Will Dansby Swanson Be A Star? History Says It’s Literally A 50-50 Shot

No. 1 overall draft picks are good just as much as they're not good, which is actually pretty good

Former No. 1 overall draft pick Dansby Swanson makes his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves

From this angle, Dansby Swanson definitely looks like a big leaguer. Then again, from this angle it also looks like the Braves actually draw fans to Turner Field.

Dansby Swanson got all of 494 minor league at bats before the Atlanta Braves, finished sucking the marrow out of yet another once-productive player, discarded the dried husk of Erick Aybar on Tuesday and called 2015’s No. 1 overall draft pick up in time to start at shortstop against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday. A lot is riding on Swanson for the Braves, who, despite hoarding prospects for two years, are still pretty thin in elite talent while setting the standard for terrible in the majors.

Swanson was fifth on MLB.com’s top-100 midseason prospect rankings, and only second baseman Ozzie Albies (16th) joins him in the top 50 from the organization. But what are reasonable expectations in the big leagues? History says making the majors is no accomplishment for players taken first. In fact, if Swanson doesn’t turn out to be at least all-star caliber at some point in his career he will not as have performed as well as the majority of No. 1 picks since 1985.

Chipper Jones

I also was a No. 1 overall pick. But no pressure, kid.

Baseball Reference has a wonderful breakdown of every top selection since the draft was implemented, and while baseball has a reputation for being a crapshoot when it comes to predicting the future performance of amateur talent that is actually not true at all for top picks. Here are the numbers to back it up, compiled from the 28 No. 1 picks from 1985 to 2012:

  • 27 of the 28 (96.4 percent) made it to the majors (only pitcher Brien Taylor, whose career was derailed by an offseason shoulder injury, failed to do so).
  • 15 of the 28 (53.6 percent) have played in at least one All-Star Game (Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Justin Upton, Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, Darin Erstad, Alex Rodriguez, Phil Nevin, Chipper Jones, Andy Benes, Ken Griffey Jr., B.J. Surhoff)
  • 7 of the 28 (25 percent) have won an MVP or a Cy Young award (Harper, Price, Hamilton, Rodriguez, Jones, Griffey Jr.)

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an advanced metric for measuring, essentially, how much better a player is than the average major leaguer, and No. 1 picks perform extremely well here as well. Here are the best single-season WARs dating back to 1985:

8+ WAR (MVP level)
  • Alex Rodriguez, SS/3B, 10.4
  • Bryce Harper, OF, 9.9
  • Ken Griffey, OF, 9.7
  • Josh Hamilton, OF, 8.7
  • Darin Erstad, OF/1B, 8.3
5+ WAR (all-star level)
  • Joe Mauer, C/1B, 7.8
  • Chipper Jones, 3B, 7.6
  • Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, 6.9
  • David Price, P, 6.9
  • Justin Upton, OF, 6.1
  • Phil Nevin, 3B/1B, 5.8
  • B.J. Surhoff, Utility, 5.1
  • Kris Benson, P, 5.1
  • Carlos Correa, SS, 5.0
2+ WAR (MLB starter)
  • Ben McDonald, P, 4.8
  • Andy Benes, P, 4.8
  • Gerrit Cole, P, 4.5
  • Pat Burrell, OF/1B, 4.5
  • Jeff King, 3B/1B, 3.7
  • Stephen Strasburg, P, 3.5
  • Paul Wilson, P, 2.0
  • Luke Hochevar, P, 2.0

Excluding Taylor 78.6 percent (22 of 27) have had at least one season with WARs at a major league starter level. The odds of a No. 1 pick not playing at least as well as a competent major league starter are only 18.5 percent:

0+ WAR (MLB reserve)
  • Delmon Young, OF, 1.9
  • Matt Bush, P, 1.2
  • Tim Beckham, SS, 0.9
  • Matt Anderson, P, 0.6
  • Bryan Bullington, P, 0.1

The bottom line is by any objective standard, Swanson, who was hitting a pedestrian .261 in Double-A, must be very good to not be labeled a bust. No pressure there for an Atlanta native already being compared to Jones, who, incidentally, never batted lower than .311 in the minors after rookie league.

Swanson went 2-for-4 in his debut. Will this single be remembered as the beginning of something great? Whatever you predict, there’s a 50 percent chance you’re right. When it comes to rookie major leaguers, those are the best odds you’re ever going to get.