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My Working Theories on High Schoolers

My thinking on high school talent was stimulated by some work by Bryan Smith over at Fangraphs. In particular, he published some career WAR accumulations of recent players drafted as catchers and shortstops. Even though he only looked at a relative handful of players, I doubt expanding the scope is going to change what the data suggests. It confirms what has long been assumed: the great ones tend to be picked straight out of high school, but overall, high schoolers are much more likely to never make it.

When I started looking at the draft more seriously back in 2006, I went in with a heavy preference for college players. I knew that the success rate was higher, and I figured whatever higher end talent was missed on from time to time would be made up for by the more consistent contributions from picks.

My view was backwards. It focused on minimizing risk, instead of maximizing reward. As I have watched prospects develop more closely, and looked at the numbers a little more, it is blatant that high school talent has to be considered to maximize reward.

So, here I am, for the first time trying to incorporate prep players into my list of prospects. As I looked at some of the high-schoolers who became stars, I wondered what separated them from others. Are high schoolers as unpredictable as they seem to be on the surface?

Part of me says yes. Stephen Strasburg wasn't even drafted out of high school, but was considered one of the better prospects of the past couple decades a mere three years later. This year, southpaw Chris Sale is a certain first-round pick, but like Strasburg, he was not drafted at all coming out of high school. It seems possible that the guys who become stars could be like Strasburg and Sale. Perhaps it took an unexpected explosion a few years into their pro careers to escalate them to stardom.

However, a bigger part of me says that some guys can be spotted from an early age. Alex Rodriguez was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as a high-schooler, which is unheard of. Joe Mauer always had his sweet stroke. Even among the best, most projectable talents, it seems like some of the great ones have still distanced themselves from the rest, even at 17 and 18 years old.

There is also the minor league environment to think about. An interview in Sports Illustrated this year, of the Yankees "Core Four," underscored what I already thought. It is hard to be young in a farm system. It is awkward being at least three years younger than everyone else, especially when everyone else can (and often does) hit up a bar afterwards. On top of that, older players tend to be more physically mature, definitely have more experience, and cannot afford to take it easy on a younger player. Everyone is in the same fight to reach the majors.

The minor league system, in many ways, is built for younger players to be ostracized. How an organization handles younger talent can help or hinder the situation, but ultimately, I think the player dictates how likely they are to succeed. I think their ability, mindset, and background all predispose them to success or failure in a minor league environment.

All in all, the anecdotal evidence I have looked at leads me to these working theories on high school picks:

  • Only pick potential stars: The basements are inherently lower for high school picks when comparing them to college ones. So, a high schooler must clearly have a higher ceiling than a college prospect to warrant a selection over them. That means any high schooler worth drafting early has to have the potential to be an impact player.
  • It's not about being projectable; it's about being precocious: 18-year-olds are almost universally projectable, no matter who they are. We all develop after 18, somehow or another. So, the key is not finding a high schooler with upside, because that is a given. The key seems to be finding a guy who is ahead of the curve. Joe Mauer already looked a bunch like Joe Mauer at a young age. The same went for Alex Rodriguez, and Jason Heyward as well. They were mature beyond their years, which I think better equipped them to face the older competition they faced in the minors, and also indicated star potential down the road.
  • Bloodlines are relevant: In a line-up of high school phenoms, I do not think the one with a former big-leaguer as a dad has superior genes. However, they likely have a better idea of the environment they are walking into. They have a knowledge and support system that others cannot possibly have, which I think better equips them to handle the innate awkwardness that can pop up their first couple seasons in the minors. It's one thing to have upside, and another thing to develop it. I think MLB bloodlines predisposes a prospect to developing in a way others are not.
  • Commitment is important: Investing millions of dollars in an 18-year-old is risky enough. Wondering if they will commit to baseball makes it even riskier. I like seeing prospects who have played multiple sports, and garnered interested in multiple sports. Those types tend to fall in the "precocious" category. However, some of them are almost too good at multiple things. They have chances to go to college and be a quarterback and outfielder at a big program, and even some of them really want to get a big-time education. I do not want to be the team to force a kid to ditch those interests, because I think those are great. Plus, purely from a team's perspective, investing in a high school prospect is risky enough, without the realistic threat that they may walk to pursue other interests. It ups the reward needed to outweigh the risk, and I already set the minimum reward at a high level before I consider any prep player.
It is probably an understatement to say that I am looking at high schoolers blindly, but it still largely feels that way to me. My methods of evaluating college talent have changed as I have delved into looking at more and more of them. I am certain the same will happen as I look at more prep stars. I will be plenty happy if my first prep guy is anything like Tim Lincecum though, the first college guy I thought was something special.