A Report on the Amateur Origins of Baseball’s Top-40 Players

Like many of this site’s readers, the author of this post has occasionally entertained a fantasy in which he’s tasked — as the general manager of a major-league club — with constructing a championship roster. As with many fantasies, this one is burdened by awful, dumb reality: apart from an impressive combination of talent and experience, the position of general manager also requires one to work “all the time” or at least “nearly all the time.” For those among us who have already allocated a portion of the day to assuming the fetal position and weeping gently, that sort of obligation is untenable. As assorted industry contacts have confirmed for me, employment in a front office allows almost zero time for reflection on the horror of merely existing.

Still, this doesn’t prevent one from contemplating how one would conduct the affairs of a club were he given the opportunity. This post is designed to do that, briefly.

This post is also built on a reasonable assumption — namely that, among the general manager’s most important duties (and the scouting director’s and team president’s) is the acquisition of amateur talent. With few exceptions, organizations exercise great control over players whom they procure by means either of the draft or international free agency. In addition to owning the rights to such players for years in the minors, clubs are then entitled to six or seven years of player control in the majors. One can (and maybe should) debate the merits of the system; however, that debate lies outside the scope of this very modest report. What’s relevant here is the fact that it exists.

Even if a club doesn’t have space for a talented player on its 25-man roster, this doesn’t render that player’s value moot. The Detroit Tigers, for example, have maintained a strong major-league club for much of the last decade in part by exchanging young, cost-controlled prospects for more expensive, more proven major leaguers. While the Tigers have frequently placed among the bottom third of farm-rankings lists, this isn’t to say that the organization hasn’t reaped the benefits of its amateur scouting department. Rather, they’ve attempted to leverage those benefits in a different way — by exchanging future for present value.

What’s the best place to find such players, though? That’s the question a GM et al. must answer — and the more accurate the answer, the better situated a club to win.

What I’ve endeavored to here is answer the question my own haphazard way, using the tools and resourced available to one guy sitting at his desk in New Hampshire. I started by identifying the best players in the game — which, for the purposes of this post, I’ve defined as players who’ve received a Steamer projection of four wins or greater. The four-win threshold is convenient: not only does that represent the “star” threshold in our glossary entry for WAR, but it also accounts for exactly 40 players. After identifying those players, I found their original signing information, as well — that is, whether they were selected in the amateur draft or signed as an international free agent. For the former group, I also recorded from what sort of school he was selected (high school, four-year college, junior college) and at what number he was picked. For the latter group, I recorded the country of origin.

In some ways, the current piece resembles a series of three posts I published last March, which also examined amateur origins. The projects are similar, but not identical. That series of posts examined good seasons, as opposed to good players. That distinction might seem like a merely semantic one, but there’s a real difference, too. A good season might be the product of a wildly high UZR figure, for example. The regression applied by Steamer smooths out those sort of outliers. Also, this post features newer data. So, if nothing else, it represents a “status update” of sorts.

The full results are featured below. In the meantime, I’ve provided three observations of particular interest, as follow.

1. The draft has produced a majority of today’s star players.
Among the 40 players projected to record four wins or more in 2016, only five of them (12.5%) were signed as international free agents. The remaining 35 (87.5%) were selected by way of the draft. This is surprising. A number of the last decade’s best players were signed as IFAs. Consider: Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Belte, and Robinson Cano are responsible for the first-, fourth-, and seventh-highest WAR figures among batters over the last 10 years. Each of them is over 30 now, however, and only Cabrera is projected for four or more wins.

Is this a trend? It seems unlikely. Roughly 25% of major-leaguers were born outside the United States. Some of them are ultimately subject to the draft, of course. Carlos Correa and Joey Votto were selected, by way of the draft, out of Puerto Rico and Canada, respectively. Jose Fernandez defected from Cuba to the States as a youth. He ultimately attended a Tampa high school. Still, many of those 25% were first signed out of Latin America. That the conversion rate to stardom is currently so low — it’s worthy of monitoring, if nothing else.

2. College and prep draftees are equally represented among star players.
While accepted wisdom typically suggests that college draftees possess both higher floors and lower ceilings than their high-school counterparts, the two groups are represented almost equally among the league’s 40 top players, which features 16 former four-year collegiates and 17 high-school draftees.

Anecdotally, the college products do seem to have taken a more circuitous path to stardom. Josh Donaldson, for example, didn’t record his 35th plate appearance until his age-26 season — this after having moved to third base permanently following years at catcher. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, by contrast, both debuted as 19-year-olds. Still younger than Donaldson when he made his debut, it’s quite possible that Harper and Trout have produced more wins (57.9) already than Donaldson (24.1) will in his entire career.

3. Junior colleges represent a source of interesting talent.
In that study from last year, I found that nearly 10% of good seasons were produced by players who were drafted out of junior college. Only one such player had been selected in the first round: Bryce Harper. And, it should be noted, that Harper actually acquired a GED after his sophomore year of high school so he could enter the draft earlier than most high schoolers.

Not every talented product of junior colleges is as obscure as Kevin Kiermaier, but he represents an interesting case study. Selected in the 31st round out of Parkland College in 2010, Kiermaier has parlayed elite defense and a league-average bat into nearly 10 wins over the past two years.

Those comments having been made, here’s a sortable table with all the relevant data.

The Amateur Origins of Baseball’s Top-40 Players
Name Team Type WAR How School Pick Country Year
1 Mike Trout LAA B 9.0 Draft HS 25 2009
2 Clayton Kershaw LAN P 7.3 Draft HS 7 2006
3 Bryce Harper WAS B 6.6 Draft JC 1 2010
4 Manny Machado BAL B 6.2 Draft HS 3 2010
5 Josh Donaldson TOR B 6.1 Draft 4YR 48 2007
6 Chris Sale CHA P 5.9 Draft 4YR 13 2010
7 Andrew McCutchen PIT B 5.7 Draft HS 11 2005
8 Kris Bryant CHN B 5.6 Draft 4YR 2 2013
9 Max Scherzer WAS P 5.6 Draft 4YR 11 2006
10 Buster Posey SFN B 5.4 Draft 4YR 5 2008
11 Paul Goldschmidt ARI B 5.4 Draft 4YR 8 2009
12 Giancarlo Stanton MIA B 5.2 Draft HS 76 2007
13 Corey Kluber CLE P 5.2 Draft 4YR 134 2007
14 Jake Arrieta CHN P 5.2 Draft 4YR 159 2007
15 Jason Heyward CHN B 5.1 Draft HS 14 2007
16 Anthony Rizzo CHN B 5.1 Draft HS 204 2007
17 Mookie Betts BOS B 5.0 Draft HS 172 2011
18 David Price BOS P 4.9 Draft 4YR 1 2007
19 Jose Fernandez MIA P 4.9 Draft HS 14 2011
20 Carlos Carrasco CLE P 4.8 IFA VEN 2003
21 Stephen Strasburg WAS P 4.8 Draft 4YR 1 2009
22 Dallas Keuchel HOU P 4.8 Draft 4YR 221 2009
23 Felix Hernandez SEA P 4.7 IFA VEN 2002
24 Matt Harvey NYN P 4.6 Draft 4YR 7 2010
25 Joey Votto CIN B 4.5 Draft HS 44 2002
26 Carlos Correa HOU B 4.4 Draft HS 1 2012
27 Jacob deGrom NYN P 4.4 Draft 4YR 272 2010
28 Nolan Arenado COL B 4.3 Draft HS 59 2009
29 Madison Bumgarner SFN P 4.3 Draft HS 10 2007
30 Jon Lester CHN P 4.3 Draft HS 57 2002
31 Miguel Cabrera DET B 4.2 IFA VEN 1999
32 Yasiel Puig LAN B 4.2 IFA CUB 2012
33 Gerrit Cole PIT P 4.2 Draft 4YR 1 2011
34 Zack Greinke ARI P 4.2 Draft HS 6 2002
35 Evan Longoria TBA B 4.1 Draft 4YR 3 2006
36 Noah Syndergaard NYN P 4.1 Draft HS 38 2010
37 Chris Archer TBA P 4.1 Draft HS 161 2006
38 Starling Marte PIT B 4.0 IFA DOM 2007
39 Kevin Kiermaier TBA B 4.0 Draft JC 941 2010
40 Tyson Ross SDN P 4.0 Draft 4YR 58 2008

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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8 years ago

Interesting to me that of the pitchers, 7 come out of high school as compared to 11 from 4 year institutions.

The HS pitchers may have been considered “sure things” as 6 of them were selected quite early (i.e, picks 6 – 57), Archer being the outlier (i.e., pick 161).

Compare this to the 11 pitchers taken from 4 year institutions: a much larger range (i.e., 1 – 272) and not really a pattern I can find.

Thanks Carson this is interesting.