The Airtight Case for a Fringe Nats Prospect as Future MVP by Carson Cistulli January 28, 2016 College baseball season begins in roughly a month. For some readers, this is of little consequence. For others — even for those with no particular stake in the competition itself — it’s quite meaningful. In either case, what the college game facilitates is the opportunity to watch actual live baseball over a month before the regular major-league season begins. It also features a number of participants who are likely to appear, one day, in those same major-league games. Because, consider: 19 of the 42 players selected within the first round of the 2015 amateur draft were selected out of a four-year university. The figure is roughly half in most other years, as well. The present author made a habit last year of publishing periodic statistical reports of dubious import for the top college conferences. I’ll continue that same practice this year when the season commences in late February. For the moment, however, I’d like to publish a different kind of report — still totally dubious — regarding the possible future value of certain college players. Or player, singular, in this case. When watching a college game, one is naturally led to ask, “Which of these players is most likely to end up as a major leaguer — and not just to appear in the majors, but to thrive there?” There are certain clues, of course: some of them based on observations of a player’s tools, some on the sort of success which one can identify in the numbers. Last year around this same time, Jeff Sullivan performed a simple, useful experiment with simple, important consequences. His object: to better understand the relationship between young players and their future success as professionals. Instead of examining the major-league production of former top prospects, however, Sullivan inverted the line of inquiry. Instead, he opted to focus on players who have already experienced success in the majors, and then to review how those same players were regarded as minor leaguers. What if, instead of players, one were to begin with merely one player? One would write a post very much like the current one, is what. What I’ve endeavored to do here is to identify which of the collegiate players selected in the 2015 draft most resembles the best current major-leaguer who also attended college. Naturally, defining “best current major-leaguer” is a task that could occupy one’s time considerably. Contrariwise, one could merely regard the current iteration of the Steamer projections as a proxy for true talent. I’ve opted to take the latter path. Examining those projections, one finds Mike Trout and Bryce Harper at the top. Trout was drafted out of high school, and thus is rendered inelgible for the purposes of this absurd study. Harper attended junior college, but only so that he could enter the draft a year earlier than his prep peers. He’s ineligible, too. Third overall, however, is Toronto third baseman and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson. Before Donaldson was a Blue Jay and Athletics, Donaldson was a member of the Auburn Tigers from 2005 through 2007, for which team he played catcher and third base. For the moment, Donaldson represents the best case outcome for a former collegiate player. Who among this past year’s draftees bears the closest resemblance to him? To determine such a thing, one needs to identify some criteria by which to characterize objectively the draft-year version of Josh Donaldson. First, there’s conference. Donaldson was a member of the Southeastern Conference. We’re looking for a product of the SEC, then. Next, is class in draft year. Donaldson was a junior. So our ambition is to find a junior. Then, here’s also the question of position. Donaldson played third base and catcher. We’ll attempt, then, to find — if not a catcher or third baseman, specifically — then at least a player who’s likely to provide similar defensive value. After these basic considerations, there’s the matter of finding statistical similarities, with the emphasis placed on metrics which both (a) become reliable in smaller samples (like over the length of a college baseball season) and also (b) inform batting production most directly. Arguments could be made on behalf of a number of metrics, but it’s my practice, as a sensitive type, to avoid arguments. So I’m merely stating that the metrics I’ll be utilizing are walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power. I’ll also look at BABIP — a skill, but one that takes some time to become reliable — but won’t include it as one of the necessary criteria for eligibility. So what we need is to identify which of the junior-year players in the Southeastern Conference this past season also produced walk, strikeout, and isolated-power marks similar to Donaldson’s from his own junior-year season in 2007. But! But also it’s not quite that simple. With the introduction of BBCOR bats, the run environment has changed all across college baseball. So what’s actually necessary is to find the SEC batters who recorded numbers relative to the 2015 run environment similar to the ones Donaldson recorded relative to the 2007 version of the SEC. Let’s begin, then, by looking at Donaldson in the context of the SEC’s offensive environment in 2007. Below is a table which includes the average of all SEC batters from that year, of Donaldson specifically, and then the index stats for each metric. Note: strikeout rate (K%) essentially becomes a “minus” stat by this methodology, like ERA- or FIP-, such that a lower mark represents a better one. Other note: league averages care of Baseball Cube. Josh Donaldson vs. the SEC, 2007 Player PA BB% K% ISO BABIP SEC Batters 29620 9.8% 16.1% .149 .340 Donaldson 262 14.5% 10.3% .242 .352 Indices — 148 64 163 104 What this means, in English, is that Donaldson produced a walk rate roughly 48% better than league average and strikeout rate 36% better (lower) than average and an ISO that was 63% better than average, too. Our target player will approximate each of these values. To pare down the list of 2015’s eligible SEC batters, what I’ve done is set some basic thresholds — in each case, just halfway to Donaldson’s precedent from 2007. So, for example, I’ve taken only batters who produced a 124 BB+ or better — that is, halfway between Donaldson’s 148 BB+ and league average. For strikeout rate, I went the other direction, filtering out all players who recorded an 87 K- (halfway down to Donaldson’s 64 K-) or higher. The same sort of threshold applies to isolated power, as well. Once again, I’ve included BABIP, but only for sake of reference. Applying those filters produces only four possible candidates, as follow. Josh Donaldson Comparables of the SEC, 2015 Player School PA BB% K% ISO BABIP BB+ K- ISO+ BABIP+ Andrew Benintendi Arkansas 288 17.4% 11.1% .341 .361 177 69 264 110 Kyle Martin South Carolina 254 15.4% 10.6% .285 .339 157 66 221 103 Max Schrock South Carolina 231 13.9% 7.8% .172 .331 141 48 133 101 Matthew Britton Mississippi St. 49 12.2% 10.2% .190 .306 125 63 147 93 The reader will recognize Andrew Benintendi not merely as the seventh-overall pick by Boston in the most recent amateur draft, but also as the Golden Spikes winner. South Carolina’s Kyle Martin was selected in the fourth round by Philadelphia. His teammate Max Schrock was taken in the 13th round by the Washington Nationals. And Matthew Britton was left undrafted after only sparing playing time in his senior year at Mississippi State. In the interest of identifying the player who best approximated Donaldson’s junior year, it makes sense to discard Britton immediately. He was mostly a role player with the Bulldogs and played all four years. Kyle Martin was quite productive with the Gamecocks, but also remained at school through his senior year and also is relegated to a position (first base) which places him at a different end of the defensive spectrum than Donaldson. The remainders, then? Benintendi and Schrock. If the question, broadly, is which of them is more likely to become an MVP in the future, the former is certainly the better candidate. He exhibited far more power than Schrock, while also walking more and yet managing his strikeouts. And his place in the most recent draft is illustrative of teams’ assessment of him. As for who better resembles the 2007 version of Donaldson, however, this is a different question. Because Benintendi also demonstrated considerably more power than the junior-year version of Donaldson, as well. Plus, Benintendi is a lefty-throwing outfielder. Schrock, meanwhile, offers more in common with Donaldson. After playing multiple positions in college, he recorded all of his professional starts with the Nationals in the infield — and is likely to remain at second base, which position features the same run adjustment (+2.5 over a full season) as Donaldson’s third base. As for his offensive profile relative to Donaldson’s, he concedes a bit of power and actually produced more contact than the reigning MVP, but the numbers all fall in the same general range. The only possible conclusion, then? Max Schrock is a future MVP. Flourish. Exeunt.