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Despite Fears Of Overuse, College Draftees Make Up Most Of MLB's Best Starters

The college baseball postseason has returned, which inevitably means debates about pitch counts. Those lead to arguments about pitcher overuse, which in turn lead to declarations that pitchers are better off signing out of high school rather than going to college to develop.

It’s a cycle repeated year after year during the college postseason, with social media amplifying the message that going to college is not in a pitcher's best interests.

While pitcher overuse is a real issue, and there have certainly been many prominent cases of it, such declarative statements don’t hold up to scrutiny. Despite fears of overuse, the best starters in Major League Baseball, especially righthanders, overwhelmingly went to college.

Since the start of the 2018 season, nine of the top 11 starters—and the top three overall—as measured by FanGraphs’ wins above replacement were drafted out of four-year colleges. They are Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola, Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Lance Lynn, Justin Verlander and Trevor Bauer.

Zack Wheeler and Charlie Morton, drafted out of high school in 2009 and 2002, respectively, are the only starters inside the top 11 who did not go to college.

Of the last 22 Cy Young Awards, 16 were won by pitchers who went to four-year colleges. That includes multiple-time Cy Young winners Verlander, Scherzer, deGrom and Corey Kluber. The only Cy Young Award winners in that time not drafted out of college were almost all lefthanders—Clayton Kershaw (x3), Blake Snell and Robbie Ray. Rick Porcello is the only high school righthander to have won a Cy Young Award in that time frame.

There are a number of reasons behind the top starters in MLB overwhelmingly being college products. Baseball America explored some of them in 2018 and 2019.

The reason most commonly cited by the pitchers themselves is that pitching in college better prepares them for what it takes to be a top starter in the major leagues. In short, being allowed to throw 120 pitches and go through a lineup 3-4 times and having to make pitches late in games without their best stuff sets a better foundation than being automatically capped at a limited number of innings and pitches, as high school draftees often are in the minors for years.

To wit, Grayson Rodriguez, the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball and a 2018 draftee out of high school, has been allowed to complete seven innings just twice in 63 career minor league games. He has been allowed to throw more than 90 pitches only three times.

Corbin Burnes, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and a fourth-round pick out of St. Mary’s in 2016, completed seven innings six times and threw more than 90 pitches 12 times in just his final season of college alone—when he was a full year younger than Rodriguez is now.

“When I reflect back on the template of my college career, it was exactly what I needed to be a successful major leaguer,” Scherzer told BA in 2019. “The fact I got to throw 120 pitches regularly on a seven-day rotation, that was the biggest thing.

“…I wasn’t just facing one time or two times through the lineup. I was facing guys three or four times and learning how to have to pitch to make myself better. In the minors, they never let you learn how to do that and it hurts you.”

Durability, of course, is a key component of being a frontline starter. Again, despite concerns of overuse, pitchers who went to college make up the majority of the innings pitched leaders in MLB. Of the 20 pitchers who have thrown the most innings since 2018, 11 went to four-year colleges, including overall leaders Nola and Cole. Six were drafted out of high school, one (Patrick Corbin) was drafted out of junior college and two (German Marquez and Luis Castillo) were international signees.

Cole offers a particularly unique perspective. A first-round selection out of high school who opted instead to go to UCLA, he told BA in 2019 he did not feel like he would have become the same pitcher if he had signed straight out of high school.

“The nutrition and professionalism and developing a routine and being deliberate with those habits, a lot of those habits are learned at school,” Cole said at the time. “And those habits can prolong your career.

“Once you learn how to learn, how to teach yourself things, you can apply that to any aspect, and why wouldn’t you be able to apply that to learning a new pitch or trying to stay healthier? I think those things benefit guys generally coming out of college because high school guys aren’t afforded that opportunity.”

This isn’t to say overuse isn’t a real issue or that all pitchers should go to college. Throwing 139 pitches over two consecutive days, as Oklahoma State's Trevor Martin did in the Stillwater Regional last weekend, is not good for any pitcher, at any age. Whether or not to go to college is a personal decision, with different individual circumstances for every player.

There are plenty of examples of recent, successful starting pitchers who opted to sign out of high school, including the aforementioned Kershaw, Wheeler, Morton, Snell and Ray, young standouts Max Fried, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Joe Musgrove and the late Jose Fernandez, who was trending toward being one of the greatest pitchers of his era before he was killed in a boating accident at age 24. Adam Wainwright and Zack Greinke are putting the caps on long, decorated careers after being drafted out of high school. Stars from earlier this millennium like the late Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy and Chris Carpenter all signed out of high school, as well.

But the assertion that pitchers are unilaterally better off skipping college to develop is a false one, and is quickly debunked by even a cursory glance at who the top starting pitchers in the major leagues are.

Despite fears of overuse or popular narratives on social media, going to college does not hamper a pitcher’s ability to develop into a standout major league starter. It takes the right program and the right coaching staff, but on balance, the best starting pitchers in the major leagues overwhelmingly come out of college.

Evan Carter (Tom Priddy Four Seam Images)

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