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Does Polish Or Stuff Mean More In The Long Run?

by Jim Callis
May 15, 2004

CHICAGO—The Padres own the No. 1 overall draft pick, and coming into the year they placed Old Dominion righthander Justin Verlander atop their priority list because he had the most electric arm among college pitchers. Verlander has lived up to that assessment, popping 99 mph with his fastball and showing a power curveball throughout the spring.

For all his power, however, he has been less than dominant. He has 135 strikeouts in 92 innings, but considering his arsenal his 6-5, 3.33 record is downright mediocre. Princeton shelled him for 10 runs in five innings, Kent State knocked him out after four and William & Mary touched him for seven runs in six frames.

He has overmatched opponents at times, fanning 16 in a three-hit shutout of Virginia Commonwealth, but too often his control has been inconsistent. Verlander has had trouble with walks and has been too hittable when he can't get ahead in the count.

As a result, Long Beach State righty Jered Weaver is now the apple of the Padres' eye. He caught their attention in the first weekend of play at Petco Park, striking out 15 while allowing just a hit and a walk in eight innings against UCLA, with San Diego general manager Kevin Towers in attendance.

While Weaver's fastball (88-94 mph) and breaking ball (an OK slider) don't stack up to Verlander's, he has a better changeup and much better command. His superior savvy has led to a stat line that looks like it belongs in the dead-ball era: 14-0, 1.27, 113 innings, 55 hits, 14 walks, 171 strikeouts.

"Weaver isn't the best guy in the draft," a National League scouting director says. "There are higher ceilings elsewhere. But Weaver has less risk and he's going to get there quick."

In the long run, who has fared better, the pitcher with the best stuff or the pitcher with the most polish? Let's see what past drafts can tell us.

Pure College Arms Pan Out

It's too early to know how picks from the previous two years will turn out. Looking at 1992-2001, the college pitchers with the best pure arms in each draft (according to BA's best tools ratings before the draft) yielded a No. 1 starter (Mark Prior), an all-star with a bright future (Ben Sheets), three effective relievers (Paul Shuey, Billy Koch, Brad Lidge) and a pair of serviceable starters (Darren Dreifort, Paul Wilson). Matt Anderson, the No. 1 overall pick to the Tigers in 1997, has been disappointing. Ben Diggins has reached the majors, and only Mike Drumright fell short of that goal.

During the same period, the 10 players regarded as closest to the majors (and thus the most polished) have not fared as well. Not surprisingly, Prior is the only pitcher who topped both groups in his draft year. He's the class of the polished arms, followed by four decent starters (Brian Anderson, Kris Benson, Jeff Weaver—Jered's brother—and Jason Jennings).

C.J. Nitkowski has had a lengthy if not particularly effective career as a lefty specialist, while Jonathan Johnson, Jeff Austin and Justin Wayne have been fringe big leaguers. Pete Janicki, who injured his elbow almost immediately after the Angels made him a first-round pick in 1992, never made it to the majors.

Looking at the cold, hard numbers, the 10 college stuff standouts have combined to go 234-220, 4.17 with 219 saves and 189 holds in 3,791 big league innings. The most refined college arms have gone 248-261, 4.61 with six saves and 48 holds in 4,482 innings.

Stuff Matters For Prepsters, Too

Stuff has trumped polish among the college pitchers, and the disparity is even more pronounced among high schoolers. Just two of the most advanced prep pitchers from the 1992-2001 drafts have made it to the majors, though Dustin Moseley and projected 2004 first-round pick Jeremy Sowers could double that number in the next couple of years.

Rick Ankiel looked like a superstar before control issues and Tommy John surgery ruined his career. He and Bob Wolcott have a 28-31, 5.00 record in 558 innings between them. Kirk Presley, the late Doug Million, Phill Lowery, Taylor Myers and J.M. Gold likely never will pitch in the majors, and Bobby Bradley will have to overcome three arm surgeries to do so.

Though the high school pitchers with the best arms have produced only four big leaguers, they include two Cy Young Award candidates in Kerry Wood and Josh Beckett and a decent starter in Jeff D'Amico. Counting Jim Pittsley's brief career, they have combined for a 133-124, 4.11 mark in 2,254 innings.

Meanwhile, Jayson Peterson, Geoff Goetz and Gold (the only prepster to pull off the Prior double) have fallen by the wayside. Matt White, Mark Phillips and Colt Griffin aren't done yet, but don't offer much hope.

It will be a major upset if the Padres don't kick off the draft June 7 by taking Weaver. But history also tells us it won't be too surprising if Verlander outshines him in the long run.

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