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Standardizing College Statistics: The Yearly Difference

An attempt to standardize College Baseball statistics

Let’s start with a blind resume. Which college baseball player had a better year?

Player A: .387 AVG/.508 OBP/.836 SLG/1.371 OPS with a .476 ISO

Player B: .402 AVG/.531 OBP/.819 SLG/1.350 OPS with a .417 ISO

Arguments can be made for both depending on what stats you prefer, but let’s specifically talk about power production. Looking at SLG, OPS, and ISO, which player had a better year? Player A by a landslide…right? Not necessarily. What if I told you Player B was 9% more productive in SLG, 10% more productive in OPS, and 28% more productive in ISO. The reason why? The year they played in.

 

Standardizing College Statistics: The Yearly Difference

 

The players listed above both put up two of arguably the best college baseball seasons in the BBCOR era. Player A is 2022 Golden Spikes Award Winner Ivan Melendez who had 32 HRs, which was the most ever in the BBCOR era until Jac Caglianone broke his record. Player B is the 2018 Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn, who had 23 HRs. How could Melendez have a record setting year with 32 HRs, but be 28% less productive as a power hitter?

It comes down to the run scoring environment of the year they played in. Over the last couple years of college baseball, there has been a major surge in offensive numbers, specifically power numbers. Check it out.

College Baseball Yearly Stats

You can see how significant the changes have been since the low point in 2018. Slugging percentage across the sport is up 50 points, with OPS being up 70 and ISO (SLG-AVG, isolates just extra base hit production) being up 40 points. There continues to be large jumps each year. If you take Melendez’s stat line and drop it in the 2023 season, he becomes 6% worse in SLG and 18% worse in ISO. Compare that to Andrew Vaughn’s 2018 season, and the ’23 version of Melendez’s statline is 15% worse in SLG and 44% worse in ISO. These changes are drastic in such a short time. What could have changed that has made that large of a difference?

 

What has changed?

 

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: a baseball organization changes the ball to increase offensive production. To MLB fans that sounds familiar. Well, a similar thing has happened in the college game. But the issue is that this change happened during the 2015 season, as we can see by this article written by Ross Dellenger. At that time offense was at an all time low. Coming off the first couple years of the BBCOR era, home runs were at an unfathomable 0.39 per game in 2014. So far through the 2024 season, 0.39 HR/game would rank 276 out of 293 teams. The change has been drastic.

In that 2015 article by Dellinger, he writes that the ball’s seams were lowered, which was expected to create extra carry of 20 feet on similarly batted balls. The most-mind bending part of the article is the fact that home runs started to be hit at lower exit velocities, leading to some balls leave the park at 94 mph exit velocities. In 2014, the lowest exit velocity on an LSU HR was 98 mph. We do not have access to all batted balls in college baseball, but in 2022 in the MLB, Harold Ramirez hit a home run at 85.4 mph. We are now seeing home runs hit softer than ever.

Since we have full knowledge that the ball has been manipulated since 2015, what has changed since 2017-2018 that has led to such a massive surge in power across the sport? I believe the ball continues to be tinkered with to increase home run totals because offense puts people in seats. But there are a couple other factors that could be in play. First, the bats continue to get better. The shift to the BBCOR era was what kickstarted the dead era in college baseball. As bat manufacturers have gotten more knowledge on how to manipulate the BBCOR system, the bats have become more juiced.

Second is the emphasis on smaller fields with wind blowing out. This is more theory of mine than fact, but the majority of college stadiums are designed to be small, specifically with wind blowing out. Athletic Departments know offense sells tickets,  which has led to the push for homer friendly fields. Lastly, the shortening of the draft. Since the Covid-19 pandemic draft, we have seen several players that would normally be taken in the MLB Draft arrive on campus. This increases the talent across the board for college baseball, though this theoretically should also increase the pitching talent to balance it out.

The ball, the bats, the environment, and the talent have all led to a major increase in power across the country. It is not one thing that has overhauled the system, but the reality is we have to use this information wisely, so we are able to make better evaluations on players and not just simply ’scout the statline.’

 

Shift in AVG & OBP

 

Now that we have a good grasp on what has changed, let’s dive back in to some player comparison.

Nick Kurtz vs. Past Hitters

Nick Kurtz is one of the best hitters in the 2024 draft. He is actually one of my favorite hitters in recent memory. This is not a way to discredit the work he has done, but more to better understand how to truly value his offensive production. As we can see above, we have 2017 Brent Rooker and 2019 Spencer Torkelson as well as Kurtz 2023 season. yAVG and yOBP are both yearly adjusted stats based on the averages across the sport in that year. We will be using those stats throughout this conversation.

First look at the AVG column, and specifically Torkelson and Kurtz. The difference between a .345 avg, and a .351 avg is miniscule. But when we factor in the year they played in, we see that Torkelson was 8% more productive in AVG department. The changes in AVG since 2019 have not been as massive as the changes in power, but they have been significant none the less. Across the sport, the average player is hitting 12 points higher than the average in 2019. Comparable statlines do not equate to comparable hitters.

Now let’s switch to OBP column. We see that Kurtz had a .500 OBP, compared to Rooker with a .495. But based off the year they played in Rooker was actually more productive in his ability to get on base. Since the 2017 season, OBP has risen almost 20 points across the sport, making Rooker’s .495 OBP better and more productive than Kurtz .500 OBP. When evaluating Kurtz as a player and his potential as a prospect, these have to be taken in to consideration.

 

The Major Shift

 

Where there has been the largest shift across the landscape of college baseball is in the power department. We have discussed this already, but let’s look deeper at the numbers. Over the last 2 seasons, we have seen back to back years where the BBCOR era home run record was broken. First in 2022, Ivan Melendez broke Kris Bryant’s record of 31 with 32 in 2022, and Jac Caglianone hit 33 in the 2023 season breaking Melendez record. Also throw in Brock Wilken who hit 31 in 2023 (It is a conversation for another day that Kris Bryant hit 31 in the 3rd deadest year in college baseball since 1970). So the question becomes, are power hitters over the last few years better, or have the changes been that drastic that we are rewriting record books annually?

Let’s take Caglianone out of the first part of this discussion. He did not hit for the AVG to help his SLG, and his OBP skills hurt his overall OPS. Melendez put together the best power season statistically in the BBCOR era. His SLG was 40 points higher than Vaughn, OPS was 20 points higher, and his ISO was 43 points higher than Rooker. If we look at these stats from a yearly adjusted perspective, we see that he was worse than both in SLG, OPS, and significantly worse in ISO. SLG and OPS have seen a massive change over the years, and after looking at it in each respective environment, Vaughn had the better season than Melendez. But if we simply look at the statline, you would assume Melendez was more productive.

Now we can dive in to the problem with the home run record. In 10-15 years, assuming everything holds true, which at this rate no way it will, we will look back at Caglianone’s ’23 season as the best power season in the BBCOR era. While 33 home runs is extremely impressive, home runs across the country were up. Rooker’s 23 in 2017 and Vaughn’s 23 in 2018 were ultimately equally, if not more, impressive based on the environment. The changes across the game has led to a surge, and one could assume those players would put up comparable home run totals in the environment today.

 

Draft Implications

 

At this point, I am going to assume everybody reading this understands that the college baseball environment has massively shifted towards being power friendly. Each and every year putting up video game power numbers becomes less and less impressive. But ultimately, why is this important? From a player evaluation standpoint, a lot of our opinions are based off comparison. Our eyes, and our brain, compare players to what we remember being good and productive. It is very easy to look at a college player with crazy numbers like a 1.371 OPS and to look at it in shock. But it is not all that simple. We need to understand all the variables to make the best evaluations.

The big question is: how has this affected industry-wide draft opinions? Did we underrate Brent Rooker? He was always defensively limited and it’s not like he was drafted late, but he was taken 35th overall and hit .269/.366/.543/.909 through the minors and after some highs and lows has turned in to a productive MLB power bat. The bat has checked the boxes in pro ball.

Are we also overrating Caglianone’s power? Currently, he grades out with 70-80 grade power, but that is based off his historic college production. Based off the statline (yes, there are other factors that we will discuss) he should not have higher graded power than Brent Rooker or Andrew Vaughn because off how successful they were in the environment they played in.

Last question, did we not talk about Dylan Crews shortcomings enough? It is not a big sample size, but Crews did struggle once reaching AA. When looking at his college stats, it is not as impressive as the surface-level statline seems.

While his stat line is historic, and his Golden Spikes level is good, when looking at it amongst his peers it is not as impressive. Being roughly 60-70% better than the rest of college baseball in power production is not what I would label a 70-grade hitter with 60-grade power. It’s a really good prospect, but we saw Andrew Vaughn be 100%-200% better than his peers in 2018. Combine that with being in a system not known for offensive development, maybe we should have more question marks with Crews than the surface level would tell you.

 

Shortcomings

 

When looking at player evaluation, it is not as simple as looking at the statline and making a decision. There are factors that go into it. I would say for certain that MLB organizations, and the draft community as whole, are using more nuanced metrics than simply the statline to evaluate players. Batted ball profiles are more important to offensive production than a statline ever will be. So if we can compare Caglianone or Crews’ batted profile to Rooker and Vaughn, we are able to make a more legitimate comparison. Those will always outweigh statline for me, but statline and production is still a factor in decision-making.

There also needs to be consideration on if the changes in the ball have impacted batted ball profiles. Obviously distance and carry is one thing, but if one of the changes is to wind the balls tighter, it will play more bouncy off the bat. Not to mention the factor that fields are bigger, and wood bats are not as juiced as BBCOR bats are. All of these are factors that need to be considered, but player evaluation is combining all the factors to formulate opinions.

From the outside looking in, it also seems that the draft community on the whole has adjusted their perception of these players. Everyone talks about how power friendly the run-scoring environment is. It is something that is taken in to consideration in every evaluation. The main component is that there is no direct value to how much things have changed. Similarly to OPS+ in the MLB, this allows us to find out how productive a player is across offensive stats. Yearly adjusted stats is just another factor to put in the evaluation equation.

 

Conclusion

 

Ultimately, college baseball is in great hands. With the improvements in player development and the shortening of the draft, this is the best accumulation of talent that has ever been on a field in college baseball. More fans are watching than ever, and the sport continues to grow. The amount of schools that have already broken attendance records this spring is a great sign for the health of the sport. That doesn’t change the run-scoring environment they are playing in and how we should use that in player evaluation. We are in an information age, and this is another tool to use for evaluation purposes.

Part two of this article will be coming at some point next week to the Pitcher List Dynasty page!

Photos by Freepik | Featured Image by Ethan Kaplan

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