Finding Prospects from Smaller Conferences & Colleges

Despite not having a 1st round pick again in 2013 due to signing Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee keeps adding players I was fond of as amateurs. The bad news is that the Brewers still remain one of the weakest farm systems in the game. The cupboard isn’t as bare as it looked the last couple of years. I think the overall level of tools and raw talent has noticeably increased. In particular I think Milwaukee did a good job this year in scooping up a couple players who dropped in the Draft in Devin Williams and Tucker Neuhaus. Both those players were high school draftees, as was the team’s top pick in 2012 – Washington State prep catcher Clint Coulter. Yet one thing that struck me about this org. is how many of their top prospects are from “off the beaten path” kind of backgrounds. Three of the most exciting players in this system are Victor Roache, Mitch Haniger and John Hellweg. Roache came from Georgia Southern University. Haniger was taken from Cal Poly while Hellweg went to junior college in Florida. Sure, some of their top players came from traditional big schools and that’s to be expected. Jimmy Nelson played for the Alabama Crimson Tide and a few years back Milwaukee took two college pitchers in the first – Texas’s Taylor Jungmann and Georgia Tech lefty Jed Bradley. As someone who watches a whole lot of amateur and college baseball my curiosity was piqued: How often do 1st rounders come from smaller schools? Also, how often do these players succeed?

Framing the Question

As I didn’t wish to make this a 7 month long project, I limited the scope of players I looked at to 1st and 1st supplemental round picks from 1993 to present. That’s the post-Strike Era in baseball which starts the ramp up in offense to the steroid years. I think it’s a good a dividing line as any, and it seems like teams really started to act more like big corporations since then. Since the Strike a lot of the anachronisms around the game have been cleaned up a little, revenue exploded and a lot of modern conventions in the game came into being. I’m always tempted to do these projects looking at top prospect lists from the past instead of 1st round picks… but I find prospect lists a little too subjective and self serving for this type of work. I think it’s preferable to take a snapshot of 1st rounders and see where talent evaluators pegged the players as they entered the professional ranks. Teams have to put their money where their mouth is when they pay a 1st rounder. Prospect lists tend to value different things. In the end no method is perfect, but this takes some subjectivity out of the process and makes my life a little easier doing the research.

So what constitutes “off the beaten path” for colleges? Clearly something like Georgia Southern would qualify even though it has produced a fair share of baseball talent recently. But what about a program like New Mexico? For a dividing line I chose the so-called “power conferences.” Today that means the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. In the past that also meant the Big East and I’ve adjusted for changing memberships over the years. This obviously has some flaws as a process, but I don’t know that there’s a better way for me to do it. There are certainly traditional power baseball programs outside of those conferences that fall through the cracks here. Conversely, the Big Ten isn’t typically a great baseball conference – Heck, Wisconsin quite shamefully doesn’t even have a scholarship/varsity baseball team. Those schools always have a certain allure, though. Their tradition, campuses, other athletics and name recognition are big draws. Even the worst power conference baseball schools tend to have some quality draft prospects every year. There’s also a big difference in public perception of the power conference schools (perhaps revolving around big time college football) and that does make a difference to recruits.

So let’s take a look at the 1st round draft picks from 1993 to present, divided into power and non-power conferences:

What can we learn from this?

  • How often do 1st rounders come from big schools? Smaller schools? Out of 461 total players 314 came from “power conference” schools, compared to 147 from other schools. That’s more than a 2:1 ratio in favor of the power conf. schools – 68%.
  • What was the success rate of prospects from big conference programs vs. smaller conference programs? 143 out of 314 power conference draftees have posted a positive career WAR (45%). 63 out of 148 non-power conference draftees have done the same (42%). These figures are still in flux since those groups contain draftees from recent years who will in all probability head on to successful major league careers. Since I didn’t want to get too subjective with who to include and who to exclude I left everyone in. It hurts both groups equally, so it doesn’t change anything other than depressing their general success rate.
  • The power conference players have combined for 1322.6 WAR while the other school players have only been worth 524.6 Wins. BUT among players who made the majors that averages out to 6.39 per player for the power conf. guys and a similar 6.32 Win average for guys from other schools.
  • One striking difference between the two group is the abundance of pitchers in the group from other schools. The top 10 power conference players by career fWAR are all position players. Of the top 25 from that group only 6 are pitchers. Looking at the non-power school group we find only 7 position players in their top 25. One hypothesis I’d propose for this is that with pitchers being inherently unpredictable we are more likely to see arms pop up into elite draft status than we are position players. Late blooming pitchers suddenly throwing 95 are more likely get consideration in the 1st rather than a late blooming position player who has one good offensive season under his belt. We also know high school pitchers are typically the worst bet for 1st round draft picks – and this further speaks to how hard to project and how unpredictable high school pitching can be (for college coaches and recruiters, too).
  • We know that it is more difficult to reach the Hall of Fame coming out of college than it is coming out of high school. This is in some part likely due to the increased chances of reaching the majors at an earlier age and thus greater opportunity to compile more stats. It probably also speaks to teams identifying the players with special tools early and not letting them get to college. Since the Draft era began only 10 of 34 Hall of Fame player inductees came from four year schools. The rest were high school players – with Kirby Puckett an exception, coming from Triton Junior College in Chicago. I ignored Deacon White and Ron Santo as well, since the Veterans Committee put them in and they preceded the Draft era. Nonetheless, Santo signed out of high school. White, on the other hand, learned the game from a Union Solider returning from the Civil War and I’m not sure what his formal education consisted of. These are the college draftee Hall of Famers in the Draft Era:

Tom Seaver (Southern California)
Reggie Jackson (Arizona State)
Mike Schmidt (Ohio)
Dave Winfield (Minnesota)
Paul Molitor (Minnesota)
Ozzie Smith (Cal Poly)
Tony Gwynn (San Diego State)
Andrew Dawson (Florida A&M)
Barry Larkin (Michigan)
Frank Thomas (Auburn)

You hopefully noticed that this group breaks into 6 players from power conference schools and 4 from other schools (Note that Schmidt went to the University of Ohio – NOT Ohio State).

  • Looking at potential Hall of Famers in the two groups above it looks like each list features strong candidates. The power conf. schools have Todd Helton and perhaps Berkman, Utley and Nomar maybe getting some consideration. The non-power conf. group is headlined by Verlander and Longoria. That’s a heck of a 1-2 punch.

 How the 2014 Draft is Shaping Up

There’s a long way to go until the 2014 Draft. Players will fall and rise and scouts will be out hitting the fields, learning more every day about potential draftees. Still, having followed most of the top amateurs for a while, we can start to see the general shape of the Draft. How does 2014 look in terms of power conference ratio of college players?

The two two arms are both college pitchers and it’s one from each group. North Carolina State southpaw Carlos Rodon is the consensus top talent. East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman did much on the Cape to close the gap. Rodon’s teammate Trae Turner, Vandy RHP Tyler Beede, Indiana OF Kyle Schwarber, LSU RHP Aaron Nola and UVA OF Derek Fisher headline the power conference group. Smaller conference programs are again well represented though. Hartford LHP Sean Newcomb is a potential top 10 pick. Others are San Francisco OF and Royals farm hand Kyle Zimmer’s brother Bradley, Kennesaw State catching phenom Max Pentecost and power arms Michael Cederoth (San Diego State) and Kyle Freeland (Evansville).

Talent does seem to come from all different places in the baseball world and that’s part of what makes the Draft and following pro and amateur prospects so very interesting. You can see great players in virtually every corner of the country. I’d recommend you check your local college schedules and see what great players and teams are coming to visit. It’s a great and cheap way to see some pretty exciting talent before it hits the big stage… or before it hits the small stage (the minors) too, I guess.

I’m leaving you with video of Brewers outfielder Victor Roache playing in the Cape Cod League a few years ago. He was a very fun player to watch and you can see his strength and bat speed on display here. Watch how deep he lets the ball travel in the footage from Fenway/the Cape Cod League All Star Game.

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Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.

15 Responses to “Finding Prospects from Smaller Conferences & Colleges”

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  1. chuckb says:

    I like and appreciate the research you’ve done here but it’s difficult for me to abide the notion that Long Beach St and Fullerton, to name just 2, aren’t “college baseball powers.” They aren’t “small schools” by any definition within the context of college baseball. So when 5 of the top 8 or 10 by fWAR among the so-called “small schools” went to those 2 schools, it suggests that the methodology needs to be tweaked here. They’re much bigger than most of the Big 10 schools, for example, when it comes to baseball.

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    • Joe says:

      You could sort it by CWS titles by the conference I think. That would eat up all the effect from teams like CSF, San Francisco, and really the other Cali teams, as well as older powers like Wichita State and Creighton.

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  2. T says:

    Absolutely. Totally arbitrary distinction here. You’re basically looking at whether good football schools produce good baseball players. The Big West is easily one of the best conferences in the country. The West Coast Conference is very strong as well. Both way better than the Big Ten and Big East.

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  3. Henry Skrimshander says:

    Go Westish Harpooners!

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  4. stew says:

    It’s pretty absurd to rank the Big Ten as a baseball power conference while listing prestigious baseball powers like Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State as “off the beaten path” programs. When recruits signed to go there and baseball people evaluate their players, I doubt they feel they’re going “off the beaten path.” Come on.

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  5. kevinthecomic says:

    Michigan State is in the Big Ten, so Mark Mulder belongs in the Power Conference category, FYI.

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  6. Oh, Beepy says:

    Also I take some issue with limiting it to first and supplemental rounders when, by your own admission, you’re trying to look at guys who likely fell in the draft order due to their obscure home-schools.

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  7. dylanthomas says:

    Really amazing article. “Power” vs. “Non-power” was a good way to get started. Being a SoCal native, I think it would be interesting to go a little deeper than just conference. In particular I think of a few Cal State campuses – Fullerton, Long Beach, etc. The school’s conferences are in no way “Power” conferences, however, the schools have long and well-known baseball traditions, perpetually compete in the College World Series, and long and established histories of players drafted and doing well in MLB (i.e. Longoria). There are probably similar schools in Florida and other warm-weather states. Still, very unique piece and very thought provoking, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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  8. Mr Punch says:

    Agree with argument against “power conferences.” It may be that in the future only schools with big TV money will be able to fund baseball, but this isn’t the history; baseball success has had relatively little to do with football. Oregon State has been in a big-time conference for many decades, but Jacoby Ellsbury was OSU’s first major leaguer. (The 2013 champs also had two players from Yale and one from Providence, a one-time regional power that has dropped baseball.)

    In any case, I don’t think the issue is finding Hall of Famers – it’s finding major league players. As for the pitching discrepancy: pitching (for draft purposes) is mostly a physical skill, being able to throw hard, while hitting and fielding are more skills acquired against good competition. Throwing at 98 mph gets you drafted for sure, while hitting the ball 450 feet may not.

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  9. Danny says:

    Berkman went to Rice, which, while a perennial power, is not a member of a power conference.

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    • dylanthomas says:

      Rice- excellent example. Very well known for baseball, but not for any other sports, and not in a “power conference”. I feel like in general NCAA baseball is not a “big money” sport in the same way as men’s basketball or (especially) football. I wonder if CWS appearances during the Draft Era would be a better criteria than conference?

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    • dylanthomas says:

      Oh and also note whispers on the internet about MLB clubs not loving Stanford hitters (this of course in marked contrast to Cardinal pitchers). Such as:

      By way of saying:
      – there is a healthy amount of chance, interpersonal/professional relationships, and other subjective “stuff” that goes into whether a potential Hall-of-Fame player actually becomes one.

      – Maybe separating hitters and pitchers would be a great idea.

      This was still a great, original article. Never knock it when someone expands the world’s knowledge pool.

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    • Wasted AB says:

      At the time Berkman went to Rice they were not a perennial power. 1995 was their first NCAA tournament appearance and he was on their first team to appear in the College World Series.

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  10. David says:

    Al, I believe that your understanding of big time programs are skewed. I think a better measure of power players in the collegiate level would either be draft picks, CWS and Major League talent developed. Not all programs within “elite” conferences are elite and there are some programs in lesser known conferences that are elite. Also, Cal Poly is a strong program in California, which is arguably the largest hotbed for baseball talent.

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    • E-Dub says:

      Knowing Al very well, I’m chuckling at the idea that you think he (or anyone frequenting a site like FG) does not know that California is a “hotbed for baseball talent.” The post is otherwise insightful, so not sure why you felt the need to belabor the obvious to cap it.

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