- Perhaps the most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that major league teams continue to use first-round picks for high school pitchers. You could call it the Brien Taylor/Todd Van Poppel phenomenon. If you study the issue, it is just stunningly obvious that the frequency with which these draft picks pay off is something like one-third to one-quarter of the payoff rate for other first-round picks. It has been obvious for twenty years that this is a stupid, stupid game, to use a first-round pick for a high school pitcher -- yet every year, four to seven first-round picks are invested in these turkeys.
-- Bill James, "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract"
That book came out in 2001, so the obvious question: Have things changed? Are high school pitchers still turkeys? Keith Law has a column looking back at the 2002 draft -- the infamous "Moneyball" draft, but also a year that included first-round high school selections Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. Pass the gravy, please.
The draft began in 1965. Through 1986 it included various secondary phases, primarily for those players who had been previously drafted. For the purpose of this piece and for what Bill James was referring to, I'm focusing on the regular June phase. First, to verify Bill's statement, let's compare high school pitchers versus college pitchers for the first 30 years of the draft. (Bill probably wrote the above in 2000, so couldn't have properly evaluated the late '90s drafts at that point.)
From 1965 through 1994, 167 high school pitchers were drafted in the first round (I did not count supplemental first-round picks). Nineteen of them would end up compiling a career Baseball-Reference.com WAR total of at least 10.0 -- or 11 percent of those selected. From 1965 through 1994, 140 college pitchers were drafted in the first round. Thirty-four compiled a career WAR of at least 10.0, or 24 percent. So using that arbitrary cutoff point as a measure of success, college pitchers were twice as likely to have a solid major league career.
Here, the top 20 pitchers in each grouping.
So it's pretty clear that drafting college pitchers was a better investment. And to show there isn't some bias based on draft position involved here, there were 33 college pitchers in this era selected in the top five picks and 34 high school pitchers.
What have we seen in the past 17 years, since 1995? There has been a philosophical change; there have been 157 college pitchers selected in the first round compared to 110 high school pitchers. In "Moneyball," Billy Beane memorably made an emphasis about drafting undervalued college players. In truth, that belief was already in motion by the 2002 draft, at least in terms of pitchers. Over the previous 10 drafts, there had been 94 college first-round pitchers compared to 66 high school first-rounders.
Obviously, many of the careers from the 1995-2011 draft years are still in progress or just beginning, so these numbers will change. So far, 18 college pitchers have accumulated at least 10 WAR (11 percent); 16 high school pitchers have accumulated at least 10 WAR (15 percent). Those 16 high school pitchers have also accumulated more WAR than the 18 college guys -- 382.7 to 295.6.
The top high school pitchers include Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Cain, Greinke, Hamels, Jon Garland, Adam Wainwright, John Danks, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. High schoolers potentially on the rise (yet to accumulate 10 WAR) include Madison Bumgarner, Phil Hughes and Rick Porcello. The top college pitchers include Barry Zito, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, Ben Sheets, Jeremy Guthrie, Mark Mulder, Matt Garza, Ricky Romero and David Price. Guys on the rise include Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer, Daniel Bard, Brandon Morrow, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale.
So, front offices and scouts have flipped James' investment advice around. High school pitchers have become equal -- or better -- investments than college pitchers. So what happened? Some theories:
1. High school pitchers were "overdrafted" in early drafts. While college baseball wasn't as mature in the 1960s and 1970s as it is now, there was also bias against college players in the early years of the draft. For example, from 1965 through 1978 only 17 college pitchers were selected in the first round compared to 97 high school pitchers. This held true for position players as well. In 1971, for example, all 24 first-round picks were high school players. A college infielder named Mike Schmidt went in the second round. In 1976, only three high schoolers were drafted in the first round. Simply put, old-school baseball guys often preferred high school kids over college players for no other reason than they were high school kids.
2. Selection bias. If more kids (especially more talented kids) are playing college baseball than in the '60s and '70s, that could suggest only the best high school pitchers are now getting drafted in the first round. Instead of drafting high school arms and letting the rigors of pro ball weed out the best ones, front offices eventually realized the smarter approach was to let college baseball essentially do that weeding out -- whether it be from a talent level or from a pitcher's ability to avoid injury. Thus, the ratio slowly flipped toward more college pitchers getting selected.
3. Increased signing bonuses. When the Kansas City A's made Rick Monday the first No. 1 pick in 1965, they gave him a signing bonus of $104,000 -- actually far less than the $205,000 the Angels had given Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt the year before. Bonus payments remained relatively stagnant for 20-plus year after that. In 1987, top pick Ken Griffey Jr. received $160,000 to sign. It's perhaps no coincidence that as bonus payments began escalating in the early '90s, the quality of high school first-round pitchers improved. Where before kids committed to college, the million-dollar bonuses provided more incentive to enter pro ball right out of high school.
4. Protecting young arms. This is arguably the biggest reason high school pitchers now fare better. Organizations are more careful with high school pitchers than they were in the 1960s, '70s and '80s and even into the mid-'90s, limiting innings and enforcing strict pitch counts in the minors. Some point to the heavy minor league workloads and subsequent arm injuries suffered by the Mets' trio of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen in the '90s as a turning point in how prospects are protected; some point to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, although their injuries occurred after reaching the majors. In truth, it's been a slow evolution over the past 20 years, from better medical treatment, better coaching and, yes, limiting pitch counts.
5. Better scouting. The top-rated kids get exposed to better competition now via showcase events, summer teams and so on. A kid in the 1970s may have played only against weak local competition. So scouts see pitchers performing against better hitters, maybe see their ability to adjust or throw more secondary pitches. It has to make the process evaluating 17- or 18-year-old kids a little easier. And, more simply, maybe scouts just do a better job now. "Moneyball" pokes fun at the "good face" anecdote old-time scouts used to judge, but it's also true that scouts did use that assessment at times. The days of situations like the Minnesota Twins drafting a high school outfielder named Kevin Brandt -- who would play just 47 professional games -- with the 11th overall pick because he impressed them during a batting practice session are long gone.
Now, all this doesn't mean drafting high school pitchers doesn't come without risk. After all, in that 2002 draft Greinke was drafted sixth, Hamels 17th and Cain 25th. Drafted third, fourth and fifth were three guys named Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen and Clint Everts.
Three high school pitchers.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.