As we approach Thursday's MLB First-Year Player Draft, we're faced with a familiar question: What's for dinner? No, not that familiar question, this one: Who will be picked first? Some years, that question is answered months ahead of time. Four and five years ago, respectively, nobody questioned picking Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg with the first pick (well, almost nobody). But this year, there is no Harper and there is no Strasburg. That's not to say there isn't lots of exciting talent -- because there is lots of exciting talent -- there's just no generational talent rated far above the rest of the draft class. This means there are lots of options when it comes to the first overall selection. This means things are interesting!
The Houston Astros have the first pick this year. Again. This will be the third consecutive draft in which the Astros have picked first overall. Last year they chose pitcher Mark Appel from Stanford University. In 2012 they picked high school shortstop Carlos Correa. Who will they pick this year? It's a good question, but first it's important to understand why we care who goes first. The first overall selection has the highest hit rate in terms of providing value to the team. Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement stat (bWAR) is a cumulative stat -- i.e., the better you do, the more you get -- that measures every part of a productive baseball player. According to Cliff Corcoran of SI.com, "The total bWAR for the 21 top picks [between 1990 and 2010] is 62 percent higher than that for any other draft position." Don't get caught up in the specifics, though. The salient point is that the first overall selection is much more likely than even the second overall pick to net a productive major leaguer. That's why the Astros's first overall selection is so interesting.
That's all fine and dandy, but it's no different than any other draft. What makes this year different from most other drafts is that two high school pitchers, Tyler Kolek and Brady Aiken, are among those thought to be in the running to be the first overall pick. The Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, Evan Drellich, confirmed that the Astros are considering Kolek and Aiken for the first overall pick, despite the fact that only two high school pitchers have ever been selected first overall in the history of the draft (going back to 1965). Why? High school pitchers are hugely risky. Compared to position players, pitchers carry an increased chance of injury. High school pitchers are significantly younger than college pitchers and not as far along developmentally or physically. This means that there are more roadblocks to go over, around and through as compared with a college arm. The further away from the majors a player is, the more that can go wrong on the way there, both physically and developmentally. High school pitchers are as far from the majors as one can get in the MLB draft.
Bill James, the father of modern sabermetrics, once concluded that drafting high school pitchers was a fool's errand (I'm paraphrasing -- those are my words, not his). There's a reason that teams continue to do it, though. While college players are more likely to turn into major league players, high school players have a larger chance of turning into stars. Matt Garrioch studied the success rate of high schoolers compared with college players and documented the kind of players they turned into. He found that there was a larger chance of a high school player turning into an "all-time great" than a college player (you can see the numbers here). It's an interesting dilemma the Astros find themselves in. Draft for upside and accept a greater risk of getting far less, or accept a historically-lower ceiling in return for a higher floor.
All draft picks carry risk, but I wanted to see how much more of a risk the Astros would be taking if they selected Kolek or Aiken. The only high school pitchers ever picked first overall were David Clyde by the Texas Rangers in 1973 and Brien Taylor by the New York Yankees in 1991, and both are often cited as reasons not to take a high school pitcher first overall. However, there are real problems with thinking that way. First, the sample size is two out of 49, hardly what one would call statistically significant. Second, a quick look at what happened to these two pitchers makes it clear that both represent atypical outcomes. Clyde was drafted by the Rangers, who -- in a move that would instantly result in the firing of an entire front office were it replicated today -- brought him up to the majors immediately. Shockingly, this shortsighted maneuver didn't work. Even more shockingly, it was the brainchild of owner Bob Short, who wanted the 18-year-old from Texas in the majors so he could sell seats. Clyde never developed and found himself out of baseball at the age of 26. We can't say for sure if Clyde would have become a good major league pitcher had the Rangers not done everything they could to ruin him, but he would've at least had a better shot at it. We know that no team that spends the first overall pick on a high school pitcher is going to bring him up immediately. It simply wouldn't happen now.
Clyde was the victim of horrific player development. The second, Taylor, was the victim of bad off-field decision-making. Taylor was a good pitcher in need of further development in Double-A when he injured his shoulder in multiple places during a fight. After surgery, he was sent to the Rookie League, but he wasn't the same pitcher he had been before the injury. He never made it back to Double-A.
Those are cautionary tales to be sure, but they're both extremely unlikely scenarios. The time, money and effort put into drafting these days marks Clyde's story as from another era entirely. Taylor's injury, while still entirely possible, is equally possible for any player (though you could rightly say that Taylor's immaturity played a role his injury, and high school players generally are less mature off the field than college players). Either way, there isn't much of anything a team could draw from the specifics of either story to recommend not selecting a high school pitcher first overall in the draft.
Still, were Aiken or Kolek selected first overall, the Astros would be siding with upside and risk. That's a tough place to go with the first overall selection, one where a foundational player is expected. So the Astros might opt for more safety by selecting a different player. But considering both pitchers are likely to go in the top five, I decided to look at what kind of risk high school pitchers selected in the top five picks carry historically. Including Clyde and Taylor, there have been 47 high school pitchers selected in the first five picks of the draft. Two have been picked first overall, 11 with the second overall pick, nine with the third, 11 with the fourth, and 14 with the fifth.
(If you're wondering what the numbers look like after that, there have been eight high school pitchers selected sixth overall, 17 selected seventh, nine selected eighth, 14 selected ninth, and eight selected 10th overall. Beyond that, I suggest you buy a subscription to Baseball Reference.)
In the 22 years since Taylor was picked, only 13 high school pitchers have been selected in the top five, or just under 12 percent of the total players selected. Of those 13 pitchers, only four -- John Patterson (fifth overall, Expos), Josh Beckett (second overall, Marlins), Kerry Wood (fourth overall, Cubs) and Gavin Floyd (fourth overall, Phillies) -- made it to the majors.
Of the 47 top-five high school pitchers selected, 22 (47 percent) made the major leagues and provided some positive production for their teams. Of course, that's a bit unfair for two reasons. First, it counts Roger Salkeld's career 0.1 bWAR as a success. Second, it counts Dylan Bundy, Jameson Taillon and a few other recent draftees still developing in the minors as failures. Even so, the percentages are pretty close. Considering about half of first-round draftees make the major leagues at all, it seems that -- roughly speaking -- picking a high school pitcher in the top five isn't taking on too much added risk.
It should be noted that the way the draft is structured now will affect who gets picked first. Because each team gets a pool of dollars to spend on its draft, the expectations of the first overall pick will play a role. It's possible that the Astros will identify the player they like the best and choose him. But it's also possible that the Astros will identify a bunch of players they like and, not seeing huge differences in the talent level, opt to pick the player who will sign for the least, thereby freeing up money in their pool to be spent elsewhere in the draft.
As for Kolek and Aiken, they're unlikely to see the majors this season or tear their shoulder in a fight. Beyond that, the numbers say, as high school pitchers, they are at increased risk to provide little to no productivity for the teams that draft them. But they might be superstars. Nobody knows which one it'll be, and that right there is the miracle of the draft.