MLB.com Columnist

Jonathan Mayo

Drafting high school arms: Risk vs. reward

What history says about taking prep hurlers -- the strength of the 2016 class -- early

Drafting high school arms: Risk vs. reward

The 2016 Draft landscape may seem a bit muddled a week away from its start on June 9, with little clarity at the top in particular. But one thing does seem apparent: the strength of this class may well be in high school pitching.

A quick look at MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Draft prospects confirms this theory. Jason Groome, the lefty from southern New Jersey, and Riley Pint, who hails from Kansas, are first and second on that list. They both have a very good chance of being taken among the top 10 picks of the first round. And they're not alone. Alabama high school lefty Braxton Garrett and right-hander Matt Manning, a standout from Northern California, have also heard their names come up in the top 10 conversation.

High school pitching is the ultimate in the risk vs. reward exercise that is the Draft. From 1965-2015, there have been 100 high school pitchers taken in the top 10 of the June Draft. A total of 38 of them never reached, or have not yet reached, the big leagues. In nine years, there were prep pitchers taken in the top 10, none of whom spent a day at the highest level. The 2000 Draft had five high school arms taken that high, and none of them made it past Double-A.

Success stories

Sometimes there is reward when that risk is taken. Here is a list of the top 10 high school pitchers taken in the top 10 of the Draft, ranked by WAR:

WAR - Name, Team, Pick, Year
53.2 - Dwight Gooden, Mets, No. 7, 1982
52.2 - Zack Greinke, Royals, No. 6, 2002
52.1 - Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, No. 7, 2006
39.7 - Jon Matlack, Mets, No. 4, 1967
35.9 - Josh Beckett, Marlins, No. 2, 1999
27.7 - Kerry Wood, Cubs, No. 4, 1995
26.6 - Mike Morgan, A's, No. 4, 1978
25.0 - Madison Bumgarner, Giants, No. 10, 2007
23.7 - Joe Coleman, Senators, No. 3, 1965
23.6 - Bill Gullickson, Expos, No. 2, 1977

Gooden spent just one full year in the Minors before making his big league debut in 1984, and winning Rookie of the Year honors in the process. It might be harder to believe that two on this list - Morgan and Coleman - made their Major League debut's the same year they were drafted.

That sort of beeline to the big leagues never happens for high school pitchers these days. Kershaw's ascent, debuting with Los Angeles in less than two years following being drafted, is the exception not the rule. Over the years, teams have tried to minimize the risk associated with drafting prep pitching by slowing down the development process.

"With the monetary investment teams are making on high school arms in this day and age, teams are protecting their young arms and giving them more time to develop physically and mentally to be prepared for the rigors of Major League Baseball," White Sox scouting director Nick Hostetler said.

2016 MLB Draft: June 9-11 on MLB Network, MLB.com

It's pretty clear this leaderboard will change, with three active pitchers in the top 10. At some point this season, both Greinke and Kershaw should move Gooden to third place, assuming Greinke rights the ship. At the rate Kershaw is going, seeing him at the top of WAR-driven rankings for any high school pitching taken in the Draft since 1965 is extremely possible (more on that later).

Top years for high school pitching

Not surprisingly, the top years for top 10 high school pitchers, again according to WAR, correlate closely to the list above. Here are the top five years, along with how many high school pitchers were taken in the top 10 that year.

Year (No. of pitchers), WAR
1982 (3), 62.1
2002 (4), 52.5
2006 (1), 52.1
1967 (4), 41.2
1977 (4), 39.9

Kershaw puts 2006 on the list by himself, while Beckett lands 1999 in sixth place (35.9 WAR). In both instances, they were the only high school pitcher taken in the top 10 that year. Obviously 1982 was nearly all Gooden, but Duane Ward chipped in 10.6 WAR as the No. 9 pick overall. Jimmy Jones was taken before both of them, at No. 3, but he finished with a negative WAR.

The 2002 Draft saw four high school arms taken, three of them selected before Greinke went to the Royals at No. 6. Chris Gruler (No. 3) and Clint Everts (No. 5) never made it to the big leagues, and No. 4 pick Adam Loewen has the distinction of making it to the Majors as both a pitcher and a hitter, though he has registered just a 0.4 WAR as a hurler. The 1967 Draft was mostly Matlack, though No. 3 pick Mike Garman contributed a 2.5 WAR. The 1977 Draft was really the only one which was a collaborative effort. Gullickson led the way with his 23.6 WAR, but No. 7 pick Rich Dotson pitched in, pun intended, with 16.3.

Beyond the top 10 picks

Based on history, it might make more sense to pay attention to the high school pitchers who don't go in those initial 10 picks. Just take a look at the top high school pitchers taken in the Draft overall:

Name, team, year, round, WAR
Greg Maddux, Cubs, 1984, 2nd, 104.6
Bert Blyleven, Twins, 1969, 3rd, 96.5
Nolan Ryan, Mets, 1965, 12th, 83.8
Tom Glavine, Braves, 1984, 2nd, 74.0
John Smoltz, Tigers, 1985, 22nd, 66.5

Look for Kershaw to break into that top five in the near future. But maybe it's time to stop looking at a high school pitcher who goes in the second round or beyond as someone who is "sliding."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.