It’s not a secret that baseball at every level is being changed by the information gleaned from advanced tech like TrackMan, StatCast, and about a dozen other platforms. There are examples of changes in swing plane, pitch grips, sequencing, and location from every team in the big leagues derived purely from this data. It’s also generally known that this progressive approach has reached into the minor leagues for many teams and is also spreading to amateur baseball. Because the pitching end of this march began early (PITCHf/x came about nearly a decade before we heard the term exit velo), progressive hitting knowledge has lagged years behind pitching, and now the fact that colleges haven’t fully embraced it is affecting the draft and what kind of talent gets to campus.
Eric and I have spoken with numerous scouts in recent weeks about a topic that came up innocently in our draft prep but that, when we dug deeper, appears to be indicative of a larger trend in the game. There are an unusual amount of high school position player prospects who are signable in the $250,000 to $500,000 bonus range. One crosschecker said his region normally has at most one prospect per year of this sort, and this year there are at least seven. Every other regional or national scout we’ve asked has confirmed that they’ve noticed the same thing, but none had a ready-made explanation for why it is happening. We put together a hypothesis, and got universal agreement that we were onto something.
Colleges Coach Hitters for College
Many, if not most, top collegiate hitting prospects need a substantive swing change right after they’re drafted to match what’s going on in pro ball. Last year South Alabama’s Travis Swaggerty (reduce effort/movement) and Wichita State’s Alec Bohm (extend arms/increase loft), our fourth and fifth prospects in the draft, most needed to modernize their swings. This year our 12th and 26th prospects, Texas Tech’s Josh Jung (more pull/lift/loft) and Missouri’s Kameron Misner (eliminate toe tap/improve timing), are the two prospects in greatest need of a swing change. It’s not every player, and some prospects I haven’t mentioned need less obvious adjustments, but this is also choosing from a group of the most elite tools and performances in the country.
You may ask why collegiate hitting coaches aren’t addressing these issues. A more fully actualized and pro version of these hitters would surely help their college team in the short term, right? Not necessarily. BABIPs are much higher in college because of the lower skill level, particularly on defense. It’s common for some top programs (especially on the west coast) to have middle-of-the-order batters bunt early in games, and since those bunts result in errors much more often in college, it’s a better strategic play than it is in the majors. An opposite field, line drive, and grounders approach also results in more hits than it would in pro ball while a groundball, at any level of baseball, is more likely to result in a hit than a fly ball.
That brings us to the other issue with the question in the last paragraph: colleges don’t have hitting coaches. They have a head coach, a pitching coach, and a recruiting coordinator/assistant coach, as well as a volunteer assistant, because schools recently voted down making that fourth coach full-time. Usually two of those three non-pitching coaches have some background in hitting and fill the roll of a hitting coach, but it largely doesn’t get the personalized attention that pitching does. If you’re doing another job while also running point on the hitters, and half of your hitters don’t have the power to turn enough fly balls into homers anyway, it’s easy to teach the whole team the same swing that emphasizes grounders, especially when many winning college programs do exactly that.
On top of this, you only have your good hitters for three years, and a swing overhaul may make them ineffective for at least one of those. You may be on a one- or two-year deal as a head coach; would you rather have one of your most talented hitters out of commission or contributing to getting you another mid-six-figure contract, which is based almost entirely on your record? That choice doesn’t come with quite the same moral hazard of deciding whether to use your pitchers in an abusive manner in the postseason, but often doesn’t result in pro-ready bats, either.
Some schools have seen the light on this. Vanderbilt is generally seen as the top program in college baseball across the board, and Dallas Baptist is often pointed to as one of the most progressive. Both do a good job using methods that would make the Astros proud: shifting, building velo with four-seamers and overhand curveballs, encouraging power hitters to let it rip. Vanderbilt is tougher to evaluate; since they are annually the most talented team in the country, so it’s hard to tell how much development is happening. Dallas Baptist gets more mid-tier recruits and is known for a pitching staff that almost exclusively can reach the mid-90s with a lineup that tries to elevate and celebrate.
Dallas Baptist’s former pitching coach, Wes Johnson, got poached by Arkansas for a big raise, and then poached again by the Minnesota Twins last winter to be their big league pitching coach. Last winter, when the Phillies went looking for a progressive hitting coordinator to overhaul their player development, they hired Jason Ochart from Driveline, an independent training company from Kent, WA.
When I asked scouts which college programs developed hitters the best, the most common answer was laughter, but when forced to answer, many still stumbled and refused to confidently name even one program. One scout mentioned Virginia and before I could jump in, he qualified it by saying they’re very good at developing the kind of hitters they want (often bunting, low launch angle, opposite field, contact-oriented, etc.), which is also the opposite of what many of their top hitters should be doing in pro ball. Stanford has changed their staff and ditched the Stanford Swing, but the west coast power programs still mostly preach a version of what Virginia teaches and have generally succeeded for years in terms of wins and losses.
Long Beach State is responsible for two of the most recent out of nowhere prospect rises (Matt Duffy and Jarren Duran) because the program so effectively neutered their offensive potential in college. Some programs are well-known for doing this, and have talented alums in pro ball who never make the big leagues primarily because they can’t break their college habits. Prospects and advisers have largely figured this out, and steer top prospects away from bad situations.
I don’t have any inside info on the Phillies search for a progressive-minded hitting coordinator, but is it any surprise they didn’t poach a hitting guru from a college? Not only would they need to double the salary of that job to compete with top colleges, scouts I spoke with couldn’t even come up with one name to interview for that role. That doesn’t mean that person doesn’t exist, but they’re likely at the mid or lower tier colleges, where they’ll need to jump from there to pro ball or have immediate success with that approach when they get a major college job.
Scouts commented that the mid-level pitching class signability hasn’t changed; there are college programs known for innovation on that front, largely because the incentives are in place to develop pitchers more like pro teams do. At the SEC tournament last week, I noticed both Arkansas and Vanderbilt had changed the arm slots of multiple pitchers to have near overhand slots that more easily produce true backspin four-seam fastballs and larger-breaking curveballs. These scouts also speculated that signability issues could develop with pitching prospects in a couple years when most pro organizations have institutionalized this sort of thing at every level and only a handful of college programs have done it.
College Isn’t An Attractive Path For Elite Prep Hitters
Part of our explanation for why prep hitting prospects are making themselves more signable than their peers traditionally have been is that colleges aren’t properly coaching them for their pro career. Beyond that, the typical top college program, even if it did feature coaching akin to progressive pro organization’s, offers a worse path for these kids.
First of all, almost any pro contract with a six figure bonus includes provisions that the entirety of your education be paid for after you retire, even at pricey institutions like Vanderbilt. There are almost no collegiate prospects who are on 100% athletic scholarships, as each school has 11.7 scholarships for 27 players with a 25% minimum for each player. Even with additional, non-athletic scholarships, players rarely get to 100%. In addition to not getting paid to play baseball and actually going out of pocket, players get less individual instruction, a lower quality of instruction, and fewer practice reps. Players have to go to class; the nutrition/training is often good but doesn’t match a professional level. They may not even play for long stretches of their three years, and if the coach gets fired, they could be forced to transfer to an even worse environment. On top of all that, players often need a swing change in pro ball, and are delaying the potential riches of free agency by at least two more years.
When asking scouts specifics about this group of signable prospects, they were loathe to give up too much for a number of reasons. They conceded that most of them are on THE BOARD but noted that some aren’t, and none of them are being pursued by all 30 teams. It’s typical that a prep player who signs for $300,000 isn’t a target for nearly half of pro clubs, because those clubs deem him unsignable for what they think he’s worth (say $100,000 or so). What the scouts would say is that these players don’t have much in common. They aren’t generally represented by smaller agencies (possibly receiving bad advice to create cash flow for the agency), or from less affluent families, or committed to lower tier college programs. Most of them just want to start their pro career, and some are active on social media, where they can easily confirm the gap between college and pro coaching based on what their older friends are sharing.
With one of the more selective prospects making proactive choices in his best interest, we’re also hearing about savvy advisers helping prospects set signability differently. If an adviser represents a players who is receiving interest from those organizations deemed to be the best at hitting development and those deemed to be the worst, we know of a few prospects who are quoting different bonus demands to different clubs to maximize their draft day outcome. We mentioned on a recent podcast how potential international draft rules could possibly force those prospects to also employ this strategy, but international amateur prospects may follow the lead and start doing so before a draft further incentivizes them to take their careers into their own hands. If these prospects can tell colleges that they aren’t interested in what they have to offer, they can essentially force pro clubs to either modernize their player development process, or face getting access to lesser talent. With more prep hitters eschewing college for the benefits of pro instruction, it’ll be interesting to see if college programs face a similar pressure to embrace progressive approaches.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.