Things I've Learned About College Players

I started looking at the draft more seriously five years ago, and the more I dig into it, the more I enjoy it. This has become my favorite time of the baseball season.

Hopefully for better, but maybe for worse, I will venture into rating high school prospects this year. I hope I am not jumping in quite as blindly as I was with college players, but we will find out. I will touch on my premises for identifying high school talent tomorrow.

Today, to kick off my 2010 draft coverage, I thought it would be worthwhile to go over how I look for college prospects. I started back in 2006 with the mantra "the best college players will tend to be the best professional players." Over the past few years, as the players I have chosen have logged professional innings, I have fine tuned the mantra. Here are some things I have learned that will definitely show up in my 2010 ratings:
  • The best players aren't the only ones that perform at an elite level: College players tend to play seasons in the vicinity of a third to half the length of a major league season. In that span, a player can get very hot, or very cold, and it will skew their overall production significantly. I tend to think a truly elite college prospect is highly resistant to slumping, simply because they are so much better than the players they go against. However, guys who aren't elite prospects can perform way above their true ability for a month, and that's enough to vault them into the same production class as better players sometimes. My lists have been dotted with these players in years past, although it's always easier to discern breakout players from one-year wonders in hindsight. Bottom line: a track record of success makes a player less likely to be a fluke.
  • Consistency might be bad: On the other hand, too consistent of a track record may be bad. A player that puts up the same numbers year in and year out is probably not progressing. They may have already become what they will be, and rarely is a college player ready to walk off campus and into a pivotal role on an MLB roster.
  • Production can only be so good: College players can put up insane numbers. Batting averages well over .400, ERAs under 2.00 - there aren't a ton of players that do either in a given season, but it can be counted on to happen. However, if a player is ridiculously superior (like Stephen Strasburg), the competition is not good enough to reveal just how good they are. It is kind of like giving a high school trig class a test on their times tables - an overwhelming number of them would probably do extremely well on it, but they probably aren't all breezing through the trig class. When a player produces close to "perfect" stats, especially in a non-elite conference, it is difficult to tell how good they really are.
  • Walks (for hitters) are a double-edged sword: I love MLB hitters that walk. It is a sign of good plate discipline, and I love plate discipline. Consequently, I love college players that walk. However, walks can tell different stories, especially in college. Some guys walk a ton because they are so intimidating. That's definitely a good thing. Other guys don't walk much, but are able to match a more disciplined hitter's production because they are just that naturally talented. If that kind of hitter has shown improving discipline in his young career, I tend to consider that an overall good thing now. However, if walks are a college hitter's best tool (in other words, if plate discipline is their greatest hitting strength), it is a red flag. It is an indication that the player already knows how to pick the best pitch in an at-bat, and maximize their abilities...which in itself is a good trait, but if a hitter already knows how to do that, and their actual abilities to hit for contact or power don't stand out among their peers, the odds are against them suddenly finding enough contact or power to become a good MLB hitter. Looking at my lists from previous years, I think a number of prospects I've liked that are plateauing in the minors fall into the group of plate discipline virtuoso.
  • Good defenders usually have recent experience up the middle: If a player has fielding abilities that suggest they can be a good defender in the majors, they should stand out among college players. Any team will stick their best defenders up the middle - particularly catcher, short stop, and center field. Sometimes a player may move off of one of those positions to third base or right field, but anyone with significant defensive upside at any position is likely to have logged time at a premium defensive position in college.
  • Stolen bases say a surprising amount: Almost any worthwhile pro prospect in college swipes some bags, whether they have good speed or not. I'm not entirely sure why, but it is true. A legitimately fast guy is likely to swipe at least 20 bags, and get more than their fair share of triples. However, almost any batter near the top of draft boards is likely to have stolen around 10 (remember, a college baseball season is much shorter than an MLB season, so a 10-base rate equates to 25-30 in a 162-game season). I think it has something to do with superior baseball acumen, so it is the first statistic I look at when I read a scouting report praising a player's "baseball sense."
  • Any good hitter hits home runs: This makes quite a bit of sense, really. First of all, college players use aluminum bats. Second, legitimate prospects are mostly facing pitchers of lesser talent than them. A hitting prospect should sting balls much harder in college than they will as a pro; so, even gap power in the pros tends to show up as home runs in college.
  • Any good pitcher allows home runs: This is baffling, but true. College pitchers tend to allow more home runs the more they progress through college. Other stuff does what would be expected - contact rate goes down, walks go down, etc. - but there is strong evidence that suggests pitchers tend to allow more home runs in college as they develop. I still take glances at a pitcher's home run rates to make sure that they didn't spike, but if they only gave up a handful more, I'm learning to not bat an eye.
  • Know who pitches on weekends: College teams typically play a couple series a week, one during the week, and one on the weekend. Usually, the best series are scheduled for the weekend, so teams tend to face stiffer competition on weekends. Thus, the best starters always start then, and the best relievers pop up more often then too. Pitchers can have similar numbers on a staff, but pitch during different parts of the week, so the competition level they have faced is noticeably different. There is an outside chance that a college coach doesn't realize who the most talented arms are, but it's an extremely slim chance. Legitimate pro prospects are likely to stand out no matter what program they are in, especially by the time they are draft eligible, so it is important to know who logs time on weekends.
Judging college baseball players based on production has its difficulties. It does not take interpretation out of the evaluation process. It is just a different flavor of interpreting, and the past four drafts have (hopefully) helped me figure out how to delineate the haves from the have nots.

I definitely believe data is the place to start with college players. Not everyone who does amazing things in college will make an impact in the majors; however, an overwhelming number of impact MLB players from the college ranks are likely to have done something amazing in college. With the magic of spreadsheets and data, one person in about a week or so can identify the pool of players worth looking at. From there, it is up to scouts to decide who stands out among the pool of elite producers. It is not a fail-proof method, but I will take my chances with a guy that both data and the naked eye agree stands out above the rest.