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The annual Major League Baseball draft now stretches into 3 days, causing some unbelievable tension for the thousands of young players around the world awaiting calls from teams or agents about their selection. How many rounds in an MLB draft, anyway? And, why so many rounds?
The MLB draft today lasts 20 rounds ~ half the number of rounds held through 2019. For 2020, the pandemic year, MLB owners agreed to reduce the draft to 5 rounds, followed by 20 rounds the following year. Baseball teams select many more players through the draft than other North American major sports leagues, mainly because so few of those drafted make it to play for the main big league baseball clubs.
For a long time, the MLB had so many rounds basically because it always had, dating back to the initial “first-year” player draft in 1965. A major reason is the MLB’s minor league system, where young players play and develop for years before a call-up to “The Show” ~ the top level for which they were drafted in the first place.
A vast majority of players drafted by MLB clubs never play for the parent team that drafted them. However, MLB clubs try to keep their “farm system” (aka their own minor league clubs) stocked with fresh talent, to further nurture them to become tomorrow’s star players and help the clubs compete.
Baseball is just a very hard sport to play at the highest level. It’s very difficult to hit a fast-approaching round ball with a round wood bat, and physically, arms and shoulders are quite prone to career-ending injuries, among other potential problems that stop players from competing.
It’s just that historically, baseball owners have been more willing to invest in the development of young players, compared to other major sports leagues that almost always bring drafted talent straight to the big club, to learn and improve in the big stadiums. So baseball owners wanted to draft the rights to as many players as possible, with hopes that at least some would pan out.
The answer at least partially is tradition ~ e.g. there always has been a lot of players taken ~ but also for a reason noted above. Major League clubs need a bigger pool of young talent to draw from than other team sports.
Here’s a list of the rounds per draft for the major sports, as of 2021:
- Major League Baseball = 20 rounds (600 selections)
- National Football League = 7 rounds (256 selections)
- National Basketball Association = 2 rounds (60 selections)
- National Hockey League = 7 rounds (217 selections)
- Major League Soccer = 3 rounds (75 selections)
So think about the MLB drafts up to 2109 ~ over 1,200 players were selected each year! To put it in perspective, in 2021 there are 780 spots on MLB rosters (26 players per team x 30 teams). So every year teams draft hundreds more players than they actually need.
A key is what it means when a player is drafted: it just gives MLB clubs exclusive rights to have that player, e.g. first dibs to sign him to a contract. These rights are good for a year. If a player has not been signed by then he becomes eligible to be re-drafted.
In recent years players (and their agents) leverage threats to attend college and not sign, to await bigger contract offers from new teams. (A notable example was J.D. Drew, who skipped signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in favor of waiting one year to then ink bigger paydays with the St. Louis Cardinals).
It’s important to note that other major sports, namely the NFL and NBA, used to have a number of draft rounds well into double-digits. It was only in the past decade or so that they cut back, mainly for money reasons. Draft picks often demand signing bonuses, plus there’s the time and energy needed to communicate with and sign new players.
The other leagues just didn’t see a need to assign rights to as many players, in essence allowing more undrafted amateur players to just be free agents able to sign with clubs as they please, if undrafted. Not so in baseball, though the recent reduction in rounds indicates at least some willingness for change.
The first-year draft was instituted to prevent bidding wars by profitable clubs eager to offer huge signing bonuses to very young hopefuls ~ basically using their buying power to overwhelm teams from smaller markets. The draft was aimed at leveling the playing field, so to speak, for all teams regardless of budgetary resources.
The MLB had tinkered with bonus systems and other rule tweaks through the 1940s and 1950s to try to balance out where top talent went, but ultimately owners voted at the end of 1964 to institute a first-year player draft for the following year.
- The main (Rule 4) draft is now staged over 3 days over the All-Star Game weekend in July.
- The order of selections is based on starting with the teams with the worst win-loss record the prior season; each round starts with the team with the worst record, proceeding in order to the last pick, the team that finished with the best W-L record.
- A clock is used and teams have a set amount of time to make their selections; often teams are pre-negotiating with young players right up to the last second!
- Sometimes MLB teams will not draft players based on their belief that they cannot sign him.
The MLB draft also differs from most other sports drafts in that it’s not only a straight club-by-club selection per how each team fared the previous season. There is a separate Rule 5 draft late each year, and added picks to compensate teams that lost free agents, etc.
Additionally, baseball’s drafts tend to be much more unpredictable than other sports, as teams are thinking years into the future. Very often, general managers who picked star players in drafts are no longer working for that team by the time the talent matures.
What we call the “baseball draft” is in reality the MLB’s Rule 4 draft, named for the sections in its rulebook. There also is a Rule 5 draft, which is separate and involves drafting players already in the minor leagues. The intent is to prevent teams from stockpiling talent on their minor league rosters, while also ensuring talented players better chances of reaching the majors.
This draft occurs at the end of each year, and players not on each team’s 40-man roster at that time was eligible to be drafted (with some exceptions).
Perhaps the most famous Rule 5 draft selection was Roberto Clemente, who the Brooklyn Dodgers tried to hide on a minor league squad (allegedly by allowing him little playing time). To no avail, the Pittsburgh Pirates snatched him and watched a Hall of Fame career blossom.
Under the same rules outlined above, the Pirates were then forced to keep Clemente on its major league active roster for the entire next season. From that point, Clemente was forced to develop in the big leagues, a reason why it took him a few years to become a star.
In its drafts, the MLB also takes picks (usually 1st-round picks) from teams that signed major free agent players away from other teams. Therefore teams that lose players to other teams gain valuable extra draft picks; and some big-city teams now refrain from signing too many free agents, to protect their draft picks.
Most baseball players are drafted while in school, or right out of school, though in recent decades players from around the world have been signed whether they went to school or not. American players usually come from high schools or colleges, or other amateur baseball clubs.
From there they get assigned to the lowest level of Minor League Baseball, either Rookie Ball divisions, or low-A division clubs. In the minors, basically, new draftees are expected to be promoted a level each year, so in a perfect progression an 18-year-old player could play a season each in the Rookie, A, AA and AAA levels and then into the majors at age 22 or 23.
It’s a reason why you might hear announcers say a rookie is “old” when they make their debut at 26, or even age 29 as has occurred in 2021. Usually, that means the player has spent more time in the minors than usual, so perhaps there’s some major flaw to his game.
A lot of players adjust and adapt while in the minors ~ sometimes becoming a totally different player than the one originally drafted. Also, some players were so special they were brought straight to the big leagues (though this is very rare). Notable cases:
- Pitcher Tim Wakefield was a light-hitting infielder until he learned to throw a knuckleball. He ended up winning 200 games in the major leagues.
- Relief pitcher Troy Percival began as a catcher in the minors, before switching to the mound and stardom.
- In the 1970s, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount were so good they skipped the minor leagues entirely, and first played for the big league clubs that drafted them.
- Bruce Sutter had arm surgery in the minors and noticed a loss of velocity. A coach taught him the split-fingered fastball, which Sutter then rode to the Hall of Fame.
A lot depends on the organization, and its coaches at the lower levels. Hundreds of baseball players peter out at some level of the minors every season, for a variety of reasons namely financial or physical. Minor league clubs don’t play well, and travel between small cities across the nation via buses ~ it’s not an easy existence for young people fresh out of school.
The MLB draft is unpredictable and much different than in the other major sports. In basketball and football, star young players selected in the early rounds of their drafts are expected to play with the main club the following season. Not so in the MLB, where almost all draft picks must endure several years of “seasoning” in the minor leagues.
For that reason, baseball’s amateur draft has more rounds, to give teams rights to more players. Hopefully, some who will make it to the big leagues.
Question: Who was the first draft selection in the MLB?
Answer: Rick Monday by the (then) Kansas City Athletics, June 1965.
Q.: Where do most MLB players come from?
A.: Today, colleges. In the early days of the draft most selected players were from high school, but for several years the percentage of draftees from colleges has increased. A reason is, top-level college baseball is considered by some as the equivalent of AAA division baseball ~ so college statistics can help scouts judge potential. Plus for pitchers, many MLB teams just prefer more matured arms, and avoid risking losing a high pick to early arm woes.