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In The 2019 Draft, It Doesn't Pay To Be A College Reliever



Arkansas reliever Matt Cronin, No. 71 on the BA 500, and Oregon’s Ryne Nelson (No. 83) are the top-ranked relievers on this year’s draft board. They are likely to be picked somewhere between the end of the second round and the middle of the fourth round.

But if either had been born 20 years before, they’d likely be richer men come July.

The draft has changed in many ways over the years, but one of the most dramatic ways the draft has changed is in how teams evaluate college relievers.

It seems hard to believe nowadays that 22 years ago the Detroit Tigers picked Rice closer Matt Anderson with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Yes, Anderson threw 100 mph at a time when that was very rare. But it’s impossible now to imagine a team taking a closer who was destined to remain in the bullpen with the first overall pick in a draft, even if he threw 110 mph. The Tigers would have been better off picking any of the four players taken after Anderson—J.D. DrewTroy GlausJason Grilli or Vernon Wells.

The shift in thinking from loving college relievers to viewing them skeptically has happened slowly. In the early 2000s, first-round closers like Ryan Wagner and Chad Cordero quickly made it to the majors, but they also burned out quickly. Both of them were finished as effective MLB relievers before they turned 26 years old.

By 2008, the idea of instantly boosting a bullpen with a college reliever was starting to wane, but there was still the allure of adding a promising arm. That year, five college relief pitchers were drafted in the first round. By then, a new idea had arisen. By taking a relatively fresh-armed reliever and moving them to the starting rotation, teams could get very talented arms with less wear and tear.

It was an interesting idea, but it largely didn’t work. Andrew Cashner successfully made the conversion, but of the other four first-round relievers, only Josh Fields had a major league career of any consequence, and he did so after being left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.

The idea of taking a reliever in the first round and then moving him to the starting rotation seemed to largely end with the failed attempt to do so with Tyler Jay, the No. 6 pick in the 2015 draft.

The lure of taking college relievers early in the draft has always been readily apparent. They generally throw very hard. They generally have a second plus pitch. Ideally, they will go from dominating the eighth and ninth innings of Division I games to pitching in the late innings of MLB games in short order.

There’s only one problem: that almost never happens.

We found 20 college relievers who were drafted in the top five rounds from 2013-2017. Only two (Michael Lorenzen and Corey Knebel) have had significant MLB careers. And in Lorenzen’s case, he was an outfielder/closer in college who made it to the majors initially as a starting pitcher and then moved back to the bullpen. Of the 11 relievers drafted in the top five rounds in 2014 and 2015, six were left unprotected the first year they were eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

The highest drafted college relievers aren’t moving all that quickly. And often the dominant stuff they are displaying in college baseball isn’t always translating to pro ball.

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In conversations with a few scouting directors and scouts, the most logical answer appears to be that the skills needed to be a college reliever are significantly different that what is needed to successfully relieve in pro ball.

In college baseball, relievers are needed to shut down opponents in the late innings on the weekend. Ideally, they are going to throw twice during a weekend series, although sometimes they aren’t needed that often. If they throw back-to-back days on the weekend, they often will get Tuesday and Wednesday night’s games off. Rarely will they ever throw on both Tuesday and Wednesday.

In pro baseball, MLB relievers are often asked to throw on back-to-back nights. One day off is the norm, and two days off in a row means the reliever is getting a light workload. Anything beyond that likely means it’s a very unusual week. And that doesn’t count the times when a reliever gets warmed up but doesn’t get into the game.

It’s a workload that understandably doesn’t get replicated in college baseball. Cronin finished the Southeastern Conference with 26 innings over 22 appearances for the Razorbacks. He never threw more than two innings in an appearance and never topped 40 pitches. Arkansas’ coaching staff ensured that he had a reasonable workload all season.

But the very nature of the college schedule meant that Cronin pitched in a way that is impossible in pro ball. Cronin worked on back-to-back days only twice during the regular season. There were nine different times that he worked with five or more days of rest between appearances. Ole Miss’ Parker Caracci is another prominent draft-eligible reliever who worked exclusively in relief this year. He worked on back-to-back days three times—and once worked three days in a row—but he also had eight stints of five or more days rest.

In pro ball, the only way a reliever gets five off days in a row is if he’s on the injured list.

Evaluating college relievers throwing twice a week in short stints gives them a chance to show themselves at their best. But it doesn’t really give much of an indication of how well their stuff holds up when pitching back-to-back days for the second time that week after one off day in between.

Some pitchers hold up well and can maintain similar stuff while carrying a significantly heavier workload. Others can’t, and either their stuff backs up or they break down. It is not always obvious even to scouts which relievers will survive and which ones won’t.

So front offices now view college relievers with a much more skeptical eye than they did just a decade ago.

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