Last year I looked at the success rates of college hitters, college pitchers, prep hitters, and prep pitchers in recent draft history. The results showed that college hitters were the best investment to make, as they had the biggest success rates to reach the majors, and become above average or star players. College pitchers made the majors at the second best rate, although they had the worst percentages of being above average or star players.
This year the debate has already started between a college pitcher and a college hitter at the top of the 2011 draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates have the first overall pick, and coming in to the season it looked like a guarantee that they would be taking Anthony Rendon, the third baseman from Rice University. However, Rendon has struggled, with his offensive numbers down and a shoulder injury keeping him off the field, which has left the door open for other players to step in to the picture for the number one pick.
Gerrit Cole has stepped up, and in a big way. After four starts, Cole is being mentioned as a candidate for the top overall pick, and some have him as the top option. That’s largely because of his fastball, which has mostly been in the mid-to-upper 90s this year, and has touched 100 MPH on a few occasions. Keith Law said he looks like the new Stephen Strasburg, not just because of his fastball, but because of his plus-plus changeup, which Law compared to Johan Santana and Clay Buchholz.
Rendon has also drawn some comparisons to top players, like Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman. So the debate begins: do you take the top college pitcher who projects as a potential ace, or a top college hitter who projects as a potential All-Star third baseman?
I went back to look at the draft results from 2001-2006, only this time I limited the field to just the players who rated in Baseball America’s top five prospects. I ignored who the actual top five picks were, since that’s not really a reflection of talent, and leaves out guys like Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum. Again, I focused on their average WAR per year, starting with their first year of 200+ plate appearances for hitters, or 10+ starts for pitchers. Here were the results:
The hitters that were included were Mark Teixeira, Rickie Weeks, Stephen Drew, Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria. That’s practically an All-Star infield. Every player in this group has arrived, and stuck in the majors. Gordon has been the only disappointment, averaging a 1.1 WAR in his four years. Every player arrived two years after their draft year.
The stats for the players:
Mark Teixeira: 4.54 WAR/YR, 8 years
Rickie Weeks: 2.30 WAR/YR, 6 years
Stephen Drew: 2.02 WAR/YR, 5 years
Alex Gordon: 1.10 WAR/YR, 4 years
Troy Tulowitzki: 4.60 WAR/YR, 4 years
Evan Longoria: 6.53 WAR/YR, 3 years
The average WAR from this group was 3.42 per year. Three of the six players have put up star player numbers.
The pitchers that were included were Mark Prior, Dewon Brazelton, Bryan Bullington, Kyle Sleeth, Jered Weaver, Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Andrew Miller, Tim Lincecum, Brad Lincoln, and Greg Reynolds. Only one player (Sleeth) has failed to make the majors. Brazelton, Bullington, and Humber can be written off as busts. It might be early for Andrew Miller, Brad Lincoln, and Greg Reynolds to draw the same conclusions, although each player is running out of time, and needs to do something quickly to prove their worth.
The stats for the players:
Mark Prior: 3.16 WAR/YR, 5 years
Dewon Brazelton: -0.10 WAR/YR, 4 years
Bryan Bullington: 0.0 WAR/YR, 1 year
Kyle Sleeth: Did Not Make Majors
Jered Weaver: 3.76 WAR/YR, 5 years
Jeff Niemann: 2.10 WAR/YR, 2 years
Philip Humber: 0.1 WAR/YR, 1 year
Mike Pelfrey: 1.95 WAR/YR, 4 years
Andrew Miller: 0.65 WAR/YR, 4 years
Tim Lincecum: 6.00 WAR/YR, 4 years
Brad Lincoln: -0.2 WAR/YR, 1 year
Greg Reynolds: -0.5 WAR/YR, 1 year
The average WAR from this group was 2.26. However, this is a bit misleading, as it is fueled by a few players. Only three of the 12 players put up star numbers: Lincecum, Prior, and Weaver. Prior comes with an asterisk, as he put up star numbers when healthy, but saw his career shortened due to injuries. Seven of the 12 players either didn’t make the majors, or didn’t make it in the majors, although like I mentioned above, three of those players still have a shot. The other two pitchers, Niemann and Pelfrey, have been above average starters.
This comparison comes with two major notes. First, it’s a very small sample size. In total, we’re talking about 18 players here. Second, past results don’t guarantee future success. Just because Evan Longoria turned in to a star, doesn’t mean Anthony Rendon will. Just because Mark Prior saw his career shortened by injuries, doesn’t mean Gerrit Cole will.
The success rate of college hitters has been extremely better than college pitchers. All six college hitters made the majors and five played at an above average or better level (Gordon is the only exception). By comparison, 11 of the 12 college pitchers made the majors, and so far only five have put up numbers that are better than average.
Breaking those numbers down:
-Every one of the college hitters are still playing in the majors. Only four of the five pitchers who have had success are still in the majors.
-The debate is between a potential All-Star third baseman in Rendon, and a potential star pitcher in Cole. If you remove Prior from the equation, only 2 of the 12 pitchers (16.7%) have gone on to be star players, while thus far avoiding career altering injuries. Three of the six hitters (50%) have gone on to be star players, while thus far avoiding career altering injuries.
-If we include the above average players, 5 of 6 hitters (83.3 %) have gone on to be above average or better, while 5 of 12 pitchers (41.7%) have gone on to be an above average pitcher or better, and that number does include Prior.
By those numbers, a college hitter has a better chance of being a star player than a college pitcher does of being just an above average pitcher. That said, past performances don’t guarantee future results.
In the case with Rendon and Cole, there are conditions that could improve or hurt their chances. The injury risk with Cole exists, just like it does with all pitchers. There’s also an injury risk with Rendon, as he’s had two major ankle injuries in the last two years, and has been dealing with a shoulder issue. None of that projects for long term issues, but it does raise concerns about his durability.
As for Cole, he has a plus fastball, a plus changeup, and an above average slider, with great command of his pitches. It’s rare for college pitchers to have this type of arsenal. Dewon Brazelton had a 94-97 MPH fastball and a strong changeup, but struggled with his curveball. Kyle Sleeth threw 93-94 MPH, had good breaking pitches, but only a decent changeup. Bryan Bullington only had a 92-94 MPH fastball. Humber threw 90-94 MPH, touching 97, with a plus curve and splitter that he used for a changeup. Lincoln threw 92-93 MPH, touched 97, and had a plus curveball, but his changeup always needed work. Reynolds only had a 91-94 MPH fastball, and had a good changeup. Miller had a mid-90s fastball, a power slider, and a two seamer.
Of that group, the guys who could best be compared to Cole are Humber and Miller. However, each pitcher had issues with commanding their fastball, an issue Cole doesn’t have. So while the track record of failed top college pitchers is lengthy, none of those pitchers had the arsenal that we are seeing from Cole this year.
In the end, it could come down to the injury risks for each player. Rendon’s many injuries put him as a risk of being fragile. Cole comes with the same injury risk that every pitcher comes with, especially since he does the unnatural act of swinging his arm around to throw near 100 MPH. That said, Cole’s success and Rendon’s struggles this year have turned what once looked like a one man race in to a 50/50 battle.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.