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Tuesday, February 26
High school daze: Beckett seeks to beat history

By David Schoenfield

    "Perhaps the most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that major league teams continue to use first-round picks for high school pitchers. It has been obvious for twenty years that this is a stupid, stupid gamble ... yet every year, four to seven first-round picks are invested in these turkeys."
      --Bill James, "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract"

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.

Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett is expected to join the Marlins starting rotation this season.

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:

  • Seventy-two of 93 first-round pitchers from four-year colleges have reached the majors (77.4 percent).

  • Thirty-five of 61 high school first-rounders have reached the majors (57.3 percent).

  • The college pitchers have combined for a 4.23 ERA, while the high school pitchers have combined for a 4.75 ERA.

  • College pitchers have better careers. While acknowledging that players are still active, the 72 college pitchers who have reached the major leagues have averaged 617 career innings, 37 wins and 13 saves. The 35 high school major leaguers have averaged 424 innings, 24 wins and two saves.

  • Only one high school first-rounder in that 13-year span has a career ERA under 4.00 (Wood). That's one out of 61 ... a 1.6 percent return rate.

    2001 pitchers
    Pitchers selected in the first round of the 2001 draft:

    Mark Prior, 2nd pick by Cubs, USC
    Dewon Brazelton, 3rd pick by Devil Rays, Middle Tennessee State
    Gavin Floyd, 4th pick by Phillies, Mount St. Joseph (Md.) HS
    Josh Karp, 6th pick by Expos, UCLA
    Chris Smith, 7th pick by Orioles, Cumberland (Tenn.) Univ.
    Colt Griffin, 9th pick by Royals, Marshall (Texas) HS
    Kenny Baugh, 11th pick by Tigers, Rice
    Mike Jones, 12th pick by Brewers, Thunderbird (Ari.) HS
    Kris Honel, 16th pick by White Sox, Providence Catholic (Ill.) HS
    Dan Denham, 17th pick by Indians, Deer Valley (Calif.) HS
    Aaron Heilman, 18th pick by Mets, Notre Dame
    Jeremy Sowers, 20th pick by Reds, Ballard (Ky.) HS (didn't sign)
    Brad Hennessey, 21st pick by Giants, Youngstown State
    Jason Bulger, 22nd pick by Diamondbacks, Valdosta State
    Macay McBride, 24th pick by Braves, Screven County (Ga.) HS
    Jeremy Bonderman, 26th pick by Athletics, Pasco (Wash.) HS
    Alan Horne, 27th pick by Indians, Marianna (Fla.) HS (didn't sign)
    Justin Pope, 28th pick by Cardinals, Central Florida
    Noah Lowry, 30th pick by Giants, Pepperdine

  • Eighteen college pitchers have an ERA under 4.00 (19.4 percent).

  • The best of the high school pitchers so far has been Steve Avery, with a career mark of 94-83, 4.17. The college pitchers have included Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell, Andy Benes, Charles Nagy, Aaron Sele, Greg Swindell and Bobby Witt, all of whom have won more than 100 games. Four other college pitchers have saved at least 100 games -- Roberto Hernandez, Gregg Olson, Billy Wagner and Billy Koch. No high schooler has more than 29 (Steve Karsay).

    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.

    College or high school?
    Teams which have selected the most college and high school pitchers in the first round dating back to 1985:

    College pitchers
    St. Louis 14
    Anaheim 9
    Detroit 8
    San Francisco 7
    Oakland 7
    Kansas City 7
    Chi. Cubs 7
    Chi. White Sox 7

    High school pitchers
    Atlanta 7
    Boston 5
    Colorado 5
    Minnesota 5
    Chi. Cubs 4
    Cleveland 4
    Houston 4
    Kansas City 4
    Milwaukee 4
    Seattle 4

    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.

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