Once upon a time, the most promising pick in the MLB Draft’s first round was considered a high school ace. Not anymore.
Instead, the first round of the 2019 MLB Entry Draft Monday night featured another procession of college stars and a sprinkling of elite high school talent, headlined by Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High School shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
Yet the most striking shift of all was the lack of high school pitching selected among the first 32 selections. Only three prep arms were taken in the first round, a striking departure from years past (another two — IMG Academy star Brennan Malone and Cypress Ranch’s J.J. Goss, were taken with Round 1 Compensation and Competitive Balance selections between the first and second round).
To put that 2019 number in perspective, in 2018 eight of the 30 first round selections were high school pitchers. In 2017, that number was five of 27.
In fact, as the first round of the draft has steadily shifted toward collegiate talent, high school pitchers have seemed recession proof, if you will. The thought process clearly being that any arm that can hit the upper 90s is worth taking a high leverage chance on in the first round.
Trying to determine why that line of thought has suddenly disappeared is an interesting challenge, and probably one that will take additional time and reflection to parse out. Still, there are a few things that we can all assess already, a day out from the 2019 first round:
— The lack of high school pitchers selected wasn’t borne from a lack of power arms. 11 of MLB.com’s top-55 prospects entering the draft were high school pitchers
— The pitchers who were selected didn’t follow the script of the talent assessors, either. Quinn Priester, the Illinois right-hander who was the first high school arm selected at No. 18 by the Pirates, was the second-highest rated high school pitcher on the board. His selection fit. Fellow right-hander Daniel Espina of Georgia Premier Academy — taken at No. 24 by the Indians — was the fourth-rated high school pitcher. He checks out, too. Blake Walston? The Diamondbacks’ pick at No. 26 was rated farther down the list … No. 9 among the high schoolers, to be exact. That’s a genuine aberration.
— The top-rated high school pitcher, Matthew Allan, came in at No. 13 overall. He still fell all the way to Round 3, where the Mets finally selected him.
The issues that led to Allan’s drop in the draft may have been an impact on some other top high school pitchers as well. Reports Tuesday claimed Allan was seeking a $4 million signing bonus to pass on attending Florida. That will be hard for the Mets to accommodate in the third round (where they wouldn’t receive an additional compensatory pick if he fails to sign with the team), and it likely drove plenty of other potential suitors away.
Similarly, Jack Leiter, the No. 33 overall prospect and a right-handed pitcher from Delbarton School in New Jersey, has gone unselected despite having clear Round 1 talent. The reason? He’s already told MLB teams he intends to attend and play for Vanderbilt.
Yet two elite players with perceived signability issues is nothing new for high school aces. That doesn’t explain why teams were willing to take a flier on talents like Malone, Goss, 6-foot-4 lefty Hunter Barco, 6-foot-2 Texas righty Josh Wolf or others before taking similar collegiate talents (who have the wear and tear of collegiate pitches on their arm) or position players.
Perhaps it all simply comes down to the eccentricities of an individual class. After all, only five high school pitchers were ranked among the top-32 prospects who theoretically should have been selected in the first round. That two teams would balk on those assessments and go their own way may not be too surprising, just as the historic haul of eight high school hurlers last year might be its own outlying sample.