Junior Colleges Have Become Scouting’s Most Active Battleground

You’ve visited this website and clicked on this article, so chances are, you’re not only familiar with new forms of baseball data, but with the impact that data has had on various branches of the game, including and especially scouting. Kiley and I have each written about some of the ways that new data and technology are transforming player evaluation, but all you really need to know for the purposes of this article is that these developments have funneled in-person scouting resources down to lower levels of baseball, both amateur and professional.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the majors and the upper levels of the minors (Double- and Triple-A) are more stable competitive environments, and thus teams are more comfortable with statistical performance accumulated at those tiers of play. Individuals who reach those heights almost always have sufficient talent, technical proficiency, or some combination of the two, to play competitive baseball there, whereas the on-field competency of lower-level pro baseball talent (think teenagers in the DSL, AZL, Pioneer League, etc.) is more variable player to player.

As a result, statistical performance is much more reliable the further up the pro ladder a player climbs, allowing teams to more confidently incorporate it into their player evaluations. This, combined with the proliferation of TrackMan and Statcast metrics in pro baseball (almost every minor league park in the country has a TrackMan unit now), means that a growing number of teams feel that they have a firm grasp on upper-level players even if those players are not seen as much by scouts, and some organizations have even begun to de-emphasize in-person scouting at these levels. This frees up scouts to sift through the growing bodies and developing athletes at the lower levels, where statistical performance is almost meaningless.

A similar phenomenon is occurring on the amateur side of scouting. A growing number of Division I teams have installed or are installing TrackMan units. Major league teams pay the vendor to have access to the huge bucket of data collected at these universities (the colleges can opt into a data sharing program, but that’s another article) and use that data in draft evaluations. The same principle of statistical reliability outlined above applies to amateur baseball. Teams are more confident in, say, the statistical performance of a hitter in a top-tier conference like the SEC or ACC than they would be if the same hitter were crushing the Patriot League. And so, because most of the schools installing TrackMen (TrackMans? TracksMan?) are also the tier-one colleges where teams care more about performance, scout allocation has shifted downward to smaller schools and, more proactively, to junior colleges.

Perhaps nowhere on the amateur circuit are scouts more important right now than at the junior college level, where players are draft-eligible as still-developing, 18- and 19-year-old freshman. Not only do variable JuCo talent levels cause a lot of statistical noise, but play there comes with all sorts of other weird quirks. For example, Rangers prospect Willie Calhoun slugged .952 as a sophomore at Yavapai JC. But Prescott, AZ, where Yavapai is located, is more than a mile above sea level, its right field fence is only about 300 feet down the line, and the Roughriders sometimes play at a local high school field with superior drainage if it rains. Eye-popping performances like Calhoun’s may cause teams to flag a player and ask that he be seen more, but it’s useless to compare that performance to a hitter at Duke or Wichita State.

Scouts are also best equipped to monitor the constant talent osmosis and diffusion that occurs at junior colleges. Division I transfer rules force a player to sit out a year if he wants to go from one D-I school to another, but that same player could transfer to a junior college and not only play right away but also be immediately draft-eligible. As a result, new faces are constantly shuttling to and fro, sometimes just before the season starts, or even after it has, and it’s easy for talent to slip through the cracks if a scout isn’t paying close attention to their area’s junior colleges. JuCo transfers often change schools because they weren’t playing or weren’t going to play at their original college, which means they weren’t seen much the year before. As a result, the gap between what the industry knows about them when the JuCo season begins in January and what it needs to know about them by the draft in June is often larger than it is for eligible Division I players who have been playing and accumulating more reliable statistics for multiple years.

Increasingly — and this is where things get really interesting and are changing very rapidly — junior colleges are also becoming the inflection point for most of modern player evaluation and development. The rate at which talent comes and goes at JuCos means that coaches have more roster turnover and need to work harder to recruit talent; in many cases, they’re more open to trying new things as a way of separating their school from others. For instance, Central Arizona College has been willing to allow their players to continue with or adopt weighted ball programs if the player wants. I’ve seen the Vaqueros scrimmage against mighty Arizona State, which has been late to this particular party and didn’t even have a pitching coach two seasons ago, and carve them up because all of the CAC pitchers were throwing harder than every pitcher ASU put on the mound that day.

Central Arizona also recently had a TrackMan unit installed (ASU had one put in last season, while for-profit Phoenix college Grand Canyon University still does not have one), but area scouts and people around baseball have indicated to FanGraphs that unlike the aforementioned process of data sharing at the Division I level, individual it seems MLB teams can pay for TrackMan installation at junior colleges and have exclusive access to the data captured by that unit. We only know of two JuCos that currently have TrackMan units (Central Arizona and Chipola JC in Florida), but while we have an inkling of the teams responsible for their installation, those clubs and these schools will not confirm. It takes the right confluence of variables to merit installation at a junior college — the facility must be able to accommodate the piece of technology, and enough talent needs to come through to justify the installation cost — and it’s unlikely that enough facilities exist for all 30 teams to find a fit, so teams may be racing to install a unit somewhere before viable partnerships run out.

Finally, let’s look at some relevant junior college prospects who are on our draft radar based on early-season performance. These are in no particular order, and this is in no way a comprehensive list of relevant JuCo prospects. They’re just names I have early notes on.

Jackson Rutledge, RHP, San Jacinto College (TX)
When I saw Rutledge in high school, he was 88-92, touching 93. He went to Arkansas, got much bigger and stronger, and his velo spiked into the upper-90s out of the Razorbacks’ bullpen. He has maintained that heat for multiple innings (mostly 94-97, touching 99) as a starter at San Jac, and both of his breaking balls are flashing plus. His stuff looks an awful lot like Nate Pearson’s did during his draft year, and Rutledge is firmly in the first round picture already.

San Jac has several other notable names. Andrew Papantonis was an explosive but raw two-sport high schooler who was more or less undraftable out of high school because he suffered several severe injuries playing football. He barely played as a freshman at Virginia, then transferred to San Jac. He lacks a clear position, but has power and pedigree. Infielder Camryn Williams, who transferred from Dallas Baptist, has similar skills. I liked infielder Adisyn Coffey’s bat in high school (I both thought that he could hit and enjoyed his actual bat, which looks like those creme-filled wafers that go well with a literal cup of coffee) and was excited to see him at Arizona State, but like many others, he has transferred away from ASU. Left-hander Luke Little has rare lefty velo, while southpaw Mitchell Parker is still the same 87-88 he was in high school but has a good curveball.

Jonathan Stroman, RHP, Central Arizona
Central has a lot of interesting talent this year. Stroman has been 90-93 and flashes a plus breaking ball. Left-hander Lucas Knowles has been 88-91 with fringe secondaries, but he goes right at hitters. Clayton Keyes is an interesting power projection outfield bat.

Carter Stewart, RHP, East Florida State College (FL)
Last year’s unsigned Braves first rounder, Stewart has filled out a bit and has been 92-94, up to 96, with a plus-plus curveball. At its best last year, his fastball was a little bit harder than that, but this current velo is fine. The delivery is not great and there’s no clear third pitch yet (and there may not be until he gets to pro ball), but Stewart has mostly held serve as a mid first round prospect.

Drew Hill, RHP, South Mountain CC (AZ)
Hill has been into the mid-90s at times and his breaking ball was consistently plus when I saw him a few weekends ago. His fastball was only 90-93 in my look and was pretty hittable, but he can really spin that slider, so I believe teams will be interested.

Thomas Farr, RHP, Northwest Florida State (FL)
Farr had a velocity spike throughout last year and was into the mid-90s last fall. He’s been in the 92-95, touching 97 range already this year, with secondary pitches (a curveball in the 78-81 range and a mid-80s changeup) closer to average.

Steven Rivas, OF, College of Southern Nevada
Rivas’ bat speed can vary swing-to-swing, but he has good bat control and natural feel for lift.

We hoped you liked reading Junior Colleges Have Become Scouting’s Most Active Battleground by Eric Longenhagen!

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Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Love it, great intel, looking forward to seeing which teams snap up the JUCOs at a higher than usual rate.