America's Best Baseball Schools: MLB U?

Penn State produces linebackers. Georgetown is a factory for basketball big men. But if you're looking for a pitcher or a slugger in Major League Baseball's draft, which college should you turn to?

The short answer, based on a statistical analysis: Southern California for pitchers and Miami for hitters. But when Missouri State outperforms prestigious programs like Stanford, and when relatively unheralded Kentucky is the third-best school for pitchers since 1996, the long answer is that it's a bit more complicated.

As baseball holds its annual draft Tuesday, the importance of gauging collegiate talent is at an all-time high. Roughly half of the players in Major League Baseball went to college -- and clubs are becoming increasingly enamored with collegians because they're more developed and thus closer to helping the team. Last year, 20 of the first 27 players taken were from college; overall, just 32.2% of all players drafted were high-schoolers. This year, Stephen Strasburg, a fireballing pitcher from San Diego State, is expected to go first overall.

In basketball and football, colleges like North Carolina and Michigan have developed reliable reputations for churning out scorers and offensive linemen and other top talents. But in baseball, even top college players face a second layer of apprenticeship: the minor leagues. Here, a small, often unpredictable crop of players keeps developing while the rest stall. St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Albert Pujols played at Maple Woods (Mo.) Community College and was drafted 402nd overall in 1999, yet has developed into the game's most-feared hitter. Meanwhile, roughly half the players taken that year in the first round haven't reached the majors.

"Baseball is the hardest sport to prognosticate," says former Louisiana State coach Skip Bertman, who led LSU's baseball team to five College World Series titles. "In football, I watch the scouts come in and run seven or eight tests for each kid -- vertical jump, bench press, 40-yard dash -- and when you put all those scores together, you know their athleticism. In baseball, you don't have to have a 40-inch vertical; you don't even have to run real fast. But you do have to be real smart and know how to deal with failure."

To ascertain which schools have done the best in recent years at producing players who make an impact in the majors, The Wall Street Journal analyzed each draft from 1996 through 2008. Each school that has produced at least four major-league players from those drafts was ranked by adding its total "runs above replacement" for hitters and pitchers. This statistic measures how much better (or worse) a player is compared to a theoretical, average replacement.

The findings: Southern California, which owns 12 College World Series championships but has struggled in recent years, ranks No. 1 overall, although some of its best players -- including pitcher Mark Prior and hitters Jacque Jones and Morgan Ensberg -- have contributed little in recent years. Miami has generated little pitching in recent years but produced several sluggers, including Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff and Ryan Braun.

Other top college programs have had several players make the major leagues, but haven't seen them become stars. Texas, the alma mater of 354-game-winner Roger Clemens, doesn't crack the top 10, nor does Long Beach State, despite the recent exploits of Jered Weaver and Evan Longoria. Stanford has had more than 70 players reach the majors all-time, but all of the Cardinal's current players combined have been outproduced by former Rice standout Lance Berkman, a five-time All-Star first baseman with the Houston Astros.

California schools make up four of the top five -- USC, No. 2 Cal State Fullerton, No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Pepperdine, with Miami in between. But more than anything, the analysis shows how difficult it is for even top colleges to produce top-flight major-league players. Mr. Pujols has single-handedly been more valuable statistically than the offensive alumni of every college during the past dozen years, save Miami and UCLA.

Kentucky isn't known as a baseball school, but it has developed an impressive track record for producing pitchers, especially for a school that is not in the Sun Belt. Keith Madison, Kentucky's winningest coach all-time, concentrated on pitching, having been a pitcher himself. "What happened on occasion -- more often than my assistants would like -- was when I'd go to a high-school tournament, my focus was on pitching," says Mr. Madison, who retired in 2003. "My best gift as a coach, I felt, was my ability to identify good arms."

Mr. Madison unearthed Brandon Webb and Joe Blanton, two right-handers overlooked by professional scouts as high schoolers. Mr. Webb, who is currently on the disabled list with the Arizona Diamondbacks, won the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher in 2006; Mr. Blanton, a Philadelphia Phillies starter, was 2-0 in the playoffs in the Phillies' championship run last season. Mr. Madison also coached Scott Downs, a reliever who has become the Toronto Blue Jays' closer this season. This year, Kentucky lefthander James Paxton is projected to go in the draft's first round.

Missouri State, the alma mater of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, the NL's most valuable player in 2006, has also had surprising success. Its former players include pitcher Shaun Marcum, who had a 3.39 ERA for the Blue Jays last season but is currently injured, and reliever Brad Ziegler, who set a major-league record last season by starting his career with 39-straight scoreless innings. "I don't know if it's anything we do," says Bears coach Keith Guttin -- although that doesn't stop him from crowing to recruits about Missouri State's pipeline to the pros. "It tends to come up in conversation."

College-baseball coaches freely admit, though, that there's little they can do to keep their alums from languishing eternally in the minor leagues. "Most college coaches would agree that we can't take credit for the guys who make it to the big leagues," says Mr. Bertman of LSU. "The reason they make it is they were endowed with special gifts, and like all prodigies, they work hard at it."

Bookmark and Share