The San Diego Padres picked Karsten Whitson in the first round of the 2010 MLB draft, 9th overall. Whitson is a 6-4, 195 lb right-handed starter from Chipley High School in Florida.

The risk that is the HS pitcher

Before getting into Whitson, specifically, let’s talk about high school pitchers in general. The general consensus is that prep pitchers have the most risk of any type of draft prospect (HS pitchers, HS bat, college pitchers, college bat). Take a look at this chart, created by Sky Andrecheck at Baseball Analysts, and based off his draft WAR model:

draft chart 

The chart says that  high school pitchers, selected toward the top of the draft, have about a 30% chance of at least reaching the majors and contributing 1 WAR through their career. You can see that that figure is lower than the other three types of players, and the trend continues as you scan down the chart and raise expectations. This chart shows us that high school pitchers are least likely to make any impact at the major league level, and that their ceilings are actually *lower* – on average — than their college and position player counterparts.

In other words, high school pitchers are dangerous. Importantly, however, the data suggest that the risk might not be worth the reward, as they don’t offer a higher upside either.

Here are all high school pitchers selected in the top 15 picks, from 1999 through 2006:

Year Player # Org. RH/LH WAR
1999 Josh Beckett 2 Bos RH 23.5
1999 Bobby Bradley 8 Pit RH
1999 Brett Myers 12 Phi RH 7.4
1999 Ty Howington 14 Cin LH
1999 Jason Stumm 15 Chi RH
2000 Mike Stodolka 4 KC LH
2000 Matt Harrington 7 Col RH
2000 Matt Wheatland 8 Det RH
2000 Mark Phillips 9 SD LH
2000 Joe Torres 10 Ana LH
2001 Gavin Floyd 4 Phi RH 5.6
2001 Colt Griffin 9 KC RH
2001 Mike Jones 12 MIl RH
2002 Chris Gruler 3 Cin RH
2002 Zack Greinke 6 KC RH 20.5
2002 Scott Kazmir 15 NYM LH 18.1
2003 John Danks 9 Tex LH 12.1
2004 Mark Rogers 5 Mil RH
2004 Homer Bailey 7 Cin RH -1.4
2006 C. Kershaw 7 LA LH 4.9
2006 Kasey Kiker 12 Tex LF

Thanks to Baseball Reference for the data.

You’ve got a number of hits (Beckett, Greinke, Kazmir, Kershaw) and a bunch of misses. You may notice another trend, too. There were 10 HS pitchers taken in the first 15 picks between the 1999 and 2000 drafts. From 2001 through 2006, however, there were only 11 taken. It appears that teams were getting a little more selective with prep arms, as they better realized the risk.

Karsten Whitson is not Mark Phillips

One of the problems with this type of analysis is that we are lumping players together. Sure, “high school pitchers” is a convenient enough category – and it obviously makes a good deal of sense – but we have to recognize that all high school pitchers
are not the same, and frankly many of them are not even similar, taking into account size, stuff, command, make-up, etc. .

Perhaps the Padres have selected their Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, or Jake Peavy here. Maybe they haven’t. It’s close to impossible to tell, especially when you don’t have access to the scouting reports and first hand knowledge that the Padres and some draft experts do.

That said, that is not going to stop us from discussing Whitson, and trying to form some type of opinion on his future in the Padres organization.

Basic facts

Karsten Whitson, RHP
Chipley HS, FLA
6-4, 190
Commitment: Florida
Stats: 7-3, 123 strikeouts, 55 innings (senior season)

Scouting Report

Drawing off the excellent scouting report available at PNR Scouting, Whitson offers the following pitches:

Fastball – Sits in low-90s, can reach 94-95. Good movement. Can add velocity with improved strength/altering mechanics. Only issue is control.

Slider – Low-80s power slider. Plus pitch. Needs to work on control/command.

Change-up – Low-80s. Work in progress, but has potential to be solid offering.

Here’s a good report on his mechanics, from Amazin’ Avenue:

Issue number two concerns his mechanics. If you watch him from the side, pay attention to how he lands on his left leg. Ideally, the pitcher lands on it softly, with the knee bent a little less than 90 degrees. In Whitson’s case, he’s landing stiffly, immediately pushing up with his leg as he lands. What’s the big deal? It implies three issues, none of which are huge deals for Whitson. First, it can impair a pitcher’s control, due to the leg forcing his body away from his momentum at the moment of release. Whitson’s command is pretty good as is (but maybe it can be better). Second, a great stride shouldn’t allow you to land anything but softly. It may be that Whitson can get a little more power from his stride, either adding velocity to his fastball or taking a little stress off his shoulder. And third, Whitson’s follow-through is a little short, and I’m pretty sure the stiff leg is the reason. A good follow-through can act almost like an energy sink, allowing the pitcher’s arm to decelerate as safely as possible. If cut prematurely, it can shock the pitcher’s shoulder a second time, adding recoil to the delivery. Lengthening Whitson’s stride just a little might solve all three potential problems.

And a couple of videos of Whitson:


The consensus opinion

Here’s a chart showing where various draft experts rank Whitson:

Expert Rank
Keith Law 5
Baseball America 12
John Sickels 9
PNR Scouting 3
Lincoln Hamilton 6

Overall, Whitson is obviously a highly regarded pitching prospect. The questions regarding his development are questions that follow most any young pitching prospect. Can he handle 200 innings down the road? Can he add a few MPH with improved mechanics and/or strength and conditioning? Can he refine his mechanics and avoid injury? Can he improve his command/control?

The Padres obviously believe that he has a good chance to develop into a solid pitcher, as they spent a high pick on him and will likely have to pony up above-slot dollars to sign him away from his Florida commitment. We’ll be rooting for him.