Demography of the Good Player, Part III: College Conferences

What follows represents the third in a three-part series devoted to producing and analyzing objective demographic data regarding those players who’ve become good major leaguers. Last Wednesday, I considered good players by their amateur origins — i.e. whether they were signed to professional contracts out of college, junior college, etc. On Friday, I examined good players by draft round. In this installment, I look at good players by the conferences in which they played as collegiate athletes (which obviously excludes international, prep, and junior-college players).

The work here is an extension of Jeff Sullivan’s recent attempt to answer a question notable both for its simplicity and importance. The question: how many good players were good prospects?

Sullivan found that about a third of good players weren’t good prospects — or, at least, about a third of them never appeared on Baseball America’s annual top-100 prospect list. They weren’t all non-prospects, of course, but a sufficient enough percentage of top-100 prospects fail such that, for a rookie-eligible player to expressly not appear among that group immediately renders his chances of succeeding in the majors pretty low.

I’ve used a similar methodology as Sullivan did in terms of defining certain terms. A “good” player is any one who produced 3.0 WAR or greater in a particular season. For pitcher WAR I’ve used a 50-50 split between the FIP and runs-allowed iterations of WAR. Where Sullivan used three years’ worth of data, I’ve used five, hoping that the larger sample might be of some benefit.

Also note that, with a view to creating a larger sample, hat I’ve used player-seasons and not merely individual players. So, for example, Dustin Pedroia produced five “good” seasons between 2010 and -14. Therefore, he’s counted five times. I was originally concerned that the difference in results might be dramatic between player-seasons and mere players. In fact, the relationship is rather regular: among batters and pitchers, among college and prep players, the average good player produced nearly (but not quite) two good seasons.

Good Players by College Conference
Between 2010 and -14, there were 630 individual player-seasons (produced by 326 individual players) of 3.0 WAR or greater. Of those, 205 player-seasons (or almost exactly 33%) were produced by players who were drafted and signed out of a four-year college.

Part of the second installment in this series was dedicated to examining the rounds in which those college players were drafted. Here, we’ll look instead at the athletic conferences from which they came.

Note that, in every case, I’ve used the conference to which the relevant player’s school belonged at the time of the relevant draft. So, for example, the University of Nebraska is currently a member of the Big 10 Conference; however, they belonged to the Big 12 in 2005, in which year Alex Gordon was selected second overall by Kansas City. As a result, I’ve counted Nebraska as a Big 12 school for the purposes of this exercise.

Of the 205 “good” player-seasons recorded by products of four-year colleges between 2010 and -14, batters (as opposed to pitchers) were responsible for 128 (or 62%) of them. Below is a bar graph depicting conferences whose former players have produced more than 5% of all good seasons produced by former college hitters over the last five years.

Good Batters by College Conference 2

By this methodology, the Pac-12 has been responsible for the greatest number of recent good batter seasons — followed closely by the ACC. The former has produced two of the very few players to post at least a three-win season in each of the last five years: Dustin Pedroia (Arizona State) and Chase Utley (UCLA). Nor are they the only notable second baseman to come out of the conference: Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis is also a product of ASU. (As is Ian Kinsler. Sort of. He attended ASU before transferring to Missouri because he was blocked at shortstop by Pedroia.)

It might be leaping to a conclusion to suggest that the Pac-12 Second Baseman is a “type.” That said, none of the four mentioned above ever appeared among the top-50 prospects on Baseball America’s annual list and yet all four have proceeded to produce wins commensurate with a much more celebrated prospect.

Another note: since the respective draft years of both Cliff Pennington (Texas A&M) and Ian Kinsler (Missouri), the SEC has absorbed their alma maters from the Big 12. Were one to credit the SEC with the pair’s five “good” seasons — and likewise subtract them from the Big 12 — the former conference would rival both the Pac-12 and ACC atop the bar graph pictured here.

Of the 205 “good” player-seasons recorded by products of four-year colleges between 2010 and -14, pitchers were responsible for 77 (or 38%) of them. Below is a bar graph depicting conferences whose former players have produced more than 5% of all good seasons produced by former college pitchers over the last five years.

Good Pitchers by College Conference 2

The domination by the SEC in this regard is striking. Of the 77 good seasons produced by former college pitchers over the last five years, products of the SEC are responsible for nearly a quarter of them — and roughly 2.5 times the figure produced by the next best conference. R.A. Dickey, Tim Hudson, Cliff Lee, David Price: all four have produced multiple three-win seasons over the past half-decade. Notably, three of those four have found success by largely unpredictable means. Dickey’s first good season came at age 35, only after he’d transformed himself into a knuckleballer. Tim Hudson was an athletic but undersized sixth-round pick. Cliff Lee only became Cliff Leeā„¢ after developing otherworldly command somehow between the 2007 and 08 seasons. And this was anomalous given his record. To wit: as a junior at Arkansas (his last and only year at the school), he posted a 7.2 walk rate per nine innings.

Finally, here are five conferences responsible for 5% or more of the good seasons produced by all former college players over the last five years:

All Good Players by College Conference 2

Unmentioned above is the relative success of the Big West in terms of producing successful major-league talent. Perhaps more appropriate is to cite the relative success of Long Beach State, in particular. Of the 17 good seasons recorded by former members of the Big West, 13 of those seasons belong to Long Beach State alumni. Since 2004, the school has produced four players to record multiple good seasons: Jered Weaver (a member of the 2004 draft), Troy Tulowitzki (2005), Evan Longoria (2006), and Danny Espinosa (2008).

We hoped you liked reading Demography of the Good Player, Part III: College Conferences by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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It’s probably not ideal for college baseball or even baseball in general that it’s so obvious that large heavily populated areas of the country still can’t meaningfully compete due to the timing the season.