Drafting high school pitchers

This week’s televised draft will feature plenty of top-end high school pitching talent in the first two rounds, and some of these pitchers will ask for multi-million dollar bonuses. Do certain types of elite high school pitchers command higher bonuses than others? Are these investments actually correlated with pitchers’ success?

First, I selected the top 10 high school pitchers (ranked by signing bonus) in the 1996-2000 drafts and observed a relationship between signing bonuses and peak velocity:

Points located at the “1″ on the y-axis represent the peak velocity of individuals earning the highest singing bonus among high school pitchers in their draft, points located at “2″ represent the peak velocity of pitchers with the second-highest signing bonus, and so on. “Peak velocity”, or the maximum recorded fastball velocity as reported by a reliable source before the player was drafted, isn’t the only important velocity-related characteristic. I rely on peak velocity is because it’s a straightforward number that does an adequate job of communicating one aspect of a pitcher, but it is also convenient for data collection purposes because peak velocities are widely available in archived newspaper reports of drafted players. For example, next weekend’s newspaper reports of Rick Porcello will likely mention that he “has been clocked as high as 97 mph” more often than his ability to maintain velocity deep into games, the quality of his curveball, or his pitchability.

Peak velocity is a significant predictor of signing bonuses for top high school pitchers during the five-year period I studied, and I used an ordinal regression model to examine the relationship between other variables (including physical characteristics and geography) and the rank of signing bonuses among high school pitching prospects in the first and second rounds of the draft. As it turns out, peak velocity and pitcher handedness are two variables that are statistically significant predictors of signing bonuses from 1996-2000. Let’s examine the pitching prospects—past and present—with some grouping according to handedness and velocity:

High-Velocity Left-Handed Pitchers

Power lefties are rare, and as a result they command bonuses that almost always rank among the top three when compared to other high school pitchers’ bounties in any given draft. The performance record is uninspiring, however.

Best Bonus: Ryan Anderson (1997)
Top Three Bonuses Among HS Pitchers in Draft: 87.5%
Percent Making it Past Double-A in Six Years: 25.0%
Current Major Leaguers (drafted 1996-2000): C.C. Sabathia
2007 Draftees Who Belong To This Category: Madison Bumgarner

High-Velocity Right-Handed Pitchers

Although some of the heftiest bonuses were handed out to pitchers in this group, most of these pitchers were more affordable than their left-handed counterparts. This group was also the most successful in terms of reaching the major leagues. Rick Porcello leads a deep 2007 draft class of young right-handed pitchers who can throw in the mid- to upper-90′s

Best Bonuses: Matt White (1996) and Josh Beckett (1999)
Top Three Bonuses Among HS Pitchers in Draft: 35.3%
Percent Making it Past Double-A in Six Years: 76.5%
Current Major Leaguers (drafted 1996-2000): Josh Beckett, Boof Bonser, and Adam Eaton
2007 Draftees Who Belong To This Category: Phillipe Aumont (Quebec), Blake Beaven (Texas), Matt Harvey, Michael Main (Florida), Jarrod Parker (Indiana), and Rick Porcello (New Jersey)

Moderate-Velocity Left-Handed Pitchers

I wish I had a dollar for every time I read a comparison between a soft-tossing left-handed pitching prospect and crafty veterans like Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer. Most of the southpaws with low-90s fastballs who are among the top 10 pitching prospects because of their control or advanced secondary pitches. They do not typically earn top bonuses but this group made it past Double-A at a higher rate than the high-velocity southpaws, perhaps because of more well-rounded skills.

Best Bonus: Mike Stodolka (2000)
Top Three Bonuses Among HS Pitchers in Draft: 11.1%
Percent Making it Past Double-A in Six Years: 44.4%
Current Major Leaguers (drafted 1996-2000): None. Sean Burnett is closest.
2007 Draftees Who Belong To This Category: Josh Smoker (Georgia) and Jack McGeary (Massachusetts)

Moderate-Velocity Right-Handed Pitchers

Right-handed pitchers who don’t throw 94 mph or better are not compensated as well as other top pitchers drafted out of high school. As a group, moderate-velocity right-handed pitchers represented the biggest bargain among high school pitchers from 1996 to 2000. These pitchers are the least unique in terms of velocity and handedness, so the individuals who were advanced enough to earn top 10 bonuses often demonstrated durability, mature pitchability, and quality pitches beyond their merely average major league fastballs.

Best Bonuses: Jon Garland (1997)
Top Three Bonuses Among HS Pitchers in Draft: 6.2%
Percent Making it Past Double-A in Six Years: 50%
Current Major Leaguers (drafted 1996-2000): Jon Garland, Jake Westbrook and Adam Wainwright
2007 Draftees Who Belong To This Category: Tim Alderson

Who is Overvalued, Undervalued?

Top left-handed high school pitching prospects generally earned better signing bonuses more than top right-handed draftees, but only 35% of the southpaws in this sample threw at least 25 innings at the major league level within six years of being drafted. Were left-handed high school pitchers overvalued? It’s too small of a sample to make any strong conclusions, but it’s possible that talent evaluators are more forgiving of deficiencies in young left-handed pitching prospects—particularly hard-throwing left-handed pitchers—because there are so few opportunities to develop these kinds of players. Many of these pitchers don’t overcome those deficiencies and players like Madison Bumgarner, a hard-throwing southpaw who will probably command a bonus of over $1 million following a first-round selection this year, present a tempting challenge for scouts and player development personnel. There are serious concerns about the consistency of his motion and his raw secondary stuff, but a team who is willing to believe they can address those weaknesses and develop a once-in-a-generation talent will be happy to take on the risk.

Expectations

There is no shortage of quality high school pitchers eligible for the 2007 draft, so what should we expect of them? If history is any lesson, most won’t make an impact at the major league level. Here is a representation of high school pitchers’ highest level of competition with at least 25 inning pitched within six years of being drafted in the 1996-2000 drafts:

In other words, about half of the pitchers make it to Triple-A baseball or beyond within six years of their draft selection. And although 38% of the top 10 high school pitchers in each of these drafts made it to the major leagues, only eight of the 50 pitchers (16%) in this sample tossed a total of 100 innings or more at the major league level within six years of being drafted.

So there it is. The number of players involved in this retrospective is small because this work-in-progress is part of a larger time-consuming data collection process. But I think this can be a useful start for a discussion about trends in evaluating high school pitchers.

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