Hundreds of college pitchers will be selected in the MLB draft over the next three days. They’ll vary widely in talent and readiness, ranging from raw power arms to pitchability-types lacking premium stuff. Many will be tied together by one commonality: heavy usage in college. Last year, I found that deep starts and meager rest stints are all-too-frequent occurrences for collegiate pitchers. Do the same standards apply to the cream of this year’s draft crop?
Let’s focus on the most coveted collegiate pitchers: the projected 2017 first-round draftees. First rounders capture fan attention, pepper prospect lists, and generally have the best shot at becoming solid MLB contributors. Big leaguers will be found in the later rounds, of course, but it’s the first rounders who are paid the most money and carry the highest expectations. So let’s look at the ten NCAA pitchers — starters all — projected by Baseball America to be selected in the first round this evening.
|8||J.B. Bukauskas||North Carolina|
|30||Clarke Schmidt||South Carolina|
*Formerly; Romero was kicked off the team in May.
I pulled game logs from the NCAA’s statistics pages for each of the pitchers, capturing all of their pitch counts and batters-faced totals from their college careers (up through yesterday’s games). Where the NCAA was missing pitch counts, I recorded the data from game logs on team websites. For the few instances in which this secondary effort bore no fruit, I estimated pitch counts by taking the pitcher’s batters faced total in that game, and multiplying it times the average pitches per batters faced for that pitcher-season.
First, let’s get a sense of the group’s pitch counts alone. Below are probability density curves showing all pitch counts that the 10 pitchers posted in three years of college.
Insights can be gleaned from this tangled web. For one, the majority of the group was kept near the 105-pitch mark most often. For another, the left side displays the prevalence of curves for Romero, Schmidt, and Wright, as they threw quite a few relief outings and short-length starts as collegians. And on the opposite end of the chart, we can see each pitcher’s portion of heavy-usage starts. Every curve spills into the 120-pitch range, but it’s Canning who stands out from the pack. Notice how his powder blue curve’s peak is farther rightward than the other nine; that’s because high-pitch counts have been his norm. Whereas the typical college junior throws at least 115 pitches in 10% of regular-season starts, UCLA coach John Savage pushed Canning past the mark in 50% of his games over the past two years.
No other pitcher in the group can match Canning’s rates of heavy-usage starts, but there are other large workloads of note. Houck’s 115-pitch rate rose to nearly 40% this year, while Faedo, Peterson, and Romero were also used more heavily as departing juniors than as underclassmen. Lange was the only pitcher with at least 18% 115-pitch games in every year of his collegiate career. And only UNC’s Bukauskas finished every season beneath the average rate of lengthy starts for juniors.
Another important component of usage, of course, is rest. Let’s check if the group was given enough recovery time for their workloads by grading them against the rest requirements laid out by Pitch Smart. Put together by Major League Baseball, USA Baseball, and a team of medical experts, the Pitch Smart “rules” for college-age pitchers goes as follows:
|Pitches||Days Off For Recovery|
Even though these guidelines don’t pinpoint a yearly limit for pitchers, they’ll do well to flag sequences of appearances in which pitchers didn’t get enough recovery time. The heat map below shows the rate of games in which pitchers recorded Pitch Smart violations.
Nearly half of pitcher-seasons saw no Pitch Smart violations. Of those that did, most rates were between 6%–8%, or slightly worse than the average 2012–2015 regular-season rate for college juniors (5%). The exceptions are the 14% clip posted by Houck this year, the large 27% rate from Romero’s freshman season, and every year from Canning. Only the UCLA ace had multiple double-digit years, and his violation rate soared upwards with each passing season. Canning finished this year by violating Pitch Smart in 35% of his starts — over 10 times higher than the average rate recorded by 2012–2015 MLB pitchers.
Canning’s draft stock seemed to rise throughout the spring, as he jumped from pick No. 23 to No. 21 to No. 16 in three Baseball America mock drafts over the past month. If you watch Canning pitch, you can understand what makes him desirable: he has command over four pitches, including an impressive curveball and a changeup that flashes above average; his mechanics are smooth and he repeats them well; he’s very athletic and a good competitor on the mound. The caveat for a selecting club is that they’ll be assuming the wear and tear he incurred in college, thanks to a workload that was much heavier than those of his peers.
Gerald Schifman is the lead researcher at Crain's New York Business and a writer at The Hardball Times. He previously worked in the New York Mets' baseball operations department and in Major League Baseball's publishing department. Follow him on Twitter @gschifman.