From big men on campus to the big leagues

Last spring, I wrote a study investigating draft outcomes for a sample of players taken from the early to mid 2000s. The study looked at the differences in draftees by both age and position, considering whether players at certain positions are more likely to develop when drafted out of high school or college. I was incredibly fortunate to be awarded SABR’s Jack Kavanagh Award, which recognized my paper as the best by an undergraduate in the country.

While I was obviously delighted, I was also somewhat surprised. Given the amount of data we can consider when looking at the draft, I feel as though I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In baseball, unlike most other pro sports in the U.S., players are drafted from high school, college, or a junior or community college, from different regions, and with different skill sets and levels of previous experience and training. With so many ways we can group the prospects, much of draft analysis can simply be finding ways to split up the groups and figuring out which groups tended to do better. While basically anyone with Excel can do that, an academic knowledge of statistics tends to come in pretty handy when you finally do try to jump in and analyze the data.

Statistics allows us to ask questions like how different those groups truly are, and given some information about the groups (e.g., sample size, variance), are those differences likely to reflect a true difference in the value or ability of players in the different groupings or have they arisen due to simple random variation. This allows us to start tackling the question of which of these factors truly do influence a prospect’s long-term performance, and which might be red herrings.

When I got to campus this year, I got a job with Michigan’s baseball team, working as a student manager and supporting the staff through my analytic skills, as well as whatever legwork or manual labor I can put in on an everyday basis. It might not surprise you, then, that my next big area of curiosity about the draft is in looking at the alumni of different schools.

While this article will simply explore which colleges have produced the most major league talent, I hope to delve deeper in the future to understand more pertinent data, such as the average value of a draft pick from a given school and the possibility that players from certain schools are systematically under- or over-rated. For example. are players from some schools picked earlier or paid more than they deserve, or vice-versa?

Finally, I’d hope to combine these results with my findings from my original paper to understand whether, for example, certain schools are better developers of pitching or hitting. It’s certainly possible that it’s essentially even across the board, and the player’s success will simply be a result of hisr talent combined with his post-draft minor league instruction. However, I’d be interested to see data that show concrete evidence of the long-term effects of the “Stanford Swing,” or whether players in more competitive leagues like the SEC or ACC are better prepared for the stiffer competition they’ll face in affiliated baseball.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m looking for “the perfect draftee.” I know it might sound like the next step is, “Well, we like college third basemen from SEC schools who are between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5 and have parents in academia, so go find somebody who matches that description.” I have way too much respect for the scouting side of the game to apply the data in that way. However, I do believe there is value in draft analytics, and I like to call it “Putting the Dollar Sign on the Demographic.” This comes from the classic scouting book, Kevin Kerrane’s Dollar Sign on the Muscle, a fantastic primer for anyone interested in learning a little more about scouting.

While analysts shouldn’t be making draft-day decisions based simply on the output of a spreadsheet, analytics can help us frame the opinions of scouts. If a team’s scouts bring in five players they believe the team should consider for its first pick, I think it’s completely reasonable to consider the long-term outcomes of a sample of similar players to decide whether to, say, pass on the high school shortstop and instead take the center fielder from a top-tier college.

Scouting will always be a key component of the draft, and there is no way the teams making the best decisions are going to do so by having people who don’t actually see the players. However, I am very confident that combining the expertise of scouts with the large-scale knowledge gleaned through analytics will allow teams to do better in the draft than they would through just scouting alone.

For now, here are the five schools that have produced the most major leaguers in the draft era, along with a few of their most notable alumni:

USC (102 players): The Trojans edge out Arizona State and Texas for the top spot on this list. They’ve had a fairly balanced alumni group, with huge offensive producers in Mark McGwire, Fred Lynn, and Dave Kingman, as well as two of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the game in Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson. Two pitchers, Barry Zito and Mark Prior, looked like they might be on their way to joining the upper echelon of Trojan hurlers, but were derailed respectively by ineffectiveness and injury issues. Besides Zito, Ian Kennedy is the best-known current Trojan in the major, and Oakland’s All-Star closer Ryan Cook is also making USC fans proud.

Arizona State (101): While the Sun Devils claim one fewer major league player overall, their graduates have had a much stronger track record than USC of late. Dustin Pedroia and Andre Ethier are among the current players from ASU. The school also claims such legends Barry Bonds (for a good time, look up the ESPN Page 2 article on Bonds in college), Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, and Sal Bando. Sun Devil pitchers haven’t done nearly as well. The best known is Floyd Bannister, who was drafted first overall by the Astros in 1976 and had a fairly underwhelming career for a 1-1, throwing 2,388 innings and finishing with a career ERA of 4.06.

Texas (101): Like ASU, Texas may be in position to jump USC for the top spot on this list; the Longhorns are just one behind overall and have a much stronger current crop of players, suggesting more may be on the way. Current Longhorns in the big leagues include Drew Stubbs and Huston Street. The best Texas graduate of all time is actually working hard to get a shot at the majors… some guy named Roger Clemens. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

Stanford (83): Players who donned the Cardinal before reaching the highest level include Carlos Quentin, J.D. Drew, Bob Boone, Jack McDowell, Mike Mussina, and Javier Vazquez. Maybe there is something to that whole Stanford Swing idea. The team’s never really had an impact bat (Drew was a pretty good ballplayer, but made one All-Star game in his 14-year career), while McDowell won one Cy Young and finished second in another year and Mussina is probably going to be a Hall of Famer (he’s eligible this year, but could take a few years on the ballot).

Michigan (77): Finally, my Wolverines round out the top five. Barry Larkin, a member of 2012’s Hall of Fame induction class, was actually in town last weekend and was recognized by the 114,000 fans at the Big House during the football game. Mike Matheny was an excellent defensive and tactical catcher with the Cardinals and other teams, and nearly led St. Louis to the World Series as a rookie skipper this season. Finally, Jim Abbott is one of the most inspirational players in the history of the game, compiling an excellent 10-year big league career despite being born without a right hand. If that’s not a true Michigan Man, I’m honestly not sure what is.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, as I hope to delve deeper into whether players from some colleges have significantly better long-term outcomes in the future.

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Doug Wachter
11 years ago

Totally true. The article has been changed to reflect this correction. My mistake, I would never dream of intentionally stiffing the Mavs of UT-A.

Frank Jackson
11 years ago

Where does Florida State rank?  I’m thinking they can’t be too far below the top five.

11 years ago

JD Drew went to Florida State.

11 years ago

Drew, along with his brother, was a Seminole. Clearly I’m having a tenuous relationship with the realm of reality today. FSU has had 61 drafted players make the bigs, ranking it 13th, but the program has been extremely strong for the past few years so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them ascend quickly.

11 years ago

Sir, Hunter Pence did NOT attend the Austin campus of the University of Texas as your statement implies. He did some time at Texarkana CC then finished his amateur career at the University of Texas at Arlington.

11 years ago

If one looked at more recent events I have to believe my Vanderbilt Commodores would figure in the conversation.

Ofdf the top of my head there has been: David Price, Mike Minor, Mike Baxter, Pedro Alvarez.  And I’l probably forgetting someone.