|Tuesday, February 26
High school daze: Beckett seeks to beat history
By David Schoenfield
Josh Beckett has been a legend since his high school days in Spring, Texas. The best prep pitching prospect to come out of Texas since Kerry Wood. Or Todd Van Poppel. Or David Clyde. Or Nolan Ryan.
Or maybe the best ever, from anywhere.
The 21-year-old right-hander stands 6-4 and throws laser beams and curveballs that break from Amarillo. His trek to superstardom began when the Florida Marlins made him the second overall pick in the 1999 draft; it clicks into high gear in April when he's expected to join the Marlins rotation as perhaps the most heralded rookie pitcher since Dwight Gooden jumped from Class A to the major leagues at age 19 in 1984.
Interestingly enough, Gooden, selected by the Mets in 1982, is the last high school first-rounder drafted to win 20 games in one season. Beckett may have a fastball from the gods, but the fates of history are working against him.
The numbers overwhelmingly support James' assertion. ESPN.com researched all pitchers drafted in the first round from 1985 to 1997 (not including supplemental first-round picks or players who didn't sign) and here are some facts we discovered:
Despite this evidence, teams continue to invest heavily in high school pitchers. In 2001, 19 of 30 first-round draft choices were pitchers; nine of those 19 were high schoolers. Two of the nine didn't sign, but teams still paid out $14.725 million in bonuses to the other seven. In 2000, eight high school pitchers were selected in the first round, including five of the first 10 picks.
The St. Louis Cardinals have drafted more college pitchers in recent years than any other organization. Since 1990, they have taken 10 collegians in the first round. Even though just one (Braden Looper) was a top-10 pick, they've had Donovan Osborne, Allen Watson, Sean Lowe, Alan Benes, Matt Morris and Looper reach the majors.
"We never say we're looking just for a college pitcher," says John Mozeliak, the team's director of baseball operations who has worked in the Cardinals' scouting department since 1995. "Our approach is to get the best player we can get, whether he's a hitter or pitcher. But we are more likely to draft a college pitcher than a high school pitcher."
Scouting is a most undefined science, especially with pitchers, but Mozeliak explains the Cardinals' philosophy on college hurlers: "The physical maturity and strength you develop in a college program are essential," he says. "It's pretty clear that when you take an 18-year-old vs. a 21-year-old, the college kids have a better idea on how to pitch and can advance quicker. You don't have to be as patient."
It seems like the logical approach, especially when looking at a team like the Oakland A's, who won 102 games last season and made the playoffs for a second consecutive year, despite starting the season with a lower payroll than the Montreal Expos or Kansas City Royals.
The A's were built around the terrific trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, who went a combined 56-25 with a 3.43 ERA and combined to make less than $1 million in salary -- $997,500. The three were all college pitchers, with Mulder and Zito jumping quickly to the big leagues after being first-round picks in 1998 and 1999.
On the other hand, teams that have relied on high school first-rounders have suffered. The Boston Red Sox drafted prep pitchers Andy Yount, Josh Garrett and John Curtice from 1995-97. Their failure to develop has meant the Red Sox have had to spend heavily in free-agent pitchers. A team like the Milwaukee Brewers hasn't even studied its own history. Milwaukee's best first-round picks in the last 15 years have been college pitchers Cal Eldred and Ben Sheets. Yet last year, it selected high school hurler Mike Jones in the first round.
According to Mozeliak, it's understandable why teams draft the high schoolers. "I think the mentality is a college pitcher is abused more, that you can take a young 18-year-old and prevent injuries and improve his mechanics," he said. "It's hard to argue against that if you have the right player, like Kerry Wood or Josh Beckett. ... College wasn't needed for those kids."
Perhaps part of the high-school mentality can be attributed to the success of the Atlanta Braves throughout the '90s. Their own big three of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz were all high school draftees. However, none were first-rounders -- Glavine, second round in 1984; Maddux, second round by the Chicago Cubs in 1984; and Smoltz, 22nd round by Detroit in 1985. Glavine and Smoltz also came from cold-weather states (Massachusetts and Michigan) that may have meant less wear and tear on their arms than high schoolers from warm-weather states like California, Florida or Texas (where the majority of first-round pitchers come from).
However, high schoolers do break down, despite the care teams take to prevent injuries. Some theorize the college pitchers have survived the "injury hump" that occurs as an individual matures from 18 to 21. Heralded prospects like Roger Salkeld (third overall pick by Mariners in 1989), Brien Taylor (first overall pick by Yankees in 1991) and more recently, Seattle's Ryan Anderson, were on track for big-league success until arm problems arised. Other "can't-miss" prospects like Todd Van Poppel (A's, 1990) and Matt White (Devil Rays, 1996) did miss.
So, Josh Beckett, beware. We hope 20 wins won't be your career total, but a yearly occurence. C.C. Sabathia (first round, 1998), let's hope Charlie Manuel doesn't abuse your talented young left arm this year. And Gavin Floyd (fourth overall pick, 2001), hopefully we'll still be reading about you 15 years from now.
David Schoenfield is the baseball editor at ESPN.com.