As you may or may not know, it’s possible to get dragged into an online machismo contest about something rather absurd. I know, kinda odd, isn’t it? We have a mechanism for education and communication, and it gets somehow twisted and contorted into a partisan “Yay Me” fest. It happens all too often. I was recently in one of those, and the general discussion leads to a fairly decent Cheer Local segment on the Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Cougars.
Before I get to the specifics, I’ll lay some groundwork on the Cougars, who play their home games Roy E. Lee Field, about 40 miles from St. Louis. They play in the Ohio Valley Conference, which is traditionally a one-bid league. However, last season, Tennessee Tech had a fantastic season, and earned an at-large bid to the Field of 64, despite losing in the OVC Finals. The Cougars scuffled to a 15-37 record in 2018, 6-24 in the league.
In short, the Cougars are a northern school in a more southern baseball conference. The league has talent (the Cubs drafted two players in 2018 from the OVC, in Ethan Roberts and Clayton Daniel), but the OVC rarely achieves much of a national glare. The Cougars tend to lag in the league. With the basics laid out, I can return to my fishing expedition.
The discussion that created over 20 comments on my Twitter feed recently incorporated the discussion of velocity versus command. As people online tend to like to paint their own exception into their narratives, I’ll try to play this exercise as straightly a possible. A Cubs amateur scout gets an early February assignment to check out a Junior College matchup between two quality foes.
As with any other range of opportunities, junior college baseball run the spectrum. Some are hangouts for players who barely belong at the JuCo level. Other programs are feeders for the best four-year programs in the country. Chipola and San Jacinto are two of the best in the country. In the Midwest, Parkland serves as a feeder for the University of Illinois, and others. Iowa Western in Council Bluffs is a respected program, as well. If a player needs to “make grades” to earn a scholarship, these outlets are rather respected at providing quality opportunities along those lines, with good coaching to boot.
Here’s today’s mental exercise. The scout goes to a game with two of these quality type of junior college foes. One team is tossing a pitcher maxing out at 88. The opposition has a guy throwing 95. Both are college freshmen. A number of college recruiters and pro scouts are there, with radar guns in hand. Here is the point where I can skew things, or play them relatively straight.
In this fictional account, the game ends 5-1, with most of the damage against the starting pitchers. Both fielded their positions fairly well, or better. Both showed similar mound presence, and had an early read on the home plate umpire’s zone. Neither were petulant twits when the umpire refused to expand the zone to benefit them. Their opposition was quality. The experiment is this: With the final score being 5-1, what was learned in either instance?
Assigning 100 percent accuracy to any one game is not understanding baseball very well. If either arm was interesting, they both deserve at least one more look through the season. Preferably against good competition. However, in this game, one of the pitchers looked far better than the other. In a rematch in three weeks, it might be a reverse image, or a true duplicate.
If 95 was the Monster of the Mound, college recruiters from the Power Four conferences salivate. He’s the type that can be a weekend arm, especially if he can develop his off-speed stuff. Otherwise, he’s a leverage guy in a quality bullpen. Perhaps he hung a breaking pitch for a homer, or the opponent small-balled for three base runners in an inning. Whichever.
Pro scouts are also intrigued. However, he might well be in a situation where he’d fit in better at a college scenario the next season. The pro team might be willing to offer a reasonable bonus. However, a $125,000 bonus might pale in comparison to an ACC/SEC scholarship offer, and MLB limits smash on the ability to add a degree of high-end depth in any draft. Wait and see, but assess his advancement and signability. Play it from there. Perhaps he’s worth a first- or second-day selection. One day won’t decide that, especially in February.
However, what if 88 was the guy that pitched well? In this version, both pitchers are in the 6-2/6-3 range, at least. As such, a few more miles per hour might be located for either one, with weight training, and maturation. Who is interested if 88 outduels 95?
It’s certainly less likely to be the SEC schools. Depending on the side angles, a major school could still covet 88. However, the type of team more likely to send a glowing endorsement on 88 is the school with less prestige; like SIU-E.
Why, asks the cynic, would a college program want a guy throwing 88?
The reason is rather simple. They play 56 games per season. Not every team will be blessed with three upper-classmen throwing 93-96, with quality off-speed stuff, as well. While that may be de riguer for an MLB side, colleges have what they have. They recruit to stay in contention. 88 with the ability to get good hitters out plays in college. Not just in the lower levels, either.
When a person spends much of their time admiring the high-end of the range, they tend to be a bit oblivious of the lower ends of the range. Or the development angles. I pay much more attention to college and minor league ball. As such, my expertise on the expectations for the top-end talent in MLB is very dubious.
However, when I rack a game in the middle college ranks, or even the middle minors, a pitcher getting outs in the high-80s or very low 90s is no surprise at all. Once a pitcher starts getting hitters out, teams often become momentum players. The Cubs traded Ricky Tyler Thomas in July for Jesse Chavez, who was as good a reliever as the Cubs had down the stretch. Thomas is a 88-90 guy, and the 90 might be generous.
Teams in college, and the lower minors, ought to be able to find roster room for guys who pitch in the upper eighties. Yes, the preference might well be given to the harder-thrower. Justifiably. However, if a pitcher can record outs with regularity, he ought to get the chance to pitch up the ladder. At least, until his command ceases to be enough to get hitters out. Which is what pitching is all about.
No Edwardsville players were selected in the draft in 2018. Mason McReaken was signed by the Braves post-draft, as a non-drafted free agent. The reliever tossed 12 useful innings in the Appalachian League for Danville. Nelson Martz (son of former Cubs starting pitcher Randy Martz) pitched 10 innings in the independent Frontier League in 2018.
With a team earned run average of 6.50, one wouldn’t imagine much pitching quality would be returning. However, innings leader Kenny Serwa, who had an ERA of 4.45, is back. Senior catcher Brock Weimer appears one of the better returning bats.
If you’re looking for a team to track this season, SIU-E would only make sense if you’re willing to have your team lose a few by a handful of runs or two. The Cougars would be fascinated to have another pitcher or three that throw at 88 with off-speed offerings and command. Any team in the middle or below of the college ranks would, as would some much higher up.
To assume that pitchers can’t be successful with middling velocity numbers is a sign that you have no idea how much pitching is needed to fill out 30 organizations at seven to nine affiliates per, as well as an entire range of Division 1, 2, and 3 programs. Don’t forget junior colleges, either.
If a pitcher, at a level, whichever one, gets hitters out, he gets rope. If he gets hitters out often enough, he’ll get promoted. Up to the point he no longer can record outs consistently. Which ends up being the problem, for most pitchers. Either they stop recording outs because the hitters are better than they are, they aren’t healthy anymore, or they get a chance at the next level.
Velocity matters, but no more than other dimensions. People today like to be on a “you’re the best, or you’re terrible” mindset. I’m not sure why they choose that, but many seem to dig it. A pitcher, in college or pro ball, will reach a level that is equal to or better than him in almost all cases.
Don’t worship the radar gun. Prioritize outs. And good luck to SIU/E in recording them with fewer hits and runs against in 2019. Bumping up the .245 batting average and .700 OPS would help, as well. They open on February 15 against Alabama-Birmingham. From last season, I remember SIU-E audio-streaming home games. I even watched a game at Roy Lee Field on my computer screen when a series against South Dakota State was transferred to Edwardsville. Not a bad venue. May they celebrate more than 15 wins this season.