If there was a 25-year-old pitcher making just under $4 million with an ERA of 3.68 compared to the major league average of 3.87 and who couldn’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season, this would be a pitcher you’d want on your team. On the other hand, mention the name of Stephen Strasburg attached to those stats and you get a much different response. The expectations are higher. You’ll hear how first overall picks are supposed to be better, and anything less than a Cy Young is a disappointment.
Bring up Bryce Harper and the same thing will happen. Harper has a .718 OPS in a season after knee surgery and while dealing with a thumb injury that has sapped his power. The major league average OPS this season is .703. Both Strasburg and Harper have been above-average players, but that isn’t enough for them, even though they’re 25 and 21, respectively. They are first overall picks and more is expected from first overall picks, or so I’ve been told.
What exactly does that mean? What are the expectations for a No. 1 overall pick? As of this moment, there are zero No. 1 overall picks in the baseball Hall of Fame, and with the shunning of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire by the BBWAA it is unlikely that Alex Rodriguez will ever sniff Hall of Fame induction. Unless there is a sudden push for Darin Erstad or Pat Burrell, then Chipper Jones is the only likely former first overall pick headed to Hall of Fame induction. At 21 Jones did outperform Harper by hitting .325/.387/.500 at Triple-A Richmond. Jones had all of four plate appearances in the majors in his age-21 season and then missed his entire age-22 season with a knee injury before going on to have a Hall of Fame career.
Jones was a wonderful player, but he was a contemporary of Harper for all of one season. To figure out the expectations for a No. 1 overall pick in this day and age, it would be more prudent to look at more recent selections. We’ll throw out Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Brady Aiken, as none of them have made it to the majors yet and Aiken didn’t even sign with an organization. We’ll start with Gerrit Cole and look at the last five pitchers to compare to Strasburg and the last five position players for Harper, and obviously those two won’t be included.
Those five pitchers are Cole, David Price, Luke Hochevar, Bryan Bullington and Matt Anderson. Of those, one if currently pitching in the major leagues as both Cole and Hochevar are sidelined with injuries. Bullington finished his major league career with 10 starts in 26 games, a 1-9 record and a 5.62 ERA. Anderson pitched in 257 games, all out of the bullpen, and finished his major league career with a 5.19 ERA. Hochevar has transitioned well to a bullpen role, but his ERA currently sits at a robust 5.10. Cole is a promising young starter currently on a rehab assignment who has a 3.78 ERA in 14 major league starts this season and 3.46 overall. Then there is Price, who won the Cy Young Award at 26 after posting a 12-13 record with a 3.49 ERA in his age-25 season. Of those, the only one more successful than Strasburg is Price, and the argument could be made that Strasburg has been better through 25 than Price was at that age.
Now to look at position players and see where the disappointment that is Harper ranks. The last five position players taken No. 1 overall before Harper were Tim Beckham, Justin Upton, Matt Bush, Delmon Young and Joe Mauer. There is an interesting argument to have here over who is the best of that bunch. Both Upton and Mauer have had excellent major league careers. Both have been All-Stars and received MVP votes, but only Mauer has been MVP, and he put up his impressive offensive numbers as a catcher. Both Mauer and Upton played in the majors at 21 and both put up better numbers than Harper. Mauer had a .939 OPS in the first 35 games of his career and Upton had a .899 OPS in his third season. Harper was better than Upton at 19 and 20, but if we’re limiting it to age-21 seasons, we could say Harper is a disappointment compared to Mauer and Upton, but that is ignoring the other three names on the list. Bush never made it to the majors and Beckham is still in the minors at 24. That leaves Young and all there is to say about that is in nine major league seasons, Young has been worth a minus-0.6 fWAR; in three major league seasons, Harper has been worth an 8.6 fWAR.
I didn’t exactly answer the question of what is the standard for a first overall pick. Mauer and Price are the only two recent ones to have won a major award and Jones is likely to be the only one in the Hall of Fame. A vast majority of first overall picks had disappointing or no major league careers, and Bush was taken one pick ahead of Justin Verlander, converted from position player to pitcher, and then ended up in prison. Whatever the expectations are for a first overall pick it isn’t to end up like Matt Bush.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.