Monday, August 17, 2009

Should a team lose their way to the top of the draft?

I read an interesting article about losing in order to get the first overall pick in the draft on Jorge Says No!, and it got me thinking.

There is a certain amount of twisted calculation that goes into a team's thought process towards the end of the year. Teams such as the Pirates and Nationals(to stick with a baseball analogy), are typically out of the playoff race at this point, and have to decide whether to keep playing and attempt to keep the support of the fans, or lose games and try to get a higher draft pick. Ultimately, people make the assumption that getting the number one draft pick will help the team, whereas winning games will hurt(relative to losing). Is this the case? Does losing games and ultimately gaining a high draft choice help a team?

To analyze this, I will look at teams that receive the #1 overall pick, and their average records over the 5 years, following a 2 year gap(for example, for a pick made following in 1998 season, I would look at the record from 2001-2006). This is because it typically takes 3 or more years to call up first overall picks. I will look at the time frame from 1994-1998.

1994 California Angels

In 1995, the then-California Angels picked Darin Erstad, a college baseball star who was also a starting punter. Over the following 5 years, the Angels had a .489 record. Although better than their 1994 record of .409, this was not a major step forward for the franchise, as they averaged a middling record. In 1994, their total attendance was 1.5 million a drop of 500,000 from 1993. The figure increased by 250,000 the following year. This shows that a team takes a significant fan support penalty when they lose games in an attempt to gain a high draft pick. For the Angels, at least, it was a gamble that produced moderate, but not spectacular results. They may have been better off with a better record in 1994.

1995 Pittsburgh Pirates

In 1995, the woebegone Pirates finished with a .403 record, earning them the right to take Kris Benson with the #1 overall pick in the 1996 draft. Although not quite a bust, Benson did not live up to expectations(his wife aside). Over the 5 years from 1998-2002, the Pirates averaged a .433 record. Clearly, gaining the first draft pick did not much improve their prospects. Their attendance in 1995 was 905,517, a whopping 25% drop from 1994. Post 1995, attendance would be significantly lower than previous years, despite the growing numbers of baseball fans. The total attendance figures for 1991 have only been surpassed once in the years since. The losing season in 1995 clearly eroded fan support, and lowered ticket sales long-term.

1996 Detroit Tigers

In 1996, the Tigers finished with a 53-109 record(.327), one of the worst seasons in franchise history. They took Matt Anderson with the first overall pick in the 1997 draft. Their attendance did not drop significantly from the previous season, and increased 2.3 times in the 5 years from 1999-2003. Unfortunately, their winning percentage over this period was .386. Although it was better than .327, the Tigers were still a league basement dweller, and did not become appreciably better.

1997 Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies finished with a .420 record, and were awarded the right to draft Pat Burrell, who would go on to become a solid player. From 2000-2004, they would average a .498 record, a significant improvement which unfortunately still left them with a middling record. Although the move seems to have made an impact on the franchise, especially coupled with their other picks and moves, it was not a franchise-altering one. Their attendance dropped significantly, as 300,000 fewer people attended games in 1997 compared to 1996. Their attendance would bounce back slightly the next year, with 200,000 more attendees, and would on average increase 1.4 times in the period from 2000-2004. Overall, they did not gain much by having the first overall draft pick, and lost significant amounts of fans; it took until 2003 for attendance to hit 1995 levels.

1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Much like today, Josh Hamilton was prominently featured in the sports media in 1999. He was drafted by the Rays after a .389 finish in the franchise's first year. The Rays, as an expansion franchise are a unique case. Typically, a team performs poorly their first few years. However, fan enthusiasm is usually very high when a team first relocates, but that enthusiasm will usually wane after the first season. The Rays were no exception, and their 1998 attendance is the highest in team history. All 2.5 million fans that attended quickly saw how bad the Rays were, and decided to stay home next year. Their winning percentage from 2001-2005 was .392, basically equal to their 1999 performance. Their attendance dropped off quickly, hitting 1 million in 2002. It is hard to make judgments from this data though, because it of the expansion.


It looks like most teams that are given the first overall draft pick face significant attendance and fan morale penalties as a result, penalties which can carry on for years afterwards. There also is no franchise-altering increase in winning percentage in the years during which the draft pick(or picks) made that year should be contributing. However, although the change is not earth-shattering, some franchises saw moderate increases in winning percentage.

It doesn't look like losing in order to gain the first draft pick is a good strategy. It doesn't increase fan support, and it doesn't really increase winning percentage. Although it could be good if there is a can't-miss, surefire major leaguer, how many scouting reports have been wrong over the years?

[Inspiration from Jorge Says No!]

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