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Pitchers not a popular pick at No. 1

Pitchers not a popular pick at No. 1

While big league rosters are split pretty evenly between pitchers and hitters, it may be an eye-opener to look over the 44-year history of the First-Year Player Draft and see this stat:

Of the 43 players selected with the first overall pick (one player was the No. 1 selection twice), only 13 have been pitchers.

"I wouldn't have expected those numbers," said Blue Jays scout Mike Berger, when first told of the statistic. "Not with the understanding that this game is built around pitching and defense -- and that theory is time-tested."

Even more surprising may be a scan of those pitchers taken "1/1" (the baseball term for the first overall pick in a given Draft). The trend which is revealed? Overall, its proven to be mediocrity.

We won't count the past two such selections in that assessment. Right-hander Luke Hochevar (2006) and southpaw David Price ('07) are still very much bright up-and-comers, with Price being rated by scouts as the top prospect in the Minors heading into 2009.

But when it comes to the other 11, including a pair that are still active -- right-handers Kris Benson (1996) with Texas and Bryan Bullington (2002) -- who is currently at Triple-A Las Vegas in the Toronto system -- it's probably safe to put them in the "not headed for Cooperstown" category.

Of those 11, from high-school phenom David Clyde (1973) to polished college product Bullington, only four have even topped the 100-win plateau: Floyd Bannister ('76, 134-143, 4.06 ERA in 15 seasons); Mike Moore ('81, 161-176, 4.39 ERA in 14 seasons); Tim Belcher ('83, 146-140, 4.16 ERA in 14 seasons); and Andy Benes ('88, 155-139, 3.97 ERA in 14 seasons).

Only those four have enjoyed big league careers longer than 10 years, and they account for the only three All-Star Game appearances out of the group, with Benes, Moore and Bannister each getting the nod once.

Add together the big league stats of all 13 coming into the 2009 season and you come up with, basically, a No. 4 starter: an average of 8.4 wins per season (versus 8.7 losses), a 4.24 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 148 innings per year. Not exactly what clubs are hoping for out of the first overall pick.

Perhaps the most highly touted "can't miss" prospect before projected 2009 No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, with the possible exception of Price, was Ben McDonald in 1989.

Drafted out of Louisiana State University by Baltimore, he was a similarly legendary figure, from his 6-foot-7 stature to his huge hands which could hold several baseballs at once to his propensity for wrestling alligators. Add to that ace stuff with command of all his pitches, and the temptation to start writing his Cooperstown plaque before he even made his big league debut (three weeks after he signed) was almost irresistible.

But even "Big Ben" did not live up to the formidable expectations. After a fine first full season, when he posted a 2.43 ERA and finished eighth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1990, he leveled off. His ERA was below 4.00 just three times in eight seasons, going 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA. His playing career ended in '97 after right rotator cuff surgery.

Still, McDonald's career was better than that of the "next big thing," North Carolina high school southpaw Brien Taylor, who was selected in 1991 by the Yankees.

Taylor was considered perhaps the best high school pitcher to that point, and in his first Minor League season posted a 2.57 ERA with 187 strikeouts in 161 innings at Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1992. But he suffered a torn left labrum in an off-field fight in '93 and never fully recovered from that injury, struggling through several comeback attempts at Class A before retiring for good in 2000.

Would he have bucked the trend? We'll never know, as he became one of just two "1/1" players who never reached the big leagues, along with injury-plagued catcher Steve Chilcott, who was drafted by the Mets in 1966. The jury remains out for now on shortstop-turned-pitcher Matt Bush, the San Diego Padres' pick in 2004, who is now with Toronto and on the sidelines recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Taylor was the third -- and, to this point, last -- high school pitcher taken with the first overall pick, after Clyde and Moore.

The first pitcher in history to be taken with the first overall pick, Clyde made his big league debut with the Rangers shortly thereafter, going straight to the Majors out of high school at age 18 and retired at 26 after a slew of injuries. Most believe that he was a victim of overuse and burnout, as he started his downward spiral after just two seasons with the Rangers.

"If you take these high school kids young, they have to have the intangibles like toughness and maturity," said Paul Ricciarini, a veteran scout currently with the Astros. "The pro game is not easy. It's such a demanding physical and mental challenge, that a lot of kids have great talent, but can't keep up with the demands."

That widespread sentiment, in fact, may contribute to the lopsided numbers.

"To a large degree, clubs eliminate high school pitchers from being '1/1,' because of that whole concern," said Berger, "so you've just limited the pool."

Who's really No. 1?
During the 44-year history of the First-Year Player Draft, hitters who have been taken with the first overall selection have outperformed pitchers who have been taken No. 1.
Pitchers
Hitters
13No.30
98Yrs.315
3All-Stars64
0Cy Young/MVPs6
0ROYs2

Of course, not all of the 30 hitters taken with the top pick are locks for Cooperstown, but at least a handful of that group should be there before long, and the overall results for the "1/1" hitters have the scales tipped heavily in their favor (and in case you're wondering about the math here, catcher Danny Goodwin holds the distinction of having been a "1/1" twice, out of high school in 1971 by the White Sox and again in 1975 out of college by the Angels).

Among the young hitters scooped up with that initial pick: Harold Baines (1977), Darryl Strawberry ('80), Ken Griffey, Jr. ('87), Chipper Jones ('90), Alex Rodriguez ('93), Josh Hamilton ('99) and Joe Mauer (2001).

Also still active and productive: Darin Erstad (1995), Pat Burrell ('98), Adrian Gonzalez (2000), Delmon Young ('03) and Justin Upton ('05), as well as last year's top pick, shortstop Tim Beckham, who is currently hitting over .300 in his first full season at Class A at age 19.

While the 13 No. 1 pitchers have accumulated just three All-Star appearances among them in 98 combined seasons, the hitters, in 315 combined seasons, have been in 64 All-Star games, with 15 of the 30 being selected at least once.

There have been zero Cy Young Awards for the "1/1" pitchers, zero Rookie of the Year honors and zero ERA titles. Bannister and Benes each led their respective leagues in strikeouts once apiece.

The position players, however, account for six MVP awards, a pair of Rookie of the Year honors (including 1978 "1/1" Bob Horner, who went straight to the big leagues with the Braves), as well as several batting titles, home run crowns and Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.

The group combined for a .277 big league batting average, and if you discount the most recent pair to have not yet reached the Majors (Bush, converted from shortstop to pitcher, and Beckham), the remaining 28 (including Chilcott in that count) averaged 11-year Major League careers, compared with the pitchers' 7 1/2-year average.

Even with this historical evidence, though, there are few if any experts in the game right now who would advise the Nationals against taking San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg with this year's first pick.

Said one scout, echoing most sentiments around baseball, "From everything I've heard, it's an unequivocal 'Yes.'"

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["first-year_player_draft" ] }
{"content":["first-year_player_draft" ] }