Pat Burrell retired at the end of January, after a career that included 292 home runs, an .834 OPS and two World Series championships with the Phillies (2008) and the Giants (2010).
The Phillies drafted Burrell first overall in the 1998 draft out of Miami, where Burrell played in three College World Series. He was an infielder then, playing third base and a little first. As a pro, the righthanded-hitting Burrell played almost exclusively in the outfield, with some first base early in his career.
Burrell has proved instructive over the years, providing the embodiment of a scouting profile. He was a righthanded power hitter out of a college program that made it to the major leagues, which is becoming harder and harder to find.
The ones left in the major leagues now are fewer and father between, especially the ones that play a corner outfield spot. Several of them—like his fellow Miami alumnus, 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun—played the infield in college.
Just look around the major leagues in 2011 at how few outfielders fit the righthanded-hitting, corner outfield profile that played the outfield in college—it’s a short list. In other words, this is the trend that Georgia Southern’s Victor Roache (see feature, subscription required) is trying to buck.
Using baseball-reference.com, here’s the list of 2011 regulars who fit the profile:
Jason Bay, Mets: The best example in the last decade of a righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing college corner bat, Bay has struggled with the Mets due in part to concussion issues. The Canadian ran better early in his career than most members of this species and even has played some center field in the majors. He also was completely undervalued earlier in his career—a 22nd-round pick as a college senior at Gonzaga, the Expos (for Lou Collier) and Mets (for Steve Reed) were among the teams that just gave Bay away before he hit it big. It’s logical to assume the right-right profile contributed to his being undervalued.
Ryan Ludwick, Pirates: A college star at Nevada-Las Vegas, Ludwick was a 1999 second-rounder who didn’t emerge as a regular until 2007 and who’s been traded each of the last two years. He had two huge seasons with the Cardinals, but for a while, his career actually was more evidence for scouts to not count on righthanded-hitting college outfielders. (As a side note, he throws lefthanded, so he’s not quite the right-right profile scouts and apparently I obsess over.)
Hunter Pence, Phillies: Pence’s athleticism helps set him apart. He’s also unorthodox in many ways, from choking up on the bat to his leg kick and stride in his swing to his throwing mechanics. He’s more an outlier, an exception that almost proves the rule. Pence’s replacement in Houston, J.D. Martinez, also fits the right-right profile and played at Division II Nova Southeastern (Fla.). He’s not a regular yet, though.
Carlos Quentin, Padres: Traded from the White Sox this offseason, Quentin is the best active example of the college right-right bat. He starred at San Diego’s University High, then for Stanford (and USA Baseball’s College National Team), was a first-round pick and has become a two-time all-star. Despite low batting averages, he’s a steady source of power, slugging .505 the last four seasons.
Nolan Reimold, Orioles: The ex-Bowling Green State star is pretty much the definition of a second-division regular with a career .256 average and a career high of 15 home runs.
There are other right-right corner outfielders who played in college, but players such as Josh Willingham (North Alabama, catcher) and Allen Craig (California, infield) used to play more demanding defensive positions.
Junior colleges provide a few more exceptions. Jermaine Dye, whose career ended after the 2009 season, and journeyman Jonny Gomes are other examples of righthanded-hitting corner bats. Dye was an all-star, while Gomes fits more into the Reimold category.
If you go back 20-30 years, colleges were producing a few more of these types of players. Regulars such as Albert Belle (Lousisna State), Glenn Braggs (Hawaii), Joe Carter (Wichita State), Bo Jackson (Auburn), Kevin McReynolds (Arkansas), Tim Salmon (Grand Canyon), Greg Vaughn (Miami) and Dave Winfield (Minnesota) were college bats who went on to play the outfield corners in the major leagues while also hitting in the middle of big league lineups.
College outfielders who bat righthanded have to emulate these groups—both past and present—in a few ways. They have to have athleticism, and it sure would help if they could run well enough to be considered to play center field like Bay and Ludwick, or McReynolds. (The Phillies’ John Mayberry Jr., a 2005 first-rounder out of Stanford who’s not quite a regular yet, fits here.)
They also need to have real power—there are no speedsters in this group, and the players from the 1980s and ’90s include some of the big leagues’ best hitters of the era. Belle had a 50-homer, 50-doubles season, Winfield was a multi-sport college star who’s now in the Hall of Fame, Carter hit one of the game’s most iconic World Series home runs, and Jackson was from another planet in terms of his athleticism.
The best right-right corner guys in the majors either run well or mash. Other than Braun, they’re all either prep signees (like Matt Holliday, Mike Stanton and Justin Upton), converted infielders (Mike Cuddyer, Mike Morse) or international signees (early career Vladimir Guerrero or Magglio Ordonez).
Stiff Upper Lip
The most common refrain I have heard over the years from scouts about righthanded-hitting corner bats (both among outfielders or first basemen) is that they are “stiff.” The image of the right-right stiff corner bat is ingrained in the game. Stiffness means limited defensive ability and, more importantly, a limited ability for a righthanded hitter to combat breaking balls from righthanded pitchers.
Obviously it helps any amateur player to run well or really mash, but the righthanded-hitting corner oufielder usually doesn’t provide significant defensive value, so the offensive demands are higher for these players. Most of the college outfielders who are thriving in the majors—guys like Jacoby Ellsbury (Oregon State), Brett Gardner (College of Charleston), Curtis Granderson (Illinois-Chicago) and Matt Joyce (D-II Florida Southern)—can all defend. The all-bat college outfielder profile just doesn’t translate to pro ball.
Our college All-America team outfields of the last decade are pretty full of guys who thrived in college and were just OK pros, if that. It’s likely that the hotter bats of the previous era helped make some solid players play like All-Americans.
Our 2008 All-America first team provides a quick, instructive snapshot—every first-team hitter outside the outfield has played in the majors. That list includes a fairly stiff righthanded hitter, Cal’s Josh Satin. All three outfielders—Kentucky’s Sawyer Carroll, Louisiana State’s Blake Dean and Georgia Southern’s Chris Shehan—have not.
Roache doesn’t get to hit with the bats Shehan used and still hit 30 homers last season, the first Division I player to do so since 2003. He’ll be fun to watch this spring but also going forward, to see if he can buck the trend.