Earlier this week, I read an article on Philly.com about Jason Groome, a left-handed high school pitching prospect thought to be in the mix for the first overall pick in this upcoming draft. In addition to being the local-ish prospect, Groome got a stamp of approval from Cole Hamels, who saw him do a workout for the Phillies last year before Hamels was traded to Texas.
“He did a workout with the Phillies,” Hamels said. “I was there, throwing a bullpen, and he had just got done throwing. I was like, ‘How old are you?’
Hamels, 32, laughed.
“I was not that big,” he said. “Gavin Floyd and I were skinny. We didn’t throw that hard. We had to grow into our bodies to get some velocity. He’s already got it. I told him, man, you stay healthy and you are going to be golden.”
Of course, given the track record of high school pitchers being selected at the top of the draft, the most important part of that statement is probably the caveat: stay healthy. The history of high school pitchers being taken #1 overall is, of course, terrible: David Clyde and Brien Taylor were such notable busts that teams went 23 years without selecting a high school arm with the top pick again, and when the Astros bucked the trend to select Brady Aiken with the top pick in 2014, that didn’t exactly go their way either; he ended up not signing after a dispute over his medicals, and required Tommy John surgery before getting re-drafted #17 overall by Cleveland last year.
Even expanding the sample to high school arms taken in the top three — since it’s possible that teams with the #1 overall pick were being too risk averse during the 1991-2014 window, and some elite pitchers who went #2 or #3 could have gone #1 overall — the results don’t get much more optimistic. 11 high school arms have been taken with the #2 overall pick in the draft, with Josh Beckett, Bill Gullickson, and J.R. Richard the only three to have real big league careers. Adding in the nine high school pitchers taken with the third pick gets you Steve Avery, Joe Coleman, and Larry Christensen, and that’s the success stories; the other six didn’t do anything in the big leagues.
The failure rate of high school pitching prospects has been well chronicled, and teams have mostly shifted away from using top-of-the-draft selections on high school arms because of the risks. And with the Phillies embracing an analytical approach under new GM Matt Klentak — they just hired Andy Galdi away from Google to run their research and development team — it might seem like the common wisdom would suggest that they should lean towards one of the two college arms — A.J. Puk or Alec Hansen — who are also considered potential options for the top pick at this point. After all, one of the main narratives in “Moneyball” was the A’s eschewing of high school talent in favor of closer-to-the-majors college players.
But it’s also worth noting that the game has changed dramatically since “Moneyball” was published, and the idea that an analytical approach to the draft equals “take college guys” isn’t really true anymore. After all, the Astros are one of the most aggressively analytical teams in baseball, and they’re the ones who took a high school pitcher #1 overall, breaking the 23 year drought. And it probably wasn’t a crazy selection, even though it didn’t go that well for them that year. As Ben Lindbergh noted in his pre-draft piece last year, the game has significantly reversed course on the trend towards drafting college players in the last few years. Borrowing a chart from his piece:
You don’t have to be a data scientist from Google to see that the sport decided they were too college-heavy a few years ago, and have moved back towards something closer to a 50/50 split between high school and college draftees. The trend in the percentage of overall selections shouldn’t drive the decision on who to take at the very top of the draft, but it is worth noting that the teams themselves seem to believe they overcompensated towards college players when evaluating the risk/reward incentive after “Moneyball” came out. Given that teams have significantly better data on amateur players than the public has, this kind of trend suggests that the industry seems to have figured something out, and it’s possible that high school players represent a better bet now than they have in the past.
And given a draft class that looks to offer (at this point) no clear option for a hitter at the top of the draft, the Phillies are going to be picking between guys who are all injury risks. Even college arms blow out with alarming frequency, and describing guys like Puk or Hansen as safe selections ignores the history of guys like Mark Appel, Danny Hultzen, Greg Reynolds, and Trevor Bauer. When drafting a pitcher, high school or college, you’re taking a likely failure, even at the very top of the draft.
College pitchers succeed more often — in addition to guys like Carlos Rodon and Gerrit Cole in the last five years, colleges also get to boast David Price and Stephen Strasburg a few years before that — but neither Puk nor Hansen seems to be the kind of consensus top selection that those guys were, and equating the best college arms in a weak draft class with past elite prospects simply because they’re also pitching for NCAA schools seems intellectually dishonest.
So for the second time in three years, there seems to be a decent chance that a high school pitcher could go #1 overall, after having it not happen for over two decades. And given that there doesn’t appear to be any real low-risk option on the board this year, it might not be entirely crazy.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.