One of my all-time favorite college players was a Mississippi State pitcher from the early ’90s named Jon Harden. I’m sure he was bigger than I remember him, but I’m guessing that he was somewhere around 5’9″ and 165 pounds, though he played a bit smaller than that. On his best day with a full windup, his fastball touched 80 m.p.h., and he didn’t really have much in the way of great breaking stuff as we usually think of it. What he did have, however, was three different, dancing changeups–he could throw, with the same identical motion, at 50, 60, 70, or 80 m.p.h., basically. Armed with that, he set a school record for appearances, serving quite successfully as the team’s closer for the 1990 College World Series squad and then as the setup man when Jay Powell took over as closer in 1991. That combination in particular was absolutely deadly–you’d go from a starter with good heat, to a couple of innings of Harden’s swooping changeups, to Powell, who could throw through the backstop at that point in his career. One of my favorite memories is of watching Harden throw to LSU’s Lyle Mouton, who was already huge, and simply screw him into the ground in frustration as he guessed, flailed, and missed.

Harden never really got any attention from organized baseball because of his size and his unusual approach. He was undrafted, and he was a bit too early for the independent leagues. At that time, there was an independent team in one of the Western minor leagues, and he pitched with them for a couple of seasons before giving it up. The last time I heard, he was pitching semipro ball and getting on with his life. I doubt that he would have done that much in the pros, but he would have been worth a low-A roster slot to find out.

Times are changing, though, and there’s getting to be a spot for the unusual among us in organized baseball. Last year, for example, the Blue Jays took center fielder Jayce Tingler in the 10th round out of Missouri. Tingler’s 5’7″ if he really stretches, but he performed OK last year, well enough to get bumped on up to the Florida State League this year. As teams look for the undervalued, guys like Tingler will get more chances. I’ve already talked about this year’s version of Tingler–Ryan Jones of East Carolina, in the 1A section of the preview–but here are some guys who are probably a bit undervalued for other reasons:

  • Ricky Bauer, Hawaii, 3.60 ERA, 115.0 IP, 72 K, 12 BB. There are some truly absurd park factors out there among the college ranks, and some of the smarter clubs are starting to realize it. Last year, Jamie Vermilyea was a ninth round choice (again by the Blue Jays) despite an ERA over 4.00, because New Mexico has a park factor somewhere around 200. Hawaii’s not quite that bad, but it’s played out somewhere around 135 over the last four years, which makes Bauer’s numbers look much better when put in perspective. He’s a garden-variety 6’2″ right-hander, but he’s worth a mid-round pick.

  • Andy Willick, Pacific, 6.42 ERA, 88.1 IP, 59 K, 17 BB, 3 HR. There’s a fundamental truth that gets overlooked some times in analyzing college pitchers–there’s a very wide spread in the quality of the defenses playing behind these guys. As good as the Rice pitchers are, they’re standing in front of one of the country’s best defenses. Batting average on balls in play can go way up as the guys behind you get worse. Willick’s a converted closer who probably thinks he had a disappointing senior year, when he actually did quite well and was the victim of a combination of bad luck and bad defense behind him; my version of defense-independent ERA puts him at a quite respectable 3.53. I wouldn’t use a pick in the first 10 rounds on him, but I’d get him on a roster somehow or another.

  • Patrick Perry, C, Northern Colorado, .478/.550/.844, 13 HR, 96 SoS. In the post-Rickie Weeks era, it isn’t worth quite as much as it used to be, but Perry is the recipient of the 2004 Award for Best Player from a School You’ve Never Heard Of. Northern Colorado’s in the process of migrating from Division II to Division I, so they weren’t eligible for the postseason at any level, but they played an almost-average schedule, and Perry, a junior college transfer and former NJCAA All-American, put up some huge numbers. He missed his senior year of high school after an injury which threw off the college recruiting process; in short, he’s had the perfect life to be undervalued and, therefore, he’s probably worth using your 25th-round pick on.

  • Chip Cannon, 1B, .353/.513/.674, 16 HR, 100 SoS, 87 PF. Cannon’s one of the top 10 players this season in OBP-AVG; in other words, the guys that pick up the most value from their walks. That’ll make him undervalued by organizations focusing too much on batting average as a first-line ranking. On top of that, though, the park factor makes him the opposite of Bauer, above–a hitter who’s undervalued because he’s in a park that suppresses offense. He’s also a two-way player, similar to the Stephen Head discussion in the second part of the preview; he put up a 4.29 ERA in 16 appearances this year and might be able to pull occasional long-relief duty, giving another possible source of value. Finally, how can you possibly ignore someone named Chip Cannon from The Citadel, regardless of how good he is?

I have, of course, not even been able to scratch the surface of the pool of players out there, but hopefully this series will at least give you something of a rooting interest as the draft results come in on Monday.