Ryan Garko didn’t take long to get from Stanford to the major leagues. The Indians third-round pick in 2003 as a senior, Garko made his debut with Cleveland in September 2005; he became the team’s regular first baseman in August 2006.
Like any rookie, he asked for advice on how to adjust to the major leagues, and considering he hit 21 homers and was the regular first baseman for the 2007 Tribe team that came a win away from the American League pennant, it was good advice. Now working out in Arizona and trying to get another shot at pro ball after a lost season playing in Korea, Garko recalls asking Indians DH Travis Hafner as well as rival players such as Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera.
“I spent my whole career talking to professional hitters about what made them successful,” Garko said. “They said a lot of the same things: Get ready early. Get your foot down. Be balanced. Use the whole field.
“Hafner told me that on my first day in the major leagues. Those are the same things Coach (Mark) Marquess told us at Stanford.”
That may come as a surprise to pro scouts, who as a rule enjoy criticizing Stanford and its offensive approach. Most of the scouts I have talked to over the years criticize college baseball in general, with varying degrees of veracity. They will criticize certain elements of certain college baseball programs in particular, such as Rice pitchers. Lefthander Joe Savery of the Phillies told us on our weekly Sirius/XM radio show, “I’ve heard plenty. It’s a pretty common jab or joke about us getting paid and getting hurt. I think there are a lot of factors in that. I didn’t take care of my body the way I should have.”
Another favorite over the years has been Stanford’s position players and the way hitting is taught there. (As one scout put it this spring: “Using the word ‘teach’ and ‘hitting’ in the same sentence as ‘Stanford’ is already an oxymoron. It’s horrible.”) Here’s one typical reaction from a scouting director from the cutting room floor of a Draft Report Card, when the One That Got Away went to play for the Cardinal: “He’s going to Stanford, which is about the worst-case scenario. He won’t be any better in three years. It’s just a shame.”
That perception is quite widespread. I’ve asked Stanford players about it before, especially during the Cardinal’s heyday from 1999-2003, when the program reached five consecutive College World Series and was national runner-up three times.
Include 2004, and it was the best offensive stretch in Stanford history. The Pacific-12 Conference’s record book goes back to 1978, and Stanford appears most consistently among the league offensive leaders in that period. The Cardinal led the league (then the Pac-10) in home runs and hits in 2001, ’02, and ’04; in runs from ’02-’04; in batting in 2002; in doubles from 2000-2002 (and in its last CWS season, in 2008).
That period 1999-2003 period also produced plenty of recent and current Stanford big leaguers. And with the exceptions of Jeremy Guthrie and Drew Storen, the best products are—surprise, scouts—Stanford hitters.
Sam Fuld and Carlos Quentin played together in the Cardinal outfield for three seasons; now both are big leaguers, and Quentin needs just 32 home runs to pass Ed Sprague on the alumni home run list. John Mayberry Jr. and Jed Lowrie played three seasons together as well; now both are big leaguers. Mayberry broke out last season with the Phillies, hitting 15 home runs and posting an .854 OPS in 267 at-bats. Lowrie has his clearest shot in 2012 at an everyday job with Houston. There he’ll team with catcher Jason Castro, who missed last season but was the star of the ’08 Cardinal, the last club to reach Omaha.
Every Stanford senior class that has entered school since 1981 has played in a CWS except one. Stanford will have to make it this year to keep that streak going, and because of its talented offense and resurgent pitching staff led by No. 1 2012 draft prospect Mark Appel, it would be a shock if the Cardinal didn’t make it.
Aaron Fitt and I get the “Stanford hitter” theme from scouts consistently, even with this year’s loaded, physical Stanford club, ranked No. 2 and off to a 15-3 start. Stanford is one of the nation’s best-hitting teams, batting .309/.392/.470 as a team with 15 home runs. Associate head coach Dean Stotz, who has been the team’s top recruiter for much of his 36-season stay at Stanford, has heard all the criticisms.
He has quick answers.
“We don’t have one hitting philosophy, or a cookie-cutter approach,” Stotz said. “We do encourage our hitters to use the middle of the field. We try to get them to stay on balance. We have a lot of confidence in our strength and conditioning program, and we try to get strong.
“But we’ve had a lot of different hitters do it a lot of different ways. Carlos (Quentin) tinkered, and his junior year, he hit about the way he does now. Garko was all spread out and used his strength.”
Quentin was a big-name prospect out of high school, though, and to a lesser extent Garko was as well. The same is true of the likes of Athletics farmhand Michael Taylor and Mayberry Jr., two of scouts’ prime exhibits of hitters who didn’t benefit from their Stanford tutelage. Taylor is 6-foot-5, 255 pounds; Mayberry checks in at 6-foot-6, 225. Taylor has hit for average as a pro but has never tapped into the raw power that would seem to stem from his big frame. Mayberry, a first-rounder out of high school, posted an .870 OPS his final year at Stanford and a .785 mark in more than 700 minor league games before adjusting last season under one of the majors’ best hitting coaches, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
“I saw Junior at the Fiesta Bowl,” Stotz said, “and I told him how happy I was for his success. I asked him what he did, and he said, ‘Well, I was having trouble with that slider down and away, so I got a little deeper and squatted a little more so I could get that low pitch.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Darn it Junior, I tried to get you to do that here for three years.’
“I coach third base, and you had to back up about 30 feet when Junior hit because he hit so many foul balls down that side. He didn’t make the adjustment, but now he has.”
The current Cardinal has some similar players in terms of talent and the amount of scrutiny they will draw from scouts. Middle infielder Kenny Diekroeger was a second-round pick out of high school whose stock rose as a freshman but fell as a sophomore with the Cardinal. He’s hitting .324/.395/.441 this season. Third baseman Stephen Piscotty, a 45th-round pick of the Dodgers in 2009 as a pitcher and hitter, has moved past him as the team’s top 2012 hitting prospect, batting .316/.379/.557 with three homers and just six strikeouts in 79 at-bats.
Junior Jake Stewart (.369/.425/.615) and sophomores Austin Wilson (.333/.473/.632) and Brian Ragira (.333/.349/.423) are major talents as well. They are similar to Taylor and Mayberry, big human beings with strength and physicality. If they don’t tear up college baseball, scouts will be disappointed.
All three struggled last season with the new BBCOR bats, and the bat change still makes Stotz wistful. “If we’d had the old bats, with our guys . . . wow, that would have been something,” he said.
The new bats require “man strength,” as scouts like to say, to drive the ball. Stanford’s lineup has plenty of “man strength,” such as two-sport athlete Tyler Gaffney, and even on the bench in future stars such as freshmen Wayne Taylor, a catcher, and athletic middle infielder Alex Blandino.
So far, Stanford’s much maligned approach is allowing its players to drive the ball just fine.
“Mark does not clone people,” Stotz said of his boss, whom the players all just call Nine. “We’ve been here long enough that we know what we’ve got; we’re confident enough in who we are that we don’t have to do that. Tyler Gaffney has an ugly swing, but it works for him. Sean Ratliff (now in the Mets system) had an almost Japanese approach. Piscotty and Ragira are low-maintenance guys, though. They understand what the ball’s telling them. That’s what we want out of our hitters; the flight of the ball after they hit it tells them what they are doing right.”
Garko adds, “Of course I would recommend playing for Marquess . . . I just think pro ball and college ball are very different. In pro ball, you can strike out almost 200 times over 160 games, but if you hit for power, that’s OK. If you run into 25 or 30 balls, they’re fine with that. You can’t do that in college; the season’s shorter, the defense isn’t as good, you need to make more contact.
“I think some jealousy might play into it, because the teams all have lost drafted guys that went to Stanford, and the program is not pro-friendly. There’s not a lot of access to guys while we’re there. Mark’s approach is, if you play well, you’ll get drafted.”
Despite the reputation of the program, in the last decade, Stanford hitters have played well, gotten drafted, and then continued to play well as professionals. Twenty years ago, when Jack McDowell and then Mike Mussina were leading Stanford to three CWS trips (and two titles) in a four-year span from 1987-1990, the program earned a reputation as a pitching factory.
Recent history should give Stanford a different reputation. But it’s up to the current group of Cardinal players to either continue to add to the reality that hitters can and do develop at Stanford, or reinforce the outdated stereotype that they don’t.