College Statistics

With this crop of prospects for the 2009 MLB draft this summer being college heavy, a lot of fans of teams with high picks are following the performances of guys like Stephen Strasburg, Dustin Ackley, and Grant Green very closely. Right now, D.J. LeMahieu is getting a lot of buzz for his blistering start for LSU. Because baseball is such a statistical game, this is only natural. I just want to issue a word of caution – college statistics are just not that valuable of a predictive tool.

From the use of metal bats, the huge variances in quality of opponents, some parks that heavily impact run environments, and the smaller sample of games played, there are all kinds of adjustments that need to be made to try to translate NCAA statistics into something that resembles context-neutral. And, once you’ve done all that work, there is still limited value in the numbers.

For instance, let’s take Dustin Ackley – scouts rave about his advanced approach at the plate, and he’s universally acknowledged as the best hitting prospect in this draft. He has a compact, line drive swing and makes excellent contact. The only real questions surrounding him are how much power he’ll develop and what position he’ll play in the majors.

Since I have a database that contains a significant amount of college statistics dating back to the 1980s, I ran a query to try to find some comparable players to Ackley statistically. I wanted to see how many of these high BB/low K/gap power hitters there were, and how they did in the majors. Some of the names on the list may surprise you.

For instance, Brad Wilkerson was an absolute monster in college. His junior year at Florida, he hit .347/.538/.743, drawing 85 walks and striking out just 29 times in 222 at-bats. He also launched 23 home runs as 49 of his 77 hits went for extra bases. Oh, and he pitched, too. From a pure numbers standpoint, Wilkerson was as good offensively as anyone in recent college history. Obviously, that didn’t translate to the major leagues, as he’s been just a decent hitter, posting a career .341 wOBA.

It’s not just Wilkerson, either. Khalil Greene (.470/.552/.877) and Chris Burke (.435/.537/.815) had two of the best offensive seasons for a middle infielder in college history, and neither of them have been able to duplicate their success with wood bats. Mark Teixeira was a monster in college, but his numbers were surpassed by Dan Johnson. Alex Gordon and Michael Aubrey have virtually indistinguishable seasonal marks. Ryan Braun hit the snot out of the ball at Miami, but so did Jamie D’Antona at Wake Forest. If I showed you Chase Utley‘s 2000 season next to Greg Dobbs‘ 2001 season, you couldn’t tell them apart.

Good hitting prospects hit well in NCAA ball, but so do less good hitting prospects, and just using numbers, it’s basically impossible to tell them apart. We’re big fans of statistical analysis here, obviously, but we also need to know the limits of what numbers can tell us. When it comes to college performances, scouting reports are what you want – the guys hitting the fields everyday and looking at swings and athleticism do a better job of predicting which college players will hit in the majors and which ones won’t.

Dustin Ackley is probably going to hit in the majors. I’m saying that because scouts think so, not because he’s hitting in college.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.