June 17, 2015
The College Barrier
In December 2007, Pittsburgh Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark made an unorthodox hire. As far as Stark knew, the move to pluck Long Beach State pitching coach Troy Buckley from the college ranks to be the Pirates’ minor league pitching coordinator was one without precedent.
The unorthodoxy didn’t lie in Buckley’s lack of experience or track record: He was one Division I’s most prestigious and successful assistants, having mentored arms like Jered Weaver and Jason Vargas, along with regularly placing his team in the nation’s upper echelon of collective ERAs.
The hire was unusual for the sole fact that it happened.
A college coach moving to the pro ranks is not an uncommon sight in sports. The Chicago Bulls recently hired Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State as their head coach. The Oklahoma City Thunder did the same with Florida’s Billy Donovan, who had turned down past overtures from the Orlando Magic. Nick Saban jumped to the Miami Dolphins straight from Louisiana State. Before Greg Schiano was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he led Rutgers.
That simply isn’t the case with baseball. When a MLB managing vacancy opens, prospective candidates never include top college coach like Tim Corbin of Vanderbilt or Brian O’Connor of Virginia. From a coaching standpoint, college and professional baseball are separated more than any other sport in America.
One of the primary reasons for the split is the same one that keeps obsolete measures like wins and at-bats in statistical ledgers: tradition. Professional organizations haven’t traditionally looked to the college ranks for new coaching talent, so they just maintain the status quo.
“I think the game is very much an inward-looking game,” Stark said. “When I say tradition, (that means) what has been done tends to rule the roost a lot of times.”
But unlike the continued utilization of those obsolete stats, a number of very concrete, understandable reasons exist for the gulf between college and professional baseball.
It starts with finances. Professional coaches must often climb an organizational ladder in the same way as players, starting at rookie ball and working their way up season by season. The pay scale reflects the humbleness of the minors: Stark said a manager in High-A typically makes between $50,000 and $75,000 per year, a figure which then goes up and down depending on the level. A top college coach in a major conference, on the other hand, can make ten times that amount. Unless a coach is coming from a small school or jumping to a high-level professional job, the financial incentive for such a move doesn’t exist.
The relationship between the two levels is also much more tense than in basketball and football due to the MLB Draft. The current structure and rules of that event has established a competitive dynamic between college and the pros, sometimes fraught with animosity. Colleges actively lobby to get top recruits to school or for top juniors to stay another year, and pro organizations do the same to get those players to sign. Georgia assistant coach Scott Daeley recently whipped up controversy by sending out an email to recruits that decried signing straight out of high school and named a number of recruits whose careers had stalled out in the pros.
Furthermore, the mindset with which college coaches approach the game is far different than that seen in the minors. Development and improvement is certainly part of what they try to do, but that’s true at every level of baseball. The main difference is that the whole point of the minors is preparing players for future success; in college, the objective is to win. Players and coaches will cite this difference in mindset as a positive of the college experience, that players will learn to win and thrive in a highly competitive environment, but its side effects color how those in the pros perceive it.
“The pro game is always going to be about long-term investment,” said Scott Servais, the Angels’ assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development. “Whereas the college game is about short-term. What can this player do to help me today? And that’s a different way of watching games and evaluating players.”
Coaches often draw heat for perceived overuse of their best pitchers. In this year’s Louisville super regional, Cal State Fullerton ace Thomas Eshelman threw 100 pitches in the Titans’ win over the Cardinals, then game back two days later to close game three and send Fullerton to the College World Series. In 2013, North Carolina left-hander Hobbs Johnson threw 89 pitches against Florida Atlantic in a regional matchup then came on in relief the very next night.
Teams’ mechanical philosophies can also draw the ire of professional personnel. Virginia is notorious for instituting a squat at the beginning of each of its pitchers’ deliveries, and scouts have long complained about how Stanford supposedly wrecks hitters’ mechanics.
But some in pro ball also warn about taking an overly broad perspective toward the college game and missing out on the abundant talent there.
“I think that sometimes we can get in trouble when we stereotype college baseball and professional baseball,” Stark said. “I think that’s the reason why there’s a lot of maybe even antagonistic views between the two, because I think things get projected on both worlds.”
Stark was a college assistant himself, at St. Bonaventure in 2003 and 2004, so his experience at the level gives him a more sympathetic view towards college baseball. Stark liked how Buckley was a catcher during his playing days and the “position player mindset” he took when working with pitchers, along with Buckley’s emphasis on sound deliveries and throwing habits. To Stark, the fact that Buckley was coming from the college ranks—where he has since returned, now serving as Long Beach State’s head coach—was a non-factor. Regardless, he still had to do some convincing to get other officials to set tradition aside.
“I know when the Cubs hired Derek Johnson, nobody thought twice about it,” Stark said. “When we did it, people thought, ‘what they heck are they thinking?’”
More on Johnson: Chicago hired him away from his associate head coach position at Vanderbilt in October 2013. While with the Commodores, Johnson helped bring in and worked with MLB stars like David Price and Sonny Gray. He also had a hand in shaping 2015 first-round picks Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler.
The move to professional baseball has changed more than just the level of players Johnson works with on a daily basis. He is now responsible for eight teams worth of pitchers, rather than just one. He doesn’t get to be around the same players every day and build the sort of camaraderie and rapport he could at Vanderbilt. He has to deal with a schedule filled with games, rather than the dedicated practice time college coaches enjoy. He has to deal with a wider age range and a whole spectrum of different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. He must look at his players from a process-oriented lens, rather than one focused on winning.
“Every night, I watch the four affiliates, the four full seasons,” Johnson said. “I might have two teams that won and two teams that lost; I might have three pitchers that pitched well and three pitchers that pitched horribly; So every night kind of seems like a tie.”
At the same time, though, coaching is coaching, no matter where. The best in the business are those who can build positive relationship everywhere they go, inspiring and motivating on a large scale while also personalizing programs and advice to each individual.
Johnson has just had to bring that mindset to a bigger scale with different economics. He’s supervising not just players, but coaches as well—ones who have their own directives and ideas in mind.
“You have to be able to figure out ways to get your point across without ruffling all kinds of feathers and getting people to not trust you or to basically just go against what you’re talking about,” Johnson said. “Because that happens occasionally too. So I think I’ve learned how to deal with people better as a result of doing this. I’ve probably learned a little bit better patience, too.”
Professional baseball is not going to see a sudden surge of college minds in its coaching ranks. Tradition is too strong, attrition is too slow, and the old guard still has a strong presence in front offices. Twenty-five of the 30 minor league pitching coordinators in the majors never coached in college, and Johnson is the only one to go directly from a college position to his current job.
“I don’t really think pro guys understand college baseball that well,” Johnson said. “And even if they played it, they played it at a different time. The canvas of college baseball is a lot different right now than it was even ten years ago. And so I don’t think that most of them really have a great idea of how it goes now, and that’s not to say that they think it’s good or bad. I just don’t think they really understand it that well, and how could they?”
But hires like Buckley and Johnson show that the barrier is coming down, despite a lack of speed. Servais networks regularly in the college game and has brought big-name coaches down to the Angels’ instructional league. While with the Rangers, Servais hired current minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark to the Spokane Indians directly from Milligan College of the NAIA, and he’s bringing on Vanderbilt volunteer assistant David Macias as a manager in the Dominican Summer League once the Commodores finish their current season.
“I’ve been to Virginia’s practices, I’ve seen what he (O’Connor) does, and are there things I things I pick up or take away from that? Some days yes, some days no,” Servais said. “But I think you can learn from everybody…I think you’re shutting yourself off if you’re not open to some of the stuff that is going on.”
Servais’ goal is simple. Find the best talent. He’s just looking somewhere that others traditionally haven’t.