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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Drafting Strategies: High School vs. College Pitchers

Disclaimer: All the intelligent ideas and insights in this article were basically lifted from various articles at Baseball Prospectus. Hope they don't mind too much.

Recently, Kevin Goldstein continued his Draft Notebook series, this time focusing on high school players. I see a lot of posts over at RedsZone and elsewhere that complain about MLB teams taking high school pitchers in the first round. I think a lot of this comes from folks that have read Michael Lewis's provocative book, Moneyball. Perhaps it comes down to this quote:
"In any case, you had only to study the history of the draft to see that high school pitchers were twice less likely than college pitchers, and four times less likely than college position players, to make it to the big leagues. Taking a high school pitcher in the first round--and spending 1.2 million bucks to sign him--was exactly the sort of thing that happened when you let scouts have their way. It defied the odds; it defied reason." p.16
Nevertheless, things seem to be changing since the studies that Lewis refers to, which can be traced back to Bill James' 1985 Baseball Abstract, were done. Rany Jazayerli, at Baseball Prospectus, published a great study last year investigating success rates of high school vs. college players taken in the first three rounds of the draft. He took the interesting approach of comparing not only college vs. high school pitchers and hitters, but he also split his dataset into two groups: players selected between 1984-1991, and players selected 1992-1999. He quantified player success as Wins Above Replacement Players (WARP) in the major leagues. Here are his data:

1984-1991 1st Rnd 2nd Rnd 3rd Rnd Average
HS Hitters 10.82 1.42 0.69 4.31
HS Pitchers 4.62 4.17 1.50 3.43
COL Hitters 17.82 4.01 6.75 9.53
COL Pitchers 14.39 5.29 3.22 7.63





1992-1999 1st Rnd 2nd Rnd 3rd Rnd Average
HS Hitters 10.72 3.14 1.76 5.21
HS Pitchers 9.40 3.20 1.61 4.74
COL Hitters 17.28 6.07 3.07 8.81
COL Pitchers 10.95 4.11 1.11 5.39

As you can see, among the '84-'91 players, there was a dramatically lower likelyhood that a high school pitcher would contribute wins in the big leagues compared to any other category of player taken in the first round. By the second round, the difference wasn't as severe, but college pitchers continued to be a better selection (on average) than high school pitchers or hitters. Therefore, it's pretty understandable why so many people dislike taking high school pitchers early in the draft.

The '92-'99 players performed very differently, however. College pitchers still had the edge, but their average career WARP decreased substantially. In contrast, high school pitchers' WARP increased a great deal compared to the players drafted in the 80's. Furthermore, by the 3rd round, the advantage of college vs. high school pitchers seemed to have evaporated. I think this is an absolutely astonishing result (and I highly recommend getting at least a $5 one-month subscription to Baseball Prospectus to read the entire 8-article series on this draft study; I've only scratched the surface of what Jazayerli found here).

What has happened? The consensus idea seems to be that it all comes down to the dramatic increase in signing bonuses in the early '90's. In the '80's, a high school pitcher used to have to make a decision between a full-ride college scholarship and a comparably-valued professional signing bonus. Now, MLB teams are now offering millions to first round picks, as well as various education programs and other perks to seduce high school talent to "go pro." How many players would turn down a million dollars to take a 40k scholarship and go to college? Consequently, clubs are now getting a lot of the top pitching talent straight out of high school, instead of letting them go through the college system.

So at this point, it looks like it may be ok to go after high school pitching talent early in the draft, at least in some cases. I cited another BP article a few weeks back that recommended three criteria that one should look for in a high school prospect: a) good velocity with some control, b) a plus secondary pitch, and c) sound mechanics. In other words, if you take a high school pitcher, take someone who is already fairly well polished and thus is projectable.

From Goldstein's latest draft notebook, I think there are two players who exemplify the type of players one should consider, and should not consider, in an early-pick high school pitcher. First, the good one:
The safest high school arm may reside in Stillwater, Oklahoma. 6'4" lefthander Brett Anderson has dominated all year and is the rare prep hurler with a full repertoire of pitches, including a 91-94 mph fastball, a plus curve and a solid changeup. "He's the total package when you look at his size and his stuff," said one scouting director. "He's just very advanced for his age and has an excellent feel for his craft." Anderson's father, Frank, is the head coach of Oklahoma State, but both father and son have made it clear to teams that Anderson is ready to begin his pro career after high school, as Anderson currently looks like an early first-round pick.
Based on this report (I know nothing else about him), I'd be pleased if we signed this guy. He sounds like an excellent pick: left handed, good stuff, polished, etc. The only thing I'd like to hear more specific info on is his control. Even so, it sounds like this is a guy who could quickly advance through a minor league system and arrive in the big leagues within 4 or 5 years (or so).

And now, here's a guy we should NOT take, at least not early on:
Teams looking for pure projection have been traveling to Brooklyn, New York of all places to check out righthander Dellin Betances, pitching for Grand Street Campus. At 6'9", Betances delivers mid-90s heat on an extreme downward plane, and has shown the ability to spin a hammer curveball that has a long way to fall because of his height and high release point. Like many players in the Northeast, Betances doesn't have the experience of players in warm weather climates, and will be a long-term project for whoever drafts him. "He does offer a lot to dream on," said one scouting director. "But his command is all over the place and he's extremely crude." Another scouting director added, "I'm not taking him, but if somebody sees him on the right day, they could be easily convinced that he's worth seven-figures."
I'm sure he looks seductive, but that's exactly the sort of player I think of teams gambling on and losing when selecting high school pitchers. Big, strong, tons of power and potential, but almost impossible to project as to whether he'll turn into a superstar or wash out within three years.

The key is to be smart. The first two rounds are the most reliable in terms of the players you choose eventually producing in the big leagues, meaning that the players you take in those rounds are the easiest to project. Teams should take advantage of this projectability and take players that are known quantities. One should save one's biggest gambles for the later rounds, when the most projectable players are probably going to be scrubs anyway.