The benefits of choosing college over pros

January, 17, 2012
1/17/12
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Gerrit Cole UCLANati Harnik/APGerrit Cole was drafted in the first round out of high school by the New York Yankees, but he decided to go to UCLA and wound up being the No. 1 overall pick in this past June's MLB draft.
“Everyone has a different timetable, some kids are ready physically and mentally to go out and endure the rigors of minor league baseball. It’s a totally different lifestyle, and not everyone is ready for that.”

Those are the words of an American League crosschecker.

Jason A. Churchill wrote about the benefits of drafting prep talent. From the professional instruction, the routing and upside, clubs have ample reasons for selecting prep talent. But what about the other side? What decisions are weighed when a player debates whether to start his professional career or head to college?

One can imagine every player who has picked up a bat or toed the rubber dreams of playing professionally. If a player is drafted out of high school and feels his time has come, the organization will welcome him with open arms. But signing isn’t for everyone, and there are three key reasons college may be the better choice for those on the fence.

Physical readiness

“Most of the time, it is physically,” said the crosschecker of why high school players aren’t ready for pro ball.

For players with fringe tools, or those without the ideal stature and frame, college gives them a chance to develop a bit more physically, to sharpen their skill and offer scouts a second look in hope of building upon their status out of high school.

“If you look in the majors, there just isn’t that many small guys. For undersized guys, college gives them three years to prove their worth,” said an AL area scout.

But for even those who are of solid build and physical maturity, the jump from prep to professional ball is quite the leap.

“Going to college for hitters, it can be a good thing,” said the scout. “If they were to play in the minors every day, as a high school draftee it’s hard to be physically mature to be able to take that grind.”

And no player on the diamond goes through the grind like a catcher. The scout spoke to the quick rise and success of MLB stars Buster Posey and Matt Wieters, both of whom played college ball.

“Catchers are late in developing a lot of the time because of the physicality of the position and the complex things going into it,” said the scout. “That is why you see a lot of college guys, juniors and seniors, do well because they had that three to four years to prepare and do well both with their game and body that can carry through a minor league season.”

Outside of physical stature, there is another hindrance that could set one behind in developing -- location.

It is pretty clear there are more opportunities to hit the diamond in California than in Michigan. Even with advance travel schedules, fall ball leagues and winter camps, a player in the Snowbelt doesn’t have the reps that a player in the Sunbelt has.

While that’s good for pitchers, who have a lack of wear-and-tear, for positional players, the at-bats and reps have yet to accumulate. So the skills of a player in Pennsylvania may lack the refinement of his Arizona peer.

“Kids that come out of this area, it’s a huge adjustment,” said one Ohio Valley scout. “Outside of the weather difficulties, when they do play they’re not playing the toughest competition.”

Mental readiness

In addition to physical readiness, one has to look at the mental readiness of a player and which setting will give him the greatest chance to succeed.

If a player were to struggle at a showcase or tournament, in the end he is back with family, friends or teammates. He is back in a controlled and comfortable environment. The same goes with a college player. That following day or week, he is back in class and practice, the same process he encountered in high school.

If a player is in a slump or struggles after a rough outing in the Northwest League, South Atlantic League or Midwest League, he is back in a hotel or on an overnight bus ride to an unfamiliar city with players from all over the globe with various backgrounds. Far from the comforts previously enjoyed.

The bus rides come after performing under the eyes of thousands of people, as the player earns his pay. A stark contrast from even the best-attended and most pressure-packed showcases and tournaments.

“There could be a guy that didn’t strike out 10 times in high school, that strikes out 10 times in his first five professional games,” said an NL scout. “It could be better for him, and for players who have never really struggled, to do so in college.

“Fall ball gives them a chance to get their feet wet, get acclimated that isn’t so publicized, where if you sign and are playing in the Gulf Coast League or Arizona Summer League, all of your friends and everyone see you’re struggling on the Internet.”

The slower college environment and amenities produce a setting conducive to growth, and can aid the development of players who are not yet ready for baseball to transfer from a way of life to one’s life.

The lifestyle

For those matured physically and mentally, there still comes the task of knowing what it takes and adjusting to being a professional athlete.

Away from home, no longer relying on parents and childhood friends for support, baseball is now one’s job.

“There are a lot of different factors in signing a professional contract,” the crosschecker said. “It is a huge step from high school to college, let alone high school to being a professional. Outside of the jump in competition, you’re living on your own, have to cook on your own, fend for yourself, pay bills yourself and on time, and it’s baseball 24/7.”

Adding that college provides a bit of a buffer between developing as a person and being entirely independent, the crosschecker spoke to the social development and interaction that is gained by attending college. It's a setting that the NL scout believes benefits some to experience change in, rather than in the pros with their livelihood on the line.

“There is a lot of natural maturity and changes that takes place when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old,” said the scout. “Growth, where in some cases it is better kids go through that in college instead of with their career at that age.”

Ultimately, the decision to sign or go to college is one that is personal, and the pros and cons differ from individual to individual. In either case, the crosschecker offers the following advice:

“Whichever way they go, they need to make sure they’re committed to their decision 100 percent,” he said.

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