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College Baseball Run Environment Makes Pitcher Evaluation Harder Than Ever


Last week, we took an in-depth look at how the college run environment of the past few seasons is impacting evaluation of hitting data by professional organizations’ analytics departments. While the actual home run totals and exit velocities are inflated for a litany of reasons, how each player’s batted ball metrics and in-game production stacks up against the field takes precedent. While not discussed in our previous reporting on the hitting environment, teams are far less sure of how to analyze the impact of the run environment on college pitchers’ traditional statistics. 

Uncharted Waters

According to talent evaluators, the inconsistent accuracy of Trackman and other ball-tracking units throughout college baseball has complicated the examination process.

“The toughest thing is how to look at pitching performances in this environment,” one analyst said. “Especially when pitches that score well on stuff+ models are getting hammered.”

This is the conundrum teams face: How much weight do you put on stuff and pitch grades over performance? Do you boost starters with strong college performance but pedestrian stuff? Or do you ignore performance and instead focus on pitch quality and projection?

How MLB Teams, Draft Analysts Navigate Tricky College Baseball Run Environment

Juiced balls? Hot bats? Or both? Surging offense in college baseball had made hitter draft evaluations even harder.

The answer for many clubs is one or the other, but there seems to be no true consensus throughout amateur scouting departments. Progressive front office staffs tend to emphasize talent over results. Teams that are successful with this approach generally rely on high levels of communication between amateur scouting, research departments and player development (PD). 

Passing the Eye Test?

One analyst with a National League team pointed to the Mariners’ identification of Logan Evans as an example.

“Lots of teams didn’t have Evans even turned in,” the analyst said. “Based on his amateur data he would have graded well on our pitch model, but an area scout alerting us about Evans and potential low-hanging PD fruit (pitch usage, mechanical issues, etc.) would have held more weight.” 

This is where having different departments work together can provide massive gains. Teams need to discern when there might be an issue with Trackman data by looking at the pitcher’s performance or for a deeper issue like a lack of deception or pitch tipping. 

Another question is how much weight teams should put into those pitchers that are performing. As one analyst put it, the group of pitchers with plus stuff and good performance is few and far between.

“Outside of (Chase) Burns, (Trey) Yesavage and (Hagen) Smith, who has been dominant and also has good stuff? (Ryan) Prager maybe, but he’s not throwing as hard.” 

So how should teams value the few pitchers that are dominating even if their stuff doesn’t profile as well? There’s no easy answer. The Cardinals have long valued strikeout-to-walk performance among college pitchers, with a track record of drafting soft-tossing pitchers with a high-level résumé of college performance. Although Quinn Mathews’ 2024 success is a bright spot, the results have been mixed.

“The upside for those soft-tossing or deceptive types is limited if they don’t have any physical projection left,” one analyst said.

Hit-Or-Miss Decisions

This is where the dichotomy of how hitter evaluation and pitcher evaluation can differ. While teams are measuring hitters in relation to their peers and applying percentages to performance, it’s not quite so clear-cut for pitching. If a pitcher is performing extremely well in a college run environment in relation to his peers, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s equipped to get professional hitters out. 

Take, for example, Padres prospect Kevin Kopps. Kopps won the Golden Spikes award in 2021 and was considered a faster moving college reliever destined for success. Since that time, the 27-year-old has yet to debut while dealing with command issues. Meanwhile, Tanner Bibee was drafted two rounds later and received a smaller bonus than Kopps. Bibee has posted a three WAR season as a rookie in 2023 and is a valuable part of the Guardians roster. 

Once again, there might be something to a pitcher’s performance the metrics are missing, but it takes plenty of good in-person scouting and player development. The next Bibee or Mathews could be lurking after day one in 2024, but it will be a matter of teams doing deep detective work into pitching profiles to find them. 

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