Worst First-Round Picks – #8
A reminder, here’s our methodology.
Worst First-Round Picks — #8
2005 – John Mayberry, Jr.
This week, we celebrate the 241st birthday of a nation founded on the backs of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. We celebrate the strength of that nation, built, as with all great nations, on the proverbial shoulders of those founding fathers and mothers who came before us.
And we celebrate, in our way, our frailty, and our failure, and our striving to reach a standard set to soar on eagles wings—the greatness of our founding fathers.
Like so many of us, John Mayberry, Jr. was first shielded by his father’s shadow. He basked in it, rose beyond it for the fleeting flash of potential, then slipped into its shade.
To know the son, we must know the father, but to know why we need to know the father, we must look at the ways we described the son.
The first report on him (where he was a high school senior, was drafted in the first round, but didn’t sign) started, ominously, with a comparison to his father:
Unlike his father John Sr., a thick Royals all-star in the 1970s, Mayberry is a finely tuned 6-foot-4, 195-pound athlete. He’ll move to the outfield on a permanent basis once he turns pro, and he has the range and arm to be an asset out there. Mayberry’s build is reminiscent of Jermaine Dye’s. As great as Mayberry looks in uniform, some scouts wish he had produced more this spring. He has strength and a solid approach, yet he didn’t feast on the subpar pitching he faced. There’s some doubt about his bat speed. As one scouting director put it, “He could be Dave Winfield, or he could be Jimmy Hurst,” alluding to the athletic outfield prospect who couldn’t make it with the White Sox. Mayberry’s mother wants him to attend Stanford, but teams believe he’s “sign-able” as long as a Stanford scholarship is part of the package.
In that report—ironically, the 2002 “Moneyball” draft—Mayberry screams of Billy Beane’s archetypical “good look, bad ballplayer.” Three years of Stanford will mature any player. Mark Marques’ teams from the 1990s and 2000s were a constant PAC 10 powerhouse and College World Series contender. They played the college baseball version of college football’s “system offense.” There was the “Stanford way”—pitching, situational hitting, owning the opposite field contact stroke at the sacrifice of power, and the some more pitching.
Coming out of Stanford, here’s Baseball America’s scouting report on Mayberry, Jr. at he moved into his Jr. season’s draft:
The most recent first-round draft pick to go unsigned, Mayberry has an excellent shot of becoming one of the few players in draft history to be picked in the first round twice. It last happened last year, when Vanderbilt lefthander Jeremy Sowers was picked by the Indians after spurning the Reds three years earlier. Mayberry hit .333-16-62 as an all-Pacific-10 Conference performer in 2004, but was hitting a more pedestrian .307-6-45 this year–numbers that belie his considerable tools and upside. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Mayberry has considerable power potential but launches a tape-measure home run only occasionally in games. He shows excellent power in batting practice, but generally has been handled by quality college pitching. Most of his power is to the opposite field, reflective of the hitting style preached at Stanford. Scouts say he needs to shorten his swing because he can be busted inside–something he has worked to correct in the last year. All his hitting flaws are correctable, but it may take him 1,500 at-bats in the minor leagues. Mayberry has the athletic ability and arm strength to be an average corner outfielder, but he is a superior defensive first baseman–not to mention an inviting target for infielders. He runs well. Mayberry’s father was also a first-round pick, going sixth overall to the Astros in 1967. He played in the big leagues from 1968-82 with the Astros, Royals, Blue Jays and Yankees, and is a member of the Royals hall of fame.
So much of this pre-draft report would prove prescient. It’s almost eerie. But it closes with the shadow that would roll over his career and smother the connective sinew that bridges potential and performance.
John Mayberry was a two-time All-Star (1973–1974) for the Royals (where he found his greatest success, slashing .261/.374/.448 with 143 homers and 552 RBI, and a 561:457 walk to strikeout ratio across only six seasons. He was a player before his time, in many ways. He was a high-OBP, slugging, lumbering first-baseman who would not have been out of place in an Oakland infield 40 years past his prime.
That’s a heavy mantle to carry, but it came with a caveat: in one of the Royals’ most critical moments, Mayberry failed in his responsibility and forever tainted his legacy, at least in part. During the 1977 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Mayberry arrived late for the afternoon prep for Game 4 after a late-night outing. Mayberry played very poorly on both offense (striking out twice in two plate appearances) and defense (dropping a foul pop and a routine infield throw). Mayberry’s uninspired play prompted Whitey Herzog to bench him midway through Game Four and to leave him out of the starting lineup for the decisive fifth game.
Herzog later blamed Mayberry for the Royals’ failure to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS and demanded Mayberry’s dismissal from the team.
His father’s son
So a heroic player—indeed, a Royals team Hall of Famer—who fell short in his finest hour, of his own doing. That’s something a son would hear about, often. But that’s speculation. That’s me. That’s not John. I can’t find a single article that SAYS John heard about his dad growing up.
But I know he did. We all do. We know he heard about every physical similarity, every home run that landed somewhere where only “the old man had hit one”. Every…everything. Because we’re human, and many of us are human in the worst of ways, and we try to not just stretch that shadow longer, but call down the darkness.
Now, remember that scouting report before? The one from Stanford, where they talk about a vulnerability inside? Here’s Baseball America’s 2006 scouting report on Mayberry, Jr. That 2006 season was as close as he came to matching his father’s legacy:
The son of a former all-star and somewhat of a surprise pick at No. 19 overall in the 2005 draft, Mayberry pulled a hamstring in spring training and struggled in the first half of his first full season. After changing his batting practice routine and working to shorten his swing, he improved against inside fastballs and hit .304 with 11 homers in the final two months. He kept it going in Hawaii Winter Baseball, leading all hitters with a .545 slugging percentage. Long and athletic, Mayberry’s raw tools are exceptional, and he’s starting to tap into his mammoth raw power, though the Rangers want him to improve his overall hitting with the belief his power will come later. Mayberry has good speed, a plus arm and is getting more comfortable in right field. The Rangers knew Mayberry would be a long-term project when they drafted him, and despite his progress he still needs to improve his timing and patience at the plate, as well as his ability to pull the ball. More of a first baseman in college, he’s working on his jumps and throwing accuracy in the outfield. Mayberry’s exceptional tools could make him a superstar if he figures everything out. He’ll likely advance one level a year, making high Class A Bakersfield his next step.
That jump, like many that followed in the Rangers system, didn’t go well.
Here are his key stats in the Rangers system prior to a 2009 meaningless deal to the Phillies:
That trade to the Phillies gave him the chance for his one decent season, 2011, where he put up solid numbers for a pennant-contending Phillies team:
That season, sadly, has been an aberration. In a full six years with Philly and one partial season each, with Toronto and New York, he largely found his place as a platoon and pinch hitter. For his career, across more than 1,500 plate appearances, he’s slashed just .235/.299/.421 with 56 career homers. Not bad for a mid-round pick. Not much for a first rounder. Very poor for a two-time first-round pick and All-Star’s son.
By now, we all should know that a guy who actually had a solid season, and who’s put up at least decent power numbers, would be bottom 10. The Rangers have had ten draftees or more in Round 1 who never sniffed the show. So Mayberry wasn’t his father. So what?
So, we have to go to our favorite forlorn refrain: “What might have been?”
The kid from Oregon
Well, the Rangers took JMJ at 19. At 23, the Red Sox took one of those players who either made a program or was “made by” a program. But that’s where the similarity to JMJ stopped. See, Jacoby Ellsbury, out of College World Series surprise but soon-to-be perennial Oregon State, just flat-out hit. And did everything else. Did he have “the look”? Yes. But there weren’t quite the same, “Show me in a game” challenges as came with JMJ’s power. Here’s Baseball America on Jacoby before that 2005 draft:
“…Ellsbury, who comes from a small high school in rural central Oregon, chose to stay home and he has been handsomely rewarded. Not only has he become a potential first-round pick, but Oregon State is having its best season ever, rising to No. 3 in the nation. Ellsbury’s .426 average was among the national leaders and he led the Beavers in every key offensive category, including home runs and RBIs–as the team’s leadoff hitter. He has few holes in his game and is capable of beating teams in a lot of ways. He has excellent makeup and instincts. His best tool is his speed, and it’s evident both on the bases and in center field, where he catches everything hit his way. He has been clocked in 6.55 seconds over 60 yards. His biggest improvement has been in his approach at the plate. He has become more patient, rarely swings and misses and is comfortable hitting with two strikes. In his first 235 plate appearances this season, he fanned 11 times while drawing 28 walks. His style of play and physical appearance have drawn comparisons to Johnny Damon at a similar age, but scouts say Ellsbury has a better swing. They question whether he’ll grow into the same power, though. They see him as more of a doubles and triples hitter. Boston has a big interest in Ellsbury, but they don’t pick until 23rd overall and may not have an opportunity to get him.”
The Red Sox, of course, did get Ellsbury. The rest has been an injury plagued but very fruitful history, first for the Red Sox and then the Yankees.
Ellsbury was third in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2008. In 2009, he flashed the leather and speed he was known for throughout the game: Ellsbury finished the season with 70 stolen bases, the most in the American League, and he also led the league in triples with 10, while winning Defensive Player of the Year in MLB.com’s annual This Year in Baseball Awards 2009. 2010 was the first of a few injury plagued seasons, but it portended his pinnacle 2011 campaign.
In 2011, Ellsbury also won the Gold Glove Award, the Silver Slugger Award, and was the American League MVP runner-up. Ellsbury finished the season with career highs in home runs (32), hits (212), RBIs (105), runs (119), and batting average (.321). He finished as one of only two qualifying players to complete the season with a 1.000 fielding percentage. Despite the MVP runner-up, he was voted the American League Comeback Player of the Year.
His Boston vs NY splits show the ravages of age and injury, but his contract with the Yankees still runs through 2021:
- Boston (7 seasons): .297/.350/.439
- New York (5 seasons): .265/.327/.385
All in all, though, when you look at Ellsbury over a 162-game average, you have, simply put, an All-Star:
|Per 162 games||714||14||14||10||53.6%||0.821||0.285||0.76|
It was a gamble on build, power, and “projectability” over a low-floor, and simply put, the Rangers called it wrong. Mayberry made the show and has occasionally contributed. Ellsbury is an All Star. Tough break from the crystal ball.
Oh, since we harped so much on Mayberry’s heritage: Ellsbury is an enrolled member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes; his mother is full-blooded Navajo and his father is of English and German descent.
Ellsbury is the first Native American of Navajo descent to reach the major leagues. Talk about making your father proud.
Second to … one?
The 2005 draft doesn’t quite reach 1985 levels, but beyond that, it doesn’t pale beside many. Six of the first seven and eight of the top 12 picks went on to be All Stars. Here’s the first dozen, alone:
|1||Justin Upton||Arizona Diamondbacks||SS||Great Bridge High School (VA)|
|2||Alex Gordon||Kansas City Royals||3B||University of Nebraska|
|3||Jeff Clement||Seattle Mariners||C||USC|
|4||Ryan Zimmerman||Washington Nationals||3B||University of Virginia|
|5||Ryan Braun||Milwaukee Brewers||3B||University of Miami|
|6||Ricky Romero||Toronto Blue Jays||LHP||Cal State Fullerton|
|7||Troy Tulowitzki||Colorado Rockies||SS||Long Beach State University|
|8||Wade Townsend||Tampa Bay Devil Rays||RHP||Rice University|
|9||Mike Pelfrey||New York Mets||RHP||Wichita State University|
|10||Cameron Maybin||Detroit Tigers||CF||T. C. Roberson High School|
|11||Andrew McCutchen||Pittsburgh Pirates||CF||Fort Meade High School (FL)|
|12||Jay Bruce||Cincinnati Reds||CF||West Brook Senior High School (TX)|
Ellsbury and Clay Buchholtz were supplemental first-round picks.