Should Pitchers Choose College Or Pro Ball? All-Stars Weigh In

Image credit: Gerrit Cole (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

In the lead up to the draft every year, college pitchers are frequently labeled “safe” while high school pitchers are given the “high upside” moniker. The inference is college pitchers might make it to the majors but won’t be aces, while high school pitchers are less likely to get there but offer greater reward potential.

A quick look around the majors debunks that theory—and fast.

Since the beginning of the 2017 season, the top five starters in the majors—and 11 of the top 13—as measured by Baseball-Reference wins above replacement were all college draftees. They are Max ScherzerAaron NolaJacob deGromJustin VerlanderChris SaleCorey KluberMike MinorStephen StrasburgKyle FreelandTrevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole.

High school product Zack Greinke ranks sixth on the WAR list since 2017, while international signee German Marquez places 11th. Junior college pitcher Patrick Corbin ranks 14th.

Half of the 22 starting pitchers selected to this year’s All-Star Game were college draftees, compared to seven high schoolers and four international signees.

Despite fears of overuse or lesser pro instruction, college pitchers are not only making it to the majors as “safe” picks, but they are by and large outperforming their high school brethren as far as upside, too.

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

The D-backs drafted Scherzer 11th overall out of Missouri in 2006.

“You have to pitch deep into games. You have to be exposed to that,” Scherzer said. “Pitching 120 pitches is fine on an arm, on a shoulder, but in order to do that you need rest, and you can’t be pitching on the pro schedule of pitching once every five days. It’s just too much. Pitching on the seven-day (schedule) I think is actually the right amount of rest you need to be able to recover and do that consistently.”

“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.”

Being allowed to pitch deep into games came up frequently among prominent starters as a development edge pitching in college allowed them to gain. Additionally, they frequently cited college as better preparing them for professional life both physically and mentally.

“The nutrition and professionalism and developing a routine and being deliberate with those habits, a lot of those habits are learned at school,” said Cole, who famously turned down the Yankees as a 2008 first-round pick out of high school to attend UCLA. “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.”

There are, of course, exceptions. Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher this decade and a surefire Hall of Famer, signed out of high school as the seventh overall pick in 2006. The Dodgers lefthander strongly voiced his opinion on the benefits of high school pitchers opting for pro ball over college if they have the opportunity.

“If you’re a prospect in high school, I don’t know why you’d go to college unless you just want the college experience,” Kershaw said. “No one is going to develop you better than a professional baseball team that’s invested in your future and wants you to play in the big leagues. When you go to college and you’re a stud, you’re going to throw 150 pitches on Friday night and then maybe close on Tuesday to win games because that’s what they have to do in college.

“At the end of the day those coaches have to win. They can say all they want to the parents, but at the end of the day they have to win games or they’re going to get fired—and that’s not the way it is in the minor leagues.

“If my son was a stud pitcher and he wanted to play professional baseball, I would tell him that (going pro) is the best route for you.”

At the same time, the reason Kershaw cites in favor of turning pro—the desire of college coaches to push their pitchers to win—was also raised by Scherzer as a point in favor of going to college.

“I believe the college model is so much better for young kids because winning is the ultimate motivator,” Scherzer said. “You push yourself harder for your team when you have something to win for, more than when it’s just pushing you on to the next level, and that sets you up for the majors.”

The decision isn’t always as simple as the college experience versus starting your pro career. White Sox righthander Lucas Giolito, for example, suffered an elbow injury his senior year of high school that required Tommy John surgery and factored that into his decision to sign rather than go to UCLA.

“For me, being hurt at the time,” Giolito said, “it was like, ‘Do I want to rehab this injury with a professional organization, professional trainers, doctors, the best of the best? Or do I want to go to college and maybe I have to go out of pocket? Or have to figure it out on my own a little bit? That was a huge factor.’”

Across the board, pitchers cautioned that each situation is different and every individual has to make whatever decision is best for them and their family. Financial considerations, school options and family priorities are all critical factors that can’t be discounted.

But if the goal is to join the elite tier of starters in today’s game, the data increasingly shows the best way to get there is to go to college first.

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