Kyle Lewis and the Elite Small-Conference Draft Prospect

The amateur draft is just one day away, and it’s still unclear whom the Phillies plan to take first overall. One player who’s vaulted himself into top-five consideration, and might even be in the mix for 1-1, is Kyle Lewis, an outfielder from Mercer University. Lewis’ stat line is about as good you’ll see from a college hitter: .395/.535/.731. But there’s a catch: he’s a product of the Southern Conference, which churns out very few big leaguers and features a rather low level of competition.

Lewis’ competition level makes it a bit difficult to gauge just how good he is, especially from a statistical standpoint. Yes, .395/.535/.731 is a very good stat line, but it isn’t immediately clear how that compares to Corey Ray’s .319/.396/.562 performance in the ACC — a conference that is likely chock-full of future professional ballplayers.

My KATOH projection system isn’t well equipped to evaluate a player like Lewis. KATOH functions by taking a sample of players, looking at the ones who succeeded, and quantifying how statistical components — such as strikeout rate — are predictive of big-league success. However, since few Southern Conference players ever end up in the major leagues, a KATOH-type analysis doesn’t really work here.

Rather than throwing up my hands in surrender, I decided to compile a list of parallels for Lewis. Who were some other college hitters who dominated in relatively obscure conferences? And what became of them?

Considering all players taken within the first 20 picks since 2000, I compiled a list of college hitters who came from lower-tier baseball conferences. “Lower-tier” is a subjective term, but for this purpose, it means any conference that isn’t the SEC, Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, Big West, ACC, MWC, WAC or C-USA. The players in this sample recorded their college numbers in a variety of run-scoring environments and against a variety of competition levels. So don’t take the slash lines too seriously, other than to confirm that these players recorded gaudy numbers as collegiates.

Dominant College Hitters from Small Conferences
Player Year Pick School AVG OBP SLG OPS
Kyle Lewis 2016 ? Mercer University .395 .535 .731 1.266
Bryce Harper 2010 1 College of Southern Nevada .443 .526 .987 1.513
Rickie Weeks 2003 2 Southern University .500 .619 .987 1.606
Nick Markakis 2003 7 Young Harris College ? ? ? ?
Hunter Dozier 2013 8 Stephen F. Austin .396 .482 .755 1.237
Michael Choice 2010 10 University of Texas-Arlington .383 .572 .704 1.276
Cory Spangenberg 2011 10 Indian River CC .477 .553 .659 1.212
Max Pentecost 2014 11 Kennesaw State University .422 .482 .627 1.109
Tim Anderson 2013 17 East Central CC .495 .568 .879 1.447
Brad Snyder 2003 18 Ball State University .405 .522 .770 1.292
Casey Gillaspie 2014 20 Wichita State University .389 .520 .682 1.202
Kolbrin Vitek 2010 20 Ball State University .361 .450 .691 1.141

Right off the bat, it’s obvious that Bryce Harper doesn’t belong here. Although he technically played a year of college ball, he did so as a 17-year-old in order to enter the draft as early as possible. Let’s take him out. It probably also makes sense to remove the recent draftees who are still working their way through the minor leagues. It’s way to soon to know what will become of someone like Tim Anderson. Best I can tell, Nick Markakis‘ 2003 stats from Young Harris have been lost to posterity, so we’ll just have to assume he raked.

Omitting these players, we’re left with this sample:

Dominant College Hitters from Small Conferences
Player Year Pick School AVG OBP SLG OPS
Kyle Lewis 2016 ? Mercer University .395 .535 .731 1.266
Rickie Weeks 2003 2 Southern University .500 .619 .987 1.606
Nick Markakis 2003 7 Young Harris College ? ? ? ?
Cory Spangenberg 2011 10 Indian River State College .477 .553 .659 1.212
Brad Snyder 2003 18 Ball State University .405 .522 .770 1.292
Kolbrin Vitek 2010 20 Ball State University .361 .450 .691 1.141

Our list of parallels is getting really thin really fast. Let’s take them one-by-one.

Rickie Weeks

It feels like ages ago now, but Rickie Weeks was very much a blue-chip prospect back in the day. Weeks hit a slick .500/.619/.987 in his junior season on a Southern University team that featured only two future big leaguers: Weeks and forgettable reliever Dewon Day. Although he didn’t come from a traditional baseball school, the Brewers nabbed him with the second overall pick in 2003.

Weeks reached the big leagues that September, but wasn’t up for good until his age-22 season in 2005. All in all, Weeks has produced a solid — albeit somewhat injury prone — career. He was an above-average hitter for several years, and peaked as a 126 wRC+ hitter from ages 26 through 28. His offensive peak was borderline great for a second baseman, which helped him rack up over 16 WAR before he eclipsed six years of service time. That’s significantly more than the typical second overall pick.

*****

Nick Markakis

When the Orioles took Markakis seventh overall in 2003, he became only the ninth player — and first eventual big leaguer — to be drafted from Young Harris College. Although he was just 19 when he was selected, Markakis moved quickly through the Orioles’ system. In two-plus years in the minors, he hit over.300 and added more power each year. He broke camp with the Orioles in 2006 as a 22-year-old.

Markakis had a fine career. He posted a 116 wRC+ over his first six seasons, and racked up 10 wins between 2007 and 2008. Markakis made lots of contact and also hit for power, which made him one of the better hitters in the game for a good stretch. He accumulated 18 wins before he eclipsed six years of service time, even more than Weeks.

*****

Michael Choice

Choice slashed .383/.572/.704 in 2010, and led the Southern Conference in OPS by nearly 100 points. The Oakland Athletics drafted him 10th overall, and he immediately began to rake in the minors as well. He hit .284/.388/.627 in short-season A-Ball after he was drafted and followed it up with a .285/.376/.542, 30-homer showing at the High-A level in 2011. Choice had a major flaw, though: he was striking out in well over 20% of his trips to the plate.

Choice never quite figured out how to make consistent contact, and his power fizzled in the high minors. Together, those weaknesses have rendered him a Quad-A player to this point. He’s had some decent stretches in Triple-A, but has hit just .188/.253/.320 in the big leagues. Choice has -2.4 WAR to his name, and considering he’s already 26, that number is probably close to final.

*****

Cory Spangenberg

Spangenberg came from perhaps the most obscure school of any of the comps: Indian River Community College. Spangenberg was a singles machine at Indian River, hitting .477/.553/.659. The Padres liked Spangenberg enough to take him 10th overall in 2011. Spangenberg picked up right where he left off in pro ball by hitting .384/.545/.535 in short-season A-Ball.

Spangenberg’s numbers atrophied as he climbed the minor-league ladder, but he still had a fine rookie season with the Padres last year. He finished up with a 105 wRC+ and over two wins in just 108 games. The book obviously isn’t closed on the 25-year-old yet, but it appears he’ll be a solid but unspectacular regular.

*****

Brad Snyder

Snyder tormented the pitchers of the Mid-American Conference in 2003 to the tune of .405/.522/.770, which prompted the Royals to take him 18th overall in 2003. Snyder’s dominance didn’t really carry over into pro ball. He hit well at every minor-league stop, but was held back by strikeout rates in excess of 25%. He consistently posted OPSs around .800 and settled in as a Triple-A regular at age 25. In 30 big-league games, he hit .167/.225/.288 with a 39% strikeout rate. Snyder was essentially a less powerful Michael Choice.

*****

Kolbrin Vitek

Vitek came from the same school as Brad Snyder, Ball State University. Vitek slashed .361/.450/.691 as a junior, but posted even better numbers in his sophomore season, recording a line of .389/.473/.736. The Red Sox took him 20th overall and immediately placed him in short-season A-Ball. He hit an encouraging .270/.360/.422, but did so with an unsightly 26% strikeout rate. As he climbed the minor-league ladder, Vitek’s power deteriorated and his strikeout rate grew. He retired at age 24 after failing to hit at all in two injury-plagued seasons at Double-A.

*****

Within this sample of six, we have two successes (Weeks and Markakis), three failures (Choice, Snyder and Vitek) and probably one quasi-success (Spangenberg). Weeks and Markakis show us that competition level isn’t everything, but Choice et al. demonstrate how gaudy college numbers don’t always translate to professional ball. With such a teeny-tiny sample of players, we really can’t draw a conclusion any more definitive than that.

But within this teeny-tiny sample, there’s an interesting trend that merits some consideration. If you look at the players who flopped — Choice, Snyder and Vitek — all of them had one thing in common: they all had trouble making contact. And if we look a bit more closely at their college stats, they had trouble making contact there, too.

College Strikeout Rates for Kyle Lewis Comparables
Player College K% First 6 Years WAR
Kyle Lewis 16% ?
Rickie Weeks 8% 16.2
Michael Choice 19% -2.3
Brad Snyder 18% -0.3
Kolbrin Vitek 13% 0.0

Weeks struck out in just 8% of his trips to the plate and turned into a fine big leaguer. Snyder and Choice were pushing 20% and turned into Quad-A players. I wasn’t able to dig up a strikeout numbers for Spangenberg, but given his 12% strikeout rate at his first stop in pro ball, I imagine he struck out relatively infrequently in college as well. Same goes for Nick Markakis, who has consistently posted better-than-average strikeout rates in his career. Unfortunately for Lewis, he’s closer to Choice territory than Weeks territory.

On its own, this trend means nothing — not among such an irresponsibly small sample of players. But it does jibe with my KATOH research, which reveals that minor-league hitters (especially low-minors hitters) with high strikeout rates are a risky bunch, even if their overall stat lines look good.

If a hitter has a high strikeout rate, it usually means he’s getting fooled; he has some sort of hole in his approach. And if he’s striking out against a low level of competition, odds are it will only be magnified against more advanced pitching. Better pitchers are better at exploiting weaknesses and also less likely to serve up mistake pitches. This explains why high-strikeout sluggers like Jon Singleton, Jabari Blash and Mike Hessman (and Michael Choice and Brad Snyder!) can succeed against Triple-A pitching but then look completely overmatched in the majors.

None of this is to say that Lewis won’t pan out. Scouting the stat line is always dangerous. It’s even more dangerous than usual at the college level, where the samples are small, the players are raw, and the quality of opposing pitching runs the gamut. Most scouts seem to be on board with Lewis despite his swing-and-miss qualities, so perhaps there’s reason to look past the strikeouts. Young hitters do make adjustments, after all, so it’s certainly possible that he fixes whatever flaw has caused him to strike out 16% of the time in a lower-tier conference.

Still, given the stakes associated with an early-round draft pick, teams should be thinking long and hard about Lewis’ strikeout woes, especially in light his competition level. Hitters who have trouble making contact against weak competition often don’t see their performances translate to the big leagues. The brief history of first-round college hitters from lower-tier conferences neatly highlights this phenomenon.





Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Rational Fan
Member

I always love guys like Kyle Lewis come draft time. To go undrafted out of high school and then turn yourself into a top 3 prospect in the draft is a rare and remarkable feat. I don’t know how his game will transition to the next level with the quality of pitching jump he will see – a jump bigger than any other college player being looked at early – but I can’t help but to root for the kid.

The difference between Lewis and say someone like Tim Anderson is Anderson didn’t really even play baseball until half way through his high school career. I like the Weeks comparison, but Weeks was drafted out of high school unlike Lewis.

What makes Lewis so unique is he was a decent high school prospect – I believe a perfect game participant – and he was a great athlete. No one even took a flyer on him out of high school, and his Mercer decision wasn’t as much of a choice as Weeks school of choice.

Baseball is the most unique sport in the world because it’s the one sport in which you can peak at so many different ages despite your physical tools. Some guys are at their best at 15 years old, others 25, and others like Josh Donaldson may not figure it out until they are nearly 30 years old.

Lewis will be a fun kid to root for; how many kids go undrafted (are not even on draft boards) out of high school only to become top 3 picks out of college? It can not be many.

buctober
Member
buctober

While not being a top 3 pick, Ian Happ went undrafted out of high school and ultimately ended up being a top 10 pick out of Cincy

Rational Fan
Member

Happ an interesting pass too given that his high school had produced a couple of MLB draft picks in the past.

buctober
Member
buctober

Thats true. The most recent being Jordan Steranka (21st round for the Pirates in 2012) and the most successful being Donnie Kelley.

I got a chance to watch Happ play during high school many times and It still amazes me he went undrafted then.

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

Lewis was really raw coming out of high school, and he didn’t really commit to baseball until his senior year. Before that he was primarily a basketball player.

Rational Fan
Member

I could have sworn I read he was a 4 year varsity player. Doesn’t mean he was fully committed, but I remember reading he played baseball all four years in high school.