The MLB First-Year Player Draft is sometimes more art than science, and even when it appears to have scientific properties, those properties are often confounded by the end results. Science tries to find predictable and repeatable results to confirm a hypothesis. Scouts are trying to do the same with players in the baseball Draft, but they are working with the most unpredictable element of all: the human element. And there are few things in sports the human element complicates more than pitching -- especially Major League-caliber pitching.
If you start with the hypothesis that a college pitcher is a safer bet than a high school pitcher -- which most Draft analysts would -- then the case of Bret Saberhagen seems to provide evidence of the opposite. The Royals' two-time Cy Young Award winner and 1985 World Series MVP was Kansas City's 19th-round selection in the June 1982 Draft, coming out of Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif. During that same Draft, the Royals selected a couple of collegiate pitchers before Saberhagen, and neither made it to the big leagues.
Maybe the Saberhagen example is a better illustration of the "diamond-in-the-rough" late-round selection that makes good, rather than the measured judgment given to early-round, can't-miss talents.
But then consider the Royals' other two Cy Young Award winners in David Cone and Zack Greinke. Cone was the Royals' third-round selection in June 1981 out of local Rockhurst High School in Kansas City. Greinke was Kansas City's first-round selection (sixth overall) in June 2002 out of Apopka High School in Apopka, Fla. Three Cy Young Award winners, three high school draftees -- case closed.
Well, not really. If you look instead at pitchers in the Royals Hall of Fame, then the college-over-high-school hypothesis looks confirmed more often than not. Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff and Kevin Appier were all Royals Draft picks out of college. Larry Gura and Jeff Montgomery were not drafted by the Royals, but they were both college pitchers when drafted. Even Dan Quisenberry, who was an undrafted free agent, was a college pitcher when signed by the Royals. Mark Gubicza is the only other exception. Gubicza was the Royals' second-round selection in 1981 out of William Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia.
In 2011, Justin Verlander was the most dominant pitcher in the American League, and he was drafted by the Tigers out of Old Dominion University. In the National League, however, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers won his first Cy Young Award, and he was drafted by Los Angeles out of Dallas' Highland Park High School.
For every high school bust, there is a college standout. For every college disappointment, there is a high school superstar. Nearly nothing about drafting pitchers will ever provide predictable or repeatable results. But what is predictable and repeatable is that pitching is the key prerequisite for winning baseball games.
Year in and year out, most organizations rest on the axiom, "There is safety in numbers," by taking as many good arms as they can find. In 2012, the Royals started in the first round with Kyle Zimmer from the University of San Francisco. Zimmer played for the Dons at San Francisco, and now the fans are excited to watch him earn his way through the Minor Leagues to don a Royals uniform here in Kansas City.
Congratulations to Kyle and his family.