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Risk With High School Righties Overstated

by Jim Callis
July 13, 2004

HOUSTON--It's one of the Ten Commandments of the statistical revolution:

Thou shalt not draft high school righthanders in the first round.

Allow me to blaspheme.

While I don't blindly buy into the complete cult of "Moneyball," I will acknowledge that there are lessons to be learned from the book, most notably the value of exploiting market inefficiencies. And I do believe statistics are a crucial part of the evaluation process for prospects.

A year ago, a prominent national columnist wrote that general managers know statistics prove that they can get a major league starting righthander out of high school in the 20th round as in the first.

There are just two problems with that statement. There wasn't a single righty drafted out of high school in the 20th round or later that was in a big league rotation at the time. And statistics prove no such thing.

In a study of the first 10 rounds of the 1990-97 drafts last year, I found that regardless of round or position, high schools held their own versus colleges in terms of producing talent. The colleges' only pronounced edge came in the number of cup-of-coffee players who reached the majors. With significant players, the two crops were virtually even, and high schools generated more star-caliber talent (4.3 to 2.3 percent).

Don't just take my word for it, however. A club official recently examined the performance of all pitchers drafted in the first round from 1990-98 and sent me the results--which reinforced mine.

Numbers Don't Lie

Fifty righthanders were drafted and signed out of colleges in the first round, compared to 35 from the prep ranks. Forty-one (82 percent) of the college pitchers reached the majors, while 25 (71 percent) of the high schoolers made it to the top.

Filter out the fringe players, and high school righthanders have a slightly better chance of having a significant career. That's not a misprint. Eleven (31 percent) of the high schoolers became average or better major leaguers, as opposed to 15 (30 percent) of the collegians.

Colleges did yield more above-average righthanders, with five (10 percent): Billy Koch (OK, the club official might have been feeling a bit charitable), Brad Lidge, Matt Morris, Mike Mussina and Aaron Sele. Just two high schoolers (6 percent) became stars, though Kerry Wood and Roy Halladay may accomplish more than anyone in the college group with the possible exception of Mussina.

Teams do win with stars, but how big is the difference? If a club decided to take a college righty in the first round every year, it would come up with an additional blue-chip pitcher once every 25 years than if it went with a prep righthander each time.

Also contrary to popular belief, the high schoolers aren't more likely to break down than the older and more physically mature collegians. I compiled medical data and found that 18 (51 percent) of the prep righties needed an elbow or shoulder operation within five years of being drafted. The college righthanders went under the knife with arm problems nearly as often, with 23 (46 percent) requiring surgery.

'You Just Don't Know'

If I were running a draft, I'd feel a little safer going with a college righthander than a high school righty. There's less projection involved with college pitchers, and they've faced much tougher competition. No question.

But looking at recent drafts, there's no statistical basis for running away from high school righthanders. They might have paled in comparison to their college counterparts in the early days of the draft, but not any longer.

Bill James once studied the top 50 picks in the 1965-83 June regular drafts and found that college players returned twice the value of high schoolers, though that's an entirely different era from today. The single June draft as we know it today didn't exist until 1987.

I haven't studied the 1980s draft results, and it wouldn't surprise me if college righthanders left prep righties in their dust during that decade. Again, however, that was a vastly different era. Teams weren't aggressive signing premium high school picks and the NCAA had yet to institute scholarship and coaching cutbacks, so the talent level in college was at an all-time high.

This isn't the 1980s. And high school righthanders have continued to make a name for themselves in the first rounds of recent drafts.

Josh Beckett, anyone? Is there a team out there that wouldn't want Zack Greinke? Jeremy Bonderman and Adam Wainwright already have fetched a bundle on the trade market, and Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain, Clint Everts and Gavin Floyd would do the same--if their clubs would part with them.

Cain, Everts and Floyd were on hand at the Futures Game, showcasing their dazzling stuff. All were puzzled by the notion that high school righthanders would be a notably higher risk than any other demographic.

"If you're ready out of high school, go ahead and get your career started," said Everts, the fifth overall pick in 2002 draft. "There's always a chance you can go to college and you could hurt yourself, or you could get a lot better. But that's three years from now and you just don't know."

Amen. You just can't know with any degree of certainty what you'll get out of the draft. Keeping an open mind only can help.

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