The MLB Draft has never been the primetime sporting event that many fans of the league hope for it to be one day. This has always been due to the fact that the players drafted will not see MLB playing time for another three to four years – in the best case scenarios. However, the 2020 Draft had a greater trend that might shorten the time it takes players to reach the show, while also increasing the talent that college baseball fans will see on fields across the country.
The first high school player drafted this year was Robert Hassell at eighth overall to the Padres. This is far from just three years prior when each of the top three picks hailed from high school, not college. This trend towards more mature collegiate prospects rather than the raw high school arms and bats might just be a passing fad because of the circumstances of this draft, but I don’t believe this to be the case. I believe that, because of the various changes that are bound to occur as a result of the pandemic and its impact on professional sports, high school baseball players will become more likely to end up on college fields rather than in major league farm systems.
This is a bold claim for anyone to make, especially after seeing last year’s second overall pick, high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., have success despite foregoing his offer to play at the University of Oklahoma. The problem with players such as Witt and many other aspiring baseball stars who have been drafted out of high school is that many casual baseball fans see the success stories, but neglect to see those who fail before reaching the peak.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), only about 27.5% of high school players chosen in the first round of the draft ever make it to the MLB. This number, compared to the 39.3% of college players who reach the show, demonstrate that many high school prospects just fail to pan out at the same rate as collegiate athletes. This difference is only exacerbated when you look beyond the first round. High school players drafted within the 2nd – 5th rounds reach the MLB about 14% of the time, much less than the 25% of college players able to do the same.
The sheer fact that college players are more likely to make it to the MLB is not the sole determining factor behind my belief that more high school players will choose the route of higher education rather than the minor leagues.
High school players who are drafted in the early rounds of the draft also tend to demand higher pay than those in similar positions coming out of college. For many MLB teams, it’s easier to pick a player with less negotiation leverage, such as those from college, rather than dealing with the threat of losing a top draft pick for nothing in return. The Houston Astros know this story all too well as their No. 1 overall pick from 2014, Brady Aiken, decided against signing with the team because of an offer that was lower than slot value. There are stories like these every single year from the draft. Nick Lodolo was the 41st overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft, but did not sign with the Pirates. Instead, he played three years at Texas Christian University and was drafted 7th just three years later.
College baseball is also a growing sector of the NCAA and, now more than ever, it is a legitimate option to spur playing in small towns for major league clubs, in order to shine in large collegiate conferences. This natural cycle is mutually beneficial for players and colleges alike. The colleges are able to brand their new star athletes to sell more seats and gain more exposure for their school and program. This exposure then leads more high school prospects to ignore the glamorous cash that the draft has to offer, delaying their entry into minor league baseball and playing competitive baseball for a much wider audience in college instead.
The MLB is often seen as the league for old men. The demographics of its fans might support this narrative. However, recent draft trends suggest there might be a change on the horizon – one that many people might not recognize at first, but will, no doubt, change the way that the game is viewed and grows. If more collegiate programs are able to gain the notoriety that Vanderbilt, Florida, and South Carolina have established, the door for baseball to regain its status as America’s Pastime might not be too far away.