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First-Round Prep Righties Fall Short Of Expectations

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Noah Syndergaard grew into a 100 mph flamethrower, but he didn’t throw that hard in high school.

When the 2010 draft began, there was little doubt Jameson Taillon was the best high school righthander available.

The 6-foot-5 Texan touched 99 mph, boasted a hammer curveball, possessed a classic pitcher’s body and had excellent makeup. He went to the Pirates at No. 2 overall, sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and no one batted an eyelash. There was never a thought, in any quarter, that Taillon wasn’t the best pitching prospect available.

As it turned out, he wasn’t even the best high school pitching prospect in Texas. That turned out to be Noah Syndergaard, whom the Blue Jays drafted No. 38 overall that year. Aaron Sanchez (No. 34) and Taijuan Walker (No. 43) have also had better careers to this point than Taillon, who has by no means been a bust.

The outcome of Taillon and the 2010 draft is just one anecdote, but it’s not unique when it comes to high school righthanders.

For a decade’s worth of drafts, from 2003-13, the best high school righties rarely, if ever, turned out to be the ones taken at the top. It’s a trend that is continuing, and one that is causing teams to adjust how they view the demographic.

"We’ve studied it a lot and . . . it’s kind of affected our draft strategy because the difference in the outcomes are very small, whether they’re a top-10 pick or 40-60 on that demographic,” one National League scouting director said. "And then you factor in other options, and your best chance to get an everyday position player is up top. Then you factor in there’s a deeper pool of these type of guys, and we can get a similar type guy in the third round or the sixth round or maybe overpay in the 11th. It makes it harder and harder to take with your No. 1 pick.”

From 2003-13, the high school righthanders drafted Nos. 41-50 overall averaged 3.3 career wins above replacement though Opening Day this year, as measured by Baseball-Reference.com, higher than those drafted in the top 10 (2.1) or 11-20 (2.3).

In fact, high school righties picked in the top 10 from 2003-13 had a lower career average WAR than those picked 11-20, 21-30 and 41-50.

Over the course of a decade, the best high school righties have been the ones taken at the end of the first round or later.

To that end, teams have been taking fewer high school righthanders in the first round. In 2014 there were six drafted in round one. In 2015 there were five. In 2016 there were four. In 2017, there were two.

"It’s the one (demographic) teams are most leery of in general,” an NL general manager said. "It goes hand in hand with there’s just a lot of high school righthanders on the board. When you talk about premium, you’re usually in a spot where you can go, ‘Well, we can get a high school righthander in the second, third, fourth,’ and there’s probably not as much separation between the guy going in the upper tier and the guy you might be able to get in the third round.”

It wasn’t always this way. For the drafts from 1992-2002—the draft era of Kerry Wood, Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke—things turned out much more intuitively.

The high school righties those years drafted 1-10 averaged 11.5 career WAR, which was higher than Nos. 11-20 (7.3), which in turn was higher than 21-30 (5.4), which was higher than Nos. 31-40 (0.8).

Teams went from accurately picking the best high school righthanders in a draft one decade to being all over the map the next. What happened?

Most commonly, evaluators cite the rise of the year-round showcase circuit in the early 2000s and the resulting emphasis on present velocity.

"I think for a long time, in general, we as an industry have been very bad at how we evaluate high school pitching,” an American League crosschecker said. "We keep doing the same thing over and over again. These flamethrower guys get pushed up toward the top. If the guy is not throwing 100 (mph) he’s not as high on lists. But look at the guys who keep actually showing up in the majors. Walker, Sanchez—(they have) good arm actions, good deliveries, athleticism, an ease of operation. They looked like starters all the way.

"Even though it keeps not working, we’re obsessed with 18-year-old kids throwing 96-99. It’s safe, right? The kid is probably huge, he’s throwing 100, he shows up on the field. It’s going to be very difficult for anybody to be like, ‘This is a ridiculous pick.’ Some 6-foot-5 dude throws one bullet at 100 and everyone in player development is happy. But we have the data. We have the history. We know that shouldn’t be the reaction.”

To wit, the three most recent pitchers to touch 100 mph as preps were Tyler Kolek (2014), Riley Pint (2016) and Hunter Greene (2017).

Kolek and Pint both have career ERAs above 5.00 and are on low Class A disabled lists. Greene, the No. 2 overall pick last year, had a 13.50 ERA through his first eight career starts.

"You can’t fall in love with the radar gun,” the GM said. "I think that’s probably where some of the mistakes have come over the years. You look at the ability to throw strikes and secondary pitches, (because) a lot of the velocity (develops) with all these guys if they have arm speed and bodies that are going to get bigger and stronger.”

Even though evaluators know the best high school righthanders are often the ones who have room to grow into their velocity over time, it’s a risk to recommend someone like that high in the draft, knowing it’s a bad look if the velocity gains don’t materialize.

"It’s just the safety factor,” the crosschecker said. "You pop someone and they go out to short-season and the game report comes back 88-92 (mph), and he pitches five innings and gives up three runs, it’s uncomfortable. That scares guys. Picking that guy at 30-40, it gives you cover.”

Another changing dynamic affecting how teams view high school righthanders is time.

For the high school righthanders drafted and signed from 2010-13, the average time to become a regular starter in the majors (defined as pitching 100 innings in a season) was five to six years from when they were drafted.

Of the 226 high school righthanders signed between 2010-13, just three—Jose Fernandez, Lance McCullers Jr. and Matt Wisler—pitched 100 big league innings in a season within five years of being drafted.

"There’s such a long path to the major leagues to complete that even some of these super talented guys, for a lot of different reasons, fall off track,” the scouting director said. "The length of time it actually takes, and then just how hard it is to complete, makes it tougher to invest up high.”

By comparison, top college picks reach the majors in two to three years on average, while top high school position players take three to four years.

It’s also longer than some general managers or scouting directors are given by ownership to produce tangible results at the big league level.

"That’s where the individual personalities, the individual situations come into play,” the GM said. "There are teams that definitely factor that in, if 5-6 years to see the payoff is longer than they have the stomach for.”

Which brings us to 2018. The current draft is flush with well-regarded high school righthanders, headlined by Ethan Hankins and Kumar Rocker out of Georgia, Carter Stewart and Mason Denaburg out of Florida, Cole Winn out of California and Grayson Rodriguez out of Texas. All are considered first round-caliber talents. But history shows the best high school righty from the class may come from someone ranked lower.

"I would say within the top 100 picks, the separation (among high school righthanders) is probably smaller than people think,” the scouting director said. "Now don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious some of these top 10 picks have better ingredients, so I don’t want to discount those guys in any way.

"But it’s probably a smaller separation than people give it credit for.”

With such a small separation, the lack of data to help sift through the demographic doesn’t help either.

"We know more and more and more about these draft prospects than we ever have, but that high school pitching crop is still kind of the wild west in a lot of sense,” the crosschecker said. "These college guys, we now have batted ball data, Trackman, exit velo stuff and we have stat scores. It’s just more comfortable.”

For all the issues that comes with high school righthanders, the promise of a hit like Jose Fernandez or Syndergaard or Michael Fulmer will always keep teams interested. If anything, teams trying to stay ahead of the curve are hoping that maybe the market has overcorrected.

Still, when it comes to high school righthanders, given their history in the draft, it’s hard for teams to feel overly confident about anything.

"I think more and more teams are discounting the high school pitching market, especially rigthhanders," the scouting director said. "Now, who knows? It might kind of flip back to where there is real value there in it. It’s not like if you feel you’re getting a top 10 talent at pick 30 or 40 you shouldn’t take it.

"This thing is always changing. Now it’s almost starting to get to a point where it may have adjusted too much, and maybe there might just be some value in that demographic.”

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Better Luck Later

For a decade's worth of drafts, the high school righthanders picked in the top 10 have been outperformed by those picked at the end of the first round or later.

HS RHPs, 2003-2013 drafts
Picked No. 1-1066 percent (8 of 12) reached majors2.1 WAR/player
Picked 11-2086 percent (12 of 14) reached majors2.3 WAR/player
Picked 21-3061 percent (11 of 18) reached majors3.6 WAR/player
Picked 31-4071 percent (12 of 17) reached majors1.1 WAR/player
Picked 41-5065 percent (11 of 17) reached majors3.3 WAR/player

It wasn’t always this way. From the 1992-2002 drafts, things turned out much more intuitively, with high school righthanders picked 1-10 producing a higher average career WAR than any following 10-pick subset.

HS RHPs, 1992-2002 drafts
Picked No. 1-1047 percent (7 of 15) reached majors11.5 WAR/player
Picked 11-2038 percent (6 of 16) reached majors7.3 WAR/player
Picked 21-3073 percent (16 of 22) reached majors5.4 WAR/player
Picked 31-4056 percent (10 of 18) reached majors0.8 WAR/player
Picked 41-5027 percent (4 of 15) reached majors2.6 WAR/player

Playing The Waiting Game

High school righthanders take a long time to become established in the majors—if they make it at all. On average those who make it take five to six years before they record their first 100-inning season in the big leagues, with very few coming earlier. Here is a look at the number of high school righties drafted and signed from the 2010-13 drafts, the number who reached the majors, the number who ever became rotation regulars, and how many of them did so in less than five years of their draft year.

*Through May 1, 2018

High School Righthanders 2010-2013
YearNo.Majors*Regulars*Less Than 5 Years
201343310
2012581521
20115925122
2010661770

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