Colleges, Scouts At Odds Over Pitch Counts




Follow me on Twitter

Recently at Baseball America we've posted two great tastes that go great together—our Draft Report Cards and our college recruiting class rankings.

On one hand we have all the players, college and high school, who decided to start their professional careers. On the other are the high school and junior-college players who decided to go to college rather than head into pro ball.

There's a tension between the two worlds, and at BA we're one of the few media outlets that cover both intensely. We get to hear the off-the-record grumbling when scouts have frustrations with college programs, and we hear the complaints coaches have with pro ball. The most frustrating cases for both sides come with drafted high school players, when the players change their minds or say one thing and do another.

As one scouting director put it this year about a prep pitcher who earned The One That Got Away honors in our DRCs, "I wish I could tell you what his number was (for a signing bonus), but I never got a number."

The most disagreements come over pitchers. There are only so many power arms, so when a pitcher with present stuff and projection such as Tyler Beede doesn't sign, it's a big deal. Beede leads Vanderbilt to the No. 1 spot in our recruiting rankings.

The most common charge scouts levy is that colleges don't know how to handle pitchers. For the most part, it has plenty of substance. College teams have vastly different schedules, so they use their pitchers differently than pro teams do in the minor leagues. I haven't run into a school that has a hard pitch count for pitchers that it won't violate, or that won't use pitchers differently in the postseason in a way that makes scouts cringe.

Exceptions Prove The Rule

Vanderbilt, UCLA and North Carolina stand out in college baseball because they regularly earn credit from pro scouts for how they use their pitchers. They don't use a cookie-cutter approach—i.e., they don't have all their pitchers use the same repertoire, or similar deliveries or arm slots—and they generally have enough depth that they don't run up high pitch counts. But no school is immune, and too often, college teams handle their pitchers in ways that are hard to defend—even those schools. To wit:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels rode a deep bullpen to Omaha in 2011, but in 2010—the one year they missed the CWS in the last six—they rode ace Matt Harvey heavily. In a must-win start against Clemson, Harvey threw 157 pitches in a victory. As Mets area scout Marlin McPhail told the Wall Street Journal after his team drafted Harvey, "You tend to get a little nervous, quite frankly. I don't know what other word to use."

UCLA: Look no further than Trevor Bauer's 10 complete games this season. The minor league leader, Zeke Spruill, had six, one of which lasted six innings, another seven and another eight (though it's worth noting that college starting pitchers take the mound once every seven days, and pros go once every five). My belief in Bauer is well documented, and the Diamondbacks put a major league contract with a $3.4 million bonus and nearly $4.5 million guaranteed behind their belief. Time will tell if his workload affects him.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores' reputation for developing arms from Jeremy Sowers and David Price to Mike Minor, and this spring, Grayson Garvin and Sonny Gray, clearly helped land Beede, the only 2011 first-round pick that didn't sign. In a CWS bracket final, though, ace Sonny Gray struggled against Florida, giving up four runs and seven hits in seven innings, throwing 125 pitches. Vanderbilt had a tremendous bullpen that had a day of rest, but coach Tim Corbin sent Gray back out for the eighth even after the Commodores had rallied to tie the game at 4.

"I don't care what the number of pitches was," Corbin said after the game, which Florida came back to win 6-4. "He wanted to go back out there. That's all there is to it. You're not going to take the ball away from him or else you're going to fight him; rather give him the ball and let him pitch."

SAL, Not SEC

Scouts commend Gray for his makeup and competitiveness and want pitchers like him that want the ball. They also want to treat pitchers like the Pirates did with Jameson Taillon in the South Atlantic League this year. The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Taillon had committed to Rice out of high school but signed for a $6.25 million bonus. In his first pro season, he was not allowed to go past 75 pitches or five innings in this his first full pro season. Suffice it to say Owls coach Wayne Graham would have let Taillon go a little deeper into games.

Florida is probably the new favorite program of pro ball, and it's easy to see why. Like UCLA, UNC and Vandy, the Gators have enviable depth. Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan adds pro experience, having been a pitching coach briefly in the Twins system in the 1990s, and his two assistant coaches, Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel, are former area scouts. In 2011, Florida often used six or more pitchers in midweek games just to get them work, sometimes at the expense of winning games. Even in Omaha, O'Sullivan did not over-extend his star starters.

Pro scouts prefer a Sally League approach, to a Southeastern Conference approach. But in college baseball, as Herman Edwards said, you play to win the game. That's not true in the SAL. So it's hard to see the essential tension between college and pro ball ever receding.