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We say it all the time on this website: baseball has become a numbers game. The analytic gurus spend their days analyzing data and odds as they relate to winning baseball games.
However, we don’t often talk about the odds of actually making it to the professional baseball level. The total number of players playing affiliated professional baseball may seem high, but when put in perspective, it is much lower than you may think.
There are 1,200 players in the MLB. There are 30 teams, and each team has a 40-man roster (26 that are actually on the active roster). There are more than 5,000 players in the Minor Leagues, putting the total at about 6,200 professional baseball players.
But believe it or not, there are actually more than that as there are other professional baseball leagues that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball. These leagues are typically called independent leagues.
Keep reading for more information about some of these independent leagues as well as a deeper dive into the odds of becoming one of the 1,200 players in the MLB.
What are the Odds of Playing Professional Baseball?
Most people understand the odds of playing professional sports are low, but how low are they?
A high school baseball player has about a 1% chance of getting drafted to play professional baseball at some point in his career. That is only taking high school baseball players in America into consideration.
There are around 455,000 players participating in high school baseball in the United States, and there are 6,200 available spots between the Minor Leagues and Major Leagues.
Keep in mind, MLB teams don’t just look to the U.S. for prospects. There are players all over the world vying for a chance to play in the MLB. This means that the 1% number is probably even higher than it really is.
Once those players do make it to the Minor Leagues, their odds of making it to the MLB often depend on the round in which they were drafted. The higher a player is drafted, the more likely he is to make it to the big leagues.
What are the Minor Leagues?
If you have spent any time following professional baseball, you probably know the difference between Major League teams and Minor League teams.
But if you are new to professional baseball, the concept of the minor leagues is probably foreign as it is unlike most professional sports leagues.
The Minor Leagues consist of farm teams, lower-level teams that are affiliated with Major League teams. Farm teams consist of players whose rights are owned by Major League teams; therefore, they are eligible to be called up to the MLB team at any point.
Minor League Baseball consists of five different levels from lowest to highest: Rookie ball, Low-A, High-A, Double A, and Triple A. Each Major League team has at least one farm team at each level.
As players advance through the Minor Leagues, they work their way up the different levels. For most players, spending some time at each level is essential before making it to the big leagues. However, it is normal for some high profile prospects to skip levels on their professional journey.
The purpose of Minor League Baseball is to develop prospects before throwing them into the big leagues as well as having a bank of players from which teams can choose if they have injuries on the Major League team.
What are Independent Leagues?
Players who don’t get drafted or signed as a free agent by a Major League Baseball team still have hope to pursue their professional baseball dreams. There are independent leagues all over the country looking to sign players.
Independent leagues are professional baseball leagues that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball. They are still considered professional because players receive a salary to play.
Some independent leagues in the United States are the Atlantic League, the Pecos League, the Frontier League, the Pioneer League, the Canadian American Association (CANAM), and several more. Independent leagues are typically regional to cut down on travel costs.
Many of the new rule changes that you are seeing in Major League Baseball were first tested in some of these independent leagues.
The Atlantic League, while still classifying as an independent league, is an official partner of Major League Baseball meaning that the MLB helps support the league; therefore, it has also served as a guinea pig for some of the new rule changes.
Banning the shift, robot umpires, limited pickoff attempts, pitch clocks, and many more were all tested in the Atlantic League before making their way to the MLB. Some of them, like robot umpires, still have not caught on in the big leagues, but the time is likely coming.
On average, only 2-3 players in each independent league get signed by a Major League team each year. So why do so many players choose to still live out their dreams in independent ball?
Well, David Peralta of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Rich Hill of the Boston Red Sox are two success stories of players making their way from independent ball to the Major Leagues.
There are also several former MLB players who are currently playing independent ball. Brandon Phillips, Matt Latos, and Carlos Zambrano are three notable players who once had All Star seasons who are still playing professional baseball.
While it may not be as glamorous as Major League Baseball, there is still some good baseball being played in independent leagues making it a viable option for players who want to keep their dream alive.
How Many Players are Drafted Each Year?
One of the reasons some people believe that it’s easier to make it to the MLB than other professional leagues is the size of the draft. As stated earlier, don’t let the number of draft picks fool you. The odds are still low, but the larger draft gives more opportunities for players.
600 players are selected in the MLB Draft over 20 rounds. Until 2019, there were over 1,200 picks over 40 rounds. There are also around 150 undrafted free agents signed each year after the draft.
The MLB Draft consists of both college and high school baseball players. Players who have completed high school, three years of college, or are 21 years old are eligible for the draft.
It is not like the NBA or NFL draft where one must put his name into the draft pool. If you are eligible for the draft, your name is already in it.
When a player is drafted, the team now owns the rights to that player and must negotiate with him to convince him to sign with the team. Teams and players (or their agents) negotiate signing bonuses. Contracts are typically already set in stone at this point.
A player’s signing bonus often depends on his draft position, his age, and his talent level. The more college eligibility a player has left, the more leverage he has in negotiating his signing bonus.
The player has the option not to sign, but he must go through the draft process again the next year if he chooses not to sign. He is not allowed to sign with another MLB team because the team that drafted him owns his rights for the entire year.
After the draft, younger players and players drafted in the later rounds are typically sent to rookie ball while higher draft picks usually end up in Single A. Occasionally, a high draft pick will start in Double A and work his way up quickly, but that is rare.
It is certainly not impossible for lower draft picks and undrafted free agents to make it to the big leagues. It has happened many times.
The higher a player is drafted, though, the more chances he often gets to fail before being released. On the contrary, players drafted in the lower rounds, because the team has less money invested in them, get fewer chances to fail.
How many players are on an MLB roster?
There are 26 players who are on the active roster. In other words, there are 26 players in the dugout. Each team also has a 40-man roster which consists of the 26 players on the active roster and 14 other players in the minor leagues who could be called up at any time.
Can a player go straight from college to the MLB?
Yes, players can go straight from college to the MLB, but it rarely happens. Recently, Garrett Crochet, a first round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox out of the University of Tennessee, pitched in the MLB the same season he pitched for UT, but he spent a few weeks in the minors first.
How many international players are there in the MLB?
On Opening Day of the 2022 MLB season, there were 275 international players on active rosters across the league. These players represented 21 different countries, affirming that baseball is a global sport.