The Marlins are probably the worst team right now in the majors. Independent of schedule, they project for the worst record. Taking the schedule into consideration, they still project for the worst record. Taking community input into consideration, also, they still project for the worst record. Of course, this isn’t surprising. This is kind of the plan. The Marlins are bad now on purpose, because they didn’t see the sense in trying to push for a competitive window. And, you know, there’s a chance the Marlins overachieve. Maybe they finish with a better record than the White Sox. Maybe they win more games than the Tigers. But, the season will be rough. It’ll be a season of development and ugly results.
Tuesday, the Marlins played a game against the University of Miami. These kinds of games happen from time to time every spring, as practice for the pros, and as fun opportunities for the amateurs. What kind of 20-year-old wouldn’t get up for the chance to play some major-leaguers on the field? For the Marlins, obviously, there was nothing to play for. I guess a little bit of pride. But the Marlins were just saying goodbye to another long spring training. The exhibition ended after the top of the seventh.
Every time the Olympics are on, I’m reminded of one of my favorite suggestions. I don’t know who came up with it first, and it’s hardly original anymore, but it would be wonderful if, in every competition, they included some average nobody, just as a frame of reference. When all you’re watching over and over are the best and most skilled athletes in the world, it becomes easy to take them for granted. You lose sight of how difficult all these challenges are. It would be helpful to see some awkward faceplants. Some extremely slow sprinters, or godawful skaters. We watch sports to be wowed by what the human body can do. You don’t want to end up underestimating what it takes to be great.
Let’s take a different, albeit similar angle. Many of us, at one point or another, have wondered what we could do in the major leagues. Maybe you’re curious how terrible you’d be. Maybe you’re curious whether you could be good. You know, you’ve played baseball before. You flashed some skills in high school. Might still have an arm. Could you cut it? There’s no way to prove that you couldn’t. You’re never going to get the chance.
We’ll never see average nobodies in the major leagues. I shouldn’t need to explain why that is. But this is where the college exhibitions become useful. There’s a handful of them every single spring, often including the same teams. Most of the time, the games are at the very beginning of the spring-training schedule. For the big-league clubs that schedule them, they serve as transitions between boring practice and boring Cactus or Grapefruit League competition. This is as extreme as disparities get. You’ll never see an All-Star team face a college, and you’ll never see a regular big-league team face a high school. MLB vs. college comes with a talent gap of maximum observable width. These games, individually, are easy to ignore and easy to forget. They don’t get included in any records. But we can examine the overall results. And I believe that the overall results are very telling.
As far as I know, there’s no such thing as an MLB-vs-college database. So I’ve done the best I could, collecting information going back to 2009. That gives us a good decade, and this website was greatly important. I think this table includes everything. There’s a chance I’m short a game or three. But, 67 games is plenty. Here is everything that’s happened. For convenience, this table is sortable.
|Year||MLB Team||College||Winner||MLB Runs||College Runs|
|2018||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||4||2|
|2016||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||6||0|
|2015||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||1||0|
|2014||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||5||2|
|2013||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||11||1|
|2013||Orioles||State College of Florida||MLB||6||1|
|2012||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||6||3|
|2012||Orioles||State College of Florida||College||1||2|
|2011||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||6||0|
|2011||Pirates||State College of Florida||MLB||21||1|
|2010||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||6||1|
|2010||Pirates||State College of Florida||MLB||6||1|
|2009||Red Sox||Boston College||MLB||7||1|
|2009||Pirates||State College of Florida||College||4||6|
What’s happened when big-league teams have played baseball against amateur, college teams? Over the past decade, the big-league teams have gone 63-4. The average score has been 8.8-1.9, and the median score has been 8-1. Facing the Red Sox, Northeastern has gone 0-10, getting outscored by an average of 9.3 runs. Also facing the Red Sox, Boston College has gone 0-9, getting outscored by an average of 4.7 runs. Facing the Tigers, Florida Southern has gone 0-10, getting outscored by an average of 9.1 runs. I imagine we all suspected the results would be lopsided. But, maybe not this lopsided. And it gets worse.
Watch the Twins walk off against the University of Minnesota about a month ago:
Zero enthusiasm, minimal celebration. Maybe the Twins were embarrassed to have to walk off in the first place, but I think the more accurate interpretation is that, on the major-league side, they don’t really care. It’s practice. They’re going through the motions. On the collegiate side, few things could compare to playing a game against the pros. From a psychological perspective, the college teams are a lot more amped up, every single time. It’s a chance for everyone to try to prove themselves against actual professionals. For the professionals, it’s sort of like batting against a position player pitching. All you want is to not get injured.
So there’s a wide emotional difference. That might translate to a difference in concentration or effort. Furthermore, most of these games take place around the start of big-league spring training, but that takes place after the college season is already underway. And most importantly, it’s not like these MLB lineups are always including the best players in an organization. Even when good players do start, they tend to last only a handful of innings, before getting replaced by minor-league subs. And just to pile on, I don’t have an exact count, but it looks like a lot of these games have ended short of the ninth inning. More innings would mean even more lopsided results.
MLB teams that just barely care. MLB teams that only temporarily field MLB rosters. 63-4. And out of that four, one gets an asterisk, because when the State College of Florida beat the Orioles in 2012, the Orioles supplied the pitching, as well as the catching. That’s still not a game the actual Orioles should’ve lost, but the circumstances were different. It’s the other three college wins that really stand out.
Here’s a box score for the game from 2009. I should note that’s also the State College of Florida, which back then went by another name. The Pirates were leading 4-1 after four, and then came a whole bunch of subs. Here’s a box score for the game from 2011. The Marlins were leading 7-1 after five, and then came a whole bunch of subs. And here’s a box score for the game from 2015. The Phillies were leading 2-0 after five. Fun trivia here is that the University of Tampa’s leadoff hitter was the nephew of the Phillies’ GM. The Phillies hardly fielded a full-strength lineup or pitching staff, but they also lost by the widest margin. The other three college wins were decided by one run, one run, and two runs. So this is a game worth keeping in the back of your mind.
But really, the focus shouldn’t be on the college wins. That’s not the point; the point is that the college wins are overwhelmed by the college losses. The college teams have lost 94% of the time, and they’ve very frequently been blown out. This despite the fact that the major-league players haven’t really cared. This despite the fact that the major-league players have often been pulled early, if they’ve even played at all. The college players have all been highly energized, eager to try to beat some of the best in the world. You can’t blame them for their enthusiasm. They’ve gotten destroyed. Collectively, it hasn’t even been a contest. Why would you ever expect it to be a contest?
We spend almost all of our time watching major-league baseball teams. That means we spend almost all of our time watching major-league baseball players. When there’s a player who doesn’t seem to belong, his numbers are bad, and fans clamor for the player to go away. That very player who doesn’t belong in the majors — maybe he belongs in Triple-A. Maybe he belongs in Double-A. But, whatever the case, that very player is amazing. Everyone we get to see play in the majors is amazing.
Thursday is going to be opening day. Prepare to be amazed. And try, if you can, not to take it for granted. Baseball’s a lot harder than the pros make it look. Just ask any player at Florida Southern College.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.