Early Signs Point To Strong Outcomes For The 2019 Draft Class
The 2019 draft class is shaping up to be one of the more impressive groups in recent years.
If you could travel back in time, that might be surprising to hear. While the top six hitters in the class were highly regarded, many scouts noted a severe lack of depth in the draft class—especially in contrast to a deep 2018 class—and also viewed it as one of the worst classes ever for pitching.
The top of the class in general seemed fairly exciting and locked in on draft boards (in fact, in our final mock draft we correctly predicted the first eight picks and 10 of the first 11 selections—a rate we’d have been thrilled with in each of the next three drafts). After that, though, there were questions.
Plenty of them.
There were few pitching prospects in the class that scouts would put even middle-of-the-rotation grades on, with LHP Nick Lodolo, LHP Zack Thompson, RHP Alek Manoah, RHP Jackson Rutledge and RHP George Kirby representing the best of the bunch.
That group included injury concerns (Thompson), reliever risk (Manoah, Rutledge) and pure stuff and upside questions (Lodolo, Kirby). The highest-ranked prospect of the group—Lodolo—checked in at just No. 7 overall on our draft board.
The high school pitching crop was notably down at the time compared to 2018. That class was praised for its prep pitching depth and included first-round talents like LHP Matthew Liberatore, RHP Carter Stewart, RHP Cole Winn, RHP Kumar Rocker, LHP Ryan Weathers, RHP Ethan Hankins, RHP Mason Denaburg and RHP Grayson Rodriguez, to name a few.
Once the 2019 draft took place, a new low bar was set with the first pitcher being selected with the seventh overall pick (Lodolo to the Reds). That was the lowest the first pitcher had ever come off the board in the history of the draft.
Sure, a function of that was the impressive hitters up top, but even beyond the first round scouts at the time were skeptical of the overall depth and talent throughout the draft class.
Sitting here in 2022, with a few years of hindsight—the 2019 draft class is shaping up to be a good one. Like any successful draft class, that’s thanks to players at the top panning out, as well as many later picks being better than expected.
Each of the top six players in the class have made the majors, and of that group, only one—JJ Bleday—has been a negative-WAR player, by Baseball-Reference WAR.
Adley Rutschman was the top prospect in baseball entering the 2022 season and after being promoted in May was one of the best rookies in baseball. He hit .254/.362/.445 with a 128 OPS+, 13 home runs and 35 doubles—all while providing excellent defense at the game’s most difficult position. The 5.2 bWAR he amassed in just an abbreviated 2022 season is already good for the ninth-best career bWAR of any first-rounder drafted since 2016.
Bobby Witt Jr. was a top-three prospect in the game entering the season and played a full season with the Royals as a 22-year-old. While he didn’t immediately make an impact in the same way Rutschman did, he was a league-average hitter (102 OPS+) while showing flashes of the star player he can be on the left side of the infield. He hit 20 homers with 30 stolen bases and amassed 0.9 bWAR. Witt Jr. is one of just five players to hit 20 or more home runs and steal 30 or more bases in their rookie seasons and the first to do so since Mike Trout in 2012. The group also includes Devon White (1987), Mitchell Page (1977) and Tommie Agee (1966).
Fellow high school draftees Riley Greene and CJ Abrams also made their big league debuts in 2022. Greene slashed .253/.321/.362 as a near league-average hitter (99 OPS+) while grading out well analytically as a center fielder (+2 DRS, 76th percentile OAA) and amassing 1.4 bWAR in 93 games. Abrams struggled the most offensively between the three high school prospects, hitting .246/.280/.324 (76 OPS+) with the Padres and Nationals, but he seemed to be turning a corner in September and was a steady defender at shortstop in Washington.
Andrew Vaughn made strides as a hitter in his second full season in the majors with the White Sox, and was an above-average hitter (111 OPS+), though he has a higher bar to clear as a corner outfielder and first baseman. Bleday ranked sixth among this top-tier group of hitters in the 2019 class and has struggled the most thus far in his big league career, hitting .167/.277/.309 in 65 games in the second half of the 2022 season, good for -0.5 bWAR.
Simply having each of the first six players drafted become major leaguers is a good start. Neither the 2016 or 2017 draft classes can boast the same, with RHP Riley Pint (2016, fourth pick) and OF Austin Beck (2017, sixth pick) both in the minors and not on their teams’ respective top 30 prospect lists.
But a draft class truly starts to separate itself when it gets high-level contributions from a number of unexpected sources.
First, how about those unassuming and then-underwhelming college pitching prospects?
Alek Manoah has been one of the most productive players drafted among the top five rounds since 2016. His 8.7 bWAR is good for the eighth-best mark of that player group. That fact is impressive in its own right but more so when you consider the top 10 is otherwise exclusively 2016 draftees who have had three more years to establish themselves as big leaguers and compile more career bWAR.
Lakewood HS, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Manoah debuted in 2021 and has been one of the best young pitchers in baseball since then, even while leading the league in hit batters both years. Among pitchers 26 and under with at least 100 innings in the past two seasons Manoah ranks fifth in ERA (2.60), seventh in innings pitched (308.1) and 10th in strikeouts (307). He played a key role in helping the Blue Jays finish second in the AL East for the first time since 2016 and was the game 1 starter in the American League wild card series against the Mariners.
Another 2019 draftee pitched in the same series, but on the Seattle side. George Kirby was the 20th overall pick in the 2019 draft and immediately took a huge step forward with his velocity in pro ball. That newfound stuff paired with his outstanding command was an excellent sign for his future potential. Kirby excelled in the minors and made his major league debut in 2022. He posted a 3.39 ERA over 130 innings and 25 starts and earned the series-clinching save for the Mariners in game 2 of their wild card series against Manoah’s Blue Jays.
While the first pitcher drafted in 2019 wasn’t part of a postseason, Nick Lodolo also made his major league debut in 2022 for the Reds. Like Manoah, he led his league in hit batters, but proved to be a solid big league starter despite that fact, with a 3.66 ERA (122 ERA+) over 103.1 innings, and he accumulated 2.7 bWAR.
Three of the top five college pitching prospects in the 2019 class now look like middle-of-the-rotation or better starting pitchers in the big leagues, while LHP Zack Thompson pitched well in the bullpen for the Cardinals (2.08 ERA, 34.2 innings) this season and RHP Jackson Rutledge ranks as the No. 9 prospect in a significantly improved Washington farm system.
So, most of the top prospects in the class have hit and the bulk of the top college pitchers are significantly better than anticipated. But the real separator for this 2019 draft class could be the players who didn’t even get picked in the first round.
You could argue the best player this season from the 2019 draft class wasn’t Adley Rutschman or Alek Manoah—but a two-way player who was picked in the third round and ranked as just the No. 248 prospect in the class: Braves outfielder Michael Harris.
Take a look at his scouting report at the time, when most of the scouting industry preferred him as a pitching prospect:
“Harris is an athletic, two-way player with legitimate pro potential on both sides of the ball. On the mound, the 6-foot, 195-pound lefty has been up to 93 mph on the mound and has shown some feel to spin a big curveball that has shape and depth but lacks power presently. He sits in the 88-92 mph range but the velocity has been up and down this spring. His ceiling is higher on the mound, but Harris seems to prefer hitting, where he is a plus runner and can chase them down well in center field, with above-average bat speed from the left side and raw power. There are questions about the quality of his hit tool, and if Harris wants to hit at the next level he might have to prove it first at Texas Tech.”
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It’s safe to say no one thinks of Harris as a pitcher now, and no one has questions about his hitting ability.
Harris began his 2022 season with Double-A Mississippi but was promoted to the majors in late May. He immediately looked like a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, while hitting .297/.339/.514 (135 OPS+) with 19 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a unique blend of power and contact ability. He’s a favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year (alongside teammate Spencer Strider) and accumulated 5.3 bWAR in just 114 games.
Another potential star from the 2019 class who wasn’t selected in the first round is SS Gunnar Henderson. Yes, the Orioles paid him more than $500,000 over slot with the 42nd overall pick, but every team in baseball passed on him once and he is currently the top prospect in the game, with above-average or better tools across the board.
Henderson dominated the upper minors in 2022 and earned a late-season promotion to the majors. While there, he hit .259/.349/.440 (123 OPS+) with four home runs and played third base, shortstop and second base. He accrued 1.0 bWAR and now looks much more like a Bobby Witt Jr.-caliber talent than the industry would have believed back in 2019.
Harris and Henderson are the non-first round headliners of the 2019 class thus far, but other players like Andre Pallante (Cardinals, fourth round), Michael Massey (Royals, fourth round), Ryne Nelson (D-backs, second round) and Ryan Pepiot (Dodgers, third round) have been solid big leaguers as well.
Astros RHP Hunter Brown was picked in the fifth round and signed for just $325,000 and is now part of a dominant Houston bullpen that has helped push the team to a third World Series appearance in the last four years without losing a game along the way.
It’s still early, and much can and will change as the 2019 draft class continues to matriculate to the majors and players either establish themselves or go on to have brief big league careers—but the early signs for the group are extraordinarily positive.
The top-five round players in the 2019 class have already surpassed the 2017 class in terms of total career bWAR (despite a two-year head start), and based on the 2022 season, don’t appear set to slow down any time soon.