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Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The mixed history of high school pitchers

By David Schoenfield

Baseball's First-Year Player Draft begins Thursday and the first round is going to be heavy in pitching -- including heavy in high school pitching. Left-hander Brady Aiken is expected to become just the third high school pitcher selected first overall (after David Clyde in 1973 and Brien Taylor in 1991). High schoolers Tyler Kolek and Touki Toussaint are also projected as top-10 picks and all told Keith Law has six high school pitchers going in the first round of his mock draft.

With Aiken and Kolek expected to go in the top three, I thought it would be interesting to go back and check out the history of high school pitchers in the first round.

The draft began in 1965 and in the early years teams placed an emphasis on high schoolers. In part, this was because college baseball wasn't as advanced as now, but there was also some old-school bias against college players. In the first draft, 15 of the 20 first-round picks were high school players. The next year, 16 of 20 first-rounders were high schoolers. In 1970, 21 of 24 first-round picks were high schoolers and in 1971 all 24 first-rounders were high school players.

That was also the year the 11 high school pitchers were selected in the first round, the most ever. Two of them -- Frank Tanana and Rick Rhoden would go on to lengthy MLB careers -- but none of the five pitchers that went in the top 10 did much (combined career Wins Above Replacement for those five: 2.7). Meanwhile, the Phillies drafted a shortstop from Ohio University named Mike Schmidt in the second round.

Let's break up the draft into five-year chunks to check some data and results on high school pitchers to see how trends have changed over the years.

1965-1969
Total first rounders: 29
Top-10 picks: 16
Top five choices: Jon Matlack (39.7 WAR), Gary Nolan (25.9), Joe Coleman (23.7), J.R. Richard (22.3), Don Gullet (18.5).
Others with 10+ WAR: Ken Brett.

Nolan and Gullett reached the majors as teenagers with the Reds but arm injuries shortened their careers. Coleman actually debuted in September of 1965, the year he was drafted; he'd throw four straight years of 280 innings from ages 24 to 27 and was never the same after that.

1970-1974
Total first rounders: 37
Top-10 picks: 15
Top five choices: Frank Tanana (57.9), Rick Rhoden (35.9), Rick Sutcliffe (34.3), Scott McGregor (20.4), Larry Christenson (10.6).
Others with 10+ WAR: None.

As you can see, not a lot of success in this period. Of the 15 pitchers who went in the top 10, only Christenson reached even 4.0 career WAR. The five high schoolers who went in the top in 1971 is tied for the most ever. Their names: Jay Franklin, Roy Branch, Roy Thomas, Roger Quiroga and David Sloan. Certainly, it was a combination of bad picks, injuries and mismanagement that led to the failure for pitchers to develop in these years, as was the case of Clyde -- taken first overall by the Rangers in 1973 and immediately rushed to the majors.

Franklin was drafted second overall by the Padres and started 14 games for Class A Tri-City of the Northwest League that summer, completing eight of them while striking out 134 in 108 innings. The Padres actually called him up that September and he gave up three home runs -- one to Hank Aaron -- in the one game he started. That would be the only game he started in the majors. The next year he hurt his elbow and then his shoulder and missed the entire season. He pitched five more years in the minors but never made it back. A sign of the times in the pre-Tommy John surgery days.

Later, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 2011, he was living in a group home in Virginia. "I feel like I let a lot of people down because they were expecting so much out of me," Franklin told the Washington Post. "When I hurt my arm and didn’t make it, it was a big disappointment, not only to me, but I’m sure also for my family. ... I just accept the past, that’s all you can do. You can’t get away from it. I can’t get away from it. I have to go on and try to forget about it."


1975-1979
Total first rounders: 30
Top-10 picks: 14
Top five choices: Bruce Hurst (34.8), Mike Morgan (26.6), Bill Gullickson (23.6), Richard Dotson (16.3), Steve Trout (13.5).
Others with 10+ WAR: Scott Garrelts.

Draft philosophies began changing during this period. In 1975, a record-low 188 high school players were signed and in 1977, for the first time, more college players were drafted than high school players. Basically, teams were scrimping on money and signing college players was cheaper. This was also the era when several teams pooled their resources for the Major League Scouting Bureau, allowing them to save money.

1980-1984
Total first rounders: 23
Top-10 picks: 6
Top five choices: Dwight Gooden (53.2), Duane Ward (10.6), Brian Holman (9.3), Ron Robinson (8.2), Pete Smith (5.2).
Others with 10+ WAR: None.

In 1980 and '84, no high school pitchers were selected in the top 10. The college game had gained a lot of ground -- in part, because teams hadn't escalated signing bonuses at all, even for top picks. Rick Monday, the first pick in 1965, received $104,000. Darryl Strawberry, the first pick in 1980, received $152,000. Even in 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. signed for $160,000. Kids not drafted high didn't receive near those bonuses, thus making college an easier decision. Teams had also undoubtedly sensed that drafting high school pitchers was risky and college players were paying a high dividend.

1985-1989
Total first rounders: 18
Top-10 picks: 6
Top five choices: Alex Fernandez (28.9), Steve Avery (14.0), Kent Mercker (12.5), Brian Bohanon (8.9), Tommy Greene (7.1).
Others with 10+ WAR: None.

Fernandez, drafted 24th by the Brewers in 1988, didn't actually sign; the White Sox would draft him again, fourth overall in 1990. Note that three of the five pitchers who made it were drafted by the Braves -- Avery, Mercker and Greene. The highest-drafted high schoolers in this period were Avery, Willie Banks by the Twins and Roger Salked by the Mariners, all taken third overall. Banks never developed while Salked was a top prospect until he hurt his arm.

1990-1994
Total first rounders: 25
Top-10 picks: 7
Top five choices: Chris Carpenter (34.5), Steve Karsay (11.2), Shawn Estes (11.2), Jamey Wright (10.1), Todd Ritchie (6.3).
Others with 10+ WAR: None.

Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork has a terrific piece on the oral history of Taylor, the left-hander with the big fastball the Yankees took first overall in 1991. While Taylor hurt his shoulder in a bar fight, you can see there was a low success rate from this period, with only Carpenter having a significant big league career. You do wonder: Was the failure of many of the pitchers from this era one reason offense soared beginning in the mid-'90s, or did the steroids-inflated offense cause some of these guys to fail?

1995-1999
Total first rounders: 35
Top-10 picks: 8
Top five choices: Roy Halladay (64.7), CC Sabathia (55.0), Josh Beckett (35.2), Kerry Wood (27.7), Jon Garland (22.5).
Others with 10+ WAR: Gil Meche, Jake Westbrook, Brett Myers.

Halladay went 17th overall in 1995 and Sabathia 20th overall in 1998. Beckett, taken second overall in 1999, is one of just three high school pitchers taken in the top three since 1990 (James Taillon, second in 2010, and Chris Gruler, third in 2002, are the others).

2000-2004
Total first rounders: 33
Top-10 picks: 14
Top five choices: Zack Greinke (39.1), Cole Hamels (35.7), Matt Cain (32.8), Adam Wainwright (32.5), John Danks (20.9).
Others with 10+ WAR: Scott Kazmir, Chad Billingsley, Gio Gonzalez, Gavin Floyd.

An upswing in top-10 picks returned in this period, although only Greinke of the players listed above was a top-10 guy. While teams were getting much better at developing pitchers and keeping them healthy, five high schoolers went in the top 10 in 2000 and none reached the majors -- Mike Stodolka, Matt Harrington, Matt Wheatland, Mark Phillips and Joe Torres. Meanwhile, Wainwright went 29th that year. Still, we had a higher success rate for this period than any other, and you have to think that managing workloads in the minor leagues was a big reason why (and perhaps, just better scouting).

2005-2009
Total first rounders: 25
Top-10 picks: 6
Top five choices: Clayton Kershaw (34.1), Madison Bumgarner (13.3), Rick Porcello (8.0), Jarrod Parker (6.0), Shelby Miller (4.1).

Zack Wheeler is also in the group. Gerrit Cole was unsigned by the Yankees after going 28th overall in 2008. The highest-drafted high schooler in this period was Matt Hobgood, fifth overall by the Orioles in 2009. Kershaw went seventh in 2006 -- after five college pitchers.

2010-2013
Total first rounders: 24
Top-10 picks: 6

Jose Fernandez and Dylan Bundy are the two high schoolers to have reached the majors -- and both underwent Tommy John surgery, as has Taillon.