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April 10, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Looking at an Elite Eight in a New Way

by Bryan Smith

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For a pitcher, there is no room for error during the junior season in college baseball. With 15-18 starts, a pitcher must be dominant and he must be consistent, or Dallas Buck's fate becomes reality. When Buck was a dominating sophomore at Oregon State in 2005, he was expected to be one of the top five picks overall when he came out; a bad junior season where he showed less velocity dropped him below the first round.

On February 22, Ross Detwiler began his season's worth of good outings by striking out 13 Dallas Baptist hitters in front of a host of scouting directors. Kevin Goldstein noted the outing , and at that point, only a face plant would have taken the lean Missouri State southpaw out of the first round. Detwiler still has a date within the top 20 picks, and justifiably, as left-handers with his type of velocity and projection are rare. But for kicks, I decided to go back and analyze the Dallas Baptist outing, to make sure we didn't miss something amidst the sexy pitching line. I don't suggest the scouts there missed anything, they--better than anyone--can understand the weaker competition that Baptist reflects (Boyd Nation ranked them as the 85th-best team in the country).

In fact, much of Detwiler's season has been characterized by dominance against the inferior, but perhaps none more than the 13-strikeout outing. While Nation has Dallas Baptist ranked as the second-best of Detwiler's opponents, straight schedule-analysis doesn't take into account the specific batters involved. Granted, there is no hope of finding a ranking of every hitter in college baseball, but perhaps intuitively, we know one thing: the best hitters are always found at the top of the order. Few Division I programs have more than three or four hitters capable of playing at the next level, and every coach in America knows to put his best bats at the top.

Surely, I thought, this is true for Dallas Baptist as well. Analyzing the game logs of the outing, I found some inconsistencies: Detwiler's lone mistakes in the outing--two hits (including a solo home run) and a walk--were against the first, third, and fourth hitters in the lineup. The first five hitters in the lineup combined to strike out just five times, meaning the Patriots' bottom four hitters combined to go 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts.

Naturally, pitchers are always going to do better against the bottom half of the order. Major League Baseball is no exception--last year, pitchers allowed an OPS more than 100 points stingier against the 6-9 spots of the order:

Slots     AB        AVG     OBP     SLG     K%
----------------------------------------------------------------------
1-5      97010     .282    .355    .460    17.6%
6-9      70331     .252    .311    .393    20.8%

In college baseball, the difference between the leadoff and ninth-slot hitters is even more pronounced, so it is extremely important for pitchers to clamp down on the bottom half of the order. Detwiler's great performance against the Dallas Baptist weaklings deserves commendation; not allowing a hit against them limited the number of at-bats he'd have to pitch against the top half of the order. But from a scouting standpoint, I wonder if there is something else to be taken from his splits.

Certainly one of the holy grails of sabermetric analysis is adding some black and white to the gray area where a college career ends and a professional one begins. Detwiler's extreme start is really only an introduction to such analysis, which leaves me wondering aloud: are performances against nonprofessional-caliber hitters important when analyzing elite pitchers?

At this point, I don't think there is an answer to this question. My guess is that performance against 6-9 hitters is a little important, as it should tell us something about pitchability. If a college pitcher already understands he should attack the strike zone and challenge bad hitters--and in essence, leave himself more pitches to try and fool the genuinely good hitters--then he has moxie beyond his years. On the other hand, if a pitcher struggles against bad hitters, but has the stuff, it is a likely indication of some lack of pitchability.

However, in my opinion, what's most important is the ability to consistently get out the best hitters in college baseball. Many hitters in the second spot in college baseball end up in the nine-hole on professional teams--the talent pool will only become more difficult for the elite. Retiring bad hitters should be no problem for first-round arms, but beating the best is why they earn seven-figure bonuses.

Below, I will look at how my top eight pitching prospects for the 2007 draft are faring in the aforementioned splits. But before we get to the numbers, let's meet the contestants. Jake Arrieta of TCU burst onto the scene with a fantastic sophomore season, and the big-bodied right-hander likely has not lost his place in the first round. Andrew Brackman has again posted underwhelming numbers this season, but his huge frame and mid-90s fastball will land him in the top ten. We've mentioned Ross Detwiler, one of 2007's biggest risers up draft boards. I like Tulane's Sean Morgan more than most, but he has struck out hitters at big rates his entire career with the Green Wave. David Price needs no introduction; we might as well call him a Devil Ray. As frustrating as Brackman is Rice's Joe Savery, an über-athletic southpaw with big stuff that has never matched his freshman results. Arkansas' Nick Schmidt had a better sophomore season than Price, and while his stuff isn't as special, he's better than your average bear. Finally, the annual Cape-made star is UC Riverside's James Simmons, who has topped Wes Roemer in the control-oriented first-round right-hander department.

These might not be the first eight starters taken in the 2007 draft, but all of the players in this piece should be off the board before the second round. I'll turn to the numbers before making some conclusions about who might disappoint and who might blow up once they reach professional baseball. Below, we have the eight aforementioned starters ranked by OPS against the 1-5 spots in the order, with numbers against that split as well as the 6-9 slots.

                        1-5 spots                         6-9 spots
Name      AB     AVG   OBP   SLG    K%   |  AB     AVG   OBP   SLG    K%
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Simmons   134   .187  .232  .261  26.1%  |  94    .138  .165  .181   30.9%
Schmidt   135   .185  .315  .222  28.9%  |  81    .176  .286  .286   29.7%
Price     144   .208  .281  .271  41.0%  |  97    .165  .257  .237   41.2%
Detwiler  102   .186  .278  .275  30.4%  |  68    .132  .253  .147   42.6%
Morgan    119   .202  .317  .269  37.8%  |  85    .218  .287  .271   42.4%
Savery     97   .247  .336  .299  21.6%  |  64    .203  .250  .250   18.8%
Arrieta   118   .220  .308  .347  31.4%  |  72    .264  .398  .361   27.8%
Brackman  118   .280  .379  .466  20.3%  |  90    .211  .268  .256   26.7%

Ignoring the two names at the bottom of the table (where the biggest questions are raised) for now, I was initially surprised to see James Simmons on top of the list. Most of the players on this list are hard throwers with slight command issues, but with only seven walks on the year, Simmons is on top because his OBP-allowed is by far the best. Simmons, Price, Detwiler, and Savery line up with the Major Leaguers as far as the differences in their splits--each has a near 100-point difference in OPS between the two. Savery's low strikeout rate is a concern, while Price's high strikeout rate seems to indicate that all college hitters he faces are beneath his level.

Nick Schmdt and Sean Morgan are far closer to even in the two splits, but for reasons I think we can forgive. Morgan simply has had a worse BABIP against the 6-9 spots; if you even it out between the two, he becomes normal again. Schmidt was normal until this weekend, when a seven-slot hitter in Mississippi's lineup went Tuffy Rhodes on him, smacking three of the eight extra-base hits he has allowed on the season. One hitter notwithstanding, Schmidt is normal as well.

The Extremes

This leaves us with two pitchers as particularly interesting. Jake Arrieta, who according to Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings has faced the weakest schedule of the eight, was seventh in OPS against 1-5 spots on this list, and eighth against 6-9 spots. He's had a disappointing junior season with his command, but it's noteworthy he has been 104 OPS points better against 1-5 hitters. As mentioned earlier, I would attribute this to pitchability; the big difference in the splits is an increase in walks against the bottom half--Arrieta could stand to trust his stuff more and challenge back-end hitters. While his pitcher's body and three-pitch arsenal haven't dropped him to the second round yet, he has failed to advance his cause much in a weak year for right-handed pitchers.

Unsurprisingly, given his career, Andrew Brackman is the unique pitcher in the article. In the middle of the eight-pitcher pack in terms of performance against 6-9 hitters, Brackman was almost 200 OPS points worse than Arrieta against the best hitters in each lineup. Brackman basically makes 1-5 hitters look like a more powerful version of Kevin Youkilis, while 6-9 hitters are comparable to Chan Ho Park (the hitter). While noting the sample size caveats, this is substantial. Due to his 6-foot-10 frame and his equally big velocity, Brackman gets a lot of apologies for two years where he's been distracted by basketball. But if his bonus demands at all resemble the slot he was projected to be drafted in February (top five), I think teams would do best by electing to pass.

Drifting back to Detwiler, we see the Dallas Baptist start reflects a lot about his season on a whole. Dominant against all hitters, Detwiler has the largest discrepancy between strikeout rates in the two splits. In the end, the legitimacy of the numbers we looked at today might be determined by Detwiler's strikeout numbers in pro ball. According to these numbers, as well as the defining start of his season, the southpaw's strikeout dominance could subside in pro ball.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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