By Eno Sarris
This article is not about improving the competitive balance of baseball by tweaking the MLB draft. It's not about rules and parity, nor figuring out how to best help struggling teams while not hurting good teams too much, the kind of change that always seems to have unintended consequences.
This is about improving the MLB draft -- as an event.
Think about the pomp and attention that the NBA and NFL drafts attract. The sheer amount of mock drafting and pick mockery is staggering at times. There are even fantasy games revolving around picking the eventual draft board. The NFL draft got an 8.6 rating this year, and the MLB draft got a 0.2 rating.
It's an unfair comparison, obviously. The other major sports have a head start on baseball. The baseball draft was held in secret until 1997, while the other sports have been open events for decades. Football's first draft was in 1936.
The other major sports are also structured in a way that makes the draft more important to the average fan. Though there are "minor leagues" for basketball and football, the greater number of drafted players immediately go to the big leagues of those sports. The list of baseball players that skipped the minor leaguers over the history of baseball is about as long as the list of football players that went right into the NFL last year alone.
Even given the fact that the other sports have immediacy and history on their sides, baseball could alter two things about the draft to make it more appealing.
Move the Date
The NFL draft is held in May, a couple months after the Super Bowl and a month before team practices start. The NBA draft is held in late June, a few weeks after the Finals end. There are no live scoring updates during those drafts -- neither college nor pro teams in those sports play on draft day. Mark Payton of the Texas Longhorns was drafted last week while he was in the middle of a plate appearance in the College World Series. MLB scores ran in a ticker next to the picks on during the draft broadcast, too.
John Manuel of Baseball America agrees that the draft should be moved. Before the professional season is problematic, because the college season is a spring one. But what about later? "For me, best-case scenario would be to have it during the All-Star break, with a combine in the week prior to at least have medical information that's consistent across the whole spectrum," said Manuel. Oh, be still my beating heart! -- raw numbers dealing with athleticism and no live games competing for attention?
The Wednesday after the All-Star Game is particularly delicious, with not a single pro sport playing that day. Even if the draft is a multiple-day affair, that first day is the important one, and it would have virtually no competition. You'd probably pick up viewers just from the ranks of pro baseball watchers surfing the television for baseball. Given that the Futures Game is held the day before the All-Star Game, there's even some symmetry to it. The day after the All-Star Game is a ready-made slot.
Not everyone sees it that way, or it might have already happened. Manuel pointed out that the short-season minor league teams start in mid-June, and if they weren't stocked by the draft, they might not have enough players to play. Maybe they could be assuaged some way, or maybe the season could be pushed or squashed to accommodate the new draft date. Doesn't seem impossible.
Another sticking point that Manuel pointed to was the fact that the draft is a collectively bargained event. You'd have to get players and teams on the same page, and teams may be eager to get their players in their systems, and players may remember being eager to get that signing bonuses. College teams and players probably would prefer the draft came after the College World Series, but they aren't at the table.
Maybe the college-educated major league players remember how crazy it was to be in the CWS while being drafted. Maybe they could move the MLBPA to consider making the draft an issue in the next round of collective bargaining. They'd still run into teams that prefer the current timing -- they can negotiate with players after the draft and still get them into short-season pro ball to begin their careers. Teams seem to don't care about the TV ratings for the draft, either. But with ratings taking off for other drafts, maybe the commissioner's office -- with a new leader, perhaps -- could put some pressure on teams to consider this change.
If the draft remained in June but just moved to the middle of the week, when Super Regionals aren't being played, maybe that change wouldn't need to be collectively bargained. This is a small tweak put forth by Baseball America's Aaron Fitt that could make a big difference. At least it would eliminate one type of baseball from being played during the draft.
Change the Coverage
This is a more difficult aspect to ponder. Perhaps the coverage just follows the needs, but watch draft experts debate draft boards in other sports in a hot-and-heavy lead up to the NFL and NBA drafts, and you know that the coverage is different.
Readers and viewers often want criticism and disagreement from their pundits. It's what I've heard most often from my podcast listeners. And I know rankings are popular -- they're almost always the most popular pieces of the week when we do them at FanGraphs. Part of the reason is the back-and-forth disagreement in the comments sections.
Could baseball's draft coverage benefit from more disagreement?
To answer this question, let's look at the actual words used during the baseball draft, put up against other types of draft coverage. During the first round of this year's baseball draft, critical phrases like "reach" and "surprise" were uttered at a rate of one per every 5.7 minutes on the MLB Network. Baseball America's first-round podcast -- which they opened by admitting that the listenership wanted more disagreement -- averaged a critical phrase once every 2.4 minutes of coverage. Maybe there's something here -- but maybe not. Research by Jen Mac Ramos of the Hardball Times suggests that there was one semi-critical comment every 4.7 minutes during ESPN's coverage of the NFL draft. That's a little more critical than MLB's coverage - about two extra criticisms per hour -- but it's not at the level of a post-draft show.
Perhaps the day of the draft is not time for too much criticism. It's a moment of hope for every organization, and also, importantly, for each young man that was just drafted. As Manuel pointed out, baseball is the only one of the major sports still drafting high schoolers, and it's still considered poor form to "hammer" on a teenager.
That doesn't mean that coverage leading up to the draft couldn't be more like the coverage that basketball and football see. National sports news shows have daily draft segments for weeks going into their drafts, with dueling draft boards and fancy graphics. Shouldn't we see someone like Manuel with his own draft board, debating picks with Keith Law on SportsCenter? Couldn't the shows do more leading up to the draft, even if it doesn't make sense to be more critical on draft day?
Perhaps the coverage of the draft can only follow interest. Perhaps it shouldn't lead. But it does seem clear that the differences in national coverage are part of the differences in interest among the drafts.
Interest in the MLB draft is ticking upwards. This year's first round drew 63 percent more male viewers between the age of 18 and 34 than 2013. Since the MLB Network started airing the draft, it's grown 25 percent in total viewership.
There are inherent structural issues that will keep the draft from ever being as big in baseball as it is in basketball and football. Some 70 percent of the top 100 prospects bust in the major leagues, for example -- and those are players that have already been drafted! Even so, a couple of tweaks could help spur some growth for the event, and it deserves all the hoopla and energy it can get.
* * *
Eno Sarris writes about baseball at FanGraphs www.fangraphs.com most of the time. He also started BeerGraphs www.beergraphs.com for the beer nerds out there. He doesn't always play daily fantasy, but when he does, he plays it at DraftStreet.com.