Around the MinorsMay 06, 2009
The MLB Draft: College or Prep... The Debate Continues
By Marc Hulet

For those of you who have been reading this site for a while, you probably know that one of my favorite things to write about is Major League Baseball's amateur draft. The 2009 draft is about a month away (June 9-10) so I though it might be a good time to take a look at one of the more popular debates around baseball, as well as the Internet.

There is a belief amongst some people that it is "safer" to pick a college player in the first round of the MLB amateur draft than it is to select a prep player. This belief was spawned - or at least made popular - by the Moneyball era. But is there really any such thing as a "safe" draft pick in baseball, given the nature of the beast? Baseball, unlike most other pro sports, generally requires top-ranked amateurs to spend many years honing their skills in the minor leagues before they are ready to play amongst the best athletes in the world in their chosen sport. The skill-level gap between Major League Baseball and amateur baseball is much larger than with football or basketball. And we haven't even mentioned the risk of injuries.

So let's take a look at the first rounds of the draft from 2001-2003 and see if the above belief has held true or not. We'll also break it down by position to see if college shortstops are more likely than, say, college catchers to meet expectations (We'll make the assumption that clubs are expecting a first-round pick to be at least a league-average regular at their position). There is a certain amount of subjectivity to deciding if a player has met expectations so you may disagree slightly with my opinions. As well, this type of study is difficult because players' stocks can fluctuate from year-to-year, but let's see how things play out. Players will be assigned either a (Pass) or (Fail) for meeting expectations. There are a couple (Undecided) as well.

* I was going to include 2004 and 2005 as well, but there were just too many players that had futures that were still too much up in the air.

2001 MLB Draft

College Hitters
Mark Teixeira, 1B (Pass)
Chris Burke, SS (Fail)
Jake Gautreau, 3B (Fail)
Gabe Gross, OF (Fail)
Mike Fontenot, 2B (Pass)
John-Ford Griffin, OF (Fail)
Bobby Crosby, SS (Pass)

High School Hitters:
Joe Mauer, C (Pass)
Casey Kotchman, 1B (Pass)
Josh Burres, SS (Fail)

College Success Rate: 3/7 (43%)
High School Success Rate: 2/3 (67%)

College Pitchers
Mark Prior, RHP (Pass)
Dewon Brazelton, RHP (Fail)
Josh Karp, RHP (Fail)
Chris Smith, LHP (Fail)
John VanBenschoten, RHP (Fail)
Kenny Baugh, RHP (Fail)
Aaron Heilman, RHP (Pass)
Brad Hennessey, RHP (Fail)
Jason Bulger, RHP (Fail)
Justin Pope, RHP (Fail)
Noah Lowry, LHP (Undecided)

High School Pitchers
Jeremy Sowers, LHP (Did Not Sign)
Gavin Floyd, RHP (Pass)
Colt Griffin, RHP (Fail)
Mike Jones, RHP (Fail)
Kris Honel, RHP (Fail)
Dan Denham, RHP (Fail)
Macay McBride, LHP (Fail)
Jeremy Bonderman, RHP (Pass)
Alan Horne, RHP (Did Not Sign)

College Success Rate: 2/10 (20%)
High School Success Rate: 2/7 (29%)

2002 MLB Draft

College Hitters:
Khalil Greene, SS (Pass)
Drew Meyer, SS (Fail)
Russ Adams, SS (Fail)
Nick Swisher, OF (Pass)
Josh McCurdy, SS (Fail)

High School Hitters:
B.J. Upton, SS (Pass)
Prince Fielder, 1B (Pass)
Scott Moore, SS (Fail)
Jeremy Hermida, OF (Pass)
James Loney, 1B (Pass)
Denard Span, OF (Pass)
Jeff Francoeur, OF (Pass)
Sergio Santos, SS (Fail)
John Mayberry, 1B (Did Not Sign)

College Success Rate: 2/5 (40%)
High School Success Rate: 6/8 (75%)

College Pitchers:
Bryan Bullington, RHP (Fail)
Jeff Francis, LHP (Pass)
Joe Saunders, LHP (Pass)
Royce Ring, LHP (Fail)
Bobby Brownlie, RHP (Fail)
Jeremy Guthrie, RHP (Pass)
Joe Blanton, RHP (Pass)
Ben Fritz, RHP (Fail)

High School Pitchers:
Matt Cain, RHP (Pass)
Cole Hamels, LHP (Pass)
Chris Gruler, RHP (Fail)
Adam Loewen, LHP (Fail)
Clint Evert, RHP (Fail)
Zack Greinke, RHP (Pass)
Scott Kazmir, LHP (Pass)

College Success Rate: 4/8 (50%)
High School Success Rate: 4/7 (57%)
Notes: Derick Grigsby, RHP, who was drafted out of community college, was not considered.

2003 MLB Draft

College Hitters:
Rickie Weeks, 2B (Pass)
Michael Aubrey, 1B (Fail)
Aaron Hill, SS (Pass)
Brian Anderson, OF (Fail)
David Murphy, OF (Pass)
Brad Snyder, OF (Fail)
Conor Jackson, 3B (Pass)
Brian Snyder, 3B (Fail)
Carlos Quentin, OF (Pass)
Mitch Maier, C (Fail)

High School Hitters:
Delmon Young, OF (Pass)
Chris Lubanski, OF (Fail)
Ryan Harvey, OF (Fail)
Ian Stewart, 3B (Pass)
Lastings Milledge, OF (Undecided)
Matt Moses, 3B (Fail)
Brandon Wood, SS (Undecided)
Eric Duncan, 3B (Fail)
Daric Barton, C (Undecided)

College Success Rate: 5/10 (50%)
High School Success Rate: 2/6 (33%)

College Pitchers:
Kyle Sleeth, RHP (Fail)
Tim Stauffer, RHP (Fail)
Paul Maholm, LHP (Pass)
Ryan Wagner, RHP (Fail)
Chad Cordero, RHP (Pass)
David Aardsma, RHP (Fail)
Brad Sullivan, RHP (Fail)

High School Pitchers:
Chad Billingsley, RHP (Pass)
Jeff Allison, RHP (Fail)
John Danks, LHP (Pass)

College Success Rate: 2/7 (29%)
High School Success Rate: 2/3 (67%)
Notes: Nick Markakis, OF, who was drafted out of junior college, was not considered.

* * *
So let's total things up:

College Hitters Success Rate: 10/22 (45%)
High School Hitters Success Rate: 10/17 (59% - three undecided)
College Pitchers Success Rate: 8/25 (32% - one undecided)
High School Pitchers Success Rate: 8/17 (47%)
Conclusions: Maybe clubs like Toronto need to re-think their reluctance to draft prep pitchers due to their "unpredictability." Drafting pitching in the first round was not a safe bet (less than 50%) regardless of picking a college or prep pitcher between 2001-03, but the college success rate was dismal. It would be interesting to see if this trend would hold true if we were to research the draft back another 10 years. Surprisingly, prep hitters also performed better than their college counterparts.

College Success Rates by:
Catcher: 0/1 (0%)
First Base: 1/2 (50%)
Second Base: 2/2 (100%)
Third Base: 1/3 (33%)
Shortstop: 3/7 (43%)
Outfield: 3/7 (43%)
Right-Handed Pitcher: 5/19 (26%)
Left-Handed Pitcher: 3/5 (60%)

Notes: Wow. College right-handers were really not the best choice, although they were by far the most popular. Yikes.

High School Success Rates by:
Catcher: 1/1 (100%)
First Base: 3/3 (100%)
Second Base: ---
Third Base: 1/3 (33%)
Shortstop: 1/4 (25%)
Outfield: 4/6 (67%)
Right-Handed Pitcher: 5/12 (42%)
Left-Handed Pitcher: 3/5 (60%)

Notes: Obviously high school second basemen are not a hot commodity, which is not overly surprising, considering a large number of MLB keystone players probably started out as shortstops in the minors. The prep first basemen that were chosen have performed pretty well.

Overall Conclusion (sort of):

So, is there any such thing as a safe pick? Not really. But interestingly enough, prep hitters were the more successful choice between 2001 and 2003, followed by... prep pitchers. Teams that chose prep prospects, in general, had a 53% success rate. Teams that chose a college prospect had a success rate of just 39%. Collectively, the three years studied is a pretty small sample size in the grand scheme of things, so we cannot really read too much into the numbers above, but what it does is provide some food for thought. It could also serve as a great starting point (or hypothesis) for a much larger study on the successes and failures of the Major League Baseball amateur draft.


Jeff Francis passes but Mark Prior doesn't?
Bobby Crosby passes but Gabe Gross doesn't?

I guess it depends on how you define 'meeting expectations', but many of these grades seem arbitrary at best.

Both tough choices, but Francis should be back after surgery, whereas Prior had a very short stay as an MLB pitcher. Crosby still has upside as a player at this point, whereas Gross is pretty much a fourth OF/PHer.

i feel like this article is not up to the typical standards that are seen on this website - mainly because it reads like people were just drunk at a sports bar and arbitrarily declaring who were "good" players.

I like the idea of this feature quite a bit. I also disagree about Prior VS some of the other passes. 650IP of a 3.50 is pretty damn good. Especially while Francis has just over 100 more IP and his ERA is significantly higher.

Chad Cordero passes? Maholm Passes (fewer IP worse ERA than prior)? Jeremy Bonderman passes on the strength of this last 300 crappy IP? I think his "upside" and Prior's are similar at this point.

I also disagree on Bobby Crosby having upside. He hasnt shown a pulse since 2005.

That said, cool column.

As other noted above these results, while interesting, are lacking in the metric of evaluation. Not entirely clear what the standard was.

That said, these results make me want to say "Duh!" There is a problem with the receipt of treatment, as the MLB teams get a chance to remove the cream of the prep crop before they enter the college system. So one should naturally expect HS to have higher "success rates" from a pure talent standpoint. So yeah, maybe the HS kid is a "safer" pick, the problem is HS players typically take longer to arrive at The Show. So teams must weigh not only expected future talent but also speed of arrival into the draft equation.

As long as players and teams can select players out of the "treatment" (college) we wont truly know which is the better route for development purposes.

I love this sort of analysis, but I'd love to see more than a simple pass/fail. I'd love to see some sort of impact that each player had from a scale of 0 to 5.

0 being a failure - never made it to the majors
1 being some major league time
2 being significant major league time (some sort of metric of Innings or Games played.)
3 being an every day player
4 being an impact player - on the leaderboards for their position
5 being major impact player - a leader or top 3 of of the leaderboards

Maybe another article on value for each player and the amount of sunk costs. Even a total for sunk costs for the entire range might fuel some fires of bad front offices.

Great article on an incredibly interesting topic, thanks for the read. I have a feeling this will just be a jumping point for a much deeper analysis. Can't wait to read some follow-ups.

Prior definitely was a tough choice, probably should have been a pass the more I think about it... I failed him because he never did reach the huge potential expected of him, but he did technically reach the level suggested of the article, which was league average or better - he just didn't do it for very long. There are definitely some great suggestions here for ways to build on the info... Which is one of the great things about the Web! Keep the ideas coming!

I agree it would have been better to rate the players' success on a gradient.

I wonder how this would look if you took the top x players in each category, as opposed to limiting it to the first round. Maybe if HSers were picked at the same rate as college ones, the result would be different.

This easiest, most encompassing and probably efficient way to measure the various players would to simply be to use players Wins Above Replacement. One could use either FanGraphs' or CHONE's WAR values. Anyone with a positive WAR value presumably is/was a major league player and those with high values are evidence that they are a success. I would probably count any player with a negative value as the same since we're really only concerned with whether they were an MLB quality player or not.

WAR also has the advantage that players could be graded on a smooth gradient rather than a binary scale. This should give a much better view of the overall success of each position, school level, etc.

As Mr. Russ was saying, on a certain level it makes a lot of sense that HS picks are safer, especially in the first round. Top HS picks are, generally, the best of the best at their age level, while the guys who are picked out of college were the "second tier" three or four years ago. There was never any doubt that Prince Fielder, for example, was a first round pick, even in HS, whereas just about every first rounder out of college was once looked at as a lower (2nd round to undrafted, in some cases) pick at some point in the not-too-distant past.

How can you justify that Mark Prior was a failure, but Bobby Crosby wasn't? Crosby has either been injured or playing below expectation every year since his rookie year.

Similar idea over at BeyondtheBoxscore:

I would think a college player would be a "safer" pick since they have had more years of development and have played against stronger competition. They would be more of a known quantity heading into the draft.

What's with calling out Toronto specifically? Have you seen how good there pitching is despite almost a whole staff on the DL? Picking on a GM's first two drafts (only the first pick of each) is not called for. Gord Ash, the previous GM, (now ASS GM for Milwaukee) picked Gabe Gross.

I think the best reason for college pitchers failing so badly is the way college managers and coaches abuse those pitchers, having them throw 130-140 pitches in multiple outings. It's all about win-now rather than the future of these young arms.

Brent, I think Marc was referring specifically to Ricciardi, and not as much to Toronto. If memory serves me right, Ricciardi was Beane's assistant in Moneyball, and shared/shares Beane's philosophy of aiming away from prep pitchers...hence the slight dig here.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is a great idea undone by sloppy execution. Something a little more complex than a binary rating system would help immensely, as well as a method of evaluation that relied a little more heavily on actual statistical analysis. Franceour is a pass? Other than that first half a season, and the fact that the Braves stubbornly keep running him out there, what makes him even an average outfielder?