Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Don't Draft Him, He's Short About the author, Boyd Nation

Don't Draft Him, He's Short

Publication Date: July 4, 2000

Jon Harden

One of the fun things about being a college baseball fan is that there's another level to which you can follow your favorite players (the flip side to that, of course, is that the players don't stick around that long). When your favorite major leaguer retires, he's the subject of a "Where Are They Now?" segment on This Week in Baseball. When your favorite college player leaves, he's probably a prospect whose progress you can follow as he attempts to make the long (or sometimes not so long) climb through the minor leagues. If he (and, by extension, you) are lucky, you end up following Rafael Palmeiro's career. If you're not, he blows out his arm in a couple of years and both of you are left with a lot of "what if"'s, but it's still a lot of fun to try to predict who's going to succeed at the next level and then see how it goes.

The other day my wife and I were discussing Mississippi State players currently playing in the minors, and she changed the subject slightly, "Why didn't Jon Harden get a better chance to play pro ball?" Now, those of you who have been married a while will probably understand when I mention that this was about the fourth time she's asked me that over the years; it's just one of those things she wonders about, and when the conversation gets close to it, the question comes back out. And, as sometimes happens to justify the re-asking, my answer had changed.

Warning: Possibly time-hazed flashback approaching.

Jon Harden was a relief pitcher for the Bulldogs in the early '90's. Jon, although a perfectly normal-sized person in real life, was small in an athletic context and tended to wear his uniforms a bit big, which emphasized the effect. Therefore, he picked up the nickname Little Jon from the fans -- "Ring him up, Little Jon" -- and his pitching style fit perfectly with the name. You see, Jon's fastball only broke 80 if he really bore down; usually, it stayed in the high 70's. He had a middling selection of breaking pitches, nothing fancy, but enough to keep folks on their toes. Finally, though, he had a changeup that was a thing of beauty. It sang, it danced, it moved like a knuckler, and it came at about three different speeds.

Batting against Jon was much like batting against a really skilled Wiffle Ball pitcher -- the ball was there, and you knew you could really cream it, but when you actually wound up and swung, there was nothing within six inches of your bat. One of my favorite memories of that period is watching All-American and future major leaguer Lyle Mouton of LSU spend two completely futile days at the SEC tournament trying to figure out how to not screw himself into the ground against Jon. Jon had an excellent year as a closer in 1990, then was even more effective as a setup man in 1991; Jon would pitch the 7th and 8th innings of many games and then give way to flame-throwing Jay Powell for the knockout punch.

Now, I didn't follow the game as closely then outside of Starkville, but my recollection is that Jon Harden never had much of a shot at minor league ball. I think he went undrafted after his junior and senior years and then went and played the rest of the summer either as a free agent signee or, more likely, in an independent league, and that was it.

The first few times my wife asked me why that happened, my answer was that, while Jon was fun to watch, he just wasn't all that good by professional standards. This last time, though, now that I know a bit more and have been paying attention for a few years, I think the answer is that the scouts just aren't that good, and Jon Harden just didn't look like a major leaguer.

If you follow college ball and the draft, you probably have your own Jon Harden story. An obvious one from this year would be the tale of Kip Bouknight of South Carolina. Bouknight had a truly outstanding season this year. He was 17-1 with a 2.81 ERA and generally dominated SEC hitters in a way that few people ever have. He does not, however, look like a major leaguer. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, and he's built more like Greg Maddux than Roger Clemens. Correspondingly, he didn't get a nibble in the draft this year until about the 15th round; there were money concerns at that point, so he ended up falling all the way to the 21st round. He's still unsigned at this point, and will presumably be back terrorizing the league again next year.

Shortcuts, Heuristics, and Outliers

Human beings like shortcuts when it comes to problem solving -- it's one of the ways our brains are wired to handle problems too big to tackle straight on. This tendency is such a big part of the way we think that there's actually a technical term for it within artificial intelligence theory -- heuristics. They allow us to use our experience to apply to slightly differing situations in useful ways, and is generally a good thing. It doesn't always work, though.

Scouting, or player selection, is a hard problem. You're trying to predict which of a large number of players are going to be capable of being beneficial to a major league club five years from now. You can get some help from statistics, but that help is limited by the widely varying quality of opposition your candidates may have faced, and you can only physically get to so many games. You're probably also saddled with an organizational philosophy where, even if you know the value of things like plate discipline, you probably don't have any support for such an approach. So, scouts develop shortcuts.

One of those shortcuts is that a lot of great major league players look like they are cut from a certain set of molds. Great pitchers tend to be tall, muscular, or both, and they tend to be able to throw really hard. First basemen increasingly tend to be built like John Kruk, with or without the gut. Shortstops are all 5'7", Cal Ripken notwithstanding.

Besides the physical description shortcuts, there are skill set shortcuts. Players have to be fast unless they're sluggers or battery members. Pitchers have to have good fastballs, no matter how many other good pitches they have.

The problem with these shortcuts is that they don't even match up all that well with the set of players who are currently successful at the major league level. Neither Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux particularly look like good pitchers. Alex Rodriguez is too tall to play shortstop. The high minors are littered with "5-tool guys" who can't actually hit. The number of pitchers who hang on with quite a bit of success after age or injury costs them quite a bit of velocity indicates that fastball speed is probably overrated.

I don't have a solution to this. Obviously, the clubs can't assign a scout to each college, junior college, and high school team; even if they did, those scouts would have to be issued crystal balls to see which players could succeed at the higher levels. I just know that the current system misses a bunch of guys who can play and who would be a lot more interesting to watch than yet another guy who can steal bases but can't take a walk. I suspect that the organization that finds a way to evaluate and develop players who don't fit into the traditional "player" mold is going to have a bonanza on their hands.

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