Why Bad Teams Stay Bad

From 1949-1964, the Yankees had completed the most dominant stretch in MLB history, making the World Series every year but two (1954 and 1959) and winning 10 of them.  In June 1965, major league baseball instituted the amateur draft in order to level the playing field between good and bad teams.  As an interesting correlation, the Yankees would not make another World Series until 1976.  Of course, the draft is not a perfect leveller.  At the moment, the Pirates are embarked on the longest extended stretch of futility in professional sports, just completing their 17th consecutive losing season.  Why do they not improve?  There are a lot of answers to that question, but for one insight, I want to review their 1st round draft picks over this span.

1993 – Charles Peterson – never made the majors
1994 – Mark Farris – never made the majors
1995 – Chad Hermansen – Played 189 games, hitting .195/.255/.329
1996 – Kris Benson – 1st overall pick, started 197 games, ERA 4.41. A solid #4 or #5 pitcher
1997 – JJ Davis – Played 67 games in the majors, hitting .179/.248/.217
1998 – Clinton Johnson – Never made the majors
1999 – Bobby Bradley – Never made the majors
2000 – Sean Burnett – Started 13 games for the Pirates in 2004, with an ERA over 5. Pitched 129 games in relief the last two season, with an ERA of 3.94
2001 – John Van Benschoten – Pitched 26 games, with an ERA of 9.20
2002 – Bryan Bullington – 1st Overall, pitched 13 games with an ERA of 5.08
2003 – Paul Maholm – Has started 127 games with an ERA of 4.33. Still with the Pirates. A good #4-5 starter
2004 – Neil Walker – September callup this season. Played 17 games, hitting .194/.275/.222
2005 – Andrew McCutchen My pick for NL rookie of the year
2006 – Brad Lincoln – Still in the minors, with mediocre numbers
2007 – Daniel Moskos – Still in the minors, with poor numbers
2008 – Pedro Alvarez – Still in the minors, with very good numbers
2009 – Tony Sanchez – Still in the minors, with good numbers

With 17 picks, 8 have never made the majors, though 4 of those still have chances. One rookie is too new to evaluate, and another rookie had a very good first season. The two #1 picks were busts, one being a decent back-of-the-rotation starter and the other lucky to make the majors. Maholm and Benson are the best of the lot, and they are both #4 or #5 starters. McCutchen is still too new to be sure his success will continue. 9 of the picks were college players; 3 made the majors, 2 did not, and the last 4 are still in the minors. Of the 8 high schoolers, 4 never made the majors, 2 are rookies, and Davis and Burnett squeaked into the majors. Of the three decent players, Benson and Maholm came from college and McCutchen from high school.

Sometime, teams with favorable draft picks waste them completely. Those teams continue to lose. The Pirates have a talent for taking any help given them and turning it into bigger problems.

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4 Comments on “Why Bad Teams Stay Bad”

  1. sportsphd Says:

    Just taking a lower first round draft pick each year through 2008(regardless of signability questions) the Pirates could have had:
    Jamey Wright
    Nomar Garciaparra
    Roy Halladay
    Eric Chavez
    Lance Berkman
    Brad Lidge
    Barry Zito
    Adam Wainwright
    Gabe Gross
    Zack Greinke
    John Danks
    Jered Weaver
    (They probably could not have done better than McCutchen.)
    Tim Lincecum
    Rick Porcello
    Gordon Beckham
    (This list is probably unfair to their last 3-4 picks, who might turn out to be good.)

  2. verdun Says:

    It also doesn’t help that they trade away players like Bay and McLouth.

  3. Millsy Says:

    “In June 1965, major league baseball instituted the amateur draft in order to level the playing field between good and bad teams. As an interesting correlation, the Yankees would not make another World Series until 1976.”

    I agree it’s an interesting correlation. However, I’d be wary of making any inferences from that. I’d have to refer to you a paper by Rodney Fort and Young Hoon Lee that investigated the shifts in competitive balance in MLB, and actually found no shifts coinciding with significant policy events (like the draft, reserve clause, etc.). You can get the paper on Dr. Fort’s site here:


    In terms of the draft, the effects here are more geared toward extracting $$ from players to owners, rather than actually leading to balance. While the draft can help some teams, most likely they sell the talent to other teams in some way, leading to continued crappy play.

    In the Pirates case, I think they’ve run into A. Bad luck B. Bad management AND C. No interest in losing short run profits to win over the past 15 years or so.

  4. Millsy Says:

    Just a followup, I may have misrepresented the paper above. Further analysis shows breakpoints near the draft in attendance, so there was some sort of response there which may or may not be directly related to balance. But remember that this time also corresponded with the failed attempt at running a team (the Yankees) through corporate means from CBS.

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