Detroit Tigers Draft History: High School Players

We are churning out the 2021 MLB Draft content here at Motor City Bengals as part of Draft Month, but today we offer the first of four historical pieces by looking back at the Detroit Tigers’ history of drafting high-school players.

You may have noticed our first three draft profiles focused on high-school players — Jordan Lawlar, Marcelo Mayer, and Jackson Jobe. That wasn’t by design so much as a reflection of the makeup of this year’s draft, with the high-school crop deeper and more interesting than the college class.

In a general sense, high-school players come with more risk and more upside than junior college and 4-year college players, so we thought we’d take a look at the Detroit Tigers’ history of selecting prep talent, both in the first round and later in the draft.

Let’s begin by looking at some basic draft numbers.

Detroit Tigers Draft History

OriginTotalSignedSince ‘02Signed
4-Year College1,2281,066509461
Junior College3791618547
High School92538721861

 

The MLB Draft has undergone numerous changes since its inception in 1965. Over the past few decades there has been a league-wide shift away from high-schoolers and toward college players, and that’s reflected in the table above.

From 1965-2001 the Detroit Tigers used about 41% of their draft picks on high school players, and they signed more than 46% of them. Since 2002, when Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila took over Detroit’s front office, the Tigers have used just 27% of their draft picks on prep players, and under 28% of them have signed.

The shift has been even more stark since 2016, when Al Avila took over as general manager. In the past five drafts the Detroit Tigers have taken 166 players overall, and just 15% of them have come from the prep ranks.

Detroit Tigers First Round Picks

There was a time when seemingly every Detroit Tigers first-round pick was a high schooler. The Tigers took prep players in each of the first eight years of the draft, and from 1965 to 1993 they used 27 first-round picks on prep players, compared to just 5 picks on collegians.

It’s not clear why the Tigers changed tactics, but the numbers suggest it was the right thing to do.

First RoundersPicksMLBWARAvg WAR Med WAR
College2617183.211.53.0
High School3925142.35.70.1

 

Justin Verlander’s 70+ WAR skews things in favor of college first rounders, but the numbers for prep first rounders are pretty ugly overall. And for as much as we like Riley Greene and Matt Manning, the recent track record with high-school first rounders isn’t too compelling:

PlayerYearPickWAR
Beau Burrows2015220.0
Derek Hill201423-0.2
Nick Castellanos20104411.9
Jacob Turner20099-2.6
Rick Porcello20072720.2
Brandon Hamilton200760n/a
Cameron Maybin20051013.5
Scott Moore20038-0.8
Matt Wheatland20008n/a

 

Detroit Tigers High School Picks Outside the First Round

But what about later in the draft? In recent years we’ve seen plenty of great seasons from high schoolers drafted after the first round. Freddie Freeman (2007, 2nd round), Cody Bellinger (2013, 4th round), Mookie Betts (2011, 5th round), and Giancarlo Stanton (2007, 2nd round) all won MVP awards over the last four years.

Nolan Arenado (2nd round, 2009) has won eight consecutive Gold Gloves, and he has the 3rd highest WAR in baseball since making his debut in 2013. Surely the Detroit Tigers must have had some success with high schoolers after the first round, right?

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT, MI – Alan Trammell sits with former Tigers teammate Lou Whitaker. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Yes! Lou Whitaker (5th round, 1975) and Alan Trammell (2nd round, 1976) were both selected after the first round. Mark Fidrych (10th round, 1974), Dan Petry (4th round, 1976), and John Smoltz (22nd round, 1985) are other great later-round picks by the Tigers.

But all those players were taken decades ago, and the later-round results from the 21st century aren’t terribly impressive.

PlayerYearRoundPickWAR
Joel Zumaya2002113204.2
Kyle Ryan2010123732.4
Giovanni Soto2009216300.2
Jake Thompson20122910.2
Luke French200482230.1
Daniel Fields20096180-0.1
Brent Clevlen2002249-0.1
Jay Sborz2003240-0.3
Casey Crosby20075181-0.4

 

That’s all of them. It’s a sad list that doesn’t bode particularly well for recent picks like Parker Meadows, Kingston Liniak, and Colt Keith. So let’s forget our troubles and enjoy a classic Joel Zumaya clip.

Conclusions?

It would be silly for the Detroit Tigers avoid high-school players in the 2021 MLB Draft, even if recent history suggests they should. As we mentioned, the top of this year’s draft class is heavy with high-school talent, and the Tigers own 3 of the first 39 picks. It would be shocking if they don’t select at least one prep player in the first two rounds.

But fans should temper their expectations for high-school draft picks. It’s a long way to the majors, and success is far from a sure thing.