Williams: College Players Can Also See Big Post-Draft Improvements

There is no good way to evaluate a draft immediately from the outside. We’re all just reacting to the limited information we have, with very little chance for research and knowledge of a player before the pick is made.

We’ve got national rankings that are pretty much treated as gospel, since that’s all we have. Those rankings conflict with the rankings of the teams, and we tend to stick with the national opinions over the team opinions. So when the Pirates draft Baseball America’s 200th best prospect with the 444th pick, it’s viewed as good value. When they draft the 211th ranked prospect with the 81st pick, we view it as a reach.

The national rankings always get the preference, even when there are clear reasons that they aren’t infallible — like when every team passes on a player and he drops well below his national ranking, or when every other team drafts guys higher and lower than the national rankings, or just when the different national rankings (BA, MLB.com, FanGraphs, Keith Law, etc) have massive differences between themselves.

But something stuck out to me yesterday, amidst the waiting for the Pirates to take some prep players. There is one thing that seems to matter more than the national rankings, and that is whether a player was drafted out of high school or college.

The Pirates took seven players on day three who were ranked in the Baseball America top 500. The five highest ranked guys were college guys. Two of the eight prep guys were ranked on the back end of the BA list. Yet the college guys — ranked higher by the rankings that are so often treated as gospel — were seen as dull picks, while the lower ranked prep guys were seen as a good move.

I understand that. Prep guys provide the excitement of the unknown. There’s a chance they could develop and really improve their ranks over a three-year stretch between ages 18 and 21. That happens all the time. Pirates’ first round pick Travis Swaggerty went from an undrafted guy out of high school to the tenth overall pick.

What you want is for this to happen in your system. That has happened a few times with the Pirates. Mitch Keller probably would have been the first overall pick last year, but the Pirates got him as a late second rounder in 2014. Tyler Glasnow would have been at the top of the first round in 2014, but was a fifth rounder in 2011. Calvin Mitchell looked to me like a guy who should have been in the first round last year, and if his early success is any indication, he would probably have been a top of the first round guy in 2020.

Prep guys can make those improvements, but that doesn’t mean that prep players have the exclusive ability to improve once they reach the pros. It’s also possible for college drafted players to see improvements.

The Pirates have seen productive college players taken in recent years. Tristan Gray was a 12th round pick last year, and was traded for Corey Dickerson. James Marvel, Tanner Anderson, Christian Kelley, and Logan Hill were all taken on day three of the 2015 draft, and have shown promise.

The best middle round college results may have come from the 2013 draft. The Pirates didn’t get any day three help that year, but day two landed Chad Kuhl and Adam Frazier. JaCoby Jones and Shane Carle both went on to be MLB players as well. The success rate of picks — high school or college — is very low after the first round. Getting an MLB starter and a super utility player is a huge result from the middle rounds of one draft.

It’s hard to predict which college guys will see improvement, just like it’s hard to predict the high school breakouts. On the pitching side, you want to look for a guy who still has the ability to add velocity with a tall, projectable frame. The Pirates have seen this with JT Brubaker, who was taken in the 6th round in 2015, and who is now consistently throwing in the upper 90s.

On the hitting side, it usually helps to have a standout tool or skill to your game, although the guys who are well-rounded usually have the best shot, even if they don’t have a single plus tool that stands out.

The Pirates took ten prep players in this draft, and based on history, my guess is that they’ll sign five of them. They should sign most of the college guys, especially the picks in the top 20 rounds. College picks typically look very vanilla on draft day, even when you can see a standout tool or average tools across the board. That was true of Kuhl, Frazier, Brubaker, and other picks after day one at the time they were taken. But some of those players will emerge as better than originally expected, and in some cases, it can take less than a year for that to happen.

It makes you wonder what the current draft class will look like a year from now, once we start to get more information on these players and start to see some results.

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.

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