Peter Gammons: The winding the road for a superhuman draft pick

In Chicago Saturday, there was a relieved cheer that echoed from Wrigley to The Gold Coast when Kyle Schwarber hit his grand slam to beat the Cardinals. There was the same sense across New England when Andrew Benintendi, who’d broken an 0-for-19 slump Saturday, went yard against Chris Tillman in Baltimore.

Schwarber and Benintendi will move on, and up. But they are examples for the best of the college hitters whose names will be read next Monday night in the first round of the MLB draft, as well as the teams that select them, that the jump from college to The Show is more complex than at first it looks, when in those first looks they are getting fastballs and have yet to build a video resume that have been studied and broken down by the scouting preparation process that fans seldom ever get to see.

Louisville first baseman-pitcher Brendan McKay could be picked as a pitcher, he could be picked as a first baseman, but while he’s been comped to John Olerud (who was 15-0 as a pitcher at Washington State and was a premier hitter before suffering an aneurysm then went right to the Toronto in his first pro season), it’s a long way from the ACC to the majors. Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith and outfielder Adam Haseley have extraordinary plate discipline and have had more walks and extra base hits than strikeouts. Keston Hiura of the Cal-Irvine Anteaters may be the best hitter in college baseball despite an elbow issue that has limited him to DH. Kentucky’s Evan White is an athletic first baseman/outfielder with an underrated hit tool. North Carolina shortstop Logan Warmoth and center fielder Brian Miller have major league defensive skills and improved dramatically every season in the ACC and the Cape Cod League, but are not going to be their comps (in their cases, J.J. Hardy and Brett Gardner) at this time next year.

Start with the two best college bats out of the 2014 draft. Schwarber was the fourth pitck. The next summer, in his first full season, he was with the Cubs, hitting 16 homers and putting up an .842 OPS, and after hurting his knee last spring, returned for the post-season, hit .367 and hit five homers. Saturday, before the homer, he was hitting under .170 and talk radio was pleading for an Iowa vacation.

Michael Conforto was the 10th pick in that 2014 draft. Like Schwarber, he was up with the Mets, played in the world series, put up an .841 OPS in that rookie season, then in 2016 went back to the minors with a .220 average and .310 OBP. This weekend, the OPS was 1.024.

“It’s all part of the process,” Joe Maddon said while discussing Schwarber Friday. Which raised the question: could it be that talented young players like Schwarber, Conforto and Benintendi may need the 1000 at-bats while riding the buses that so many needed? “Maybe so,” said Maddon. “There’s a lot to be said by enduring those minor league experiences.”

Joe then recalled a bus trip from Medicine Hat to Boise when they got to the U.S. Border at 3 am, but there was no one to be able at Customs to clear the five Latin players on the bus, so they had to sleep at the customs office until the proper officer got to work. Schwarber, Alex Bregman and Benintendi were too good and had too much big-time college experience to endure that.

A very wise man named Eddie Kasko used to say “unless you’re a superman, if the first time a young player struggles, even if he’s good, if it’s in the major leagues you may lose him for while.” Indeed, Al Kaline was a superman; at 20, he led the American League in hitting. Tony Conigliaro led the league in homers at 20. Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor seem superhuman.

But Dansby Swanson, Bregman, Benintendi and Ian Happ were in the top nine picks in 2015. The first three were in the majors in their first full professional seasons, Happ in his second. And they’ve battled the development.

–Swanson hit .302 with an .803 OPS with the Braves when he came up last season. Going into Sunday, he was hitting .194. He’s good. He’s going to be appearing in an All Star Game. He has yet to rediscover what made him so great at Vanderbilt.

–Bregman likely will be a hitting machine. Right now, hitting .254 with a .728 OPS is simply a checkpoint on his trip.

–Benintendi was singled out by the Indians as the most difficult Red Sox hitter to game-plan in the playoffs, got off to a big start in 2017, then had 0-for-26 and 0-for-19 skeins in a drizzle of off-speed pitches. Two home runs at Camden Yards Sunday may have redirected him.

–Happ had two homers and went 4-for-13 in his first three games. He then went 1-for-5 with no homers, and was 4-for-32 when he came up Sunday night. And belted two homers.

Cardinals hitting coaches John Mabry and former batting champion Bill Mueller watched them Friday. “There’s more teaching needed at the major league level than ever before,” said Mueller. “Every day is a teaching experience.”

So when Hiura and White, Smith and Haseley and Warmoth and Miller hear their names picked next Monday, people have to remember how winding the roads have been for Schwarber and Conforto, Benintendi and Bregman and Swanson. Their talent is unquestioned. One opposing coach told me “Haseley has some of the greatest takes I’ve ever seen in college baseball.”

Someday we’ll look back at when we saw .166 flash on the scoreboard next to Schwarber’s name, or when there’s a .194 next to Swanson, and laugh. Hey, Mike Schmidt was an All-American at Ohio University, at the age of 23 batted .196 for the Phillies, and went on to become one of the greatest third baseman that ever lived.

Comments

  1. Sammy Weiss says:

    Its a fear that goes back generations; you don’t want to bring up a kid to the Majors before he has had disappointment at the minor league level. In some extreme cases it can ruin your career, or at least stunt its growth.

  2. Its tough though, cause sometimes you get a guy like Mookie Betts or Byrce Harper, and you have to ask yourself the question, am I giving my organization the best chance to win by having a better player stay and develop in the minors rather than help the big squad…

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