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June 3, 2005

Draft Preview

College Hitters to Watch

by Boyd Nation

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Let's face it: you don't need another preview of who will be drafted by which team--you can get that plenty of other places on the web. They'll all have some relationship to what actually happens next week, but won't end up with most of the players with the right team. What you need is a guide to which players you actually want to see your team draft, and some idea as to why.

There's an interesting phenomenon in much of American life that gets replicated in baseball--guys who are perceived as likely to be successful are given more chances and are, therefore, more likely to succeed. Those of you in corporate life are likely to have been annoyed by this (unless you're the guy with executive hair, in which case you've probably never noticed it and are convinced that you're advancing on your merits), but it's particularly difficult in baseball, where some fairly clear metrics often get ignored based on the halo effect. Comparing the minor league careers of, say, Xavier Nady and Jon Knott can provide good examples, as the higher draft choice is advanced even in the years when the other player outplays them.

As with all trends, one way to succeed is to recognize that tendency and work against it. A team that learns to draft based on actual potential value rather than on popular opinion is more likely to come up with useable players when they roll the dice on Tuesday. With that in mind, rather than a list of the players most likely to be drafted highly, here's a list of the best offensive performances by draft-eligible college players this year.

First, though, I want to resist the temptation to bury the correction at the bottom: One of life's little ironic rules is that, much like all Usenet spelling flames will themselves contain a spelling error, leading a column by talking about accountability is a certain way to make sure it contains a factual error. Rickie Weeks was not, of course, the #1 overall pick in 2003; he was just the first college player taken. This obviously negates the stuff I wrote about him being a justifiable risk. Ah, well.

Now, on to the players. PF is the average park factor (with 100 being neutral and lower being more offense-suppressed) of the stadiums where the team played; SoS is strength of schedule (with 100 being neutral and higher being stronger).

Brian Pettway, Mississippi, LF, .400/.466/.717, 80 PF, 111 SoS.

First, the big news, before I start quibbling: Pettway has been lights out good this year. Playing against tough competition in a park that, by NCAA standards, kills offense, he's hit the ball often and hard.

Now, the caveats:

  • It's hard to find fault with a .466 OBP, but he may not walk enough. In their current state of development, our analytical tools for college players can't tell us whether players who hit for high averages will replace some of those hits with walks as they face better pitching professionally--some do and some don't.

  • Protection doesn't really exist at the MLB level. It definitely does at the Little League level. In between, we don't know when it stops, and there's some question to what extent it exists, if at all, in college. Pettway has batted all season ahead of Stephen Head, who was a preseason All-American (and will presumably be a postseason All-American as well, since the best way to be an All-American is to be a preseason AA and not stink, due to the aforementioned halo effect).

Chase Headley, Tennessee, 3B, .379/.527/.664, 86 PF, 106 SoS.

Headley, on the other hand, walks a lot. Defense is somewhat hard to measure at any level, but observationally he can probably stick at third for a while. The potential catch is that, while all of the guys on this list are going through their best season to date (that's part of being 20 instead of 18), Headley's previous season numbers have not shown nearly this much power.

Micah Owings, Tulane, 1B, .326/.448/.707, 82 PF, 106 SoS.

Owings is a pure bopper who transferred from Georgia Tech during the offseason. Like Pettway and Headley, he also pitches competently in relief, although none of them are likely to pitch professionally.

Alex Gordon, Nebraska, 3B, .386/.530/.750, 103 PF, 105 SoS.

Gordon plays in a more neutral park than most of the rest of the guys on the list, so his numbers don't translate quite as high. But some of these guys get into the upper bounds of possibility where it's hard to know how accurate the translations (which are regressed for the normal range of performance) are, so his could be the strongest season in the nation.

Mike Costanzo, Coastal Carolina, 1B, .388/.543/.671, 88 PF, 102 SoS.

The level of competition he's faced is a little lower, around the average for college ball. Still, he's mashed the ball quite happily all year.

Karl Amonite, Auburn, 1B, .361/.466/.634, 83 PF, 110 SoS.

Amonite is yet another SEC big bopper, one of a half-dozen or so scattered around the league this year. One potential point for excitement with him, if you're into projection, is that that his SLG comes with only 10 homers and 25 doubles; if the doubles grow into homers at some point, that number jumps up even further. A fifth-year senior who missed all of 2004 with an injury, Amonite's health will bear watching.

Eli Iorg, Tennessee, RF, .392/.444/.694, 86 PF, 106 SoS.

Sometimes nepotism means you draft Anthony Gwynn too high, but sometimes it's a useful eyecatcher. There have been enough Iorg's running around baseball over the years that it's tempting to think Eli gets attention just because of the name, but he's been the real deal over his college career.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Oregon State, CF, .415/.504/.604, 92 PF, 110 SoS.

Ellsbury's a little on the small side, which won't make PECOTA happy, and there are the problems with predictability of high batting averages. On the other hand, his defense is solid enough to stay in center in the long run, and who couldn't use a high-average center fielder with decent secondary numbers?

Troy Tulowitzki, Long Beach State, SS, .355/.431/.603, 87 PF, 114 SoS.

Tulowitzki is the best offensive shortstop available, and the leather's good enough to stick there. How high you take him depends on how you value the positional adjustment.

Jeff Clement, Southern California, C, .353/.482/.632, 101 PF, 113 SoS.

Clement has blossomed offensively this year, leading to some serious hope that he'll be a useful component down the line. Many teams wonder if he'll stick behind the plate, so he'll need to keep hitting to advance.

Boyd Nation is the sole author and Webmaster of Boyd's World, a Web site devoted to college baseball rankings, analysis and opinions. In real life, he's an information security analyst with an energy company. He can be reached here.

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