- Keith Law, ESPN Insider
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One of the major points of differentiation between various teams' draft strategies is how the teams divide their attention between college players and high school players. We've heard and read arguments that focusing on college players is a more sensible strategy, as the return on investment of college prospects is higher because they're more predictable and reach the majors faster. And we've heard and read counterarguments that cutting off half of the draft pool (although high school players really represent more than half of it, if we're talking about legitimate big-league prospects) is foolish and leads to farm systems stocked with fourth outfielders and fifth starters.
The arguments for college players
Let's assume that most scouting directors who choose to take college players don't do so simply because they had a religious epiphany halfway through "Moneyball," broke a few chairs, and decided to stop scouting high school prospects. So what are the factors that support taking college players early in the draft?
They're faster to the majors. The typical college prospect is a 21-year-old junior who has three years of experience playing Division I baseball. The typical high school prospect is only 18 (and occasionally 17) and has never even lived away from home. The age, experience and maturity issues all contribute to shorter incubation periods for college prospects -- about two years from draft to the majors for top players drafted from college, as opposed to three-and-a half to four years for top players drafted from high school.
Evaluating college players might be easier because comprehensive statistics are available for Division I players and for most Division II, Division III, and even NAIA players. The use of stats to evaluate college players was obviously a big point in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" book, and just about all teams have someone who at least looks at the college stats of draft prospects. That said, the predictive value of those stats is up for debate; different strengths of schedule and the use of aluminum bats both reduce the stats' value when it comes to determining the pro futures of college players.
The caliber of competition is much better for most college players, making evaluating them easier. Even good college players who play in weak conferences or in lower divisions usually will play in a good summer league, with the Cape Cod League presenting the best competition and the best opportunity to be seen by scouts. On a typical night on Cape Cod, there are five games, and in each of them there will be at least one starter with an average fastball. High school players get brief opportunities to face their top peers from around the country, including the Area Code Games and the East Coast Showcase, but no extended opportunities like the summer collegiate leagues.
The arguments for high school players
The best athletes -- and thus the players with the highest upside -- tend to come out of the high school ranks rather than the college ranks.
This also means that there's more uncertainty in evaluating high school players, so a good scouting organization can find good values beyond the first or second round, while a bad scouting organization can post a goose egg for an entire draft by selecting a passel of high school products who don't pan out.
Execs with pro-high school organizations often tout the benefit of getting a prospect into a professional player development organization at age 18 rather than 21. Players who do go to college don't necessarily receive good instruction, and they're used in a way that's designed for the college coach to win more games, not in a way that maximizes the player's professional development. This is perfectly valid for clubs with good player development organizations, of course, but not every club has that -- consider the problems that Seattle, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have had in recent years keeping minor-league arms healthy.
For some of the best high school prospects, college isn't an option. Many don't have the academic ability to go to four-year schools. Others have financial reasons why they can't go to college. Whatever the reason, there are clearly entire groups of prospects who would be shut out if teams stopped scouting the high school ranks.
So, who takes what?
After the first five to six rounds, even high school-heavy franchises will start to mix in college players for signability reasons. College seniors tend to sign for small bonuses, often as little as $1,000 beyond the 10th round because they have no other options and just want to play pro ball. (The term "senior sign" refers to just such a player, one who isn't a prospect but who will sign for $1,000-$5,000 and can help out in the low minors.) High school prospects, on the other hand, typically want significant bonuses to forgo college. So, while plenty of high school players are taken after the fifth round -- many of whom turn out to be quite good -- it's rare for a team to take and sign high school players exclusively all through the draft. Therefore, when looking at college/high school tendencies in the draft, it makes sense to focus just on higher rounds.
In the last three drafts, no team has gone for high school prospects more than the Los Angeles Angels, who had 13 picks in the top five rounds during 2004-2006 and used 11 of them on high school prospects, the only exceptions being Jered Weaver (1st round, 2004) and junior college pitcher Kenny Herndon (5th round, 2006). After the Angels, the most pro-high school drafts belong to the Dodgers, Nationals/Expos, Devil Rays and Twins. It's not a coincidence that the top four teams include three of the best farm systems in the game and one of the worst. Going heavy on high school players is high-risk, high-reward stuff, and it requires great evaluators and good player development staffs.
On the other side, college baseball has been most heavily plundered by the Toronto Blue Jays, who went all college in the first rounds of 2004 and 2005, then took high school outfielder Travis Snider in the first round in 2006 before taking college players in the fourth and fifth rounds, giving them a college rate of 93 percent. The Blue Jays started going pro-college in 2002 with the arrival of J.P. Ricciardi from Oakland; the A's, who started the recent trend of focusing on college players in the draft, have gone the other way of late, taking college players with 60 percent of their picks in the first five rounds of the last three drafts, good for just 17th overall. Second on the list are the Giants, who have Tim Lincecum and nothing else to show for the other eight college players they took in this study. Coming in third is Detroit, fourth is Arizona, and in fifth are the St. Louis Cardinals, who, out of a total of 22 picks, drafted 17 college players in the top five rounds of the last three drafts, more than any other team in baseball. Of those 22 players, the two best prospects today are from the five the Cards took out of high school: center fielder Colby Rasmus and catcher Bryan Anderson. And keep an eye on pitcher Tyler Herron, a first-rounder in 2005 who looks like he's turning the corner in low-A.
What should teams do?
There is no universal draft strategy; if everyone drafted the same way, there would be obvious value in a contrarian approach. For teams with poor player-development track records, taking polished players (usually, but not always, college guys) is a sensible strategy. (Hiring better player development people also would be a sensible strategy, but that's another story.) Teams with extra picks or with plenty of money to spend at the major-league level should be more willing to take risks on high-upside players who are raw or who are tough signs. About the only thing that's clear is that an all-college approach typically leads to a drastic lack of impact prospects in farm systems; Toronto, Detroit, and St. Louis are all college-heavy drafters whose No. 1 prospects were taken out of high school (Snider, Cameron Maybin, and Rasmus, respectively). But the college ranks produce plenty of top prospects and plenty of big-league stars, from Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to Ryan Zimmerman and Rickie Weeks. In the end, looking at the entire talent pool and making good evaluations are a lot more important than hewing to some dogma that uses generalizations to elevate or malign huge swaths of the draft.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.
Some franchises prefer high school players. Some like college players. So, what's the best strategy? Draft both.