Why The Small-Market Indians Emphasize Youth In The Draft
If there’s one piece of conventional draft wisdom in 2019, it seems to be this: take safer college players and let riskier high school prospects slide.
The most recent draft reinforced that the current system incentivizes teams to select from the college ranks. That’s thanks to both the current financial structure of the draft—which puts a soft cap on spending—and the fact that teams are able to get more reliable statistical information on college players. Among the top 10 rounds in 2019, teams drafted the highest percentage of college players ever.
Teams like the Royals and Rangers, who previously coveted high upside high school talent, have pivoted to college-heavy drafts in recent years. Sixty of the 64 players the Royals signed in the last two drafts have been college players, while the Rangers turning point seemed to be 2019, where 20 of the team’s 28 signees came from the college ranks.
There are several notable outliers to this shift in the industry, however, who instead prioritize high school talent and youth to an extreme degree. Look no further than the Indians, whose current Top 10 Prospects ranking is composed entirely of high school draftees and international signees. Cleveland’s top 10 will combine for an average age of an even 20 years old on April 1—making it one of the youngest of top 10s of all time.
During the 2010s, only the Blue Jays (43.2%) have selected a greater percentage of high school players among the top 10 rounds than the Indians (41.9%). A deeper dive reveals that Cleveland selects for youth more than any other team as well, regardless of the demographic.
When looking at rounds one through 10 in the 2010s, the Indians were the only team in baseball with an average draftee age (19.95) younger than 20. This isn’t only because the Indians select a large number of high school players relative to the industry—they do—but because they routinely select the youngest players from the two main draft sources. The Indians have drafted the youngest high school players (18.2) and are second to only the Rockies when it comes to average age among college selections (21.4).
While teams like the Blue Jays and Padres have a young average draft age simply by taking a large percentage of high school players, the Indians are targeting youth regardless of the source.
“When I started scouting there has always been that question of, ‘Hey, what’s this guy’s birthday? How old is he?’ ” Indians scouting director Scott Barnsby said. “If you think about a young player playing against advanced competition, I think there are some benefits to that.
“You think about some of the players in Little League or whatever, whether they are playing up or down. The players who are playing up and challenging themselves—as long as they can still compete, as long as they’re not above their head—I think there is a lot of value to that . . .
“But in terms of a specific draft philosophy, we have always looked at their birth date. I can honestly remember several times back in the early 2000s in our preseason meetings where some of our veteran crosscheckers were like ‘Why do we not have this guy’s birthday?’ So it’s always been an important part of it.”
The Indians certainly seem to value youth in the draft more than everyone else. The Padres, who drafted the fifth-most high school players in the 2010s in the top 10 rounds, incorporate age into the decision-making process, but more as a tie-breaker than an emphasis.
“It’s still player vs. player,” Padres scouting director Mark Conner said. “We definitely have an interest in college players. Things haven’t lined up that way for us. To say that we prefer high school and the younger player over college, I think would be a misconception of how we go about things.
“I think if two players are equal in the organization’s mind, we are probably going to lean toward the younger one to break the tie.”
While the Padres had the seventh youngest average draft age (20.4) in the 2010s, that’s likely more because of the volume of prep players, rather than targeting young players within each demographic. San Diego is 17th in average age for high school draftees and 23rd in average age for four-year college draftees over the last decade among the top 10 rounds.
But in every team’s case, identifying the signability of high school players is crucial if you want to play in the prep waters. While high school players are typically more expensive than four-year or junior college players who have less leverage, the Indians have successfully signed 43 of the 44 high school prospects drafted in the top 10 rounds.
Evaluating signability is one of the most important things area scouts are tasked with in this era of analytics and more technology and model-driven evaluation. The Indians seem to have that part figured out.
“I think our guys do a great job of continuing to dig to make sure that they know that some of these players aren’t necessarily as motivated to go to college as you would think,” Barnsby said. “. . . Looking back, even if you just looked at the last year in the top 10, sure, the first four guys (we took) were high school guys. We didn’t take a college guy until we took (Hunter) Gaddis (in the fifth round). And then after that we still had an opportunity to sign (high schoolers) Jordan Brown and Will Bartlett as well. And even then a little bit later in the draft we still were able to sign a couple high school guys too.
“I’m not saying anybody else valued Jordan or Will in the same way we did, but if they were like, ‘Ah, those guys aren’t going to sign,’ then it certainly stands to reason that those guys don’t come off our board as quickly.”
There also seems to be some value to the notion of “zigging” when everyone else “zags.” Teams like the Indians, Padres, Blue Jays and Brewers are happy to take the high school value that falls to them in the draft, while teams surrounding them reach for the perceived safety of college players.
“There have been times where we’ve been in a room and we’ve anticipated a group of players who are going to get to us,” Conner said. “With the group being (made up of) a couple college and a couple high school players. And the college guys go off the board and we are sitting there looking at the high school players.
“To me, the more teams who are going in that direction, it does make it harder to get those players and you almost have to reach up to get a particular demographic at times . . . I definitely think if more people are going in a direction, it’s lessening the people who are fishing in the same waters. Again, I think ultimately we are trying to acquire talent. And depending on which source it comes from, it doesn’t necessarily matter. As long as we do a good process with the high school players, they will always be in play.”
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Market size could also factor into the age of players teams are drafting. Of the top 10 youngest teams in the 2010s in the top 10 rounds, seven of those teams were also in the bottom third of average team payroll from 2011 to 2019, while five of the oldest 10 teams are in the top third of average team payroll.
The money teams have at their disposal on the free agent market could be a factor, but draft bonus pool money could be as well—this time favoring clubs who pick earlier in the draft.
“Besides the years we took (Bryce) Harper and (Stephen) Strasburg, we have pretty much picked at the back end of the draft,” said Kris Kline, vice president of scouting for the Nationals, who have averaged the oldest draftee (21.35) in this span of time and have also drafted the highest percentage of college players. “I think that eliminates a lot of (options). When you are picking at the back end of the draft, money comes into play. You have a much smaller pool to work from and then you start to get into those comp picks in the second round and those high school kids, a lot of them become unsignable for us because we don’t have the resources that other teams have.
“So it’s not that we won’t take high school players—we will—I just think we are kind of handcuffed financially at a certain point in the draft, where it prohibits us from doing that.”
The fact that the Nationals and Indians have generally been in the same area with their first pick throughout the decade—20.2 average first pick for Cleveland, 26.4 for Washington—makes the difference in the teams’ average age even more compelling and highlights that different teams simply go about the draft in different ways, regardless of the external factors. Not all player evaluations are the same.
“I know it kind of sounds cliché,” Kline said, “but it’s the truth. We are always going to take the best player available who we can sign . . . And best player available, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody who we feel is a guy, somebody from another organization may not see them in the same light. And so, it’s just the way things go.”
So extensive knowledge of signability, avoiding the pressure to reach for college players and market size all help to explain why some teams have come to be so high school heavy, but it still doesn’t explain the value that comes from that youth.
Barnsby mentioned studies that have been done—like a Pathway to the Podium study by sport scientists from several collaborating universities who attempted to understand the pathways of elite athletes compared to lesser skilled athletes—that have shown that many high-level athletes have been younger siblings who grew up competing against their older brothers and the older competition that comes with that.
It would seem to follow then, that acquiring younger players and putting them into competition against older opponents could help continue development.
Another benefit of adding younger players to a player development system is that they could be more easily molded to the routines and habits that teams are trying to incorporate. While acknowledging that plenty of college players have shown the ability to adapt as well, Barnsby did mention this as a potential benefit of drafting younger.
“I do think there is an aspect to that,” Barnsby said. “I think as you walk through the players who have come into the system, yes. And if you talked to our player development guys they would say, ‘This is great.’ Somebody who is very young, very new to routines, very new to their individual approach—yes, I think molding that player and starting earlier in their career, there are definitely benefits to that.”
The game of baseball is getting younger. The 2019 season saw the youngest average age for hitters (27.9) since 1978. And the Indians appear to be pushing that youth movement more than any other team in baseball.
“We are not going to shy away from a player just because he’s young,” Barnsby said. “And I think there’s certainly a lot of value to getting the player in the system sooner rather than later.”
Throughout the 2010s, the Indians pursued the youngest players available in the draft. The organization’s scouting and analytics departments prefer young players who “play up” to their level of competition. Plus, Cleveland’s scouts have proven to be among the best at determining high school players’ signability.
These factors contribute to the extreme youth of players ranked as the Indians’ Top 10 Prospects for 2020. The group’s Opening Day age will be just 20 years old. That makes Cleveland’s top 10 the second youngest in recent history, according to Baseball America data dating back to 2005. The 2006 Yankees, with an average age of 19.95, are the only younger top 10—and only by a hair are they younger.
Here is a comparison of the 2020 Indians and 2006 Yankees, where HS stands for high school, JC for junior college, DR for Dominican Republic and VZ for Venezuela. Age is figured as of Opening Day.
2020 INDIANS TOP 10
2006 YANKEES TOP 10
Of this group, Hughes provided the most direct big league value to the Yankees, while Tabata, Jackson, Nuñez and Clippard were leveraged in trades and went on to become productive major leaguers. The best player New York acquired in those trades was Curtis Granderson, a product of the Jackson trade.