The topic today is the major league draft and player development. What about high school players vs. college players, and when are they ready for the major leagues?
I can only give the perspective of a junior college and high school coach, but I have been blessed to have coached a number of players who were drafted, either as an assistant or head coach.
Before going any further, please don’t think I’m patting my own back. I just happened to be in the right places at the right times to be able to put some great players’ names in the lineups over the years. They all made it on their own talent, by working hard. Here are some of the high school players I coached that were drafted:
- I coached Prince Fielder for three years in high school before he transferred to Eau Gallie High and was drafted 7th by the Brewers after playing for coach Bob Collins as a senior. Prince took a traditional path to Milwaukee, making stops along the way from rookie ball to AAA.
- Edgardo Salgado was draft pick #1436 in the 50th and final round of the 1998 draft by the Angels, but didn’t sign
- Jorge Padilla, 3rd round, 1998, has 13 years of minor league service, and 25 major league at bats with Washington in 2009. He is now at Tucson in the Pacific Coast League.
- Andy Gonzalez, 5th round, 2001, is 30, has played in 91 games in the show and is currently trying to make it back by way of playing for the Nashville Sounds.
Each of those players has a different story, from Fielder being a major league all-star to Salgado, who was offered the minimum and decided to go to junior college. Padilla and Gonzalez have touched the big-time, and can’t let go of the desire to get back to the top again. The rounds they were drafted in give you an idea how hard it is to make the top rung of baseball’s ladder.
Over the years, I have seen anywhere from 4% to 14% of drafted players make it to the major leagues for a minimum of one day. No matter where the numbers stand exactly, and everyone figures their stats differently, it’s obvious the odds are against making it to the top. First round draft-picks are successful in putting on a major league uniform less than 70% of the time. Second-rounders make it slightly less than 50% of the time, and the numbers drop of precipitously after that.
So who gets drafted, the high school kid or the college ball player? With the guidelines involving money that now rule the draft, it seems the college player is more popular than has been the case in the past. Why? The college player has less leverage, and is more likely to take the money and the opportunity to play pro ball. High school players can opt for college, and if they’re eligible to go to a premier baseball school, they can look for more money. (Read more about the high school player side here.)
With the college draft pick, pro ball knows the young man has, for the most part, been out on his own, away from home for two three years. He should, therefore, be more mature and better able to handle the grind that minor league baseball is. High school kids, on the other hand, might have their habits less ingrained, and thus be more open to adjustments. And if they can play, they might be in the major leagues at a younger age than a college pick, as most players spend several years in the minors either way.
How do teams decide who’s ready for the majors? I’m sure they look first at team needs, and then at the player in question. The minor leagues serve to prepare a player mentally, physically and emotionally for the major leagues. There used to be an adage that “If they can play in AA they can play in the bigs.” While a good number of players have the physical ability to contribute to a 25- man roster, that doesn’t translate into their ability to actually do the job on the field.
A former major-leaguer once told me the difference between putting up numbers in the minor leagues and the major leagues was that “A lot of guys can play in front of a couple of thousand, but not in front of 30,000 or 40,000.” So, even though the minors serve to separate the wheat from the chaff, eventually a player has to show he can do it on the largest of stages. That’s one reason why many players don’t stick. Robinson Cano could handle the bright lights of New York City at 22, but he’s not the norm. And even he has grown greatly with age and experience.
Communication between the scouts and the player development people is crucial. Do you want to draft the physical talent, or a guy who can fit in the organization? Velocity or control, power or average, speed or defense? Do we go with the more polished college player or the high school kid with the better upside? How can we gauge the player’s heart and his mind?
Certainly, everyone wants the best players available, but opinions can vary greatly on who is the next “can’t miss kid.” I remember a friend telling me of an organization several years ago in which the two groups couldn’t get on the same page. The scouts wanted to simply draft tools, and then their job was done – good luck to the development people, who might be stuck with a player with a major attitude, off-field issues or a less than adequate baseball IQ. As a result, the organization as a whole has suffered.
A player’s five physical tools are evident: hitting ability, power, speed, defense and arm. But I remember Steve Phillips, the former GM of the Mets, talking about hitters, and saying there was a sixth tool: the ability to adjust. And that sixth tool is one observed and nurtured in the minor leagues. It takes time, and the “adjustment” can be anything from mental to physical to time management … and the list could go on and on.
The minor leagues aren’t simply about pitches thrown or runs-batted-in. Life skills and interpersonal skills can take time to be developed. Not everyone is Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, whose major league talents merely needed to be microwaved in the minor leagues before they were ready to go. They are the exceptions.
Along with all those adjustments most minor leaguers must make, the most important on the field is the ability to translate talent to skill. I have often said that “talent” is just a six-letter four-letter word. Talent isn’t worth much if it can’t be utilized. Hopefully, over time in the minor leagues and countless repetitions, plus all the subtle, as well as not-so subtle lessons the game has to offer, a player can put his power, arm or speed to use on a regular basis, when the game is on the line. (I recommend reading Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry if you wish to get a feel for what the minor leagues is all about.)
When you see a major league team, it is similar to looking at an iceberg: you only see 10% of the whole thing. Baseball men who spend their time in the scouting and player development areas of an organization work countless hours, taking copious notes, cussing and discussing how best to get the best players into the organization, and then how to best get them to the big leagues. When all is said and done, much of it rests on the players shoulders.
After all, the organization can see the 96 on the radar gun. It can see the home run that traveled over 450 feet. It can read the time from home-to-first on the ground ball. It’s the intangibles that are so difficult, so imprecise. And that’s what makes the business of minor league baseball as much an art as it is a science.
No matter how positive a baseball man is, there is still a bit of doubting Thomas in most. There is no such thing as a “can’t miss” prospect until he’s made it.
Have a baseball question you would like a coach’s opinion on? Leave it in the comments or send it via Twitter to @Aerys_MLB or @WayneTyson11.
Our coach is Wayne Tyson, who was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays.