What happened to the elite junior college hitter in the draft?
It went almost unnoticed because of the many other alterations to the 2020 draft, but last year was the first time in 25 years that no junior college hitters were drafted in the first five rounds.
It does not appear to be a one-year aberration. Over the past decade, juco hitters have steadily disappeared from the early rounds of the draft. The last first-rounder junior college hitter was shortstop Tim Anderson, taken 17th overall by the White Sox in 2013. He was eligible the year before but went undrafted.
Since Anderson, no juco hitter has been selected in the top 50 picks. Over that same period, 2014 to 2020, four junior college pitchers were drafted in the first round.
From 2000 to 2010, there were 82 juco players picked in the top five rounds of the draft. They were divided right down the middle. Half of them were pitchers and half were hitters.
The balance began to shift in the early 2010s. From 2015 to 2020, there were 30 junior college pitchers and just six juco hitters drafted in the top five rounds.
So why have teams started to almost completely ignore juco hitters in the early rounds of the draft?
At first, I thought that perhaps teams had studied past drafts and determined that junior college hitters were a poor value.
For instance, some teams shy away from taking high school pitchers in the first round because of concerns about the success rate of that demographic.
But the data tells a different story. Looking at junior college hitters and pitchers from the top five rounds selected from 2000 to 2015, the hitters are generally more successful.
The pitchers made the majors 39% of the time. The hitters did so 44% of the time. The groups produced similar overall value, as measured by the Baseball-Reference version of wins above replacement, with 30% of pitchers having a positive career value compared with 33% of hitters.
The junior college hitters drafted in the first five rounds outperformed pitchers in terms of the number of those generating five WAR or more (16.7% to 6.8%), 10 WAR or more (5.4% to 11.1%) and 20 WAR or more (5.5% to zero).
While Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, gives the junior college hitters a boost, the list of other top juco hitters since 2000 includes Nick Markakis (first round), Chris Davis (fifth), Dee Strange-Gordon (fourth), Andrelton Simmons (second) and Tim Anderson (first). The list of pitchers includes Clay Buchholz (first round supplemental), Craig Kimbrel (third), Patrick Corbin (second) and Mike Clevinger (fourth).
If not performance, then what explains teams’ preference for junior college pitchers in the early rounds of the draft?
Talking to scouts and front official officials there are a few explanations. One explanation offered by scouts and front office officials is that teams now do a better job of evaluating the best high school hitters, so fewer of them get overlooked. There may be truth to that, but it’s difficult to prove one way or another.
Another explanation is that the end of the draft-and-follow era meant there was less talent in junior colleges. The old draft-and-follow rule allowed teams to draft a high school player and “follow” him for a season in junior college, with the option to sign him up until one week prior to the next draft. The rule was discontinued with the 2007 draft and institution of a draft signing deadline.
There is undoubtedly some truth to that. Multiple junior college coaches have said that the talent level is higher this season than it has been since 2007.
But the demise of the early rounds juco hitter didn’t begin in 2008. It began in roughly 2015. The biggest factor seems to be the rise of statistical models and the resulting reduction in the importance of in-person scouting.
Junior college hitters are the most difficult group to build into analytical models. With players at four-year colleges, especially Division I schools, the statistical data as well as the analytical data is seen by teams as useful.
“With college hitters, we’ve got really good models and really good statistical information to give us a ton of confidence in those guys,” said Lukas McKnight, Vizual Edge’s director of baseball, who previously served as the assistant scouting director for the Cubs from 2012 to 2020. “Maybe that’s why there’s just so many college hitters going higher and higher in the draft than ever before.”
Putting high school hitters into an overall scouting model is more difficult, but the summer showcase season, where the best hitters face the best pitchers, has given teams plenty to evaluate.
“By the time it gets down to it, you’re going to get close to 100 at-bats, which is more than they’re going to have in their high school teams anyway,” McKnight said, “and you’ve got a really good feel for who can hit, and who’s got alarming strikeout rates.”
The same can be said for high school pitchers, who are measured in the summer against the best hitters. But on top of that, the analytical data that can now be analyzed—velocity, spin rate, pitch movement and biomechanical analysis—provides plenty of additional measurable data.
For junior college pitchers, the statistical data may be noisy because of the varying level of competition those pitchers face, but if major league organizations have the TrackMan, Rapsodo or high speed video of the pitchers, they feel comfortable extrapolating how their stuff will play against professional hitters.
But for juco hitters, the data doesn’t provide as many indicators. Yes, exit velocities can be measured, but the varying quality of pitchers those hitters face means that the information is so noisy that teams have a low comfort level with it.
“We just don’t have that level of confidence,” McKnight said. “And I think because of that, it has devalued (juco hitters) in the draft. I still think there’s probably some teams out there with really shrewd area scouts, where there’s good juco programs (with) hitters to be had there.”
“I think it’s a confidence issue among (teams’) modeling as much as it is anything.”
And if the industry has learned anything in the draft, it’s that there is value in being able to find advantages others cannot see. Which may mean that it’s time to give junior college hitters a closer look.