The Myth of the First-Round College Hitter

I thought that college hitters drafted in the first round were the best bets for future success. Now, after some hasty research, I think I was kind of wrong. Story of questionable worth follows...

There are no "safe" picks in the Major League Baseball amateur draft. With thousands of draftees representing varying plateaus of development (high school, junior college, small college, major college) and all of them thrown into the same pool of comparison, the long-term results are predictably erratic.

The MLB draft is an exercise in projection that usually yields failure. Or as Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation puts it, "Bet against everyone."

All of which makes the first round of this volatile spectacle a particularly interesting case study. How do you prioritize premium talent when even the best players are most likely flops? Do you bank on upside with the deck stacked against you? Or do you try to find the highest percentage play in that stacked deck?

In the past decade this debate has essentially been condensed into: Do you draft a high school player or a college player? The former represents risk and the latter safety. And within that paradigm, conventional wisdom seems to favor premier college hitters as the safest of the safe.

Now maybe this holds for the draft as a whole, but how about the first round?

Are college hitters really the safest first-round picks?

And on the flip side, do high school hitters drafted in the first round actually have a higher ceiling?

For proof, I looked at first-round picks from 2000 to 2005. (I chose that timeline because it provides enough leeway for even the rawest HS kid to have made the show by now, but still positions us firmly within the era of elite college baseball prospects. Go too far back and you’ll find that none of the best players even considered college.)

I then examined the first three position players drafted out of high school and college respectively and compared them on aggregate.

The results for both groups are stunningly similar. Of the 18 college hitters drafted, 14 appeared in the major leagues and played for at least one full season. High school hitters experienced almost the same rate of success, 12 out of 18, with two late bloomers (Chris Nelson and Cameron Maybin) almost certain to make it 14 of 18 in the near future.

Now you could quibble with my definition of success, but it is a remarkable similarity nonetheless. Top high school hitters are just as likely to reach the majors as top college hitters.

What then about potential?

Well the 2000-2005 college cadre includes Chase Utley, Mark Teixeira, Rickie Weeks, Stephen Drew and Ryan Zimmerman. The high school crop features Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Andrew McCutchen and Justin Upton.

Now, the eyeball test doesn’t do much to differentiate the two. Maybe I’d push toward the youngsters if I had to choose, but both groups feature players considered among the best at their positions. The talent ceiling can’t go much higher than that.

Still on the fence, I then looked at each player’s best big league seasons, remembering that the high school players probably have more good days ahead, and counted how many in each set have had at least one season with a WAR above four (a bit random, I know, but it’s a starting point).

To the present, five high school players have combined for 11 such seasons and four college players have combined for 13. Again, the balance is extraordinary. Both groups produce elite players on roughly the same plane.

Of course this is all highly unscientific, but it at least makes one question conventional wisdom. On a gut level the theory about risk and reward makes sense -- because of their track record, elite college players should be easier to predict and equally less likely to exceed expectations. To my surprise, the long-term results simply don’t corroborate the assumption.

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