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Jeremy Guthrie and the Myth of the College Draft Prospect Safety

Many baseball writers and casual observers harp on the relative riskiness of prep prospects in the MLB draft and support their teams drafting college prospects in the majority of situations. Recent history doesn't support this rule of thumb.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Guthrie was a first round draft pick in 2002 out of Stanford University. Jeremy Guthrie has accumulated a career fWAR of 11.5, and has thrown 1664.2 innings in the major leagues as of yesterday. The studies that are often quoted on the value of college vs. prep draft prospects would throw Jeremy Guthrie into the "successful draft pick" bucket, another piece of evidence in the case for the college player in the first round. Yesterday, Jeremy Guthrie was eviscerated by the Yankees to the tune of 11 earned runs in 1.0+ innings pitched. Obviously, Guthrie's performance yesterday, at age 36, doesn't diminish the rest of his entirely mediocre major league career, but he has been something of a punch line in his stint with the Royals. Guthrie has a career FIP of 4.73, and in three different full seasons his FIP has topped 5. He accumulated a total of -0.2 WAR for the team that drafted him and was designated for assignment three years after his major league debut, yet he is still what some people would call a "successful" draft pick.

I have never bought into the idea that merely getting a major league player out of a draft selection indicates success. I understand why many do, as many draft picks never see major league playing time, but the goal of a team during the draft is to find cost controlled major league contributors- players that bring a team closer to winning a world series championship. Any player that does not do so can be considered a failed draft selection, even if he does reach the majors and has a long career, like Guthrie.

Many of the college players that make these spreadsheet studies look good with their middling career WAR totals, like Guthrie, in reality did nothing to move their teams towards World Series championships. In Guthrie's draft, as with any other, there were a lot of first round busts from both high school and college. #1 selection Bryan Bullington, out of Ball State, is a notorious first pick failure, as were high schoolers Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen and Clint Everts who were selected 3 through 5. However, of the eight all-stars selected in the first round in 2002, six were selected out of high school: B.J. Upton (2nd), Zack Greinke (6th), Prince Fielder (7th), Scott Kazmir (15th), Cole Hamels (17th) and Matt Cain (25th). The two college all-stars were Nick Swisher and Joe Saunders, who I am sure many have forgotten made an all-star team.

The 2002 draft is, of course, merely anecdotal evidence. I could also bring up the fact that Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton were all high school draftees, and that all but Stanton were drafted in the first round, but my point in presenting these facts is not that prep prospects are in fact better uses of draft picks than college players, but that every player must be evaluated on a case by case basis. That feels like an obvious statement, but I have encountered many who have read one of the countless "studies" on this subject and vehemently support college players over prep players in all instances.

I have heard this mentioned in debates over whether Brendan Rodgers or Dansby Swanson should be drafted first in 2015. I don't mean to say that supporting Swanson in this debate is wrong, as there is a very legitimate case to be made for Swanson based on his present defensive ability, advanced approach, underrated power and well developed contact hitting skills. Indeed, from a scouting perspective, Swanson looks the part of a highly productive major league player. However, any argument for Swanson that is rooted in college player bias is missing the boat. A general manager would not select Swanson over Rodgers because he is at Vandy and Rodgers is at a Florida prep school, and no analyst or fan should advocate this kind of philosophy.

The MLB draft is unique compared to the NFL or NBA's in that players who are at hugely different points in their development are being considered with every selection. The reality is that evaluating baseball's draft prospects is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and that teams can only hope to outperform their competitors through nuts and bolts scouting and analysis, looking at high school and college players through an unbiased lens. Seeking to create rules that simplify the complex issue of comparing such players only adds to the difficulty present when comparing young prospects.