The College Baseball Primer
So as much as I rant about college baseball on here, some of y’all have indicated that you might like to pick up on the amateur game. That’s a wise choice, I think, considering how watching the Phillies is probably going to be hell on Earth, and watching baseball whose regular season starts in THIS WEEK has a certain appeal when the majors are still more than two months from meaningful games.
Since this post has almost nothing to do with the Phillies, I’m putting in a page break to save space for more relevant material. If you’re interested, follow the jump.
How College Baseball is Different From Major-League Baseball
The Sound of the Bat
It’s weird. It’s not as big a thing to get over as a spectator as you might think, but they use metal bats in college. Now, before the 2011 season, this would have been a massive deal. Up until 2010, college baseball didn’t resemble what you see in the pros so much as it resembled a game of Missile Command. But before the 2011 season, the NCAA passed a new set of rules to deaden the bats, which calmed scoring down to wood-bat levels. So while there are no broken bats and it’s harder to get jammed, at least we’re not playing Bombardment anymore.
The only real difference is the sound. You get a really satisfying and distinctive crack with a wood bat, as countless hack would-be poets have said, but the sound the new bats make kind of suck. The old aluminum bats made a ping like John Henry hammering a railroad spike, but the new ones just kind of thunk. After a while, you stop noticing, but it’s still a little weird.
The Fielding is Not as Good
In 2011, the South Carolina Gamecocks, in case you missed everything I’ve written on the internet over the past two years, won the College World Series, in large part because they fielded better than their competition. They turned a ton of double plays in the late innings of tied games, while their opponents (namely Virginia and Florida) threw the ball into the stands. All the talk about putting pressure on the defense with speed or bunts is largely bullshit once you get even to the high minors, because, frankly, you don’t get to play infield in the major leagues unless you’re in the top tenth of one percent of defensive baseball players in the world. Just about everyone who’s going to panic and gag on a grounder or airmail a relay because a fast guy dropped a bunt has been weeded out by the time they reach the majors.
Such is not the case in college. The first USC game I went to, James Darnell, who’s now an outfielder for the San Diego Padres, was starting at second base as a true freshman, and he could not catch a thing. He was, like, Dan Uggla in the 2008 All-Star Game bad, and he went on to play in the majors. Imagine how spotty the defense gets once you get outside the major conferences. So while occasionally you’re going to see a monster defensive infielder, they’re the exception rather than the rule, while the reverse is true in the majors, both because the talent is thinner and because the players are largely spazzes by virtue of being young men, aged 18-23 or so.
The upshot of this is that the kind of offensive overmanagement that drives me absolutely batty in the pros is actually better strategy in the college game. Sacrifice bunts are not automatic, but they’re very common, and they are mishandled not infrequently. Speedy players (South Carolina’s Tanner English, who can’t hit or field to save his life but who can absolutely fly, is one example) will try to bunt for a hit or take the extra base more often, because the chance of an error is great enough to make it worth the risk.
This might irritate some purists, but I find that it actually adds a rather delightful bit of uncertainty to the game. Routine double plays are anything but–you come to expect the unexpected.
Pitcher Usage is Completely Borked
If you’re looking for a difference between the college and pro game that will give you a headache, this is it. College teams play three or four games a week as a rule, not six or seven, as the pros do. So while a major-league team will use its starting pitchers once every five days and lean on a seven-man bullpen, a college team will use its starters once a week and use maybe three or four relievers.
Each college team has at least three defined starters, who start the weekend series. In fact, college baseball parlance designates the ace as the “Friday night starter,” so if you want to flash a little bit of jargon, take that one on me. Occasionally a team will play on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, usually a non-conference game against an in-state opponent, in which case a fourth starter gets rolled out. The only other time a team will go to four starting pitchers is during the College World Series, when they play just about every day. In that case, a younger pitcher will be pressed into service or the manager goes with Johnny Wholestaff win the season on the line. That’s usually pretty interesting when it happens.
As far as relievers go, you’ll see a relief ace come into more or less any late and close game, sometimes as early as the sixth inning, and stay in until it’s done. I discussed how former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner did that with relief ace Matt Price in 2011 back when Tim Lincecum was doing his multi-inning relief ace thing this past postseason. It’s a little nervy to see a 20-year-old come in and throw max-effort two innings a game, three days in a row, and I did spend the past two seasons waiting for Price’s arm to come off at the shoulder, but with only three games a week, I suppose it could be worse. Then, of course, there’s Lincecum himself, who would start on Friday and close on Sunday when he was at the University of Washington.
Also, because of the volatility of player performance once you get lower down the athletic development chain, you’ll often see wild turnover in which pitchers get used in which role from week to week.
You know how the best player on your Little League team always played shortstop and pitched? College baseball, even top-level Division I baseball, is not far enough removed from that that you don’t see the occasional two-way player. Bizarrely, it seems like most of those guys are combination pitcher/DH types. Seattle Mariners prospect Danny Hultzen played both ways for Virginia, as did 2012 Red Sox first-rounder Brian Johnson at Florida, former Rice Owl and current Phillies pitcher Joe Savery and, of course, Angels farmhand Michael Roth, when he was at South Carolina. So did former Auburn Tiger Tim Hudson, according to Ben Duronio of Capitol Avenue Club.
On Really Good Starting Pitchers
Sometimes, a dominant college pitcher is dominant because of skills that will translate to the pros. Nobody could hit Mark Prior or Trevor Bauer or Lincecum when they were in college. Sometimes, though, those guys get away with just being able to fool college hitters, who, simply put, are not as good on the aggregate as hitters in even the mid-minors. Roth is one of the best pitchers in the history of the game despite being a lefty who maxed out in the mid-80s and hardly ever threw strikes. He just flopped junk out of the zone over and over and got guys to swing at it. Even Bauer, who is endowed with No. 1 starter stuff in the major leagues, has had trouble adjusting to facing hitters who won’t swing at anything that breaks.
I remember being completely enamored a few years back with University of Florida starter Hudson Randall. Randall was painting the corners and completely confounding hitters with an ease that recalled, in my mind, Greg Maddux. I remember calling Paul and declaring that the Gators had found themselves–and I remember this phrase vividly–“a ginger, right-handed Cole Hamels.”
And then I found out that Randall, now in the Detroit Tigers minor-league system, was considered a non-prospect because his stuff wasn’t good enough to miss major-league bats. The same is true of position players–of all the players to be named MVP of the College World Series, you can make the argument that Pat Burrell was the second-best major-league player. Depends on how you feel about Sal Bando, I guess. So the point here is that the warnings against wishful thinking that I usually spout about pro prospects go double for college players.
How to Get Into College Baseball
Pick a Team
This can be completely arbitrary. I went to a school with a baseball team that’s worth following, so that was easy for me. If that’s the case for you, then this is an easy question. But if you didn’t go to a Division I school, or went to college north of the Mason Dixon line, and I can’t stress this enough, pick a different team. College baseball is almost exclusively a Southern and West Coast affair. Penn State, Rutgers, Delaware and Temple–the schools most of y’all probably went to, even the big ones, are complete nonentities when it comes to college baseball. Your teams will almost never be on television, almost never make it to the College World Series and almost never send players to the major leagues. You will drown in a sea of irrelevance.
Ohio State won the College World Series in 1966, but since then, the only teams from anything resembling the North to win it all were Wichita State in 1989 (an aberrational team that sent six players to the major leagues) and Mike Stutes’ Oregon State Beavers in 2006 and 2007. Want a winner from the Northeast? You have to go back to Holy Cross in 1952, a team so far in the past that its head coach was a member of Connie Mack‘s $100,000 infield with Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins.
So where should you look? The short answer: the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12, Texas and California. Beyond that, I have no further advice. Do a little research–where did your favorite player go to school? (A couple quick-reference points on that front: Chase Utley went to UCLA, Cliff Lee to Arkansas, Barry Bonds to Arizona State, Roger Clemens to the University of Texas, Evan Longoria to Long Beach State…you can Google this on your own). You can pick based on geography, or a uniform pattern you like. For what it’s worth, Florida State is going to be on TV a ton early in the season. Not that I’d ordinarily condone rooting for such a team, but you’re free to do what you like.
But most of all, pick a team and follow it. The best way to get into a sport is to get emotionally invested.
Where do I watch?
This is kind of tricky. You can probably catch some games on your local Fox or Comcast sports channel throughout the season, but those tend to be kind of haphazard, both in terms of when they’re on and what teams get shown. Your best bet is ESPN, which, in addition to televising the NCAA Tournament, will broadcast a couple hundred regular season games, mostly on ESPNU and streaming online at ESPN3. That’s where I watched the bulk of my South Carolina games last year–as the two-time defending national champion, they were on quite a bit–so if you want to actually watch college baseball, you’re probably going to see a lot of it online. You can subscribe to online streaming TV and radio for some teams, but I don’t personally.
But the fact is, you’re not going to be able to watch every game for any team unless you have season tickets. If it’s a big team, you’re going to be able to find beat writer coverage, particularly on Twitter. For South Carolina, I follow John Whittle of TheBigSpur.com and Darryl Slater of the Charleston Post and Courier, as well as the twitter account of my old stomping grounds, the sports department page at The Daily Gamecock. Some combination of print and online journalists exist for any team worth following. I’d also recommend Aaron Fitt of Baseball America for national coverage. The university’s athletics department page will also usually have game coverage and statistics as well.
Most of following college baseball, particularly from afar, is about reading recaps, Twitter feeds and box scores. Though if you happen to live in, I don’t know, Chapel Hill, N.C., then you really need to get to the stadium in person.
What players should I watch?
I’d start with Jonathan Mayo’s list of top 2013 draft prospects, as well as the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America list. I’d start with two former top-10 overall picks, Stanford senior Mark Appel and Florida junior Karsten Whitson. Whitson’s Florida teammate Jonathan Crawford threw a no-hitter during last year’s NCAA Tournament, and South Carolina sophomore lefty Jordan Montgomery may have had his breakout moment during last year’s College World Series.
My player to watch is pitcher Ryne Stanek, a likely high-first round pick whose exploits have found their way into the Crash Bag before. It doesn’t hurt that ESPN is making a point to showcase his Arkansas Razorbacks, the No. 1 team in the country, according to the USA Today coaches’ poll, throughout the season. Apart from that, you should probably just ask Longenhagen–he’s probably more in-touch with this kind of thing than I am.
Anyway, I hope this helps. I apologize for painting a portrait of college baseball that’s so focused on South Carolina in particular and the SEC in general, but that’s what I know. If I’ve missed something, or if you’d like to know more, I’ll be checking the comments on this post, plus I’ll be on Twitter. So get on that, and enjoy the season.