Launchpad to the Pros
The results speak for themselves. One in seven Major Leaguers played here, including one of every three collegiate draftees. Eighteen percent of all Major League hitters received their first elongated stint with a wooden bat in this league. This is, plain and simple, the stomping grounds for the Major Leaguers of tomorrow.
Yesterday, I mentioned Matt Murton's performance in the Cape. For two seasons, he had dominated the Cape Cod League, hitting well over .300 in both seasons with a wooden bat. He won the league's home run derby with wood, catching the eye of scouts everywhere. This was all he needed to get noticed, to get drafted high. If he isn't enough proof, how about the 169 players drafted this past June that spent their summer in Massachusetts? Does anyone think the likes of Tyler Greene, Daniel Carte or Tommy Manzella would have been drafted so high without positive summer reports? No way.
While the Cape doesn't have a monopoly on summer league baseball, it is close. The Northwoods League is a nice place for sleepers, but not often did a star play there. The same is true, even moreso in fact, for the Coastal Plain League. Team USA always hosts the best of the best, but even many of those players spent at least one season out east. Some even spurn the American national team to play with or against wooden bats, notably the two aces from North Carolina.
Given the abandonment of aluminum, it's suffice to say that chicks wouldn't exactly dig the Cape Cod League. Teams win on the White Sox strategy -- pitching -- rather than trying to score more runs than the opponent. The league batting average is a paltry .233, and teams are scoring on average, just about 4 runs per game. Because of this, expectations aren't exactly normal for hitters, who we just hope hit like Ronnie Belliard or the 2005 version of Adrian Beltre. Conversly, a pitcher has to be Clemens-esque to really start to become noticed.
In fact, to prove this point, I went through the 2004 Cape Cod statistics of the players drafted in last June's first five rounds. I gathered the statistics of every hitter that was there for fifty at-bats, and every pitcher who threw ten innings. Not a perfect system, but it gave me enough data to be somewhat confident (19 hitters, 16 pitchers). The average top 5 round player hit .262 in the 2004 Cape, with an ISO of just .117. He walked once every 10 at-bats or so (9.95), though walks were the one number that was more all over the board than anything else. The average was certainly helped by the likes of Daniel Carte (.308/.402/.560) and Ryan Patterson (.327/.348/.518), while hurt by Ryan Braun (.180/.293/.260) and Drew Butera (.182/.238/.212). As a general rule, I think becoming interested in hitters with a .260 batting average and .380 slugging percentage is an OK starting strategy on the Cape.
For pitchers, it's not that easy. The sixteen pitchers totaled 527 innings at the Cape, and compiled a group ERA of 2.25. They allowed just 23 home runs (0.39 HR/9 ratio), and even at that, 10 of the 23 came from three players: Chris Nicoll (3), Mike Billek (3) and James Avery (4). The group had fantastic peripherals, striking out 10.45 per nine innings, allowing just a 6.59 H/9, and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.20. Wow. These numbers were certainly helped by relievers Craig Hansen (0.00 ERA, 41/2 K/BB in 22.1 IP) and Kevin Whelan (1 ER, 9 H, 31 K in 21.2 IP), who were amazing. The group ERA drops to 1.78 if you eliminate the last three players drafted: Avery, Zack Kroenke and Brett Harker.
Using those numbers as a base, I set out to find some of the better players at the Cape this season. It seems like -- even across the entire collegiate landscape -- pitching rules more than ever, as I noticed there wasn't exactly a ton of great hitting prospects. With the Cape All-Star Game on the horizon, now is as good a time as ever to check on the league's top players. There might be others, but here are five hitters, nine pitchers, and one two-way player that have caught my eye so far.
Daniel Bard (RHP - UNC): In the Baseball Prospectus article I wrote about the five top 2006 college pitchers, I wrote this of Daniel Bard:
If there is a consensus about the first four players on this list, there isn't with Daniel Bard. Despite playing in a pitchers' park with the easiest schedule of the five, Bard had by far the worst season of the group. Everyone blows him away in terms of ERA, and only the sinkerballer (Buck) and wild thing (Miller) are close in K/9 and BB/9, respectively. Still, what keeps Bard on this list is his stuff and the promise from his freshman season. It's still possible that Bard puts it all together and has a great junior season, catapulting himself into a guaranteed top ten.
Well, he's certainly in the midst of being catapulted. Bard has been one of the Cape's best pitchers this season, and has the honor of starting the All-Star Game. The right-hander has 62 strikeouts in 49 innings, with just 38 hits and 16 walks allowed, and a 1.47 ERA. Next season is the big test for Bard, but if you're a betting person, take Bard in the top ten.
Aaron Bates (C/1B - NC St.): In the future I will write about Team USA, where Matt LaPorta is proving to be the most dangerous hitter in America. If that's true, Bates has a chance at one of the top spots behind the Florida first baseman. The two are actually similar players, as they are ex-catchers that have no business behind the plate anymore. But Bates' career has been longer than LaPorta's, as he was a transfer to the Pack from San Jose State. After dominating there, Bates had an amazing 2005 in which his .425 batting average yielded just an eighth round draft pick. My guess is Bates will ened up with a similar draft history to Jeff Larish, ending up in the 3-5 rounds next June. Considering his well-rounded offensive talents, I'd sure take him in the third.
Dallas Buck (RHP - Or. St.): Someone had to have made the right calls for Buck to make the All-Star Game, that's for sure. While Buck comes to the Cape with quite the resume, his early results on the 2005 summer are not so good: 4.91 ERA in 25.2 innings. That's bound to go down, though, as all of Buck's peripherals are sound: 21 hits, 30 strikeouts, 5 walks. After turning down Team USA, Buck was ready to sit the summer out, before making a last minute decision to join Falmouth a bit late. His stock couldn't have been any higher after the CWS, so I wondered if sitting out was a good move, especially considering the workload he endured during his junior season. One to watch in the Cape's second half.
Chris Coghlan (3B - Miss): The Chase Headly of 2005, maybe. Coghlan has manned the hot corner well for the Rebels for the last two seasons, named to the All-SEC Freshman team following his first season. He's a very disciplined hitter that has posted OBPs of .379 and .430 in his first two years at Ole Miss. This year in the Cape, Coghlan is hitting .333/.414/.406 with 12 walks and 11 strikeouts in 96 at-bats. And that perfectly shows Coghlan's skillset, as he is a very selective, and still is a good contact hitter. What he lacks, however, is power, as Coghlan has yet to show anything more than doubles power.
Chris Errecart (1B/OF - Cal): Entering the Cape League, I would guess Errecart came with the least fanfare. After two unspectacular seasons at Cal, Errecart entered the League with a rep as a poor defensive player with little discipline and just projectable power. But, Errecart has proven to be a well-rounded hitter this summer, with a SLG that rivals only a man a couple spots down for tops in the league. His patience is much improved from his first two seasons at Cal, and needs to stay at the current walk per ten at-bats pace. Errecart also must prove he can hack it in left field, a position far more forgiving for his offensive faults than first. 2006 is a big year for Errecart, who I think could be a sleeper next June.
Mark Hamilton (OF - Tulane): One of the league's better prospects, in my opinion. As a member of the top-ranked Green Wave this year, Hamilton was shadowed by the likes of Bogusevic, Owings and Manzella. Expect that to change in 2006, when Hamilton should emerge as the best player on one of the nation's best programs. His power has been intriguing since his Perfect Game days, and his .209 ISO at the Cape is fantastic. He's patient and powerful, and on the verge of a huge junior season.
Jared Hughes (RHP - LBSU): The surprise of the Cape so far, Hughes might actually win the 'Cy Young' if it existed. A transfer to Long Beach State from Santa Clara, Hughes has positioned himself to take the Dirtbags' Friday Night role next season. This is a good spot to have, as the last three are all well regarded prospects: Cesar Ramos, Jered Weaver and Abe Alvarez. Hughes was a very good high school pitching prospect that started to decline a bit his senior season. Could this be the revival? Well, it's too early to tell, but reports back are very solid. His fastball has been 89-92 mph, and while the control isn't apparently as good as the numbers say, it's hard to argue with 9 walks in 41 innings. My guess is that Hughes will turn out to be a far better prospect than we would have guessed in June, but a bit worse than some will forecast in August.
David Huff (LHP - UCLA): Has had a whirlwind of a college career, and will attend his third school in three years next season. After a 3rd team All State mention as a high school senior, Huff's college career began with a 3.00 ERA in more than 30 appearances for Pepperdine University. Last summer was his first year in the Cape, and Huff was brilliant, finishing fourth on the ERA leaderboard. He then transferred to Cypress Junior College for his sophomore season, likely so he could enter the draft this year. Rumors of an arm injury and a commitment to UCLA allowed Huff to slide to the Phillies in the 19th round, cementing a third collegiate season. He changes speeds fantastically with three good pitches, has great control, and is poised to finish high in the league leaders for ERA yet again.
Wade Leblanc (LHP - Bama): The Alabama website is not shy. "LeBlanc posted the most unbelievable freshman season in the history of Alabama baseball." Or how about this: "It would be easier to name the award Wade LeBlanc did not win during his remarkable freshman season with the Alabama Crimson Tide." They don't sugarcoat it, do they? But the site is correct, as Leblanc's freshman season was amazing en route to a National Freshman of the Year award. But reality struck hard in 2005, when Leblanc's ERA went from 2.08 to 4.37. Leblanc is finding the magic again at the Cape, where he has a 2.06 ERA and a K/9 back over the 9.00 mark. A crafty lefty with 3 solid pitches, Leblanc will likely interest the same people that Cesar Ramos did this past June.
Tim Lincecum (RHP - Wash): Like Bates, Lincecum was draft-eligible as a sophomore this past season. His stock fell late due to a multitude of reasons, likely very disheartening to a player some felt would end up in the first two rounds before his year began. Lincecum's stuff is unparalleled at this level, with a fantastic fastball-curveball combination. But, there are three factors that are plaguing Lincecum's stock: a hugely overworked sophomore season, a motion that pains the eyes, and some control issues. Still, if he continues to pitch at this rate -- 0.79 ERA, 58 K in 34 IP -- he'll enter the early round argument yet again.
Brad Lincoln (UT - Houston): Our lone two-way player on this list, Lincoln has been very good with his glove and arm so far. At the plate, Lincoln is hitting .275/.388/.538 while splitting time between first base, the outfield, and the designated hitter spot. He strikes out too much, but walks a lot and has plus power. On the mound, he's been very good as well, with a 1.58 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 45.2 innings. He had the better season at the plate his sophomore year, though his 106/25 strikeout-to-walk ratio shows a lot of potential. My guess at this point is that Lincoln will end up a pitcher in the John Van Benschoten and Micah Owings mold. And that is one hell of a compliment.
Evan Longoria (IF - LBSU): Along with teammate Hughes, the surprise of the Cape. Longoria played third base for the Dirtbags in 2005, but was out of position, simply manning the hot corner while Troy Tulowitzki finished his college career. At heart, Longoria is a shortstop, and will play that role in Long Beach in 2006. If he shows a sliver of the power he has with a wooden bat, expect the Dirtbags to not even know Tulowitzki left. Still, I think Longoria is bound to be a little overrated. His power has never been more than the gap variety before, so remain skeptical until further notice. He also doesn't walk very much, though his contact skills grade out very well. The question will be one of position, as many feel Evan's future may be at second base. He has made himself noticed, that's for sure.
Derrik Lutz (RHP - Geo. Wash): The 2006 first round college closer, maybe? Above, I mentioned Craig Hansen's fantastic Cape statistics from 2004. Lutz is trying to impersonate Hansen -- a fellow small program pitcher -- this year with the Chatham A's. Leading the league in saves, Lutz has used his big fastball extremely well. Lutz has yet to allow an earned run in 21.1 innings of work, striking out 34 batters. Even more impressively, the right-hander has walked just three while giving up 11 hits. A closer as a Freshman and an ace as a sophomore, Lutz will have to decide between himself and his team next year. The former would be to return to the bullpen, while his team would likely prefer he remain the Friday Night pitcher. We will see.
Andrew Miller (LHP - UNC): Although Hughes is starting the All-Star game, he's not even the best pitcher on his own team. That honor goes to Andrew Miller, who I shouldn't have to say is one of my favorite college players out there. In fact, if the 2006 draft were held tomorrow, I would choose Miller first without even blinking. He has been as dominant as expected so far in the Cape, with an ERA of 1.93 in 42 innings of work. Still, improvements must be made on control, as he has allowed 19 walks to go with his 20 hits (!) and 56 strikeouts. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Miller (barring injury) will be a dominant reliever if things turn out badly for him.
Brett Sinkbeil (RHP - SWMS): Like Bard and Leblanc before him, Sinkbeil is another sophomore slumper. His freshman season, the right-hander won the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors, after posting a 3.00 ERA and 9.00 K/9. He was set to save a program that has been out of the limelight for a few seasons. But this year Sinkbeil was just OK, as his ERA worsened to 4.84 due to hittability: 95 in 87.1 (nine of which were HR). But he struck out 97 batters, so all was not lost. Sinkbeil continues to pitch well, though his ERA continues to be higher than his peripherals suggest. In 47 innings, Brett has allowed 39 hits and just 6 walks while striking out 53 batters. In his junior season, Sinkbeil must convince scouts that he won't be hit hard at the professional level to be taken seriously.
I'll close with ten players that just missed the list. At some point this weekend, I'll try to update what happened in the Cape Cod League derby and All-Star Game. The honorable mention, in no particular order:
Jason Donald (SS -- Zona): .302/.371/.381