A notable aspect of the 2019 MLB Draft was the lack of high school pitching talent that went in the first round.
One part was the lack of high-level, healthy left-handed pitchers. But another reason, said ESPN’s Keith Law, is that teams are shying away from drafting pitchers in the first round, particularly right-handed throwers.
“I think there’s a general industry bias or distrust of high school right-handed pitchers,” Law said.
Not until the Pittsburgh Pirates took RHP Quinn Priester with the 18th pick was a high school pitcher drafted. There’s only been one year in draft history in which the first high school pitcher went lower than that, Law said.
Only two other pitchers were selected in the first round, not including the compensation picks between the first and second rounds.
MLB DRAFT: First-round picks in 2019 high school class
There have been high-profile failures when teams select high school right-handed pitchers early in the first round, most notably Tyler Kolek. Picked No. 2 overall by the Miami Marlins in 2014, Law said he’s unlikely to make an impact at the major league level, if he gets there.
Kolek isn’t the only one. Ashe Russell, the first RHP out of high school taken in 2015, left baseball two years later. The first high school lefty that year, Kolby Allard, is a top Braves prospect.
In 2013, Kohl Stewart was taken No. 4 overall. He has made 10 appearances for the Minnesota Twins over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, pitching 48.2 innings with a 4.25 ERA. That is, admittedly, better than the first LHP taken — the Boston Red Sox are trying to turn Trey Ball (No. 7) into a two-way player.
The year prior, Nick Travieso was drafted No. 14. The RHP suffered a shoulder injury in 2017 and hasn’t played since. The first lefty taken, Max Fried, has 15 appearances this season for the Atlanta Braves.
There are some recognizable high school righties taken early in the 2011 draft, but the two earliest picks in Dylan Bundy (No. 4, Baltimore Orioles) and Archie Bradley (No. 7, Arizona Diamondbacks) have been inconsistent. The next, Jose Fernandez (No. 14, then-Florida Marlins), was an exception and a likely future Cy Young winner before his untimely death.
“You’re seeing more a general distrust of taking high school pitchers in the top half of the first round,” Law said.
“(Teams) view them as riskier and as tougher to evaluate. And maybe you can get that Brennan Malone, or JJ Goss a little later, who’s just as good, and not have to give up the opportunity cost of a high first round pick.”
That’s similar to what the Arizona Diamondbacks did. They took Blake Walston at No. 26. Despite being the No. 52 player on the MLB Pipeline, Walston was the only southpaw out of high school who made sense that early.
The only other left-handed pitchers out of high school ranked in the top 100 of MLB Pipeline were Hunter Barco, who asked for a lot of money and was shut down with a shoulder strain (it was precautionary, according to Ryan Sikes of the Cubs’ Fansided site) and Spencer Jones, whose shoulder injury cost him the majority of this season. Barco was picked in the 24th round and Jones in the 31st.
“One, I think (Walston) was taken probably in the right spot given what he had to be paid to get him to sign, and two, the sense I got is Arizona really wanted him and worried that he might go between that pick and then when they had the two picks after the first round,” Law said.
“They realized if they really wanted that player, they had to take him there or they weren’t going to get him”
That proved a worthy risk for Arizona. By selecting him seven picks higher than the team’s first compensation pick, the Diamondbacks got Walston at No. 26 and Malone — who Law ranks higher than Walston — at No. 33.
Both Walston and Malone are ALL-USA Baseball Player of the Year candidates.
“We as an industry aren’t evaluating players the same way and it’s because we’ve recognized the high-failure rates of high school arms,” Law said. “The chance that you can go get pretty good high school arms after the first round if you’re willing to pay them.”
The New York Mets waited two extra rounds and ended up with one of the top pitchers in the draft.
With the No. 89 pick, they selected Matthew Allan.
There may have been a little trepidation among teams over Allan ending the year slow and throwing fewer breaking balls late in the year despite it being the “best curveball in the high school ranks in this draft class,” by Law’s proximation, but the main reason the first-round talent wasn’t taken until the third was his high asking price.
It’s rumored to be as much as $4 million, though Matt Ehalt of Yahoo says it will be closer to $3 million.
Allan was ranked No. 13 on the MLB Pipeline. The Mets plan to pay him over slot, at the rate of a first-rounder, and still drafted Brett Baty, an ALL-USA Baseball POY finalist at No. 12, and Josh Wolf, the No. 36 player on MLB Pipeline, at No. 53.
Pitchers like Allan, Malone and Goss not being picked in the first round despite dominating high school is not a new phenomenon, though it has been changing.
Over the 18 years Law has been covering the MLB Draft, he has seen a difference in the way teams evaluate and rank high school pitchers.
“I started in 2002 but I think it probably became more of an industry preference maybe five to eight years after that, and it’s definitely increasing,” Law said.