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College Baseball 101

Earlier this year I wrote a series of articles called College Baseball 101.  These articles were an introduction to the baseball as it is played on the NCAA level.  They answer some basic questions such as how the college game differs from the pro-game, how the season is structured and how teams qualify for the post-season NCAA tournament.

As the 2007 Big-12 season gets underway this weekend I thought I would repost this series collected into a single entry for those who might have missed it earlier.  Just click "read more" below.  It is probably best to print off the article as it runs about ten pages.  KU has a good baseball program and a beautiful field located right on campus adjacent to Allen Field House.  Tickets are free for those with a student ID, and only $6 for general admission. About half the games are broadcast on KLWN AM-1320, including all the road conference games.  I hope you enjoy the piece, and find your way down to Hoglund Field this spring to catch a few games.

COLLEGE BASEBALL 101

I know that NCAA baseball tends to attract a much smaller following than football and basketball.  I hope this article will serve as a nice introduction to baseball as it is played on the college level.  It answers some basic questions such as how the game differs from the pro game, how teams qualify for the NCAA post-season tournament, and what some of the important issues facing the sport.  I suspect many more people would enjoy following the sport if they had a little background information from which to build.  If you enjoy baseball take a bit of time to learn about your local college team.  If you are like me, you'll find the atmosphere of college baseball refreshing.  NCAA baseball is a highly competitive version of the sport stripped of many of the elements that have creeped into the pro variety.  Elements which have caused many older fans to look on the pass time with increased cynicism.

THE SEASON AND THE TOURNAMENTS

There are roughly 300 NCAA Division I baseball teams There are at least that many more teams playing in lower level divisions, at NAIA and junior colleges.

NCAA Division I teams can schedule up to 56 games a year, although there are some ways around this restriction.  For example, KU has been able to play 61 games each of the last two regular seasons because the NCAA gives teams exemptions who travel to Hawaii. These game start in February, and must be wrapped up in late May before the post-season tournament.  This means that teams play either four or five game most weeks, almost always playing three games from Friday-Sunday.  The large number of mid-week off-days has resulted in a pretty standardized use of starting pitchers in college.  Teams save their best three starters for the more important weekend series, and use fill-in pitchers for the less important weekday games.

Division I teams are limited to 11.7 scholarships per year, while each team carries about 25 players on their roster.  This means that it is pretty uncommon for any player to receive a full scholarship, most playing under partial coverage.  Some believe this shortage of scholarships has caused college baseball to become a predominately middle-class sport as promising players who come from less affluent backgrounds can often not afford to play college ball and also pay for half of their expenses.  Many players who are recruited by universities from these families instead sign minor league contracts with minimal bonus payments for financial reasons.  While I don't know if the shortage of scholarships is entirely to blame for this phenomenon, it certainly is true that there are a disproportionately small number of black and Hispanic players on college teams.  It seems to me that the baseball and NCAA community are very aware of this issue, but I don't know if they have developed any method to address it.

NCAA Div I teams normally wrap up their seasons with conference double elimination tournaments.  The Big-12 only allows the eight highest ranked teams to compete in the tournament.  After these tournaments the NCAA announces the post-season tournament field.

64 to 16 -
Much like basketball 64 NCAA teams advance to the post-season.  About 30 of these teams are conference winners, the rest are at-large bids.  Only the first 16 teams are officially seeded, these are called "regional hosts."  The top eight teams are called "super regional hosts."  Each of the 16 "regional host" teams then hosts a weekend double elimination tournament on their home field.  Four teams are sent to each regional site, by the end of the weekend only one will emerge, thus narrowing the field from 64 to 16 in the span of a few days.  The tournaments are double elimination.  Teams which suffer early losses can recover, but must do so on the hard road, winning a double header on day two and defeating the winner bracket team consecutively on days 3 and 4.

16 to 8 -
The 16 teams that emerge from the regional sites are paired up and sent to play a best-out-of-three series with another surviving team at one of the "super regional" locations, provided these top eight teams made it out of the first weekend of play.  The eight teams that emerge from this "super regional" round earn their way into the College World Series, played every year in Omaha.

8 to 1 -
The College World Series is an eight team, tournament, normally lasting about two weekends.  Most of the tournament is broadcast on ESPN.

Teams which make it all the way to the CWS thus play about 70 games during the season.  Teams in the major conferences normally see 40 wins during the season as a mark of distinction and a strong indication that they will make the post-season tournament.  Last year KU went into the Big-12 tournament with a 38-23 record.  This put them on the bubble for the NCAA field, a situation the Jayhawks took care of by winning four games in four days to take the tournament championship and claim the automatic bid.  This was a hell of a weekend for KU baseball.

KU was sent to Corvallis Oregon for regional play and, after winning their first game vs. (#25) Hawaii, lost consecutive matches to the eventual CWS champs (#4) Oregon State Ducks and their rematch with Hawaii, ending their season June 4th with a 43-25 record.  While it was disappointing, just the fact that KU made the NCAA field for the first time in over a decade has be considered a positive indication of the growing strength of the program.  Another indication of this strength was the selection of six players in the following MLB draft, a school record.

The Jayhawks need to reload for 2007.  They must replace all three of  their weekend starting pitchers, their closer, their lead-off man and center fielder, their starting short-stop and their clean-up hitter.

QUALITY OF PLAY AND THE CONFERENCES

The level of play in College baseball varies enormously.  I understand that pro scouts consider the level in the top handful of conferences (ACC, SEC, Pac-10 & Big-12) to be roughly on par with that of high-A minor league ball.  That leaves the other 85% of the teams playing at either low-A or rookie level.  Once the Jayhawks get into conference play the game speeds up, the fielding gets sharper, the opposing pitching staffs deeper, and the hitters more patient.  The jump in talent shows up on the score board.  During the Rich Price era (2003 - present) KU has a record of 101-44 in non-conference play (.697 winning %), and of 44-68 vs. Big-12 teams (.393 winning %.)

College baseball's elite conferences are not necessarily the same conferences that dominate in other sports.  According to last year's conference RPI ratings the top 10 were:


  1. ACC

  2. SEC

  3. Big-12

  4. Pac-10

  5. C-USA

  6. Big West

  7. Sun Belt

  8. Southern

  9. WCC

  10. WAC


Some big names are buried deep in the rankings.  Big East comes in at #14, Big-10 at #16, MAC at #18 and A-10 at #21.  How in the world does the Big West conference consistently field vastly superior baseball teams than does the Big-10?  Why are Rice, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, and Wichita State the big dogs while Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State and Illinois are buried so low in the rankings that they are not considered realistic competitors for post season play?  The answer is geography.

Since NCAA baseball must be played between February and May any school located in the colder zones of the country operate at a disadvantage.  In Michigan, players often cannot practice outside until March, by which time many sun belt teams have already racked up a dozen wins.  It's hard for the cold weather teams to attract the best athletes, to get their teams to gel, and to fit in 60+ games.  Last year North Dakota State did not play their first home game until April 14th, at which point their record stood at 2-25.  Of the 53 games they were able to play that year only six could be scheduled at home.

North Dakota State is an extreme example, but reflective of the problems all cold weather schools have when competing in college baseball.  Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska are all considered in this "cold" zone.  Colorado and Iowa State do not even have baseball teams.

For years Lawrence's location was seen as an insurmountable problem for ever developing a decent baseball program; however, over the last decade the success of other northern schools, Nebraska in particular, have caused this thinking to change.  One way northern schools overcome their natural disadvantage is by scheduling most of their early games on the road in warmer areas of the country.  Every year KU spends its first week in Hawaii and the weeks soon thereafter trolling around Southern California and the South East picking up games vs. Stanford, Vanderbilt, Clemson and other high ranked schools.  While this must be hard on the team members, a lot of traveling and missed classes, it does allow KU to play a maximum number of games and compete against the best the nation has to offer.

KU has scheduled home games this year much earlier than they normally risk.  The Jayhawks will be playing as early as February 9th at Hoglund.  Last year their first home game was March 3rd.  We'll all have our fingers crossed that the day is clear and the temperature above 50 degrees.  Otherwise it'll be kinda hellish in the stands after a few innings.

The biggest difference in higher and lower quality college teams in my eyes is fielding and pitching depth.  Almost all teams have at least a few players who can handle a bat, but once you drop out of the top group few teams have pitching staffs that can go more than two or three arms deep.  There are probably only a few dozen teams with enough pitching that they can afford the luxury of designating effective pitchers to the bullpen.  Big-12 teams tend to be very well coached compared to most schools, and the effect this has on fielding is clearly visible.  Shortstops who can range for balls, Third basemen who can knock down line drives, outfielders who can identify and hit a cut-off man, these are aspects of the game we just take for granted after watching major leaguers for years.  They are far from the norm when it comes to 2nd and 3rd rate college teams.

Breaking down the KU schedule this year into categories.

15 - Games vs. elite competition (teams which finished last year with RPI's over 590.)

Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma & Nebraska.

16 - Games vs. good competition (teams with RPI's between 550 and 589.)

Stanford, Oral Roberts, Wichita State, Missouri State, Missouri & Baylor.

10 - Games vs. fair competition (teams with RPI's between 510 and 549.)

Texas A&M, Kansas State, & Texas Tech

1 - Games vs. marginal competition (teams with RPI's between 480 and 509.)

Penn State

19 - Games vs. non-competitive programs (teams with RPI's below 480.)

Hawaii-Hilo, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado, Western Illinois & Chicago State.

After February KU will settle into its normal scheduling rhythm.  The Jayhawks will play a three game series on the weekend either against a Big-12 team or another competitive program.  When the days become warmer and longer KU will also play games most weeks on Tuesday and/or Wednesday, often against regional or lower rated opponents.   In March Penn State, Wichita State, Northern Colorado and Missouri State will visit for these weekday games.  

The Jayhawks and their opponents will reserve their best starting pitchers for the weekend series, and send underclassmen or swingmen to the mound for the weekday games.  At times over the last few years KU's lack of pitching depth has reduced coach Price to referring to some of their weekday pitching plans as "staff days," meaning that no available pitcher was expected to go more than three innings.  While these weekday games have a less intense feel winning them is still key in building a post-season resume and giving less often used pitchers growth opportunities.  The exceptions to this "less intense" generalization are those days in which Wichita State visits Lawrence.  For decades Wichita State has dominated Kansas college baseball, and now that the Jayhawks are challenging this position the KU-Wichita State rivalry is enormous.  Last year Hoglund sold out for this game, setting an attendance record of 2,324.  

Normally weekday games attract about 800 or 900, and weekend matches bring in about 1,000 to 1,500.  Missouri, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas also bring in big crowds of around 2.000.  The following Texas baseball has is just amazing.  A few years ago when the Longhorns visited KU for a series at least four or five hundred Texas fans followed the club for the weekend, filling up much of the left field bleacher with burnt orange  gear.  Before the game the fans and the players would sing back and forth to each other some apparently beloved Texas hymn while waving their hands in the shape of Longhorns.  Hate Texas like I do, I had to give it up to the fans.  They really support that team.  Must make the players feel good to see a rooting section like that on the road.  UT will visit Kansas this year April 5-7 so if you want to catch one of those games and see the Longhorn traditions best to arrive early.

If KU can just split its games versus fair to elite competition they should rack up close to 40 wins going into the Big-12 tournament.  That will put them roughly in the same position they were in last year, giving them a good chance to extend their season into June.  Coach Price has articulated his philosophy in the past regarding scheduling.  Win your home weekend series, don't get swept on the road, and win the weekday games.  This formula should add up to enough wins to put the team in position to play in the post season.

 

COLLEGE BASEBALL VS. PRO BASEBALL

There are only a few rule differences between college baseball and professional baseball.  The College game is supposed to be more collegial (ha ha), so physical contact between opposing players is discouraged.  It is illegal for a runner to collide with a defensive player in an attempt to dislodge the ball.  This eliminates collision plays at the plate between catcher and base runner.  When a player comes in to score and there is no play at the plate catchers normally give the runner a wide lane.  When the play is close and the runner makes contact with the catcher, the umpire may judge that the purpose of the collision was to make contact, not to reach the plate.  If this is the case the baserunner is automatically called out and, if the contact was "flagrant," he is also ejected from the game.  The only time I saw this rule abused was last year.  I forgot who the opposing team was (let's just say it was Missouri because I hate that team) but when the Jayhawk catcher was knocked down in a play at the plate both benches emptied and it took several minutes before the game could be continued.

All College teams use the DH rule.  Not all College games go 9 innings, a "mercy rule" exists, but it comes into play rarely.  The "mercy rule" is in effect during tournament play, and on "get away days" (i.e. Sundays).  Any time one team is ahead by 10 or more runs and the trailing team has had at least 7 innings at bat the game is called.  In the two years that I have been following KU baseball I can think of only two times when this rule came into effect.  

Another rule that can shorten a game is the simple "get away" rule, in which games are halted at 6PM (I think) Sundays to insure that all students can back to their campuses for Monday morning classes.  These games are given a decision if at least five innings have been completed.  If five innings have not been completed the game is erased.  If a game is rained out and cannot be made up during the same series then it is eliminated from the schedule.  If a game is eliminated from the schedule the two teams can than schedule an additional game against a different opponent to make up the missed game.  In 2005 KU had a game rained out at Texas Tech so added a last minute game against St. Mary's College at home.  St. Mary's (NAIA) didn't prove to be up to KU's level but Coach Price showed again that he is willing to do whatever he can to make sure his team gets as much time on the field as possible.  The St. Mary's game gave playing time to several substitute players and time on the mound to some young arms, plus admission was free, giving the fans a small thank you present.

"PING"

The biggest difference between college baseball and pro baseball is the use of aluminum bats.  If you think this degrades the game, well, join the rest of the world.  Pro scouts hate the use of aluminum bats because it makes projecting college talent harder.  Infielders hate using aluminum bats because the ball comes off the bat faster than it does off a wooden bat and fielding hot shots can be a nightmare.  In college the hardest position to field is probably 3B and Pitcher, not Shortstop, due to the increased speed of the ball off the metal bats.  Add to this the growing realization that strong kids swinging aluminum bats and sending 110mph line drives at heads located 50 to 60 feet away is simply dangerous.  Every year a few kids die playing baseball in high-school or college, and it is believed that many of these deaths could have been prevented if wooden bats were in use.

When a ball is hit in an aluminum bat's "sweet spot" a trampoline effect occurs.  The aluminum bat gives a fraction of an inch on contact, and then expands back out to its original dimension, thus propelling the ball faster.  Also, the weight of an aluminum bat can be manipulated so most of the mass falls in the center of the bat rather than uniformly up the shaft.  This allows the batter to produce greater bat speed, thus cutting down on strikeouts and increasing the power behind line drives.  Everything about aluminum bats favors the batter, and forces the fielder to react more quickly and decisively.

Pro scouts so hate the use of aluminum bats that they flock to summer games in competitive amateur leagues such as the Cape Cod League to watch college players compete while using wooden bats.  "Can this kid really swing?'  "Does he really have a good eye, or is it just the bat and not his eye making contact?'  The Reds drafted University of Texas All-American outfielder Drew Stubbs in the first round last year.  His numbers his last year at UT, and his first year in Rookie Ball:

.342 / .439 / .580 / 1.019 - (HR% = 4.2%)

.252 / .368 / .400 / .768 - (HR% = 2.4%)

Rookie Level ball should be two levels below Big-12 level baseball.  Stubbs performance in Billings was considered so bad that, after only 56 minor league games he is already being written off as a bust by many baseball writers.  The explanation these writers keep bringing up is that Stubbs couldn't make the transition from metal to wood last summer.  Now, it is much too early to reach any firm conclusion about Stubbs, but he is a good example as to why pro scouts hate the use of aluminum in the college game.  If Stubbs doesn't turn it around next year, the Reds will have lost a first round pick and about $2M on a player who might never play above single-A level ball.

So, the big question, Why do colleges still use aluminum bats?  The answer really is money.  Here at KU every player will probably go through 50 to 100 wooden bats in the course of a year.  Each bat costs about $20.  That same player will only go through about 4 or 5 aluminum bats.  KU saves tens of thousands of dollars a year by using aluminum bats.  KU, and other big conference teams, could probably afford to spend an extra $20K a year on the baseball team and use wooden bats, but could St. Mary's?  There are over 500 college baseball programs today, and probably 30 or 40 of them actually make money for the school.  It is argued that if wooden bats were made mandatory in the NCAA then dozens of schools would drop their programs due to financial necessity.

Hope for the Future

The idea of the big conferences switching to wooden bats during conference play has been floated before, but it is not a realistic option.  Switching players back and forth between aluminum and wood every few days would mess with the player's rhythm and make the teams less competitive in non-conference and post-season play.  If a change is going to be made it probably will need to be NCAA wide, not just conference by conference.  But you never know.....

Note: Zlax45 pointed out after this article was written that one NCAA D-II conference, the Northeast 10, has switched to wooden bats during leauge play.  Apparently the fans of these teams notice a significant drop in the batters power when the wooden bats are dusted off and put into use.  See comments section for more.  Thanks Zlax45.

The NCAA and aluminum bat makers have tried to respond to the problems documented above by regulating the manufacture of bats to decrease the trampoline effect, but even if the regulations are followed the effect would only be diminished, not eliminated.  I don't see the problem of aluminum being eliminated in the very near future, but I do think metal bats are on a collision course with extinction within the next generation.  Why?  Law suits.  Every player seriously injured or killed by a ball struck by an aluminum bat represents a potential legal liability.  Once a few of these law suits make their way through the court system, athletic departments will realize that the use of metal bats are not only degrading the game of baseball and putting thier players at increased risk of injury, but are also putting their departments under threat of crippling liability.  I expect the courts will force colleges and high schools to eventually do the right thing.

Now if only I could think of a way for teams to be sued for using Designated Hitters we could eliminate that other blasphemy to the game.

Since I've written so much already in this column I'll start another over the weekend dealing with when college players can and cannot be drafted, and why some players who are drafted and offered signing bonuses decide to play in college rather than make the jump.

GOING PRO

Major League Baseball's player control rules are probably among the most complex in all of professional sports.  How many casual baseball fans can accurately explain terms like the "Rule Five draft - minor league phase," and "Super-Two arbitration eligible"?    I've been slowly accumulating information on these rules for a few years now and I think I understand about two thirds of them fairly accurately.  Given that lukewarm statement of confidence, I now bravely wade into an explanation of the MLB amateur draft....

American vs. International players

The only amateur baseball players who are covered by the MLB draft are American citizens and foreign nationals playing baseball at American universities at which they have declare residence.  This is a key point.  Non-American players - probably about 80% of the global talent base - are essentially an uncontrolled group.  Any MLB team can sign a non-American amateur player at any point after their 16th birthday as long as they have not already signed a contract with another professional team.   Keep this in mind when you see any MLB club cutting back on international scouting.  Shutting down overseas scouting is the financial equivalent of an unemployed person saying they are not going to look for a job because it costs too much gas money to drive to interviews.  Overseas scouting can be likened to the "wild west."  It can often involve bribery, falsification and long hours but the potential rewards are enormous and frequent.  Twelve players on the Royals 40 man roster today are international players who were never drafted.

Returning to the American amateur talent base, a great deal more control is exerted over this group.  At about the same time College Baseball celebrates the high point of its season in Omaha the 30 major league clubs get together (at least on speaker phones) and conduct a two day draft that typically involves about 1,500 individual selections.

When is a player eligible for the draft?

There are times when an American is eligible for this draft, and times when he (and theoretically, she) is not.  Players can only be drafted:


  1. Upon turning 18 years or after graduating from high school.  At this point a player can sign a professional contract and begin their long journey through the minor leagues.  If the player signs a contract at this point they are permanently banned from playing baseball in college.  Young draftees use the leverage of exercising their option to play baseball in college to gain larger signing bonuses.  If a drafted player enrolls in a college with the intention of playing baseball at that institution the drafting team looses its rights to the player and he can be redrafted by another team the next time he is eligible.  Current KU Jayhawk Erik Morrison was drafted and offered a nice bonus out of highschool but instead he decided to come to KU.  Given his performance last year I think this decision will end up not only rewarding him with an education and several years of enjoying life in Lawrence, but probably will cause his next signing bonus offer to be an even more attractive one.
  2. If a player enrolls in an NCAA college and plays baseball they cannot be redrafted until they have completed their junior year or until they reach 21 years of age.  Teams which draft a player who has played three years must sign them to a contract before he either enrolls in or attends in fall classes.  (I'm not sure which one of these actions invalidates his draft.)  Once a drafted player returns for his senior year the drafting team looses rights to that player and he can be redrafted by a new organization the following year.  This quirk to the MLB draft gives junior players a great deal of leverage in negotiations.  It forces the drafting team to make a pretty attractive offer to the player.  After all, he can always return to school, play baseball for another year and finish his degree.  Not a bad fall back option.
  3. Finally, players can be drafted each year after their senior year.  The drafting organization controls rights to the player for a year.  If he does not sign a contract with the club he re-enters the draft the following year.  Occasionally players drafted by MLB clubs who have exhausted their college eligibility play for independent league clubs (for example, the Northern League) while negotiating a contract.  While the players are probably only earning a few hundred dollars a week playing for the Long Island Ducks, they are still given an opportunity to showcase their talent and can continue to build leverage in negotiations.  Some big names have followed this route recently, Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew and last year's #1 draft choice, Luke Hochevar.  
  4. The only exception to this process is with those who play baseball at two year colleges.  These players can be drafted anew each year until they either sign a professional contract or enroll in an NCAA (4-year) school.  If they enroll in an NCAA school, they can be drafted again after their junior year, and again finally after their senior year.  Thus theoretically a player can be drafted five times over a five year period if he goes High School - Juco - NCAA.  If he goes straight into the NCAA from high school he can be drafted three times in five years.


Why are there so many rounds in the baseball draft?

Unlike drafts in other professional sports the MLB draft goes long and deep.  It is not uncommon for an MLB team to draft 50 players.  There are two reasons for this depth.  First off, only about two-thirds of the players drafted will actually sign a contract.  The second is that each MLB organization actually must staff six or seven teams, stretching from the major leagues all the way down to short season rookie.  This means that each MLB organization must have about 200 players under contract each year.

Out of this group of roughly 175 minor leaguers in an organization, probably only 15 to 20 are considered true prospects.  A prospect is a player who has been identified as someone capable of enjoying a major league career, someone who might go beyond the "replacement level" ceiling.

Sidebar about that loaded word, "prospect." The theory behind "replacement level is that there always exists a large pool of minor league players who can play in the major leagues but who will never be better than roster fillers.  Sometimes these players are called AAAA players to signify they are better than most AAA players, but will never be good enough to make an impact in the bigs.  Teams are not trying to develop a large pool of "replacement level" players, there are always hundreds of these guys who can be obtained fairly inexpensively on waivers or via minor league free agency.  Think Jeff Keppinger or Dee Brown here.  The goal is to develop players who will be good MLB players, "prospects."  Thus most teams would gladly allow several "replacement level" players to leave before they would part with one of their "prospects."  Think Alex Gordon or Billy Butler here.  Even a prospect who only has about a one in ten chance of becoming truly good will normally be more valued than a very solid and seasoned 28 year old AAA player who seems to have peeked at "replacement level."  Players fight hard to gain the "prospect" title, but it seems to me that very few players who are not seen in this light in their first year of professional ball ever improve their stock and gain the status.  After the draft it is more a thing to be lost than to be won.  That is why it is so uncommon to see an unheralded minor leaguer suddenly pull it together and get himself on the organization's fast track.  But I digress...

Even though each organization only has a relatively small number of prospects, the entire minor league system must be staffed to a reasonable level of skill and competence to give these golden boys the competitive structure they need to develop their skills.   If you go see a low-A minor league team next year, you probably will see 50 young men working their asses off in pursuit of the dream, but in the eyes of a MLB General Manager, the whole show is only being put on for the benefit for one or two players on each team who have been ordained "prospects."

If you want to know who the prospects are in each MLB organization a good place to visit is John Sickel's web site "Minor League Baseball."  Here is the 2007 pre-season list for the Kansas City Royals:

http://www.minorleagueball.com/story/2006/11/14/14436/066

If a player is older than 22 and is not receiving at least a C+ rating, he probably is not attracting much attention from the parent club.  The Royals system is not so bad this year but they still only have 18 players who can legitimately be called prospects by this system.  The other 160 or so players in the Royals minor league system are there as long-shots and roster fillers needed to provide the competitive environment used to develop the prospects.

Of the roughly 1,500 amateurs drafted each year only about 200 will earn a signing bonus larger than a few thousand dollars.   The first 20 or so players taken will receive a million or more dollars, the next hundred will be offered something in the six figures.  Most players drafted after the first few rounds will be offered something like $5,000 and a ticket to some small town.  Signing bonuses are a huge issue for college players because after the initial influx of money they are likely to earn about a thousand dollars a month for the next three or four years.  Even players who get within sniffing distance of the show, players at AA and AAA, normally earn something in the $30K to $60K range.  Not a bad living, but in the Chevy, not Acura, range.  If a drafted player manages his signing bonus money well he can use it to live more comfortably during his hungry years in the low minors.  Players without this financial cushion have to scramble to find off-season jobs from October to February. "And now pitching for your hometown Burlington Bee's, the night stock clerk at the local Hy-Vee."  Former big leauge Third baseman Chris Sabo used to work a fast food job in Sarasota during the off season so he could be near the Reds spring training site and work shifts up to the day he had to report to camp.

College vs. Minor League Life

Despite the many romantic images our society puts forth about minor league baseball, I understand the actual experience is far from idyllic.  About 10 or 20 players drafted each year are considered very well developed and are pushed into the high minors right away, maybe even as high as the AA level such as Alex Gordon was last year.  The remaining 1,000 or so other players face a long road if they are going to live the dream.  Those who live up to expectations will likely spend half a year in rookie level ball, another season in low A, a third in high A, another in AA, and then they will go into a holding pattern at AAA waiting for the shot.  A lucky player, one who beats the odds, will have to put up with 2-3 years of  poverty and eight hour bus rides four times a week, followed by another 2 years of "getting by."  Nine out of ten will not be so lucky and wash out in the first couple of years.  Sometimes these players are cut, but normally they can read the writing on the wall and make an exit on their own terms.

College players are normally expected to progress through the low levels more quickly, but just the same all but the highest draft choices must spend at least a few years buried deep in the organization.  Most minor league facilities are less comfortable and modern than those found at major college programs.  Instead of pursuing a life of stimulating classes, quality time with friends, and sleeping in decent hotels while on the road, life after college is a real step down for most baseball players.  Even in the group of players who are "pretty good," those who have some hope of time in the major leagues, "C" prospects, it is not uncommon at all to see many dropping off after one of two years of minor league life.  Life as a teacher or office worker starts to look pretty good to a lot of young players after going through the grind for a year or two.

Knowing what they have to look forward to in the minor leagues helps explain why so many young men choose to play baseball in college in the first place, and also why so many stay in college after being drafted and tempted by what might look to them at the time like a substantial pile of money.  College gives players the opportunity to pursue the game seriously, but also to enjoy life a bit more and earn a degree that in the long run will probably be more beneficial to them then the baseball skills they work so hard to develop.  A very talented baseball player who spends four years at KU can potentially earn a much larger signing bonus when he does turn pro while at the same time cutting down his time in the minors by one or two years.  And even if baseball doesn't end up being the vehicle driving his life forward in later years, a college player now has a degree on his wall.

Scouts love college baseball players as they are much easier to project.  Their years playing in the NCAA can be seen as a replacement for the low levels of the minor leagues.  A player who has already succeeded at KU can be seen as a player who has already proven he can overcome the opening hurdles between the sandlot and the major leagues.  Increasingly the top rounds of the draft are dominated by college players.  They are safer bets, will be ready to contribute at the major leagues more quickly, and presumably are more mature and serious minded about their craft.  

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The only downside to this equation is that a college player enters the minor league system three or four years later than does a high school player, so he must progress up the ladder more quickly or loose his shot at "prospect" status.  The rule of thumb is that a baseball player who will succeed should be established in the majors by the time he is 26 years old, regardless as to his age at the time he was drafted.  A "prospect" should have his "cup of coffee" no later than at age 24, and should be a fixture on the club within the next two years.   The peak performance years for baseball players start around 28 and extend into thier early thirties when their physical abilities start to decline.  This biological fact means that slow development cuts down on the amount of time a player will be able to contribute at the major leauge level during these peak years.  While there certainly are many players in their late 20's and early 30's still playing minor leauge baseball, I would be surprised to find anyone older than 26 on a "prospect" list.  College players understand this, and that is why any bump in the road on their journey up the system which occurs below the AA level is considered potentially career ending.  "Prospects" are not given the opportunity to repeat levels.  When players talk about their time in the minors they often describe a stressful and cut-throat atmosphere in the clubhouses.  If a prospect stumbles through a bad spell, if he fails to show that he can dominate a league before the season comes to an end, in most cases the major league team starts to look past him for his replacement.  Of the six Jayhawks drafted last year, most will probably break camp with low-A teams.  Unless they can prove by the end of the year that they have the ability to perform at the high-A level they will probably find themselves being nudged out of organization's future plans.  A 23-year old in Burlington is the "old man" on the team.  And, unless you are lucky enough to hook up with someone like Susan Sarandan, being the old man on the team is not a lot of fun.