There’s a phrase that has come up in every MLB draft room that I have been in: “You can never have too much pitching.” But when it comes to the draft, MLB clubs still have a spotty-at-best track record when selecting pitchers.
Even as scouting and analytics models have improved in recent years, the results — including those at the top of the draft — have not. Look at the consensus best pitching prospects in recent draft classes — college aces such as Jack Leiter, Kumar Rocker, Asa Lacy and Casey Mize – and you will find spotty performance and health in their pro careers since they were anointed.
This spring, LSU righty Paul Skenes has zoomed to second overall on my soon-to-be-updated draft board and appears to be the next in that line of consensus top pitching prospects. He is not the only starting pitcher who will be high on team draft boards this year, either. Tennessee’s Chase Dollander, who was No. 1 entering the season, Wake Forest’s Rhett Lowder and Florida’s duo of Hurston Waldrep and Brandon Sproat all also project as potential first-round picks. But given the recent track record of starters at the top of the draft, how high can you logically justify drafting a pitcher?
If you’re citing Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, and David Price as early first-rounders who became aces…well, all of their careers are over or getting there soon. Here’s where things have been trending of late.
Last summer, my research showed that, in the last 10 drafts on which we can now judge the results, only one of the the top-paid prep pitchers in his draft class (Max Fried in 2012) was actually the best prep pitcher that signed in his draft class. Because of this, multiple teams from all over the scouting vs. stats spectrum have told me they will not draft a prep pitcher — universally seen as the riskiest player demographic in the draft — in the top 10 picks under any circumstances. Still more front offices work under other, but similar, stances.
Adding in a few more recent classes doesn’t help the case for taking a prep ace early on either: Jackson Jobe, the first high school pitcher selected in 2021, went No. 3 overall to the Detroit Tigers; he had an underwhelming pro debut and now will miss most of the 2023 season with a back injury. Things looked promising for another early pick from that class, No. 13 overall selection Andrew Painter. Painter zoomed past Jobe on his way to becoming one of the top arms in the minor leagues, but the Philadelphia Phillies prospect now has a damaged elbow ligament that he will try to rehab in hopes of avoiding surgery. The 2022 draft’s top prep pitching prospect, Dylan Lesko, needed Tommy John surgery months before the draft — he was taken No. 15 overall by the San Diego Padres but has yet to throw a pro pitch.
But what might surprise you is that the results are not much better on the college side. If we use the last two drafts, you can see why teams may steer away from pitchers of any age at the top of the draft. The top pitcher selected in the 2021 draft, Leiter (second overall, Vanderbilt) is now ranked behind Griff McGarry (145th overall in the same draft, Virginia) in my minor league prospect rankings, just 18 months after the draft, with no notable health issues as a factor.
Saw LSU’s Paul Skenes last week in a lightning-shortened 3 IP outing. Faced 12 batters, struck out 8, walked 0, gave up 2 HR.
4SM was 98-101, threw a lively two-seam w/CH action at 96, SL was a 70-grade pitch (only got it slo-mo w/hitter in the way), 50-55 CB & CH used lightly. pic.twitter.com/R2IOOpHmca
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 20, 2023
The No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s draft, Rocker was considered one of the best pitching prospects in recent memory after this freshman season at Vanderbilt. Then he regressed a bit, had shoulder surgery and began his pro career with a rocky stint in the Arizona Fall League — all leaving his prospect status as one big question mark. Max Meyer, the first pitcher taken in the 2020 draft, was meeting expectations until he needed Tommy John surgery last summer, while Lacy, who was taken one pick later at No. 4 overall, walked 42 batters in 28 innings last season and ranked outside of the top 10 of my Royals’ preseason prospect list.
How does Skenes stack up against former pitching prospects?
As Skenes distances himself from the rest of the pitching prospects in this class with every start, it’s time to start asking if he is the rare elite pitcher who could be the exception to this trend. To see how clubs should approach Skenes, we need to place him in historical context. Using the last 20 drafts, the best pitching prospect on their draft day is clearly Stephen Strasburg with Gerrit Cole a consensus choice for second on the list. Most would say David Price is third (after that opinions would start to vary).
I saw Skenes’ lightning-shortened April 6 outing against South Carolina in person, and the raw stuff came as advertised. He struck out eight batters in three innings, his fastball sat 98-101 mph, and his out pitch was a devastating 70-grade sweeping slider. He mixes in a curveball and changeup that are a bit above average and has a fluid delivery and solid command. He caught too much plate on two pitches, which the Gamecock hit out of the park for the only two hits he allowed. He has 104 strikeouts and 9 walks over 53.1 innings and a 1.69 ERA. Notice in the final clip of the video below how late a right-handed hitter would be able to actually see the ball in his delivery — basically once his arm is already moving forward.
My instinct is that Skenes is clearly not equal to Strasburg or Cole, but it’s fair to compare him to Price when stacking them up as prospects at draft time. Strasburg, Cole and Price were all wire-to-wire consensus No. 1 overall prospects in their classes while Skenes was seen as a second or third round pick as recently as last summer before he transferred from Air Force to LSU and started working with pitching coach Wes Johnson. Given that context, he’s probably just a bit behind Price at the moment, and he still has some time to make up the gap.
But after that slam-dunk three-for-three elitist-of-the-elite tier, there’s much less certainty to be found in starting pitcher stardom. The group of consensus top draft pitching prospects in the last 20 years includes some busts (Mark Appel, Tyler Kolek, Riley Pint, Danny Hultzen), some pretty good big league starters (Jameson Taillon, Jon Gray, MacKenzie Gore, Hunter Greene, Kevin Gausman), two aces (Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodon), and some TBDs (Casey Mize, Jack Leiter, Jackson Jobe). That 20-year sample says there’s a roughly 15% chance you’ll get an ace or close to it — and around a 40% chance that the non-inner-circle top pitcher in the draft will return basically nothing.
How does Skenes stack up against this year’s draft class?
The way I have been asking scouts about this dilemma for the last couple months is with the frame of ‘how high can you justify drafting a pitcher when there’s a solid position-player alternative?’ The most common answer from across the scouting/evaluation spectrum is that in almost any toss-up situation, they’ll lean toward position players due to general attrition/risk. The answer is basically, “I’ll take the pitcher once the hitters of the same tier are gone.” The thing that will vary from team to team is how they construct those tiers.
No one would be scared to take a pitcher who is clearly the best player on the board, but this year there will probably be three or four position players (outfielders Dylan Crews of LSU, Wyatt Langford of Florida, Walker Jenkins of the prep ranks, and some would include Max Clark of the prep ranks, too) who scouts believe offer above-average offensive potential and some athleticism/defensive value. Crews looks like the slam-dunk top prospect in the draft by any measure right now, in his own tier and a strong favorite to go No. 1 overall.
Right now, Crews is the only hitter clearly in a tier above Skenes. If Langford (recently back from injury) can close with performances as strong as he showed last season and the beginning of this year, though, he and Skenes might force a team into making a difficult draft-day decision. Which player ends up going first will likely be dictated by the view of the teams picking in the top three. The Pirates (picking first) recently went cut-rate with a polished college product at the top pick and the Nats (picking second) are among the most fearless and most pitcher-hungry drafting teams in the league; it’s hard to imagine Skenes actually getting past both clubs.
What I see is a pitcher who has a good shot in July to be the best pitching prospect in a dozen years, one who deserves to go second or third on merit — with a case to be made for first overall. But what really matters now is what the Pirates and Nationals (and, to a lesser degree, the Tigers and Rangers) think Skenes will become.Those are the teams who will have to answer this year’s version of every draft’s toughest early question.