Top 100 Draft Flashback: What Does It All Mean?

At What Positions Do Top Picks End Up?
Impact Players and Notable Flops
Greatest Pitcher Hits and Misses
What States Produce

While we're on the eve of this year’s draft, we're also taking a retrospective look at the top draft 100 picks—the cream of the amateur crop—from the 20 drafts from 1989-2008. The first four installments of the Top 100 draft flashback series explained our methodology and examined landing spots for position players and impact rates for both pitchers and players drafted among the top 100 picks.

In this installment, we’ll take a bigger-picture look at graduation rates and impact rates for top 100 picks, leading to a few theories about why the percentages break down the way they do. First up: position players.

Position Source Signed Graduate Graduate% Impact Impact% Top 5
C HS 81 26 32.1% 9 11.1%  162
C 4YR 65 34 52.3% 8 12.3% 92
SS HS 132 44 33.3% 11 8.3%  338
SS 4YR 73 35 47.9% 9 12.3%  177
2B HS 7 0 0.0% 0 0.0%  0
2B 4YR 22 9 40.9% 3 13.6% 92
3B HS 61 17 27.9% 6 9.8%  187
3B 4YR 47 27 57.4% 10 21.3% 202
OF HS 194 55 28.4% 23 11.9%  276
OF 4YR 153 72 47.1% 20 13.1% 180
1B HS 38 13 34.2% 5 13.2%  128
1B 4YR 44 19 43.2% 8 18.2% 273
 HS 513 155 30.2% 54 10.5% 1,091
 4YR 404 196 48.5% 58 14.4%  1,016
 TOTAL 917 351 38.3% 112 12.2% 2,107

Graduate = 100 MLB games • Impact = 10 career WAR • Top 5 = WAR sum for five best

Approximately two out of every five (38.3 percent) position players drafted among the top 100 picks will reach the majors for at least 100 games. If modern draft history is any guide, then college position players will graduate for more than a cup of coffee about half of the time (48.5 percent), while high schoolers will graduate a little less than one-third of the time (30.2 percent). That last figures to rise slightly as more prep players from the 2006-08 drafts make the big leagues in the coming years. (Keep in mind that the typical '06 high school pick still is just 25.)

Despite the large disparity in graduation rates for college position players and high school ones, the gap in impact rates is much narrower. About 14 in 100 college players in our study have accumulated at least 10 WAR for their careers, while nearly 11 in 100 high schoolers reached that level. In fact, the star-of-stars high school position players (Top 5) produced more wins above replacement (1,091) than their college counterparts (1,016), which is remarkable when you consider their lower graduation rate, lower impact rate and the fact that prep stars spot roughly three years of experience to college players at the time of their draft selection, a phenomenon that ought to make collegians in the later years of our sample considerably more productive.

High school position players keep track with collegians if you expand the impact threshold to 20 career WAR (34 high school, 31 college), 30 career WAR (17, 17) or 40 career WAR (11, 11).

In broad strokes, high school players drafted as shortstops, catchers or outfielders (particularly center fielders)—those positions that require the most athleticism, speed and/or skill—tend to outproduce their college counterparts. This is apparent from the comparative Top 5 WAR sums above—776-449 in favor of high school players—and also in the head count of 40-WAR players. For the high school set, those players would be Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Torii Hunter, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Jason Kendall, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins—with Carl Crawford and Joe Mauer  in hot pursuit. For collegians, J.D. Drew, Nomar Garciaparra, Chuck Knoblauch and Tim Salmon are the lone representatives in the 40-WAR club, though Curtis GrandersonDustin Pedroia and Troy Tulowitzki could get there if their careers track normally.

The average draft position of top 100 draft picks, 1989-2008, can tell us a lot about the types of players that teams prefer. After all, the higher a player is drafted, the more money it typically costs to sign him. In this sample, we consider signed picks only.
RHP 51 49
LHP 50 47
C 55 55
SS 47 52
2B 68 49
3B 52 43
OF 47 52
1B 49 46

The fact that those high school shortstops, catchers and outfielders turned pro in the first place, rather than attend college, hints at selection bias on the part of major league organizations. Teams want these skilled, multi-tooled teenagers in their farm systems, and they’re willing to draft them higher and, consequently, pay them higher bonuses. Average draft positions for MLB graduates reflects this fact. The only positions where signed high school players are selected earlier than signed college players are catcher, shortstop and outfield (see Average Draft Position table). At every other position, pitchers included, teams tend to prefer college players, seeing as they draft and sign them out of higher draft positions.

On the other hand, college players drafted as third basemen, second basemen or first basemen hold distinct advantages over their high school brethren, outdistancing them 567-315 in terms of Top 5 WAR contributions. Their ranks of 40-WAR players include Lance Berkman, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, John Olerud, Mark Teixeira, Frank Thomas and Chase Utley—while Troy Glaus retired with 38 WAR, and Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman are strong bets to reach 40 before they’re done. The only high schoolers to crash that party are Scott Rolen and David Wright, though Eric Chavez could get there with a few more positive seasons.

This discrepancy suggests that teams seem more than willing to let those who profile as corner players or second basemen prove themselves in college before committing huge dollars to them outside the first round. For example, teams declined to meet the asking prices of top-10-rounds picks Glaus (Padres, second round, 1994), Helton (Padres, second, 1992), Teixeira (Red Sox, ninth, 1998) and Utley (Dodgers, second, 1997) out of high school, so they went to college and emerged as top-half-of-the-first-round picks. Giambi and Olerud also were drafted out of high school, but well outside the top 10 rounds.

The three demographics with the three highest impact rates are college third basemen (21.3 percent), college first basemen (18.2 percent) and college second basemen (13.6 percent), in part because teams draft with confidence, knowing those players’ bats have been vetted by major college programs.

Divvying Up The Pie

If we sort player-pool value by primary major league position, we find that teams are most reliant on top-100 draft picks to produce wins at first base (718 WAR), which is one-fifth of the WAR pie. That’s not entirely surprising when you see names like Thomas, Helton, Olerud, Berkman, Giambi, Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder.

The rest of the MLB primary-position hierarchy looks like this: center field (630 WAR), right field (452), third base (451), shortstop (414), left field (364), second base (324) and catcher (303). So if you take those 3,661 wins produced by top-100 draft picks and divvy them up by primary MLB position, the proportions look like the pie graph below.

Wins By Primary MLB Position

Twenty-two percent of the wins produced by top-100 position players comes from those who settle on an outfield corner. Another 20 percent comes from players who land at first base. Another 17 percent comes from center field. That’s 59 percent of the pie right there, and the other four positions account for between eight and 12 percent of the pie apiece.

These results suggest that major league teams rely on premium draft picks to stock their clubs at first base and in the outfield, the positions that require the largest offensive contributions. That middle infielders, catchers and third basemen are not as well represented among the top-100 draft picks suggests that teams either lean on the international market to fill those positions or that domestic players at those spots develop unpredictably and come from later rounds in the draft.

On to a quick bit about pitchers . . .

Position Source Signed Graduate Graduate% Impact Impact% Top 5
RHP HS 275 90 32.7% 31 11.3% 198
RHP 4YR 367 136 37.1% 55 15.0% 207
LHP HS 113 37 32.7% 17 15.0% 157
LHP 4YR 146 70 47.9% 21 14.4% 140
HS 388 127 32.7% 48 12.4% 355
4YR 513 206 40.2% 76 14.8% 347
TOTAL 901 333 37.0% 124 13.8% 702

Graduate = 30 MLB games • Impact = 5 career WAR • Top 5 = WAR sum for five best

Four in 10 college pitchers in our sample (40.2 percent) reached the big leagues for at least 30 appearances, but the gap between their graduation rate and that of high school pitchers (32.7 percent) is much smaller than the gap for position players. College lefties, it should be noted, have a well-deserved reputation as safe draft picks. Their 47.9 percent graduation rate is in line with most college position-player rates, though their impact rate is lower than any pitcher demographic save for high school righties.

What’s really striking about this exercise, though, is how similar the impact rates are for high school (12.4 percent) and college (14.8 percent) pitchers. Take the impact threshold out to 15 WAR (21 high school; 26 college) or 25 WAR (10 high school; seven college) or 35 WAR (two high school; three college) and the percentages don’t change much. In fact, the top five prep pitchers—Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Chris Carpenter, Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke—actually have accounted for slightly more WAR (355) than the top five college arms (347)—Mike Mussina, Justin Verlander, Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Jered Weaver. Again, this is despite all the inherent advantages that the latter group possesses in the final years of our sample.

Also, No. 1 starters like Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Cain couldn’t even crack the high school top five, whereas next up on the college list are mid-rotation arms and one closer: Jarrod Washburn, Billy Wagner and Randy Wolf. This is an important reminder that, like up-the-middle high school players, teams don’t often let stud prep starting pitchers go to college. Money is rarely an object in those negotiations.

With the benefit of hindsight, the best high school pitchers to be drafted in the top 100 and go to college rather than signing were a pair of righties drafted by the Yankees: Mark Prior (supplemental first round, 1998) or Gerrit Cole (first round, 2008).