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No Longer First In Class: Exploring The Waning Interest In College Pitchers In The First Round



It is the best of times and the worst of times for college players at the top of the 2022 draft.

After down years in 2020 and 2021, the strength of the college hitter class rebounded in a big way this year. Six rank among the top 11 prospects for the 2022 draft, headed by Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee, Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada and Louisiana State third baseman Jacob Berry.

The most college hitters ever drafted in the top 11 picks of a draft is seven, which happened in 1985. The 2018 and 2019 drafts featured six each, which is a very real possibility for this year.

The story for college pitchers is the polar opposite. Scouts cannot remember a weaker crop of draft-eligible college arms at the top of the board.

Gonzaga righthander Gabriel Hughes is the top-ranked college pitcher for this year’s draft at No. 20 overall. He is followed by Mississippi State righty Landon Sims (No. 22), Oklahoma State righty Justin Campbell (No. 27), Tennessee righty Blade Tidwell (28) and East Carolina lefthander Carson Whisenhunt (30) in the top 30.

Three of the five come with questions.

Tidwell got a late start to the season as he recovered from shoulder soreness and pitched 24 innings in the regular season. Sims is recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in March, while Whisenhunt did not pitch after the NCAA deemed him ineligible for failing a drug test.

In every draft since 1979, at least one college pitcher has been selected within the top 10 picks. The lowest the top college pitcher has fallen in that time is No. 7 overall, which occurred in 2019 when the Reds took Texas Christian lefthander Nick Lodolo with that pick.

As is the case this year, the 2019 class was viewed as historically light in high-end college pitching talent.

Dating back to 1981, the year Baseball America launched, college pitchers have been the most popular draft demographic in the first round. But their popularity—at least at the top of the draft—has been waning.

This point can be illustrated using a simple scoring system that accounts for players’ overall draft position in the top 25 picks and also a mean expectation of value, as defined by expected wins above replacement in five-pick tiers.

College pitchers were the preferred draft demographic by this scoring system in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, edging out college hitters, high school hitters and high school pitchers. But college pitchers fell to third by this measure in the 2010s.

The table below displays the percentage of “points” accrued by college pitchers drafted among the top 25 picks and where that stands among the four major draft demographics.

Popularity Of College Pitchers With Top 25 Picks

DraftsPoints shareRank (out of 4)
1981-8931%1st
1990-9931%1st
2000-0934%1st
2010-1925%3rd

The data indicates that the attractiveness of college pitchers among the top 25 overall picks was consistently high in the 1980s and ’90s before building to peak levels in the 2000s, at the height of Moneyball’s influence, before then diminishing in the bonus pool era.

This change in the way college pitchers are valued is even more pronounced in the bonus pool era of the draft, which encompasses the years 2012 through 2021. College pitchers have a 24% share in that sample. The 2022 draft will probably sink that share even lower.

However, that is not to say that MLB clubs find college pitchers unattractive. Widening the scope of our examination to the top five rounds of the draft, we find that interest in college pitchers as a percentage of all players drafted has never been higher.

Popularity Of College Pitchers In Top Five Rounds

Drafts% of all picks
1981-8928%
1990-9929%
2000-0932%
2010-1934%

In the bonus pool era, the percentage of college pitchers drafted in the top five rounds is a tick higher than the 2010s bucket at 35%. In 2021 alone, college pitchers accounted for 37% of players drafted in the top five rounds, the fourth-highest share since 1981.

During the bonus pool era—that’s all drafts since 2012—the share of “points” looks like this for the four draft demographics for top 25 overall picks:

33%  College hitters
27%  High school hitters
24%  College pitchers
17%  High school pitchers

Remember, this is an estimate of industry esteem for various amateur player types in the first round, as determined by overall draft selection number and WAR estimate corresponding to that selection number.

The logical question that follows: How did college pitchers go from the No. 1 preferred draft demographic in the first round in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to No. 3 beginning in the 2010s? The following will outline four reasons for the change.

Follow The Money

The introduction of slot values and hard spending caps via bonus pools have changed the way teams operate in the draft.

High school players have always been more costly to sign because they have the leverage of a college commitment. But since the introduction of bonus pools in 2012, preps have become all but impossible to sign unless drafted with picks early enough to make the money work.

A total of 223 players have signed for at least 1% over slot value in the first two rounds of the draft since 2012. Among those players, 68% were drafted out of high school. Widening the parameters, three out of every four players to sign for at least 10% over slot in the first two rounds were drafted out of high school.

What this indicates is that, in the bonus pool era, high school players comprise more than 75% of players who sign for significantly higher than slot value in the top two rounds.

The five largest over-slot deals in the sample all belong to high school players taken after the first round. Similarly, 43 of the top 50 over-slot bonuses in the first two rounds went to high schoolers.

The highest over-slot deal in the sample belongs to Oregon prep catcher Carson Kelly, whom the Cardinals signed to a bonus 179% higher than slot value in the second round in 2012. The rest of the top five are high schoolers Gareth Morgan (163% over slot), Daz Cameron (140%), James Wood (136%) and Kevin Gowdy (128%).

In order to get those deals done, the drafting club had to draft the player in the early rounds in order to meet the players’ bonus number. This is in sharp contrast to the way things operated prior to 2012, when MLB clubs could draft high school players in any round and meet their asking price.

Another element in this shift in the way clubs operate is that many scouting departments feel like the college pitchers they value will fall to rounds three, four or five and will sign for slot value.

Hitters Are Born, Not Made

Throughout the draft era, MLB organizations have proven time and time again that they are more adept at identifying future quality major league hitters at an early age than they are pitchers.

What’s more, many scouting departments believe that there is more separation in talent between the top tier of hitters and the lower tiers than exists between the pitcher tiers.

As a result, some sources expressed the sentiment that teams have tended to prioritize hitters in the first round, both collegiate and high school, because of a belief that natural hitting ability is a rare commodity that cannot be taught or developed in the same way that pitching can be in pro ball.

You’ve heard the axioms. Hitters hit. Hitters are born, not made.

The same is less true for pitchers. A good pitching coach or instructor can tweak a pitcher’s grip, arm angle or motion to generate a desired result. Hitting is more complex, and MLB organizations will tell you that finding difference-making hitting instructors is a challenge.

As a result, MLB clubs feel greater urgency to draft hitters early.

Horton, Cade 2 (Courtesy Of Oklahoma)

2022 MLB Draft: Oklahoma RHP Cade Horton Uses College World Series To Rocket Up Draft Boards

In a draft class that has been decimated on the college side (and has started losing pitchers on the prep side as well), Horton is potentially filling a demographic vacuum ahead of the July draft.

Opportunity Cost

The value of any draft pick is determined by his major league contributions, yes, but also by the contributions of other players who could have been selected (and signed) with that pick.

As MLB clubs become more attuned to the probability of long-term outcomes, they have been swayed to invest first-round picks in amateur hitters at rates not previously seen in the past four decades.

The value proposition is attractive. Position players succeed at a higher rate than pitchers at the top of the draft. Their injury risk compared to pitchers is infinitesimal.

So while pitchers are essential to winning, they tend to be volatile and develop unpredictably. Thus a young position player becomes even more attractive, because he can often contribute for six or seven straight MLB seasons without major interruption before becoming eligible for free agency.

As such, an everyday position player—or even a lefthanded hitter who starts three games out of four in a platoon—brings incredible value to an organization. That is value clubs don’t want to cede to rival organizations.

Historical Blip?

Major league organizations still covet college pitchers in the draft. Industry sources say as much. The data for the top five rounds confirms it.

And as more high school pitchers eschew pro ball to become college pitchers, in part because MLB clubs simply lack the bonus pool space to buy them out of those college commitments, the ranks of college pitchers should be as robust as ever.

And yet the cream of the collegiate crop since 2012 pales when compared to the aces of the 2000s. Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg challenged for the title of best college pitcher ever.

Tim Lincecum, who ranked No. 2 in BA’s draft rankings in 2006, rocketed to the majors and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09.

Though they weren’t perceived to be at the level of that trio in college, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have turned out to be the best college pitchers drafted in the 2000s. They have won five Cy Young Awards between them and are shoo-ins for Cooperstown.

Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, is 31 years old and poised to continue dominating in the 2020s.

This raises the possibility that—no offense to top college arms of the bonus pool era such as Carlos Rodon, Casey Mize or Jack Leiter—those college aces from 2001 to 2011 might have represented a historical high-water mark that would be impossible for any subsequent generation to match.


Industry Esteem

The 1985 draft was famous at the time for its depth of talent, especially college hitting. North Carolina catcher BJ Surhoff went first overall and was followed by Will Clark, Barry Larkin and Barry Bonds in the top eight picks alone.

That draft was the most robust for college hitters in the Baseball America era, which dates back to 1981. The tables below display the top first rounds in terms of industry esteem for each of the four major draft demographics based on where players were drafted and how many were drafted in the top 25 picks.

1985 Draft: Best College Hitter Class Of BA Era

1. Brewers: BJ Surhoff, C, North Carolina, 34.4 WAR
2. Giants: Will Clark, 1B, Mississippi State, 56.5
4. Reds: Barry Larkin, SS, Michigan, 70.5
6. Pirates: Barry Bonds, OF, Arizona State, 162.8
8. Expos: Pete Incaviglia, 3B, Oklahoma State, 10.3
10. Dodgers: Chris Gwynn, OF, San Diego State, -1.4
11. Athletics: Walt Weiss, SS, North Carolina, 16.5
12. Astros: Cameron Drew, OF, New Haven, -0.1
22. Cubs: Rafael Palmeiro, OF, Mississippi State, 71.9
23. Padres: Joey Cora, SS, Vanderbilt, 7.9

The 1985 draft will probably never be topped for overall talent. Fourth overall pick Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer. So are pitchers Randy Johnson and John Smoltz, who were drafted after the first round. Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro are first-round picks with HOF credentials but cloudy Cooperstown outlooks because of linkage to performance-enhancers. But at the time of the 1985 draft, it was Will Clark whom scouts viewed as the best overall hitting prospect in the class.

2004 Draft: Best College Pitcher Class Of BA Era

2. Tigers: Justin Verlander, RHP, Old Dominion, 73.9 WAR
3. Mets: Philip Humber, RHP, Rice, 0.9
4. Rays: Jeff Niemann, RHP, Rice, 4.3
6. Indians: Jeremy Sowers, LHP, Vanderbilt, 1.6
8. Orioles: Wade Townsend, RHP, Rice, N/A
10. Rangers: Thomas Diamond, RHP, New Orleans, -0.5
12. Angels: Jered Weaver, RHP, Long Beach State, 34.6
13. Expos: Bill Bray, LHP, William & Mary, 2.3
16. Blue Jays: David Purcey, LHP, Oklahoma, 0.1
19. Cardinals: Chris Lambert, RHP, Boston College, -0.8
22. Twins: Glen Perkins, LHP, Minnesota, 8.9

Rice’s big three of Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend helped the Owls fly to a College World Series title in 2003, and they became the highest-drafted trio of collegians from one program in draft history a year later. But the 2004 draft will be remembered as much for the quantity of its first-round college pitching as its quality, especially the work of No. 1 draft prospect Jered Weaver, who finished top five in Cy Young Award voting three times, and No. 2 overall pick Justin Verlander, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

1990 Draft: Best High School Hitter Class Of BA Era

1. Braves: Chipper Jones, SS, Bolles HS (FL), 85.3 WAR
2. Tigers: Tony Clark, OF, Christian HS (CA), 12.3
3. Phillies: Mike Lieberthal, C, Westlake HS (CA), 15.3
6. Mariners: Marc Newfield, 1B, Marina HS (CA), -1.6
10. Yankees: Carl Everett, OF, Hillsborough HS (FL), 20.4
11. Expos: Shane Andrews, 3B, Carlsbad HS (NM), 2.0
15. Giants: Adam Hyzdu, OF, Moeller HS (OH), -0.2
18. Cardinals: Aaron Holbert, SS, Jordan HS (CA), -0.4
21. Astros: Tom Nevers, SS, Edina HS (MN), N/A
24. Expos: Rondell White, OF, Jones County HS (GA), 28.2

The 1990 draft is the only one in history to see high school position players taken with the top three picks. Amazingly, those teams went 3-for-3. The Braves eschewed conventional wisdom that Texas prep righthander Todd Van Poppel was the top prospect to take Chipper Jones first overall. They were rewarded with a Hall of Fame career. Tony Clark and Mike Lieberthal were more modest successes, but Carl Everett and Rondell White, taken later in the first round, surpassed all but Jones in career value.

2002 Draft: Best High School Pitcher Class Of BA Era

3. Reds: Chris Gruler, RHP, Liberty Union HS (CA), N/A
4. Orioles: Adam Loewen, LHP, Fraser Valley HS (BC), -0.3 WAR
5. Expos: Clint Everts, RHP, Cypress Falls HS (TX), N/A
6. Royals: Zack Greinke, RHP, Apopka HS (FL), 74.3
15. Mets: Scott Kazmir, LHP, Cypress Falls HS (TX), 22.4
17. Phillies: Cole Hamels, LHP, Rancho Bernardo HS (CA), 59.0
25. Giants: Matt Cain, RHP, Houston HS (TN), 29.1

The delicious irony of the 2002 draft, the one chronicled in detail in “Moneyball,” is that high school players, particularly pitchers, were the most valuable demographic in a draft class made famous by the Athletics’ pursuit of college talent. Zack Greinke is on pace for Cooperstown, while Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Scott Kazmir are three of the more successful first-round high school pitchers drafted this century.

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