Pick a Pair: Hall of Fame Class of 2016 makes draft history

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

Griffey Jr., Piazza become highest and lowest draft choices to earn Hall of Fame election

At the 1964 Winter Meetings, faced with the Bonus Rule that enabled teams to go into bidding wars for the best young talent, Major League Baseball decided to enact the Rule 4 Draft, to be first held in June 1965. This process would make amateur talent available to all clubs in reverse order of the standings from the previous season.

While there have been some memorable – and some forgettable – ballplayers selected as the first overall pick, not until last week were any of them voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ken Griffey, Jr., chosen first by Seattle in 1987 out of Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, appeared on 99.3 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots – a new all-time high – and overtook Reggie Jackson (2nd overall in 1966) as the highest draft pick to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

For all highs, though, there must be some lows. When he was elected in 2015, John Smoltz had taken the spot of lowest-drafted Hall of Famer. The Detroit Tigers took him as the 574th overall pick in the 22nd Round of the 1985 Draft. Smoltz only had a year to celebrate that feat. Mike Piazza, taken by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 1,390th pick in the 62nd Round of 1988’s MLB Draft, is now the lowest-drafted Hall of Famer. In fact, Piazza was the first player ever taken at pick No. 1,390.

So, among the thousands of individuals drafted between 1965 and 2001 (players drafted in 2002 and beyond are not yet eligible for Hall of Fame election), the 2016 election has produced the highest-drafted and lowest-drafted Hall of Famer.

While we may see another first overall selection chosen for the Hall of Fame in the future – Chipper Jones (1990) will be eligible beginning in 2018 – it is highly unlikely there will be another 62nd Round pick selected by the BBWAA.

Draft rules formerly allowed for the selections to continue so long as teams kept choosing. When all teams passed in a given round, the draft was over. In 1998, Major League Baseball capped the number of rounds at 50, and in 2012, MLB further limited the total to 40. With just over 1,200 picks in 2015, we may never see another player drafted lower than 1,390.

Numbers vary depending on the source one uses, but it is widely agreed upon that Aron Amundson, selected by the Yankees in the 100th Round of the 1996 Draft – with the 1,740th pick according to Baseball-Reference.com – is the lowest-drafted player ever. Clay Condrey, also selected by the Yankees in 1996, but in the 94th Round with the 1,730th pick, is the lowest pick to make the majors. He didn’t sign with New York after being drafted, opting to remain in college and signed with San Diego afterward.

The odds of making the majors are stacked for low-round draft choices, much less the odds of being elected to the Hall of Fame. Only a couple dozen draftees selected after the 1,390th pick have made it to the big leagues. Even fewer fewer played the minimum 10 big league seasons required to be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

For Piazza, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, it was a connection to the Dodgers organization which gave him the opportunity to prove he belonged in professional baseball. Piazza’s father Vince was a longtime friend of then Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who, like the Piazzas, hailed from Norristown, Pa.

Brad Kohler of the Major League Scouting Bureau had the opportunity to scout Piazza in 1986 when he was a senior first baseman at Phoenixville High School in Pennsylvania. Kohler’s report claimed that Piazza had “great size plus youth to go with [potential] above [average] long ball pop,” but he also had “a long way to come with overall ability.” Nevertheless, Kohler said Piazza was “worth selection on bat and [power].”

Piazza would not be selected out of high school in 1986, but two years later, Lasorda, a friend of Piazza’s father, would recommend the selection of the first baseman while in college. Lasorda later suggested Piazza convert to catcher while in the minors, perhaps channeling Kohler’s earlier assessment that Piazza “lack[ed] knowledge of first base.”

In the midst of his 1993 National League Rookie of the Year campaign, Piazza told The New York Times of the impact and inspiration Roy Campanella had on his transition from first base to catcher. Piazza recalled the Dodgers legend telling him “that if you’re always so concerned about the doors in life that are closing on you, you’re never going to see the ones that are opening.”

“(W)hen I think of my career, just being in the position that I came in, no one giving me a chance to play … it allows me to more or less block any negative press or any charges of nepotism.”

Though Piazza is not, as it was believed, Lasorda’s godson (Piazza’s brother is), the former skipper knew Mike persevered to reach the majors, and that perseverance is paying off with his election to the Hall of Fame.

On July 24, 2016, the two will reunite under the summer sun at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.

Ken Griffey Jr. was synonymous with his backwards cap early in his career in Seattle. BL-1976-2002-1198 (Brad Mangin / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Griffey, however, took a different path to Cooperstown. At an early age, he was ready to excel on the big stage, even as a senior at Archbishop Moeller, a school which had already produced a future Hall of Famer in Barry Larkin as well as a five-time All Star in Buddy Bell.

As it was, thanks to his father’s big league career, Griffey grew up around the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s, soaking in the wisdom of eventual Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Pérez.

Steve Vrablik, scouting for the Mariners, filed a report in May 1987 praising Griffey’s abilities. Noting he was the son of major leaguer Ken Griffey, Vrablik said Junior had “above [average] to outstanding tools in all 5 categories” and possessed “very good instincts in the [outfield].” He then concluded Griffey was a “top prospect … with outstanding skills.”

Signed for $175,000, Griffey would serve a brief apprenticeship in the minors before making his debut with the Mariners on Opening Day in Oakland, April 3, 1989.

Two days later, Griffey was named the top-rated outfield prospect by Baseball America, where a poll of scouts showed Griffey might be the best of all the first overall draft selections to that point. His manager, Jim Lefebvre, saw Griffey’s star power even then.

“Every day, he’s showing some things why he’s going to be a great player,” Lefebvre told Baseball America. “The kid can do everything. You watch him.”

Though a broken bone in his hand derailed what could have been a Rookie of the Year season in 1989, it did not slow Griffey down in the long run. He would win Gold Glove Awards and a spot on the All Star team each year in the 1990s.

And in 2016, he earned baseball’s greatest honor – along with Piazza, who combine to form one of the most unique classes in Hall of Fame history.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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