clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How college baseball squads compare to minor-league teams

New, 9 comments

The exercise is useful to figure out where college players fit in a team’s professional pipeline.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

A while back, when “finishing” draft coverage for the cycle, I was asked about which levels in the minors correspond to which college conferences. This is a question that both can be answered accurately, and can’t be. Instead of ”apples-to-oranges,” it’s a bit more “circle-to-the-number-37.” The concepts have entirely different measuring sticks. Nonetheless, as the comps are somewhat needed, let them begin.

To start with, college teams do play against pro teams, albeit rarely. The most-often times are either in spring training, or just before affiliates start their regular seasons. South Bend seems to schedule a game against Notre Dame every other season. Sometimes, the games get played.

For the college team, it gets the players a chance to be looked at against professionals in a scoutable environment. For the pros, it offers the South Bend players who haven’t played a game in cold weather to get a chance with relatively little blowback. It benefits both teams mildly, if everyone stays healthy.

The reality is, both sides have entirely different measuring sticks. People in the dugout, other than the players, have totally different expectations. The college coach is measured by his win total. Times to the Field of 64. How well does he recruit? In the pro dugout, wins are of no value without player development. Did that mid-level prospect get better under his tutelage? Were the pitchers better later than early?

To look at the dissimilarity, compare a “traditional” three-game series for either.

In the pro game, days off are rare. In this instance, the Northwest League team has just finished a three-game set, is looking at another three-game set, and embarks on a five-game trip after this one concludes. Days off aren’t a likely option. The players are being paid to get better, and that works as games are being played.

The three starting pitchers will be the three that come up in rotation. The starting lineup for the three games might well have two starting catchers, six starting infielders, five starting outfielders, and two designated hitters. Most of the relievers will see action, regardless of their success incoming. As much as fans expect the regular prospects to start every game, a rotation system keeps everyone fresh.

In the college series, the Friday guy will start on Friday. The two next best starting pitchers will go Saturday and Sunday. Lineup variation happens only as it makes sense. Reserves might well pinch-hit, as that is often their most advantageous usage.

If injuries strike, the college team is frozen. They aren’t permitted to summon an emergency player from a local junior college. The pro team will make roster switches as it benefits the squad. While a Northwest League team has a 35-man roster, as with college, a new arm is a phone call away.

Pro affiliates are built for the long haul. College teams are about a run to Omaha. Both are entirely different. The college team is trying to make money for the school. The affiliate tries to make money for an outside entity. The Eugene Emeralds aren’t owned by the Cubs. For the affiliates, the cost are normally low. The attendance pays for game day staff, hot dog buns, and fireworks.

A pro team against a college team in a three-game series doesn’t compute. While the affiliate would wear out the college team’s rotation by design, if they desired, it wouldn’t seem a benefit. For either side.

The long-term pitching prospects would be much better with most affiliates. The affiliate wants to run pitchers in and out. The college team wants to improve their seeding in the conference tournament. Entirely different mindsets.

That said, the college defense is often a bit better. A 21- or 22-year-old at short is likely going to make the routine play better than an 18-year-old from a Latin American country. Which ends up as an adjustment for the just-minted pro. “My second baseman used to make that play.”

***

The two entities are entirely different. However, comping them is a key point in scouting absurdity. When watching a kid in, for instance, the Missouri Valley Conference, it’s about projecting how well he will adjust to professional opposition.

For a real-life example, the Cubs had the 62nd pick in the 2018 Draft. Missouri Valley Conference stand-out Jeremy Eierman (SS/Missouri State) was still on the board. The Cubs instead chose prep outfielder Brennen Davis. The Cubs merged the data, and decided the younger Davis was a better gamble than the older Eierman.

Whether it was Eierman’s defense, swing plane, off-the field chatter (none of which I know about), or something else, Davis was preferred. Davis was the better choice for what the Cubs elicit from players than Eierman. His performance in the MVC season likely had something to do with the decision. That I’d have gone the other way is of limited value, but there you have it.

How well would Eierman do in the Cubs pipeline, based on the front office’s preference? Not enough to bring him in with Davis’ spot.

***

On the third day, the Cubs added Marin College (Kentfield, California) left-handed pitcher Chris Allen in Round 20. At Marin, he went 12-0 in 13 games. All were starts. The Cubs decided at a certain point Allen was the best on the board. The terms, which we will likely never hear, were acceptable for both sides. Allen figures to pitch in the Arizona League soon.

How can a team project a small-school like Marin against the world of affiliated ball? Apparently, the Cubs were more willing than some to bankroll Allen to find out.

Assessing talent on the board seems to assess three points simultaneously. How good is the player? Does he “fit in?” How well do the coaches in the pipeline develop talents like his? Throw those into a Cuisinart, along with financial demands, and you have a draft class.

To do that properly, a reasonable knowledge of how well a player (in his scenario) will advance (if coached by Cubs staff). That doesn’t directly relate to whether circle or 37 are better. They are incongruously different, by design. However, a scout needs to have a decent read on what level a player should reach before the struggles kick in. Or he won’t be a scout for very long.