Red Sox Draft: Underwhelming history of No. 4 overall pick

The Boston Red Sox own the No. 4 pick in next year’s MLB draft.

The Boston Red Sox might regret spoiling this season of misery by unexpectedly getting hot down the stretch. By winning five of their final seven games to finish out the 60-game slate, Boston moved mere percentage points ahead of a Detroit Tigers club that failed to complete a full schedule.

While there were lingering questions regarding how MLB would determine the draft order when the regular season came to a close, a major league source has since confirmed to Stephen Nesbitt of The Athletic that the traditional process of drafting in reverse order of the standings will remain intact.

By finishing with a 24-36 record, the Red Sox are now officially locked into the No. 4 overall pick, the highest that they’ve selected since drafting Mike Garman at No. 3 in 1967.

Despite all their flaws, this roster is too talented to have out-tanked the woeful 19-41 Pittsburgh Pirates. However, by winning each of their final two series of the season, Boston cost themselves the No. 3 pick and any chance of catching the Texas Rangers (22-38) for the second pick.

Boston will still have a shot at selecting one of the top players in next year’s draft so their slight downfall should be a negligible difference, although history tells us that’s not the case. Looking back at over five decades of draft classes we can find a few notable selections in this spot. Hall of Famers Barry Larkin (1985) and Dave Winfield (1973) were former No. 4 overall picks, as were perennial All-Stars Thurman Munson (1968) and Kevin Brown (1986).

Recent history shows far more underwhelming results from teams picking in the fourth spot. It’s too soon to judge the draft classes from the last few years since most of those players haven’t reached the big leagues yet. Chicago White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal, selected at No. 4 in 2018, impressed in his major league debut this year but it was only a 29-game sample. It’s a promising start to Madrigal’s career but he’s one of a few positive examples.

From 2008-2017, eight of the 10 players selected fourth overall in the draft have failed to average at least 1.0 WAR per season in their major league careers. That includes right-handed pitcher Riley Pint (2016) who has never played above A-ball in his professional career.

2017: Brendan McKay (1 year, -0.2 WAR)
2016: Riley Pint (N/A)
2015: Dillon Tate (2 years, 0.2 WAR)
2014: Kyle Schwarber (6 years, 5.1 WAR)
2013: Kohl Stewart (2 years, 0.4 WAR)
2012: Kevin Gausman (8 years, 11.6 WAR)
2011: Dylan Bundy (6 years, 8.9 WAR)
2010: Christian Colon (6 years, 1.1 WAR)
2009: Tony Sanchez (4 years, 0.1 WAR)
2008: Brian Matusz (8 years, 2.2 WAR)

The first thing that stands out is that the Baltimore Orioles have whiffed on selecting pitchers in this spot at an alarming rate. The three pitchers they drafted fourth overall during this span account for three of the top four career WAR totals on the list but that’s damning them with faint praise. The “prize” of this group is journeyman Kevin Gausman who is on his fourth team in eight seasons and owns a 50-66 record with a 4.26 ERA.

The results have been kinder to teams selecting in the No. 3 spot over the same time frame.

MacKenzie Gore (2017) is currently the best pitching prospect in baseball. Ian Anderson (2016) has been brilliant since joining the Braves rotation late in the season and he’s played a key role in Atlanta advancing to the NLCS. Trevor Bauer (2011) is the favorite for the NL Cy Young award. Manny Machado (2010) has made four All-Star appearances and he’s a dark horse candidate for NL MVP. Eric Hosmer (2008) is a four-time Gold Glove winner and the leader of the 2015 World Series champion Royals.

We have a decade’s worth of recent evidence showing that at least half of the players selected third overall have gone on to be high quality players or elite prospects compared to a complete bust rate for teams picking fourth in that span.

The success rate surprisingly has been slightly lower with the No. 2 pick but the upside is far greater. That spot has produced former MVP Kris Bryant (2013) and last year’s runner-up Alex Bregman (2015). Injuries have hindered Byron Buxton (2012) from reaching his potential but he’s shown flashes of being a star and he’s a former Platinum Glove award winner.

Baseball has a much higher bust rate near the top of the draft compared to other sports. We see NBA and NFL rookies capable of making an impact but it takes years for baseball players to develop in the minors before they get their shot at the big leagues. The gap between the draft and their debut makes baseball players more difficult to project and increases the odds of injuries derailing careers before they ever reach the majors.

It’s far from a guarantee that the Red Sox would strike gold if they picked a spot or two higher in next year’s draft. There’s also plenty of examples of players selected far later in the draft who developed into superstars. Basically, the draft is a crapshoot.

Next: Red Sox own No. 4 pick in MLB draft

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The recent history of fourth overall picks is concerning though. Perhaps a player they are enamored with falls to the Red Sox at No. 4, in which case we’ll forget about how the 2020 season ended. If Boston strikes out with this pick while a team selecting ahead of them hits a home run, the Red Sox will be kicking themselves for winning a few meaningless games in the final week of the season.