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Draft Dilemma: High School vs. College

By Jim Callis
May 8, 2003

Scouts like to gossip as much as Joan Rivers. Rumors are as much a part of the trade as stopwatches and radar guns.

There's this amazing athlete from, get this, Rhode Island–his name's Rocco Baldelli. I saw this high school kid, Colt Griffin, hit 100 miles an hour. Bobby Brownlie is done for the year, and he's going to fall.

The buzz this year centers around the increasing number of teams focusing on drafting college players. The degree of their ardor for collegians depends on whom you talk to. Among the stories making the rounds:

• The Athletics, Blue Jays and Red Sox aren't even bothering to scout high school players.

• Toronto won't reimburse scouts for expenses incurred to evaluate high schoolers.

• Oakland is concerned almost entirely with the statistical performance of collegians, especially their strikeout-walk ratios, tools be damned.

• When the A's took Jeremy Bonderman in 2001's first round, making him the only prep player they've selected in the first five rounds during the last four drafts, general manager Billy Beane was so disgusted that he threw a chair against a wall.

Fact and fiction get blended, and the serious scout must separate the two. The anecdotes make for good reading, but the teams involved deny them–with the exception of Beane's chair toss.

The A's, Blue Jays and Red Sox will concentrate heavily on college picks in the 2003 draft. So will the Padres and Rangers. They likely will be joined by the Astros, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Giants, Rockies and Yankees, all of whom have scouting directors who have heavily favored collegians in recent years.

The prevailing sentiment for avoiding high school players is that, because they require more projection and guesswork, they don't deliver as much of a return as their college counterparts.

That's the biggest untruth of all.

Baseball America has analyzed the 2,115 players who signed out of the first 10 rounds of the 1990-97 drafts. We didn't study any of the more recent drafts, because in most cases it's too early to determine how good the players will become.

The group includes 1,024 collegians, 398 of whom (38.9 percent) reached the major leagues. Among the 920 high schoolers, 259 (28.2 percent) did the same.

But most of that difference comes from fringe players, those who had brief cups of coffee or at best stayed in the majors for only a couple of years. Shifting the focus from sheer quantity to quality, we find that 90 college players (8.8 percent) and 77 high school players (8.4 percent) became at least major league regulars for a few seasons.

How insignificant is the difference? If a team drafted 250 collegians and had average success, it would find 22 regulars. Among prepsters, it would find 21. Finding the extra regular would require 250 picks–or roughly 25 years of drafting in the first 10 rounds, give or take a few free-agent compensation choices.

Though colleges produced slightly more regulars, high schools won the race for above-average players. They came out ahead in terms of good regulars (3.2 percent vs. 1.5 percent) and stars (1.1 percent vs. 0.9 percent). Once again putting that in terms of 250 draft picks, collegians generally would yield four above-average regulars and two stars. The prep ranks would generate eight above-average regulars and three stars.

These trends remain fairly consistent regardless of round or position.

Several of the teams that zero in on college players say they aren't surprised by these results. "We realize, especially among impact players, that there are a lot of guys who come from high school rather than just from college," says A's assistant general manager Paul DePodesta, who has done extensive draft research for Oakland. Rangers assistant GM for scouting and player development Grady Fuson and Padres scouting director Bill Gayton concur.

But on the other hand, Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi says, "We've got information that blows yours out of the water." Another GM, who didn't want to be identified in order to avoid tipping his team's hand, says his club's studies, which go into earlier years and deeper rounds, show that collegians have a significant edge over high schoolers.

Yet the drafts from 1965-89 were much different than those today. Baseball staged January and June drafts, each of which were split into regular and secondary phases that left many of the better college players ineligible for the June regular draft. The single June draft as we know it today didn't begin until 1987.

Bill James, the father of modern baseball analysis, once studied the top 50 picks in the 1965-83 June regular drafts. Now employed by the Red Sox as a senior baseball operations adviser, James found that college players returned nearly twice the value of high schoolers and were more likely to reach the majors, to become big league regulars, to become above-average regulars and to become stars.

But it wasn't until 1981 that teams began drafting more collegians than prep players in the early rounds. One reason for the shift is that the 1980s were the golden age of college baseball. Clubs often told top high school picks to take it or leave it, so future stars such as Barry Bonds (who didn't sign with the Giants over a difference of $6,000), Will Clark, Randy Johnson and Barry Larkin opted for college.

By the end of the decade, teams realized they were letting too much talent escape, and bonuses soared as they started to lock up the best high school talent. The college crops of the 1990s don't stack up to the 1980s, which makes the latter's draft performance less relevant.

As for picks beyond the 10th round, we didn't probe that far and can't pinpoint the exact success rates. There are a number of major leaguers who have flourished despite being afterthought college picks in the 1990s, such as Eric Hinske and Brian Lawrence (both 17th), David Eckstein (19th), Mike Lowell (20th), Rich Aurilia (24th) and Corey Koskie (26th).

Keep in mind, however, that collegians dominate the selections that low in the draft. It's hard to entice a high school player with four years of college eligibility to sign for a few thousand dollars. Nevertheless, several prep players emerged from humble draft origins in the 1990s, an indication they very well may hold their own in the late rounds.

In 1990 alone, the Yankees nabbed Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round and Jorge Posada in the 24th, signing both a year later as draft-and-follows, and got Shane Spencer in the 28th. Other success stories include Kevin Millwood (11th), Jake Peavy (15th), Mike Cameron (18th) and Richie Sexson (24th).

In any case, teams spend the bulk of their draft budgets on the first 10 rounds. And there's no evidence, in the most recent drafts that we can judge accurately, that college players in those rounds turned out any better than the high schoolers.

That doesn't mean the college approach doesn't have its benefits. While picking college players didn't yield more quality players from 1990-97, it provided a 10.7 percent better chance of finding a player who at least would reach the majors. Because they're older and more advanced, collegians also will get to the big league more quickly than high schoolers. As a result, they develop trade value more quickly than prep players.

DePodesta says these are critical differences for the Athletics.

Oakland has advanced to the playoffs for three straight seasons and is a chic pick to win the World Series in 2003. At a financial disadvantage–the Yankees' payroll has been roughly three times that of the A's–Oakland has made up the difference with shrewd trades. Drafting college players has provided fodder for several of those deals, such as Jon Adkins for Ray Durham and Marshall McDougall for Ricardo Rincon last summer.

"More college guys get there, even if they're not necessarily better," DePodesta says. "We use a lot of guys in trades. Not only do we need guys to get there, we need assets to trade. We don't have the money to spend on free agents.

"College players are less risky. That's the bottom line, at least for us. We get more usable assets than if we took high school players."

Collegians are also cheaper than high school players. In 2002, the total of the average bonuses for high school players in each of the first 10 rounds (including the supplemental first round) came to $5.7 million. The total of the average bonuses for college players in those rounds was $4.9 million.

That $800,000 difference can be significant for a small-budget club. It represents more than the A's are paying John Halama or the Blue Jays are paying Chris Woodward this year. Teams can save even more money with college seniors, who have little bargaining power and come at roughly half the cost of a high school player taken in a similar position.

There also are advantages within certain narrower groups. Fuson, who started scouting for the A's in 1982 before becoming their scouting director in 1995, long suspected that high school pitchers drafted in the first two rounds were a poor gamble. Subsequent studies by Oakland and Texas confirmed his hunch, and our data concurs. In the first two rounds from 1990-97, just 49.5 percent of the prep pitchers who signed reached the majors, compared to 66.2 percent for college arms. Just 13.1 percent of the high schoolers became regulars, and a mere 1.8 percent blossomed into above-average regulars or stars, while the college figures were significantly higher at 20.1 and 5.8 percent.

Scouting often is about having a gut feel about a player because there's no way to know what an amateur player will become five years down the road when he's using or pitching against wood bats. Beyond quantifiable data, the main reason many of these teams favor collegians is that they're more comfortable making the call with older players who have more of a track record. There's more guesswork involved with high schoolers, who also face inferior competition.

"From my end, I'm not that good. I can't tell you that high school kid is going to be a good player," Ricciardi says. "I can't look at a bunch of high school cheerleaders and tell you this one will be Miss America, this one will be Katie Couric and this one will be a heavy housewife. I can't tell you which one will be the belle of the ball. I'm just not that good. I've been wrong more than I've been right.

"It's the known versus the unknown. 'I know I'm right' versus the unknown chance I might be right. It's like the stock market. College players are better investments than high school kids. The high school kid allows you to dream. He allows you to sit there and say, 'Oh my God! He's going to be this and this and this.' I can't tell you that he will be. The college guys, you can say that he is this and this and this."

Says Gayton: "I don't look at it as a majority of our guys are going to be college guys. I look it as we're going to sign guys with a little more present. It's just a narrower gap between the present and future, and we hope some will exceed our expectations. Call it what you want. I like to call it more advanced present tools.

"Are they safer picks? Sure. We have more history. We know more about the medical, we know more about the psychological, we know more about their successes. It's all part of the whole puzzle."

No team is associated more closely with drafting college players than the A's. And despite the recent attention they've drawn for the practice, that's been their overriding philosophy since Charlie Finley sold the club in 1980.

Oakland's last draft under Finley was a disgrace, as farm director Walt Jocketty had to make picks without having a single scout on staff. Before that, the A's spent much of the 1970s using first-round picks on high school players who didn't sign or didn't pan out.

Dick Wiencek came aboard as scouting director in December 1980, and the A's didn't take a single high schooler with their 11 picks in the first 10 rounds of the June 1981 draft. Six of the collegians reached the majors, including Mike Gallego, Curt Young and Mickey Tettleton.

Wiencek hired Fuson as an area scout in 1982. Gayton and Ricciardi roomed together when they joined the A's in similar positions three years later. When other teams raided Oakland for executive talent, Fuson, Gayton and Ricciardi took their convictions about college players with them to their new clubs.

They've continued to spread those beliefs. When the Padres made Gayton their scouting director in September 2000, Theo Epstein was their director of baseball operations. Epstein worked closely with Gayton and now is the GM of the Red Sox, who are shifting from a high school to a college approach in 2003.

The book "Moneyball," which will be released in June by W.W. Norton, reinforces Oakland's reputation for favoring college players. Author Michael Lewis portrays the A's as an organization obsessed with statistics and hell-bent on using them to turn scouting into a science.

According to Lewis' account of last year's draft, the A's believe it's sheer madness when eight of the first nine picks are spent on high school players. They take collegians with each of their 16 picks in the first 10 rounds, gleefully spending the 35th overall pick on Alabama catcher Jeremy Brown.

Brown likely would have lasted five more rounds because he doesn't have a classic pro body, but Oakland fixates on his high walk-strikeout ratio and home run totals and won't risk the chance of losing him. (What isn't mentioned is that as a college senior, he'll sign for $350,000, making him all the more attractive to a team with seven first-round selections and a limited draft budget.)

In "Moneyball," the A's come off like they believe they've revolutionized the draft. Not true, says DePodesta. "It's not the statistics," he says. "It's that we've seen them against better competition. We might have seen them with wood bats in the Cape Cod League or Alaska. The big thing is maturity. We have a much better grasp of that when they're 21 than when they're in high school. College players aren't always more emotionally mature. But we've had three more years to figure it out."

DePodesta and Fuson can't figure out why everyone thinks the teams that prefer college players must also be allergic to high schoolers. Oakland star Eric Chavez was a prep first-rounder in 1996. Chavez and Ben Grieve, another high schooler, were the franchise's best first-rounders from 1985-97.

Bonderman also has worked out well. The A's used him to obtain Ted Lilly and the players they traded to get Erubiel Durazo, whom Beane had coveted for years, while Bonderman reached the majors ahead of schedule this April with the Tigers. (For the record, DePodesta says Beane hurled that chair because Oakland hadn't planned for all its coveted players getting selected, not because Bonderman was a high school player.)

Beane personally went to scout a half-dozen high school players as potential first-round picks last year. Fuson says he would have taken Texas high school righthander Clint Everts with the 10th overall pick had the Expos not grabbed him at No. 5. Gayton's three high school picks from the first 10 rounds of the last two drafts–second baseman Josh Barfield, righthander David Pauley and lefthander Sean Thompson–have made positive early impressions.

Ricciardi brought the Oakland approach to a Toronto organization that had emphasized athleticism and projection. He gets tired of the criticism that gets back to him: that the Blue Jays are arrogant or misguided, that they won't touch a high school player under any circumstances in the early rounds of the draft.

"We're all being polarized into one group," Ricciardi says. "It's just the way we choose to do it. It's not better than anyone else. It's cost-effective. Players get to the big leagues quicker. But you hear so many false things about what we're doing, it gets to be pretty annoying.

"When Mike Krzyzewski goes recruiting for Duke, he's not looking for players who can play at Princeton. He's looking for players who can play at Duke. That's all we're trying to do. We're looking for our type of player. There's nothing wrong with identifying your type of player, signing your type of player and developing your type of player to get your type of player."

Being viewed with suspicion may be preferable to being emulated. Gayton says there always will be some clubs that will siphon off projectable high school talent before it can reach colleges. If more teams decide to pursue college players, there will be fewer good ones to go around. And probably less gossip as well.

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