Last week at Baseball Prospectus, Rany Jazayerli posted a great study about the age of high school hitters in the draft. The findings were remarkable. To briefly summarize, he showed that the youngest 20% of high school hitters (defined as 17.81 years old or younger at the time of the draft) in the draft typically end up having much more major league value than the oldest 20% (defined as 18.56 years old or older at the time of the draft.)
Perhaps more remarkable is that it became clear that front offices were not taking advantage of this information. Analysts have said that a handful of teams including the A’s and Cardinals are aware of the data, but now it should become more widespread. This of course makes sense, and similar ideas are already considered in other sports and aspects of baseball. When two prospects, one age 20 and one age 21, in the same league post similar performances, the edge often goes to the younger player because he’ll likely have more physical projection in him. That’s not always the case, but generally the younger player will be preferred over the older one given similar circumstances.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a similar pattern in hockey. Canadians born in the early months of the calendar tend to be more successful because when they compete against players of their age, they’re more physically developed than their younger opponents, even if it’s only a matter of months. Those players get the better coaches and better resources. Although in that NHL example it’s true that it’s older players that benefit, the prevailing point remains; the calendar plays a role in the fates of some young athletes. Why don’t all teams take advantage of this in the draft?
There are a lot of variables that go into baseball’s draft that make it difficult on teams. Bonus demands, location and team philosophy are just some of the factors that prevent players from being drafted in order of their talent. I wanted to see how Phillies draft picks did in the context of Jazayerli’s study. He only looked at the top 100 picks in the draft, and the Phillies have taken 17 high school hitters in the top 100 picks since 1993. I started with 1993 because that’s the year they drafted Scott Rolen, who I believe is the oldest active player originally drafted by the Phillies.
For the purposes of a longer entry, I added in 13 picks out of the top 100, and they’ll be marked with an asterisk. It’s too early to tell what a lot of these players will do, but it may be something to keep in mind down the road.
VERY YOUNG (17.81 years old or younger at time of draft)
Jimmy Rollins* (1996 draft, born 11/27/78, long productive MLB career)
D’Arby Myers* (2006 draft, born 12/9/88, no longer a prospect)
Zach Collier (2008 draft, born 9/8/90, fringe prospect)
Anthony Gose (2008 draft, born 8/10/90, very good prospect for Toronto)
Jonathan Singleton* (2009 draft, born 9/18/91, top 50 prospect for Houston)
This group certainly supports the data that shows the younger players do well. Although Myers and Collier will more than likely never make an impact in the majors if they make it at all, they once both showed promise. In addition to both being young, toolsy hitters at the draft, both of their careers may be defined by serious wrist/hand injuries. Rollins’ career with the Phillies may be over, but it won’t take away the quality years he gave the team. While his best days are behind him, those are still in front of Gose and Singleton. Gose has developed into a very athletic center fielder with a little power and patience, but he’ll need to make more contact. Singleton moves to AA next year and could prove to be Houston’s future first baseman.
YOUNG (17.82-18.10 years old at time of draft)
Ricky Williams* (1995 draft, born 5/21/77, never focused on baseball)
Bryan Hansen* (2001 draft, born 5/8/83, never advanced past AA)
Lou Marson* (2004 draft, born 6/26/86, ML catcher)
Roman Quinn (2011 draft, born 5/14/93, hasn’t made pro debut)
I included Ricky Williams simply because of his football career; he was probably never a serious prospect despite his speed and power. His statistics in baseball weren’t good, yet he was still selected in the major league rule five draft before he gave up baseball.
There’s nothing really significant about Hansen, but he was a high school first baseman the Phillies took one round after Ryan Howard. Marson’s career got off to a bit of a slow start, but once he reached high-A, he started performing well, so he took advantage of the extra months of development he had compared to others. Roman Quinn will need all the time for development he can get.
AVERAGE (18.11-18.33 years old at time of draft)
Scott Rolen* (1993 draft, born 4/4/75, long productive MLB career)
Josh Watts (1993 draft, born 3/24/75, never advanced past high-A)
Terry Jones* (2001 draft, born 3/20/83, never advanced past high-A)
Travis D’Arnaud (2007 draft, born 2/10/88, top 50 prospect for Toronto)
Larry Greene (2011 draft, born 2/10/93, hasn’t made pro debut)
In the middle section of the age range, the Phillies still got a lot of value. Rolen is winding down a great career, most of which obviously didn’t come with the team. Watts was drafted just one round later than Rolen and didn’t come close to reaching the majors. There’s really nothing significant about Jones; he was simply the only pick the Phillies had in that draft between Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard in that draft. There could still be a lot more value from this group. D’Arnaud is on his way to being one of the league’s most well-rounded catchers, and of course the Phillies hope Greene can be their next great slugger, but they have awhile to wait still.
OLD (18.34-18.55 years old at time of draft)
Reggie Taylor (1995 draft, born 1/12/77, very brief ML career)
Mike Durant* (2005 draft, born 1/2/87, never advanced past high-A)
Travis Mattair (2007 draft, 12/21/88, fringe prospect)
Kyrell Hudson (2009 draft, 12/6/90, fringe prospect)
Aaron Altherr* (2009 draft, 1/4/91, decent prospect)
Tyler Greene* (2011 draft, 12/1/92, just began pro career)
This is where the data suggests the Phillies should be expecting diminishing returns, and looking at this list of players, it’s clear that’s true. The Phillies have had a lot of success with first rounders, one of the reasons they’ve had a consistent, winning team in recent years. Reggie Taylor is the one that didn’t pan out. His athleticism never translated to pro ball very well, but he still got a cup of coffee with three ML teams before becoming a feared slugger in the Mexican League. Altherr and Greene present a chance for the Phillies to salvage value from this group, but Altherr took a step back this season, and it’s too early to tell what Greene will become. Durant has Ryan Howard’s size, but the similarities end there. Mattair and Hudson both struggled to get out of the lower levels of the system, and Mattair’s year to play college basketball didn’t help.
VERY OLD (18.56 years old or older at time of draft)
Shomari Beverly* (1997 draft, born 2/16/78, never advanced past low-A)
Jorge Padilla (1998 draft, born 8/11/79, cup of coffee in majors)
Kiel Fisher (2002 draft, born 9/29/83, never advanced past low-A)
Jake Blalock* (2002 draft, born 8/6/83, never advanced past AA)
Greg Golson (2004 draft, born 9/17/85, AAAA player)
Adrian Cardenas (2006 draft, born 10/10/87, fringe prospect)
Domonic Brown* (2006 draft, born 9/3/87, top prospect)
Anthony Hewitt (2008 draft, born 4/27/89, fringe prospect)
Kelly Dugan (2009 draft, born 9/18/90, fringe prospect)
Mitch Walding (2011 draft, born 9/10/92, hasn’t made pro debut)
This is a very long list of players that either didn’t or won’t be producing in the majors. The Phillies hope that Brown gives them a long productive career like Rollins and Rolen have, and Walding could be a future major league infielder. Cardenas could settle into a utility role with the A’s, but other than that, it’s a list full of players that won’t contribute anything. Along with Taylor, Golson and Hewitt rank high on the list of recent draft busts for the team, and although Dugan wasn’t a first round pick like the other three, he’s well on his way to never panning out. Blalock never hit like his brother Hank, and even though Padilla got a major league cup of coffee, it was as an older player with a different organization. It’s only a limited sample of players, but this seems to support Jazayerli’s data.
So far, they’ve been unable to produce major league hitters from the old and very old groups, although Brown has a bright future and there are still a handful of prospects who could still pan out. On the other hand, there’s promise in the other three groups, although the young players could be a little better. With the athletes the Phillies like to draft, this information isn’t really surprising. That kind of player needs a lot of time and experience to develop, so players like Hewitt that are a few months older than his peers and also need more time to develop their baseball skills. It would be interesting to see if that trend is displayed among other teams. Perhaps an older high schooler who has a more polished bat and less athleticism has a better chance than a Golson of developing.