If you read Michael Lewis' Moneyball after it was first released in 2003, you might remember what it had to say about high school pitchers in relation to the MLB draft.
The message—beware some NSFW language in that link—was along the lines of: "Stay the heck away. College pitchers are better."
When the book came out, that was very much true—especially when it came to first-round pitchers, as we'll discuss in a moment.
But we're also going to discuss something else. Recently, high school pitchers taken in the first round of the draft have been faring a lot better. Drafting high school arms in the first round is still a risk, but now the potential reward is big enough to make it worth it.
I went to Baseball-Reference.com and drew up a list of every pitcher ever taken in the first round of the draft since its inception in 1965. The list contains hundreds of high school and college pitchers—both four-year and junior-college types—taken in either the regular first round or the supplemental end of the first round.
I set my sights on the window between 1965 and 2008, as there are plenty of pitchers from more recent drafts who are still making their way to the majors and not many who have made it are established just yet.
I then went through and stripped away players who were drafted in the first round as pitchers and converted into position players, such as Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. I also omitted guys who were drafted but didn't sign, such as Mark Prior in 1998 and Gerrit Cole in 2008.
With the fat trimmed and the beans counted, the breakdown looked like this:
|Category||College Pitchers 1965-2008||High School Pitchers 1965-2008|
|Made Majors||253 (71.1%)||176 (57.3%)|
|Made Avg. WAR||6.65||7.23|
|100+ Appearances||147 (41.3%)||100 (32.6%)|
|100+ Avg. WAR||11.58||12.69|
*To qualify for the "Made Majors" group, one major-league appearance was enough.
Throughout the history of the draft, college pitchers have indeed been more successful in reaching the majors, and they've also had more staying power. That's a pretty big point for them.
But on the flip side is the big point that high school pitchers have going for them. Not as many of them have reached the majors, but those who have made the majors have compiled a better average WAR. Their production has been better.
That edge doesn't exist because high school pitchers have been better throughout the entire history of the draft. It exists because high school pitchers have been better in very recent history.
The love affair with college pitchers that started to gain steam roughly a decade ago was well-founded. If we restrict our window to 1965 to 1998, the breakdown looks like this:
|Category||College Pitchers 1965-1998||High School Pitchers 1965-1998|
|Made Majors||154 (74.8%)||127 (60.5%)|
|Made Avg. WAR||8.29||7.43|
|100+ Appearances||98 (47.6%)||76 (36.2%)|
|100+ Avg. WAR||13.19||12.56|
That's quite a difference. In the 1965-1998 window, college pitchers were making it to the majors and sticking in the majors at a higher rate, and they were generally more successful when they got there.
It helped that the college ranks produced some of the best pitchers ever. Roger Clemens, for example, is by far the best pitcher to ever come through the first round of the draft. The two guys immediately below him on the WAR charts are fellow collegiate guys: Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown.
Some darn good high school pitchers were picked in the first round during the 1965-1998 window, such as Roy Halladay in 1995 and CC Sabathia in 1998. But if you think back to the time Moneyball came out, Sabathia was just getting started, and Halladay's best days were still ahead of him. Baseball people were thus more likely to think of busts like David Clyde and Brien Taylor than they were to think of Halladay and Sabathia when it came to high school pitchers.
In the 10 drafts between 1999 and 2008, however:
|Category||College Pitchers 1999-2008||High School Pitchers 1999-2008|
|Made Majors||99 (66.0%)||49 (50.5%)|
|Made Avg. WAR||4.10||6.73|
|100+ Appearances||49 (32.7%)||24 (24.7%)|
|100+ Average WAR||8.36||13.09|
You can tell from the decline in the number of high school pitchers that teams bought into the "high school pitchers are bad" theory. And there's one area where things haven't changed, and that's that college pitchers are still getting to and sticking in the majors at a better rate.
But in terms of the average production of those who have made it, it's not even close. The high school pitchers who have made it have been more productive by leaps and bounds.
There are three college pitchers drafted in the first round between 1999 and 2008 who are active now and sitting on a career WAR of at least 25.0: Justin Verlander, Barry Zito and Jered Weaver. Not a bad mix there, as you've got two Cy Young winners and a guy with a 38-13 record over the last two full seasons.
However, there are six high school pitchers drafted in the first round between 1999 and 2008 who are active and sitting on a career WAR of at least 25.0: Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. There, you have two Cy Young winners and several of the richest contracts in baseball (Kershaw should get his own any day now).
There are other former collegiate first-rounders worth noting, such as David Price, Clay Buchholz, Max Scherzer, Matt Garza and Tim Lincecum. But next to them are former high school first-rounders worth noting like Gio Gonzalez, Madison Bumgarner, Homer Bailey, Jarrod Parker and Rick Porcello. It's not a select group of high schoolers hogging the star power and racking up the numbers.
Front offices are a lot smarter today than they used to be. It's only natural that they would have gotten better at zeroing in on the high schoolers worth picking in the first round. And though clubs haven't quite mastered the art of graduating high school arms to the majors, they're clearly being careful about not ruining the good ones.
And in case the thought crossed your mind, it's also not a given that high school pitchers are more at risk of injury than college pitchers.
I went digging around on Baseball Prospectus for major injuries—either major surgeries like Tommy John, labrum repairs, etc. or injuries that resulted in at least 100 days missed—suffered by each pitcher taken in the 1999-2008 window within five years of being drafted.
Not every pitcher had injury data available, but I was able to dig up 41 major injuries for the 150 college pitchers and 29 major injuries for the 97 college pitchers.
That's 27.3 percent versus 29.9 percent, which is way too small of a difference to draw a definitive conclusion about which side is more fragile than the other—especially in light of the apparent incompleteness of the records (which is to be expected given the elusive nature of injury information).
So whereas taking high school pitchers in the first round of the draft used to be a foolish endeavor, now the choice between college and high school pitchers has developed into the ultimate wager.
College pitchers are still the safer bet, as they have better odds of making it to the majors and pretty good odds of becoming productive players. High school pitchers are still a risky bet due to the trouble they have making it to the majors, but the odds of stumbling upon a star have gone way, way up.
And that may be why things are starting to turn around a little bit.
Between 2009 and 2012, there were 55 college pitchers and 54 high school pitchers taken in the first round of the draft. Things have evened out in a big way.
College pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale and Matt Harvey have made it and established themselves as stars, but high school pitchers Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez look like they're going to be special. Waiting in the wings are fellow high school first-rounders Dylan Bundy, Jameson Taillon and Taijuan Walker. They're among the best prospects in the game, and they could join a growing contingent of high school pitchers turned major-league stars.
If they do, it's only going to be clearer that using a first-round pick on a high school pitcher isn't the waste of time it used to be.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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Lead image courtesy of dailypress.com.