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Dollars And Sense: Is It Worth It To Go Back To School?

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Gerrit Cole (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Every year, a handful of top high school draft prospects forgo turning pro out of the draft, turning down a large payday to play college baseball and test the market again in three years.

But one question remains: How have previous top draft prospects fared by going to college? How often do they end up being drafted significantly higher by going to college? And how often do they fall significantly in the draft?

That’s only one aspect of what is always a complicated decision. We’re not focused on whether a player is emotionally ready to play pro ball. We’re not studying the value of a college education and experience. All we are studying is how the decision worked out financially.

To determine how the players did when they re-entered the draft, we compared their initial Baseball America predraft ranking to the slot they were picked when they became draft eligible again.

We used predraft rankings rather than where the players were drafted out of high school because signability is the name of the game these days. Players seen as unlikely to sign usually fall to the later rounds, thus their draft status does not reflect their actual talent. As an example, righthander Kumar Rocker was a first-round talent (ranked 13th in 2018) but wasn’t drafted until the 38th round because teams expected him to honor his Vanderbilt commitment—and that’s exactly what he did.

To assess players’ outcomes, we categorized them into three groups: those who did significantly better in the draft after college ball, those who did significantly worse and those who landed in a similar range. We also included an undrafted/unsigned category. The players were sorted into categories based on the difference in bonus money associated between their initial ranking and their redraft slot.

Keep in mind that bonus amounts vary more widely between picks at the top of the draft. For example, a player moving from pick No. 11 to pick No. 7 is a significant change, whereas moving from pick 100 to 80 is not. Note that by using BA’s predraft rankings we are assuming that the top players in each draft class are identified accurately.

From 2001 to 2016—the last year in which draft eligible high schoolers have become draft eligible college juniors—there were 163 high school players ranked among the top 100 predraft prospects by BA who were drafted and elected not to sign.

As you would expect, there are mixed results for the players who turn down money out of high school to play college ball. Some of them do very well and make significantly more money by heading to school, but overall 65 percent of the players receive significantly less money than they were offered in high school.

Nearly two-thirds of the unsigned high schoolers ended up with a significantly lower bonus than they would have been had they signed out of high school. This is due to 80 players dropping out of the top 100 picks and 38 of those dropping out of the top 10 rounds completely.

Since 2001, just 26.4 percent of the players in question got drafted in the first round when they were redrafted. There is also close to a 9 percent chance that the player will never be redrafted.

An elite high school prospect who turns down the chance to go pro is most likely going to get drafted again. More than 90 percent of the players studied had the chance to still pursue a career in baseball. The real risk that they are taking when electing not to sign is that they will not receive a similar signing bonus to what they would have received out of high school. If a player does not maintain his draft stock throughout his college career, he is going to cost himself hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars.

Just over 26 percent of the players in our sample still received a signing bonus of at least $1.5 million upon being drafted again. For most of these players, not signing out of high school paid off, though there are a couple players in this group who would have earned significantly more had they signed out of high school. For the rest, not only did they not cost themselves millions of dollars, they earned even more than they would have originally.

About 20 percent of players studied signed for $125,000 or less when they were redrafted. The once highly ranked prospects fell to later rounds and were not able to demand the price they once could.

For the players who received a significantly higher bonus when they came out of college, the payoff can be massive. The group of players in the “significantly better” category had an average ranking of 68th when they were originally draft eligible. This would be good for a $953,100 bonus in terms of 2019 slot values. When they re-entered the draft, this group then had an average redraft position of 18th overall, good for a $3.359 million bonus. These players were not just seeing their bonus go up in six-figure increments.

They were seeing it increase by a $1 million dollars or more.

The position a prospect plays also factors into the risk assumed by not signing. Pitchers have a higher chance of getting injured than position players. Even with this being true, we have seen nearly double the number of pitchers elect not to sign: 107 pitchers compared with 56 position players. More pitchers are electing to go to college—and it has not payed off financially.

The numbers show that not only do elite position prospects have a better chance of maintaining their draft stock, they also have a better chance of doing significantly better than elite pitching prospects. Of the pitchers who elected not to sign, 27.1 percent did significantly better and just 4.7 percent went in a similar range. Likewise, position players did significantly better 31.6 percent of the time, to go with the 8.8 percent that went in a similar range.

While position players fare better, a majority of both groups saw their draft value diminish during their time in college.

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As for the undrafted group of players, that’s a mixed bag. Two of the 14 players ended up playing in the NFL instead. Vanderbilt’s Donny Everett passed away. But in most of the other cases, injuries derailed once promising careers.

Over the course of the last few decades we have seen many examples of players taking this risk. A prime example of a player who risked losing a first-round bonus by going to college was California high school righthander Gerrit Cole, who was drafted 28th overall by the Yankees in 2008 out of Orange Lutheran High. Cole had ranked as the No. 17 draft prospect.

Though the Yankees reportedly offered Cole $4 million, he elected not to sign and attended UCLA. When Cole became draft eligible again in 2011 he was once again a top ranked talent; this time he was third on the BA draft board. The Pirates selected him first overall and signed him for a draft-record $8 million.

Cole was able to double his bonus amount by going to school.

But for every Cole, there are multiple stories like Karsten Whitson’s. Whitson was drafted ninth overall in 2010 and turned down a reported $2.1 million to play at Florida. After two above-average college seasons, Whitson had shoulder surgery before the 2013 season and missed the entire year. The injury caused him to fall to the 37th round of the 2013 draft.

Whitson fell so far that he again elected not to sign. The following year he was drafted in the 11th round and signed for $100,000, nearly $2 million less than the Padres originally offered.

The decision to turn down a pro contract and attend college is a difficult one for players to make. On the one hand, they are risking their professional baseball dreams and millions of dollars. But on the other, going to school offers invaluable life experience that could pay off post-playing career and allows players to compete under much higher stakes than they would in the low levels of the minor leagues.

More than likely, players who turn down money out of high school will get another shot at pro ball, but there is a very good chance electing not to sign is going to cost a player thousands—if not millions—of dollars.

There is also the possibility, albeit small, that a player will make significantly more money than he would have out of high school.

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