Are Collegiate MLB Draft Prospects Better than High School Ones?

Nearly half of the first-round picks in Thursday's MLB Draft were high schoolers. Are they worth the risk?

There are some times in life where a little risk isn't a bad thing. Maybe you go to a casino, ask that cute gal or guy you work with to stare at Barry Bonds' stats with you on a Friday night, or go cow tipping in the barren fields of Iowa. Risk can be fun sometimes.

The MLB Draft is not one of those times. When your job is on the line, you should probably be doing everything you can to avoid that risk. These picks can make or break your tenure as a general manager, and you can't afford to take players in the first round that bust.

Last night, in the first round of the 2014 version of the draft, 16 high schoolers were drafted in the 34 total picks. It seems obvious that high school players bring greater risk when being drafted. After all, they haven't faced similar competition as collegiate players, and there's less information to operate off of. But I wanted to see if this assumption was accurate or not.


In order to assess this, I looked at each first-round pick from 1980-2000. I chose this time frame because the youngest players from that 2000 draft class would most likely be around 32 by this point, and would have had more than enough time to make their way to the Majors. For some context, this was the year Chase Utley was drafted.

After grabbing each of these players, I found there were 733 players drafted in the first round. Of those, 382 were out of college (either junior college or a four-year school), 350 were out of high school, and Ariel Prieto was drafted out of Cuba at the age of 25. I excluded him from all calculations as he didn't necessarily fall under either category.

What I did was group each of the players into categories based on their level of experience prior to the draft (college or high school), and whether or not they made it to the Major Leagues. I used this to calculate an average Wins Above Replacement (WAR) both of all of the players in each category and exclusively of the players that made it to the bigs. This took the total career WAR of each of the players and then averaged those totals. So, for example, Alex Rodriguez's total in this category would be 116, as that is the total WAR he has accumulated in his career.

Ready to get to the results? I'm all tingly inside. Let's do it.

Risk, Risk, Risk

If you're an advocate for drafting high school players in the first round, now would be a good time to turn on your echo chamber and pretend the rest of this article doesn't exist. It ain't pretty, mis amigos.

ExperienceMajor LeaguersNon-Major LeaguersPercentage Major Leaguers
High School20314758.00%

That's about as definitive as it gets. If you're going to spend a first-round pick on a player, it seems like you'd be better off drafting the player that has a 75.39 percent chance of one day playing for your squad than the guy at 58.00 percent. Because of the size of the sample and the discrepancy between the two percentages, this one doesn't even seem like it's up for debate: drafting high school players is a ridiculous amount riskier than drafting college guys.

While this does illustrate that it's less likely for a high school player to make it, it doesn't necessarily demonstrate what they will or will not do if they make the Majors. For that, we'll turn toward WAR to see whether high school guys or college guys have the most success later in their careers.

In the chart below, where it says WAR of Major Leaguer or WAR of All Draftees, that means it's the average career WAR of each of the players. The "Major Leaguer" category applies to only players that played at least one game in the majors. The "All Draftees" category is everybody selected at that level of experience in the first round from 1980-2000.

ExperienceWAR Major LeaguersWAR All Draftees
High School9.725.6

So, even of just the players that make the majors, the collegiate guys are still superior. That's not a huge difference between the two, but with a sample size that large, it's significant.

The average career WAR of the collegiate players was 8.44 percent higher than that of the high school players. If you expand that to all of the players drafted in the first round in our time range, the collegiate players' average career WAR was 41.96 percent higher than that of the collegiate players. As of right now, it makes absolutely zero sense to draft a high school dude over a collegiate prospect.

That said, I'm willing to try to find some justification for doing so. I mean, it's total reach-time here, kiddos. Let's talk this one out.

I present to you a scenario. A general manager looks at the high injury rate among pitchers recently, and wants those prospects under his control as soon as possible. So, he drafts them straight out of high school in order to keep tabs on pitch counts and the like. That would kind of make sense, right?

Because of this scenario, I decided to check out these exact same stats for only pitchers. Because WAR is an aggregate stat that (ideally) increases as your workload in the big leagues increases, it essentially does take injuries into account. The chart below shows that, even in this scenario, this strategy just doesn't add up.

ExperienceMajor LeaguersNon-Major LeaguersPercentage Major LeaguersWAR Major LeaguersWAR All Draftees
High School856457.05%7.013.954

There you go. The success rate of high school draftees turning into pros is even lower among pitchers than regular position players. The average career WAR of a high school pitcher drafted in the first round is just less than one-third that of Carlos Gomez last year alone.

Even with all of this data, I can still kind of understand why teams decide to do this. Look at some of the big superstars that have emerged over the last couple of years: Mike Trout and Jose Fernandez were both drafted out of high school within the last couple of years. Maybe these teams believe that these college guys can turn into the next Trout or the next Dwight Gooden, entering the big leagues at a young age and succeeding right out of the gate.

This, too, is flawed thinking. Of all of the players drafted in the first round from 1980-2000, 10 have recorded career WAR's of 70 or higher. Four of them were drafted out of high school; six were out of college. If we expand that to a WAR of 50, there were 10 players drafted out of high school, yet 15 out of college. Not even the superstar argument can make these decisions seem statistically sound, and yet teams continue to make them.

I really hope each of the high school guys taken in the first last night shifts the scope of this study. It would be awesome to see them all in an MLB uniform one day, but the statistics say only 9 of the 16 will. When taking risks such as these can put your job on the line, it seems as if it would make more sense for general managers to put the hype machines aside and go with the numbers. Then again, there's a reason they're the ones running a professional franchise and I'm the one caressing my spreadsheets silently in the corner.