How difficult is it to scout high school players? It’s well-documented how many first-round preps fail to make it. But even more ominous is the converse. How many players are virtually ignored out of high school only to become first-round picks after going to college?
Just last year, the first two picks in the draft, Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley, were collegians who went undrafted out of high school. Three years later, they were considered the consensus #1 and #2 picks, combining for bonus money well over $20 million.
Now the skeptical scouts will say it had nothing to do with misevaluation. Their argument is that they knew the player was really good in high school, he didn’t just blossom in college. And had he been signable, somebody would have taken him early as a prep. There may be some truth to that defense in isolated situations, but surely if a scouting department saw Strasburg and Ackley becoming what they are, they would have chosen to spend a little dough in 2006 instead of half their franchise value today.
I cannot vouch so much for Ackley out of high school, but I was an area scout in southern California during the spring of 2006 when Strasburg came out of West Hills High near San Diego. The vast majority of area scouts, including myself, didn’t even turn Strasburg in. While his extraordinary grades and SAT scores were deterrents to buy him out, it should also be noted that Strasburg wasn’t throwing nearly as well in high school. He had the good pitcher’s frame, quick arm,and loads of projection, but his average velocity hovered in the high-80s as a senior with occasional showings in the low-90s. The breaking ball had bite and projected well, but no one was calling it a big league strikeout pitch in 2006.
Nobody considered Strasburg a first-rounder out of high school. When the Major League Scouting Bureau’s Dan Dixon gave him a glowing early-round report in the spring, a number of my area scout colleagues believed Dixon’s report to be way out of line. (I was foolishly influenced by the banter and didn’t go back to see him.)
But it’s not just Strasburg and Ackley and it’s not just the 2009 draft. I’ve looked back at the true first-rounders (excluding sandwich picks) over the last three years. From the 2007-2009 drafts, there were exactly 48 four-year college players chosen in the first round.
All 48 are listed in the table below in decreasing order of where they were drafted in high school:
2007-2009 COLLEGE FIRST-ROUND PICKS
Coll. Draft Yr
HS Draft Yr
Amazingly, only four of the 48 college first-rounders were drafted within the first 10 rounds out of high school. Exactly half (24 of 48) were not drafted at all as preps.
I know the Angels offered Brian Matusz second-round money out of high school. I know Grant Green put up a bonus demand over $2 million. Justin Smoak turned down first-round money. But guess what? They all got that and then some three years later. And I can assure you that not every player on this list was offered first round or even tenth-round money out of high school.
Of the players who went undrafted, there are all kinds of rags to riches stories. Chicago native Christian Friedrich struggled just to get to Eastern Kentucky. None of his local schools, including Illinois, would offer him anything substantial. Lefty Dan Moskos was lightly recruited in his home area of southern California and ended up at Clemson on the other side of the country. I personally turned Moskos in as a late draft prospect out of high school and my crosschecker’s son went to high school with him. Casey Weathers was an outfielder. Buster Posey was drafted as a pitcher in the 50th round, still almost two years away from donning the tools of ignorance that would make him the fifth overall pick out of Florida State
Players like Andrew Brackman and Matt Wieters were certainly known quantities in high school. Brackman was not only 6-foot-10 with a power right arm, but a good-looking athlete with a clean delivery who’d signed with North Carolina State to play basketball as well. Wieters was a jumbo-sized power/power catcher with upside as a hitter from both sides of the plate. But again, nobody took a chance on either Brackman or Wieters. Perhaps they were unsignable, but if scouts truly knew they would be that good three years later, they would have at least drafted them late and made a run.
I find it notable that the Boston Red Sox drafted four of these college first-rounders out of high school, the most of any team (the Dodgers are second with three). With David Chadd as scouting director, they drafted slugger Beau Mills in 2004, who would become Cleveland’s first-round pick three years later. Then with Jason McLeod calling the shots in 2005, the Red Sox selected third baseman Pedro Alvarez (14th round), first baseman Allan Dykstra (34th) and catcher Jason Castro (43rd). McLeod had a strong draft for Boston that year, signing outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury among others. Who would have known he had three more first-rounders escape his grasp? Maybe that’s what influenced him the ensuing years when the Red Sox went well above-slot to sign numerous high school players in the later rounds.
I don’t know that there’s a surefire method to identify these players in high school beyond anything scouts are doing now. I imagine there’s a “SABRmetrician” somewhere looking for the cure, but I don’t believe the answer will come through statistics.
In many instances, these players just get a lot better, or simply thrive in the college environment in a manner they would not have if they had entered the pro baseball world at age 18. Who’s to say that Matt Wieters or Stephen Strasburg would have been the same had they signed at 18 and skipped college? They may have, but it’s also possible that physically and mentally, they and players like them needed the college experience to blossom as people and athletes. Pro baseball is a grind and it turns into a job real fast. Some kids just aren’t as ready for that at 18 as others.
Scouting directors shouldn’t beat their heads over missing these players out of high school and they don’t. It’s just the way it is, the old cliché, that scouting is an inexact science. You can learn from mistakes and become a better scout, but you’re never going to hit on every pick because you can’t control every variable. If you can just hit a little more frequently than your opponents, you’re going to beat them in the end.
Just keep enough of an open mind to believe that sometimes the kid you’re ignoring in high school is going to wind up an elite talent three years down the road.