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Boston College Baseball Postmortum Part III: Player Development

Perhaps the greatest glaring weakness of Mike Gambino is his inability to grow players over their careers. Oh, and I apologize for the length, but this time it was necessary.

Baseball is a sport unlike all others because of its emphasis on training and development.  The minor leagues are almost a sacred part of the game's fabric, much more than hockey, football, or basketball.  Where football has no minor leagues, baseball has a tiered approach with several levels.  Where basketball has a D-League that its best players never play in, baseball All Stars are trained level by level in the minor farm system.  Where hockey has a minor league system, it doesn't emphasize the same areas of development that baseball does.

Baseball stresses development almost from the moment a high school player starts playing.  There are several methods of which to develop in the game, and there are several ways to make the big leagues.  Players are drafted right out of high school with the intention of having the levels of the minors hone their raw talent.  But if the deal isn't right or the draft position not good enough, players can opt into college ball.  That gives them three years of which to improve for better draft position, a higher signing bonus, more money.

College ball, in that essence, becomes a vessel with several areas for development on its own.  Whereas signed contract players only have the minor leagues at their disposal, college baseball players have several areas of which to learn and develop.  They play for their college team, get an education, and play summer baseball.  The summer leagues offer a chance for more repetition, more diverse coaching, and different types of competition.  That leads to fall ball on campus, more development, and another season.

As a result, college baseball becomes nothing more than another, somewhat larger stop along the development wagon.  It's all about getting better, after all.

College baseball's development process develops over the three seasons between draft eligibility and draft reentry eligibility.  High school seniors are eligible for the draft after they finish their final year of ball.  The second they set foot on a college campus for an academic year, the clock starts ticking.  They have to finish their junior season or be 21 years of age in order to reenter the draft.  Once that happens, they can be selected and play amateur summer ball while bargaining.  Once setting foot on campus again for the senior year, though, baseball players forfeit draft rights and play out their year before returning to the draft for a potential third trip.  Once that's done, they become unrestricted, undrafted free agents if they do not sign.

The best college players seldom last longer than three years if they develop fast enough.  Four year players are physically more mature than any of the high school players.  As a result, a player who can come out of college is becoming just as valuable, if not more, than the high school athlete.  Three of the last five National League Rookies of the Year were college athletes who made the bigs before 25 years old.  Each of the last five AL Rookies of the Year were 25 or younger.  So there's a premium on guys who can prove that they can be good young.  Since college guys come to the minors at an older age - around 21 or 22 - there's more pressure on them to get better faster, even if they're more physically developed than a high school senior.

In college, the key to recruiting high school athletes that are not assured of high draft locations is to promise them the development area to become strong candidates.  This is a combination of facilities and education, but most of all, it's coaching.  Mike Martin at Florida State is a prime example of this.  Over the past 35 years, Martin's developed a reputation as one of the best coaches in the nation because of who he's produced.  The names litter major league rosters - Buster Posey, Stephen Drew, Randy Choate, Elih Villanueva, and Shane Robinson all came out of the Florida State system.

Boston College used to be a place where people looked if they wanted to further their career.  Clearly they were never going to be on par with Florida State, but BC was a solid program in terms of player development.  Four Eagles were drafted in the 2004 MLB Draft, including Chris Lambert in the first round by St. Louis.  Mike Wlodarczyk, Jason Delaney, and Joe Martinez were all selected in the first 15 rounds of the '05 draft.  It was a trend that continued through 2011 when four Eagles went in the MLB Draft.  There always seemed to be Eagles drafted high or ready to bust through, including Tony Sanchez's fourth overall selection after the magical 2009 season.

In 2012, BC fell off the map.  Anthony Melchionda went in the 14th round.  Matt Brazis went in the 28th round.  And nobody else went anywhere.  Then there were no Eagles in 2013.

This year, in 2014, there are several Eagles slated to go high, including pitcher Andrew Chin, a former fifth round pick out of high school who very well could go high enough to not return next season.  But we have to ask ourselves if that's a case of a player earning a high draft pick or a team earning the player the high draft pick.

Instead of looking at Andrew Chin potentially getting drafted in a good spot, let's look at Eric Stevens and Tom Bourdon.  In 2012, Stevens went 5-3 in 14 appearances, all starts.  He did not win a game again in his college career.

In 2011, Bourdon hit .289 as a freshman.  He batted .324 as a sophomore.  After getting hurt in 2013, he hit only .223 playing in half the games he did in his first two years.  And he finished his senior year hitting .245.

In his first year, John Hennessy hit under .100 while playing in less than 20 games.  He burst into the starting lineup as a sophomore, starting 36 of his 44 games while improving up to .271.  In his junior year, he dipped to .249.  This past year, he dipped again to .204.

In 37 career appearances over his first two years, Nick Poore had a 4.78 ERA.  Opponents batted .284 against him.  This past year, in his junior season, he appeared in 14 games and had an ERA over 5.00 even though opponents hit under .250 against him.

Nate LaPointe hit .282 playing in 20 games as a freshman.  But his playing time never got over a platoon even after the departure of Matt Pare, and his average dipped to .121 in his junior year.  He appeared in two games this year.

I'm not saying the players aren't good.  I'm saying there has to be a reason why these guys aren't improving as they move on over their three years.  That reason is player development.  They're simply not getting better, and in some cases, they're getting worse.  If they're getting hurt, we need to ask why.  If they're not improving, we need to ask why.  We know that Chris Shaw jumped from under .200 to over .300, and we saw him turn into an ACC-class hitter.  But why aren't these other guys improving?

Look, I'm not trying to dump on the players here.  I think they're giving it their all.  I'm pointing the finger squarely back at the coaching staff.  Like I said throughout the season, if they're not making adjustments, tinkering with pitching arm angles, developing different pitches, helping hitters see the ball better - then they're not doing their job.  Coach Gambino talks about summer baseball development as "adding to the database."  But what database are they adding to?  I'm sorry.  In plain view, the stats are there.  Players are getting hurt.  Players aren't developing.  Players aren't getting better.

Before the season, Coach Gambino talked about the youth as if were something the team had to overcome.  And if youth is really something a team has to overcome, why is Maryland all of a sudden in a Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament with 23 players either in their freshman or sophomore season of play?  Why is Miami a top five team in the nation, one of the three best teams in the ACC, with 13 freshmen?  People can talk all they want about the "quality" of recruit, but the BC recruits all come with solid reputations.  There absolutely has to be something deeper to look at.

Of this year's team, we know Andrew Chin and Chris Shaw are going to be highly touted in the next two drafts.  Chin is a former fifth round pick, and Shaw's development has been something to watch.  But that's just two guys.  In the short turnaround time, BC should, hypothetically, be in its window to make a run towards the top of the ACC.  They have a core that they built around with true, hard-nosed baseball players.  If the coaches could've only developed the team better, they'd have a tremendous core, great supporting players, and a deep bench.

Instead, they're merely trying to contend for the first rung with guys who are at the end or approaching the end of their collegiate development.  The window is already closing, and if the Eagles lose Chin or John Gorman to the draft this year, they could lose Shaw next year, and the core foundation is gone just like that.

I'm worried about the development of the roster moving forward.  All of these players have great resumes coming out high school.  As detailed in our preseason pieces, they get good freshmen, recruit solid players.  They have baseball players.  But they never develop the type of guys who, after a couple of years, can form a core to build around with these baseball players.  They never really develop those baseball players to do the right thing in the right role.  That represents a disconnect between guys with good talent and a coaching staff that isn't developing them.  And that's the biggest, most glaring indictment of the guys running the team.