Covering the Vanderbilt beat, I see a lot of players who eventually play Major League baseball. Tampa pitcher David Price won the American League’s Cy Young Award last year. Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez was just selected to the National League’s All-Star team. Atlanta’s Mike Minor is having an excellent year in the Braves’ rotation, and Ryan Flaherty has become a valuable utility infielder in Baltimore. Sonny Gray, Oakland’s first-round pick in 2011, made his Major League debut Wednesday night and threw a couple of scoreless innings.
And those are just the Vandy guys. I’ve also seen Lance Lynn (Ole Miss), Matt Wieters (Georgia Tech), Jason Kipnis (Kentucky, before transferring to Arizona State) and Josh Donaldson (Auburn), just to name a few. With most of these players, I suspected they’d be major-leaguers, if not good major-leaguers.
But you know what makes me appreciate them more? Seeing a slew of great ones that didn’t make it.
Take, for instance, Florida’s Matt LaPorta. LaPorta had some issues — he wasn’t much on defense, and was a bit brittle — but man, he could rake. To this day, I think LaPorta was the best collegiate hitter I’ve seen in person. In 722 at-bats at UF, he hit 74 homers. As a senior, he batted .402, and had incredible on-base and slugging percentages — .582 and .817, respectively. It should be noted that the NCAA’s bat regulations were different and lent themselves to more offense then (he played from 2004 to 2007), but those are incredible numbers in any context. That’s why the Brewers made him a high first-round pick once he was done.
Where is LaPorta now? He’s a 28-year-old toiling away in Columbus, the AAA affiliate of Cleveland. It’s the fifth-straight year he’s spent time there. In parts of four Major League seasons from 2009 to 2012, he’s hit just .238/.301/.393.
What also stands out is how many great college players never even play a single game in the big leagues. Three I covered at VU immediately come to mind.
After Price, perhaps the most talented arm I’ve seen at Vandy (with the possible exception of current VU players Carson Fulmer and Tyler Beede) was Casey Weathers. On one sub-40 degree night during his senior year, I witnessed Weathers exceed 100 MPH on the radar gun with six consecutive pitches (if memory serves, they were his first six tosses). He struck out 75 guys in 49 1/3 innings as a senior, was a first team All-American, and was drafted by the Rockies with the eighth overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Weathers’ career got sidetracked with an injury — he had Tommy John surgery and missed all the 2009 season. Since then, his control abandoned him — he walked 53 men in 34 innings last year — and hasn’t pitched anywhere in organized baseball this season. He’s still not thrown a pitch at the Major League level.
One of Weathers’ contemporaries at VU was outfielder Dominic de la Osa. His junior year at Vanderbilt was one of the best seasons in school history — he hit .378 with 23 homers, and was one of three guys in America to have 20 homers and 20 steals that year. He was a first team All-American as well, and was athletic enough that he started his college career at shortstop.
De la Osa’s first season of pro ball (2008) was okay — he hit .263/.384/.394 — but dropped off tremendously the next year with a promotion to Single-A. After that season, de la Osa hung up the cleats for good.
Just as de la Osa was leaving Vanderbilt, talented first baseman Aaron Westlake was arriving. Westlake’s senior year — .349/.466/.616 — was one of the best seasons ever at Vandy, and he showed how special he was when he smashed three home runs in a single game against Oregon State in the Super Regional.
How has Westlake fared as a minor leaguer? Now 24, he’s got a career minor league stat line of .252/.316/.391, and has been demoted to rookie ball. The odds of him making it to the majors now are slim.
Some will look at these three and say, well, they just weren’t very good. That’s a backwards way of viewing things. I saw each extensively, and they were special talents. Keep in mind, each dominated in the Southeastern Conference, which is (most years) America’s toughest collegiate conference.
I think there are two general reasons that great college players don’t make it. First, they’re human beings subject to emotional and physical issues, and sometimes, just dumb luck. With Weathers, health has obviously been the driver. Some think de la Osa just got burned out on baseball. With Westlake, I’m not sure what the issue has been.
There’s also another category of player who doesn’t make it: those who had far better minor league careers than these three, but still never played a game in the Majors. Here, it’s simply a math issue: there are only 750 players on active Major League rosters at any given time, according to this, at least 19 countries are currently producing MLB players.
Baseball writer Bill James once said that if every pitcher-batter confrontation were Roger Clemens vs. Barry Bonds, baseball would be a dull game, because we would never realize how special the elite talents really were without the presence of the more “ordinary” major league players. But the truth is, even the “ordinary” players are special — a sentiment with which I’m sure LaPorta, Weathers, de la Osa and Westlake would all agree.