High School Draftees and Elite Seasons

Over the weekend, I stumbled upon this article that quoted some thought-provoking numbers from agent Scott Boras. In the article, he voices his support for increased collegiate baseball scholarships and lays out a few statistics that his agency has unearthed:

  • >>  79% of collegiate first-round draft picks reach the major leagues for at least one day.
  • >>  62% of high school first-round draft picks reach the major leagues for at least one day.

That is a significant 17% difference, though not necessarily surprising. High school draftees come with increased risk. Generally, their skill sets remain more unrefined than their collegiate counterparts. Thus, predicting the future talent for those players becomes much more difficult. This uncertainty causes teams to miss on a greater portion of high school players.

So, what continues to draw teams into drafting a high school player over a collegiate player every year?

Answer: The allure of acquiring potentially elite talent early in their development cycle.

Above is the aging curve for a baseball player. Teams desperately wish to pair young prospects with professional coaches as quickly as possible because the increase in ability is so dramatic during the early years. Teams believe they can have more of an impact during the formative years rather than later in the career when the curve begins to level off.

Theoretically, if Player A (a high school player) and Player B (a collegiate player) were both guaranteed to reach the big leagues at some point in their career, most organizations would gravitate toward Player A because he is lower on the development curve. He has more time to improve. Or more simply, he possesses greater upside.

This made me wonder if teams understand the greater risk of drafting high school players, yet continue to draft them over collegiate players in the early rounds because the eventual reward is greater. Perhaps fewer high school draftees make the big leagues, but if they do, they provide more value to their respective teams than the collegiate draftees. Perhaps the elite players in Major League Baseball are more likely to be drafted out of high school than college.

After all, why else would teams continue to draft high school players if the likelihood of their panning out was clearly lower? The reward has to be higher to entice teams to take a higher risk. That’s how it works in gambling and investing. Perhaps it works the same way in the MLB Draft.

For the sake of this analysis, the definition of an elite season from a player is +4.0 WAR or greater. There have been 235 players who have compiled a single season worth at least +4.0 WAR since the year 2000. Those 235 players have, at one time in their career, been considered elite players in Major League Baseball. We want to see if a higher percentage of those elite players were drafted out of high school rather than college.

As we can clearly see, 32.8% (77 of 235) of elite players were drafted out of high school. Compare that to the 45.9% (108 of 235) that attended some sort of college, and we are left with the conclusion that high school players are not worth the risk. The increased reward of an increased likelihood of drafting an elite player is simply not corroborated by the numbers. Not only do collegiate players reach the big leagues at a higher rate, but collegiate players also make up the vast majority of the elite players in the MLB since the 2000 season.

Despite the evidence that drafting high school players decreases the potential of reaching the big leagues and becoming an elite player, teams will undoubtedly continue to load up on the young high school players. On the aging curve, that makes complete sense. When analyzing overall success at the major league level, however, the numbers suggest that teams would be more wise to opt for the collegiate players.

That is not to say your favorite team will not hit the jackpot on a young, toolsy high school player from time to time. Of course, they will. Nothing is ever black and white in the world of scouting and player development. What the data does suggest, though, is that if your favorite team has the choice between Player A (a high school player) and Player B (a collegiate player) and both are considered first-round talents or second-round talents, your favorite team should select the collegiate player. They have a higher probability of drafting an elite player that way.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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