Kris Bryant and the MLB Careers of College’s Best Player

Cubs third-base prospect Kris Bryant produced one of the top minor-league seasons in recent history last year, recording a weighted batting line approximately 90% better than league average over 594 plate appearances between Double- and Triple-A while also playing a seemingly competent third base. Were minor-league WAR a thing, Bryant would have recorded the best one of those in all of affiliated baseball — roughly the equivalent of nine wins.

Largely as a result of that wildly successful 2014 season, Bryant enters 2015 featuring the top WAR projection among all rookie-eligible players — and one of the top WAR projections realistically possible for a player who’s made zero major-league appearances. His performance over the first couple weeks of spring training indicates — to the degree that spring-training performance can indicate such things — that he’s, at the very least, unlikely to be overwhelmed by major-league pitching.

Before Kris Bryant led all the minors in home runs, he led all the NCAA in home runs, too. In 2013, as a junior at the University of San Diego, Bryant hit 31 homers. That June, he was selected second overall in the draft by the Cubs. The next month, he was presented with the Golden Spikes Award.

Technically, the Golden Spikes Award is presented each year to the best amateur player in the country. In practice, however, the award has been given to a college player (either the four-year or junior-college variety) every year since its inception in 1978. Bob Horner was the Golden Spikes recipient that year following his junior campaign at Arizona State — a performance which convinced Atlanta not only to select him first overall in the draft that year, but also to send him directly to the majors, where he produced a 2.3 WAR in 359 plate appearances.

Horner proceeded to navigate a combination of owner collusion and injury en route to roughly 20 career wins before retiring after his age-30 season. And, indeed, a number of other Golden Spikes winners have made substantial contributions at the major-league level. What this post endeavors to examine is what the country’s best college player has typically become as a professional — and to make some guesses as to what this might tell us about Kris Bryant’s future (and/or A.J. Reed’s, too, who won the award last year with the University of Kentucky and is now a member of the Houston system).

To begin, I found the career major-league WAR totals for all the players (including Bob Horner) since 1978 who’ve won the Golden Spikes award, also making note of the round in which each was drafted and also the overall pick number.

Here are the results of that inquiry, including only those players who’ve retired — so as not to distort the average and median figures, that is, by including those players (like Bryce Harper and Mike Zunino, for example) who’re only at the beginning of their respective careers. Players marked by an asterisk won the award in a different year than the one in which they were drafted.

# Player School Year Pos Round Pick WAR
1 Robin Ventura Oklahoma St. 1988 3B 1 10 56.8
2 Will Clark Mississippi St. 1985 1B 1 2 52.0
3 J.D. Drew* Florida St. 1997 OF 1 5 44.9
4 Tim Wallach Cal St. Fullerton 1979 3B 1 10 37.6
5 Alex Fernandez Miami-Dade CC 1990 RHP 1 4 27.2
6 Dave Magadan Alabama 1983 3B 2 32 25.6
7 Jason Varitek Georgia Tech 1994 C 1 14 24.3
8 Jim Abbott* Michigan 1987 LHP 1 8 21.6
9 Ben McDonald Louisiana St. 1989 RHP 1 1 20.7
10 Mark Kotsay* Cal St. Fullerton 1995 OF 1 9 19.9
11 Bob Horner Arizona St. 1978 3B 1 1 19.5
12 Pat Burrell Univ. of Miami 1998 3B 1 1 18.3
13 Mark Prior USC 2001 RHP 1 2 15.4
14 Phil Nevin Cal St. Fullerton 1992 3B 1 1 15.1
15 Jason Jennings Baylor 1999 RHP 1 16 14.2
16 Darren Dreifort Wichita St. 1993 RHP 1 2 9.6
17 Oddibe McDowell Arizona St. 1984 OF 1 12 9.2
18 Khalil Greene Clemson 2002 SS 1 13 7.8
19 Travis Lee San Diego St. 1996 1B 1 2 7.1
20 Mike Kelly Arizona St. 1991 OF 1 2 0.7
21 Mike Loynd Florida St. 1986 RHP 7 163 0.3
22 Mike Fuentes Florida St. 1981 OF 2 44 0.1
23 Terry Francona Arizona 1980 1B 1 22 -1.7
24 Augie Schmidt New Orleans 1982 SS 1 2 DNP
25 Kip Bouknight* So. Carolina 2000 RHP 13 394 DNP
Average 1.8 30.9 17.8^
Median 1 8 15.4

^Players without major-league experience counted as zero.

Of the 25 players to win the Golden Spikes Award from 1978 to 2002, 21 of them (or, 84%) were selected in the first round of the amateur draft, with two more going in the second round. Only two players were taken outside of that range: pitchers Kip Bouknight* (13th round) and Mike Loynd (7th). Notably, both remained at their respective universities through their senior seasons, suggesting that neither was considered a top prospect. (And those two ultimately produced two of the lesser careers among former Golden Spikes winners.) Overall, the median draft selection (8th overall) among the sample reveals that the best collegiate ballplayer has generally been regarded as a strong candidate for future major-league success.

Of those same 25 players, 23 of them (or, 92%) proceeded to record some kind of major-league service time. The two players who failed to do so? The aforementioned Bouknight and also shortstop Augie Schmidt. Bouknight’s trajectory isn’t particularly surprising: he was a right-hander who sat at just 84-86 mph — a profile, that, shared by few pitchers at the major-league level. The case of Augie Schmidt is a more curious one, however. Selected in the ninth round out of high school by the Reds, Schmidt opted instead to attend college at the University of New Orleans, at which school he produced excellent numbers. Following his junior season at New Orleans, he was drafted once again — this time second overall by the Blue Jays, just behind Shawon Dunston. His transition to the professional game wasn’t particularly smooth, it seems, and he never appeared above Triple-A. As I say, though, the best collegiate player — historically, at least — has been a virtual certainty to find his way to the majors.

How has he performed once graduating to the major leagues? Generally speaking, pretty well. The 25 former Golden Spikes winners whose playing careers are complete have produced a median figure of about 15 WAR, with Robin Ventura recording the highest such mark among Golden Spikes winners at 56.8 WAR. It’s important to note that Ventura’s distinction — that is, the highest career WAR figure produced by a player previously regarded as the nation’s best collegiate player — is a different thing than the highest career WAR figure among all players drafted and signed out of college. Barry Bonds attended Arizona State, for example, and was selected sixth overall in the 1985 draft — four spots after Golden Spikes winner Will Clark in that same year. He more than double Clark’s career WAR total, however.

I mention above that, in examining the outcomes of former Golden Spikes winners, I considered only those players whose professional careers had run their course, the idea being to eliminate the distortive influence of those players who’ve made their debuts only just recently. What one finds, however, is that the current crop of former top collegiates has actually been more successful than the historical one.

Regard:

# Player School Year Pos Round Pick WAR
1 Jered Weaver Long Beach St. 2004 RHP 1 12 31.7
2 Tim Lincecum Washington 2006 RHP 1 10 27.4
3 Alex Gordon Nebraska 2005 3B 1 2 26.8
4 David Price Vanderbilt 2007 LHP 1 1 24.9
5 Buster Posey Florida St. 2008 C 1 5 23.5
6 Rickie Weeks Southern 2003 2B 1 2 18.0
7 Stephen Strasburg San Diego St. 2009 RHP 1 1 15.2
8 Bryce Harper College of So. Nevada 2010 C/OF 1 1 9.5
9 Mike Zunino Florida 2012 C 1 3 1.7
10 Trevor Bauer UCLA 2011 RHP 1 3 1.0
Average 1 4 18.0
Median 1 2.5 20.8

This list includes the top collegiate players from 2003 to -12, all of whom are currently active major leaguers. And despite the fact that this group is very likely to compile more wins before they’ve all retired, what one finds is that the median WAR figure among this sample is actually higher by about five wins than among the group above who’ve already finished their respective major-league careers. One also notes that no player in this group was selected later than 12th overall in his respective draft year — and that, collectively, they were selected five to six spots earlier than the retired Golden Spikes winners.

What might explain the differences between the major-league success of Golden Spikes winners of past and present? There are a number of possible explanations. It’s possible, for example, that the pool of talent in the college game has improved over the years. It’s also possible that the voting committee for the award has improved at identifying talent — or, perhaps, put a greater emphasis (consciously or not) on recognizing players who have the sort of talent that might translate well to the professional game. Randomness is a third, but no less distinct, possible explanation.

In any case, what one finds in this second list is a group of players who might be regarded as Kris Bryant’s peers. The PECOTA and ZiPS projection systems utilize comparable players to the end of producing forecasts for any one player’s current season, under the (probably correct) assumption that similar statistical profiles at similar ages will also yield similar statistical profiles at future ages. Here we find essentially another, definitely cruder method of compiling a list of comparables — in this case, those players who were recognized for their performance in college. The current, still active crop of former top collegiates has produced a median figure of about 20 WAR, and still climbing. That’s one, not entirely random, projection for Bryant’s career at this point.





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

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Ryan
Guest
Ryan

I’d be interested to see the comparison of golden spikes winners to others selected at the same draft spot. All else being equal, are teams over-valuing the impact of a dominant college season when it comes time to make a draft selection?

troybruno
Member
Member
troybruno

That’s a crazy suggestion – a median ~15-20 WAR career value would be good for any draft position but #1 overall. And according to a BA study on 1989-2008, the #1 position median was 21.5 WAR – so statistically similar to these.

If anything, this suggests that being the top college player is met with some level of skepticism.