria, instead choosing Stanford pitcher Greg Reynolds.

As Garrett Atkins disappeared, Ian Stewart faltered and Reynolds' elbow turned to dust, that choice has gotten harder to swallow with each passing year. Finally back at the top of the draft, the Rockies have a chance at an elite type talent like Longoria, a chance to right that wrong from 2006. With the likely leading target also a SoCal third baseman, Kris Bryant, this narrative is easy to get sucked into.

Draft time brings a lot of hopeful ceiling prognostications and rabid dreamers, but the truth is that even in the top three picks, true talent acquisition is far from a guarantee. Let us look at every third overall pick since 1965, using Baseball Reference WAR as a measuring stick. Of those 48 picks:

  • WASHOUT - Nine (18.8%) never reached the major leagues. Only one of those nine is still active, 2012 pick Mike Zunino, who is struggling with contact in the PCL. Sorry for the early slap in the face, but it gets better. Kinda.
  • TOTAL BUST - Ten (20.8%) had negative career rWARs. Dewon Brazelton (2001, -3.0) is the worst of the bunch, with Josh Vitters (2007) and Jeff Clement (2005) the most recent examples. A lot of terrible players there.
  • POOR PLAYER - Ten (20.8%) had/have a career WAR between 0 and 4. For comparison, Rex Brothers already has 4.2 rWAR in his career, so these are very fringe players. Think Philip Humber...and Eric Hosmer. The median career WAR for 3rd Overall picks is 1.4, directly between Humber and Hosmer.
  • AVERAGE REGULAR - Three (6.3%) had/have career WAR between 4 and 10. Braden Looper (1996) and Corey Patterson (1998) were in this group of players well above the median for 3rd overall picks but ultimately disappointing regulars. Manny Machado (2010) is also in this group, but he won't be for long. For comparison, Jason Jennings had a 9.6 rWAR in his career.
  • STRONG REGULAR - Ten (20.8%) had/have career WAR between 10 and 25. I would characterize this group as players who had strong, respectable careers, even if they weren't totally stars. Jose Cruz Jr (1995), Mike Lieberthal (1990), Dustin Hermanson (1994), Bobby Witt (1985) and Steve Avery (1988) are notable names on this list. Rockies draft pick Craig Counsell had 22.4 career rWAR, so this category spans roughly between the value of Jason Jennings and Craig Counsell.
  • STAR - Four (8.3%) had/have career WAR between 25 and 50. Finally, after nearly 88% of the players on the list, we arrive at the star level player most fans hope to get from a third overall pick. Evan Longoria (2006) is the current face of this group, but he is the only entry from the last 15 years. Troy Glaus (1997), Matt Williams (1986), and Lonnie Smith (1974) are the other men who appear here.
  • (None fell between 50 WAR and 75 WAR).
  • HALL OF FAMER - Two (4.2%) had career WAR over 75, and both of them were drafted in the 1970's by the Milwaukee Brewers. Paul Molitor (1977, 75.5) and Robin Yount (1973, 77.1) represent the best the third pick has historically had to offer.
In other words, nearly 2 in 5 picks taken third overall become completely worthless. Only 2 in 5 pass the threshold into a regular positive contributor at worst. Even with the ability to choose from any draft-eligible player minus two, teams ended up with a legitimate star in just 1 in 8 years.

One might suggest that greater technology, money and increase in knowledge of the game would bring greater drafting success in recent years, but if that thought crossed your mind, you would be very wrong.

Of the last 14 drafts, only four (4) players achieved a positive career WAR (Longoria, Machado, Hosmer, Humber). Yes, Philip Humber is the 4th best third overall pick in the last 14 years. Three washed out in the minors, and the worst third overall pick ever occurred in this span.

Buzzkill? Maybe. But better to have the third pick than the fourth. If you want a little good news, especially if Kris Bryant is the pick tomorrow: it is likely random, but third basemen make for very good third overall picks. Evan Longoria, Manny Machado and Troy Glaus are the best picks in the last 17 years, and Matt Williams is one of the best. Maybe good things come in threes.