Back to School: The Most Collegiate Professional Game of 2018

Guillermo Heredia drove in the game-winning run in the most college-like MLB game of 2018. (via Eric Enfermero)

The universe may trend toward entropy, but professional baseball trends toward the binary apparently. Pitcher, batter: Strikeout, home run.

While baseball in its most natural state is a game of chaos–dependent as it is on nine players organizing themselves just so in order to most efficiently collect a ball or record an out or thwart a bit of strategy put on by the other team at the plate or in the basepaths–much of that action has been voided at the highest level because of pitchers’ abilities outpacing batters’ adjustments. Which is unfortunate, because I really love chaos.

Luckily, the college game is still steeped in improbability. At the highest amateur level, baseball is able to spread out to its fringes.

Though it generally favors small-ball mindsets, college baseball also cultivated Tennessee Tech, which hit more than two home runs a game in 2018. College pitchers still throw complete games, and as a group they hit batters at alarming rates. Multiple qualified college batters hit over .400 in 2018, and one, Clayton Andrews of Long Beach State, struck out less than famed contact man Willians Astudillo.

Fringy baseball has always been my favorite kind, which is why I usually enjoy college games much more than professional ones. (In fairness, being a Reds fan might also influence that preference.)

With the start of the college season around the corner, I decided to track down the most college baseball-like professional baseball game of 2018, a game where the pros relied on bunts and stolen bases and stayed firm in the box to earn the hardest free pass to first. I wanted to find the missing chaos.

But first, what actually defines a typical college baseball game? I should say, the statistical comparisons I’m about to make between college and pro ball are imperfect, applied across vastly different levels of competition without making adjustments for park or league like we would see with stats for professional leagues. But they’ll give us a sense of strategy and style of play in each version of the game.

Traditionally, it’s been assumed that college kids hit fewer home runs and rely on strategy to score. That assumption still mostly holds true, but now the top college teams are hitting home runs at nearly the same per-game rate as the pros. Of the 297 Division I college teams, 97 clubs hit at or above the per-game home run rate of the Miami Marlins, the team with the worst rate in the pros. The top college home run factory, Tennessee Tech, far surpassed the major league-leading Yankees’ home run rate.

As for the small-ball portion of the conventional wisdom, that hasn’t changed much at all. The Braves and Reds tied for the major league lead in sacrifice bunts with 49 apiece. That number was matched or bested by 21 college teams in fewer than a third of the games. The Blue Jays had the fewest sacrifice bunts; only two college teams, Princeton and Morehead State, each with four, had fewer. Whoever said “Don’t bunt, hit dingers!” clearly didn’t play college baseball.

Other comparisons of note:

  • The Indians had the highest steal rate with 0.83 swiped bags per game. That would be good for 181st in college baseball.
  • The Diamondbacks lead the league in triples per game with 0.31, which would rank 44th in the college ranks. The runner-up Rays would rank 75th.
  • Speaking of the Tampa Bay team, the Rays were the only professional team that had more than 100 batters hit by a pitch. Ten college teams passed that triple-digit threshold–again, in about a third of the games played.

Lastly, hits: college teams collect a lot of them. The Boston Red Sox had the highest major league batting average at .268, which would have put them 154th in college baseball, with the second-place Indians ranking 202nd. More college teams compiled a batting average .300 or higher, 17 to be exact, than there are teams in the American League (or National League, too, I suppose).

So with all of that said, our requirements for the most college baseball-like professional game of 2018 look like this:

  • Multiple bunts, ideally as a scoring mechanism
  • At least one triple
  • At least one hit batter
  • At least one stolen base
  • Both teams hit over. 300 for the game

Other things I won’t require but would prefer to see:

  • Both starting pitchers played college ball
  • The most influential plays of the game are made by a College World Series hero
  • Multiple lead changes
  • Extra innings
  • Something weird and improbable and never before seen

Basically, I want the entire Vanderbilt-Mississippi St. three-game Super Regional distilled down to one game and played at the professional level. That seems doable, right?

Examining Free Agency Since 2016
Players did a little better in free agency this winter than they did the previous year.

Plugging all of our tangible criteria into the Baseball-Reference Play Index gives us…exactly zero games where both teams match all five of our necessary requirements. So I tinkered with it a bit. Here are the most college baseball-like professional games of 2018, curated by me, a college baseball fan with internet access and a Play Index subscription.

Honorable Mention: Dodgers at Giants, April 28

By major league standards, this game was a blowout that ended in the third inning. The Dodgers cruised to a 15-6 victory, never once trailing and building a 10-run cushion by the end of the sixth. It’s not very college-y, but blowouts happen at that level, too. New Mexico State won a game 39-0 last February!

Two college guys started the game: Walker Buehler, formerly of Vanderbilt, for the Dodgers, and Chris Stratton, once of Mississippi State, for the Giants. There were no bunts, but there were two triples, three hit batters, and five stolen bases. Chris Taylor, Virginia’s Super Regional star in 2011, hit a home run.

There were accents of college here–the Giants procrastinating scoring until too late; there was a bases-loaded walk for one team and a run-scoring wild pitch for the other, both in the first inning; Max Muncy playing three positions. This game is the recent alum who comes back to visit just one too many times, the graduate students who stay at their undergrad institution, the Bama superfan who never actually attended Alabama. It’s close to college baseball and presents a decent parody of the playing style, but not quite close enough.

Third Place: Blue Jays at Rays, September 28

The Rays, predictably enough, were baseball’s most college-like team in 2018. They had the most batters hit by pitch, the second-most steals, the second-most triples, the third-most sacrifice flies, and the third-highest batting average. Only the Tigers, Giants, and Marlins hit fewer home runs. The Rays played small ball all year and innovated their way into being competitive in a tight Wild Card race.

This game is also more college-adjacent than awash in similarities. It featured three stolen bases, two triples, and a single hit by pitch, with no bunts. A guy named Rowdy hit a home run, which feels like it should have happened on a college baseball diamond even if it didn’t. Really, this game makes the list only because it’s the most college baseball-like game the most college baseball-like team played in 2018. That, and because the most influential play by Win Probability Added was a bases-loaded triple by Randal Grichuk.

Runner-up: Brewers at Reds, August 29

Extra-innings, five lead changes, 25 total runs, 36 total hits, and not a single sacrifice bunt even though the Reds were involved. This game may not make the most sense as a college-like affair on its face, but when you dig into who was doing what exactly, it gets a little bonkers.

A quick ranking of the most outrageous things that happened in the Brewers’ 13-12 win, in reverse order:

5. Billy Hamilton, then the Reds leadoff hitter, started the bottom half of the first with a solo shot, his fourth and final homer of the year. It was his 459th at-bat.
4. Michael Lorenzen, a Reds relief pitcher, also hit his fourth and final home run of the year. It was his 22nd at-bat. A relief pitcher matched a leadoff hitter’s home run total in just 4.8 percent of the at-bats.
3. Christian Yelich went 6-for-6 and hit for the cycle, totalling a mighty 0.677 Win Probability Added.
2. Eric Thames, 303rd in sprint speed according to Statcast, and Scooter Gennett, 381st, each had a stolen base. Hamilton, fifth, got caught stealing.
1. The Reds sent this game into extra-innings because Joakim Soria, pitching with runners on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the eighth, allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch.

For one day, the Brewers and Reds played Freaky Friday and let their players test out each other’s skill sets. Except for Christian Yelich. He just kept being himself.

Most College-Like Professional Baseball Game: Rangers at Mariners, May 15

Something I have neglected to point out but which should be obvious to anyone who has watched both professional and college baseball: The professional teams are better at defense. Like, way better. Like, man, just a whole lot better.

The NCAA Division I baseball stats page does not list UZR or DRS, so I can’t compare on the basis of that, but it does list fielding percentage. The Cardinals, the league’s worst defensive team by fielding percentage, recorded a .978 mark. Only 25 of the 297 Division I teams tied or bested that mark, but the emphasis should be on tied because only 15 teams bested it. So it’s only fitting our most college-like professional baseball game started with an error.

Delino DeShields grounded to Jean Segura at short. Segura booted the ball. Nothing came of the error, but the scene was the set.

The game’s starters, Mike Leake, former Arizona State pitcher, and Mike Minor, former Vanderbilt pitcher, probably set the scene. A classic mid-week doubleheader with two programs’ former aces battling it out on the mound. (“Former” because neither Leake nor Minor would be called an ace these days.)

But still, Segura’s error heralded what was to come. The Mariners scored the game’s first run when Mitch Haniger tripled Segura home in the bottom of the first after Segura had stolen second. College attributes: stolen base, triple. Then, the Rangers answered with a run of their own in the top of the second after Isiah Kiner-Falefa laid down a bunt that Leake threw away, letting Nomar Mazara score. College attributes: bunt, throwing error. The Rangers put across another couple that half inning before Leake hit Ronald Guzman with a pitch on an 0-2 count. College attribute: hit by pitch.

The Rangers and Mariners played just an inning and a half of baseball before checking five of our 10 requirements. This game didn’t merely include hints of college ball; it was the full, Asher Roth-soundtracked, falling-asleep-in-the-library-because-class-is-close-and-your-room-is-far (i.e., West Coast baseball) experience.

After the wild inning and a half to begin the game, Segura stole three more bases, Nelson Cruz got hit by a pitch twice, Jose LeClerc blew a save, and then Edwin Diaz returned the favor, and the Mariners put down three sacrifice bunts.

About that LeClerc blown save: The Mariners were down one in the bottom of the eighth with a runner on second. Gordon Beckham, former University of Georgia All-American and Golden Spikes finalist, put down a bunt. LeClerc, maybe a bit overeager, perhaps just unprepared for a professional ballplayer to bunt with no outs and a runner on a second–let’s be frank, that’s a tactical decision that has a low probability of success–threw the ball away. The runner scored, Beckham ended up on second, and the game plodded its way closer to extra innings. It was the second-most influential play of the game, with a 27-percent Win Probability Added.

It all ended three innings later, in the bottom of the 11th, when Guillermo Heredia singled the other way to bring home the winning run. From start to finish, this game relied on small ball and misplays and players doing everything a little less perfectly than they should. It featured multiple bunts as scoring mechanisms, a triple, hit batters, stolen bases, two former star college pitchers, a College World Series hero making a game-changing play, multiple lead changes, extra innings, and a big ol’ dose of improbability when Robinson Chirinos stole his second base ever in the sixth inning. It featured everything except the Rangers hitting over .300 for the game. Alas.

Strategy-wise, it was truly horrible baseball. But in my world, it was perfect. It was chaos–perfect, beautiful, college-like chaos.


Wes Jenkins is a staff writer at Redleg Nation and freelances when he can. You can follow him on Twitter @_wesjenks or check out more of his writing on his website, wesjenks.com.
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herbsmith
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herbsmith

That was a highly-entertaining article.

michaelwhobaby
Member
michaelwhobaby

I would love to watch College Baseball but I have no live baseball in my town, is there many televised games?

ScooterPie
Member
ScooterPie

This was very fun to read; thanks.

It did commit one error that I dislike: conflating “professional” with “Major League.” It’s an odd mistake to make, given the thrust of the article. After all, Class A contests share some traits with the college game as you describe it.

However, it wasn’t hard to figure out what you meant, and it did not diminish my enjoyment. Just something to think about for next time. (And also a recommendation that we all go see some Class A ball!)