Top tier college baseball good but not as good as Class AA pro

Over the years I've heard it said or read it written many times: The quality of top tier college baseball, like that played in the SEC, is the equivalent of Class AA professional baseball.

That's just not so.

The myth probably began years ago when the old Jackson Mets (Class AA) would host Ron Polk's Mississippi State for a game before the Texas League season began. State, certainly a top tier college team, would be in mid-season form. The AA Mets had just broken training camp, just come together as a team and were still learning each other's names. The Bulldogs used their metal bats. The pros used their wooden ones. State, if memory serves correctly, thrashed the Mets.

Of course, this is baseball and one game really tells us little. After all, the lowly Washington Senators used to beat the New York Yankees a few times a season. In baseball, stuff happens. Perhaps we can get a better idea of the relative quality of college ball vs. the pros from looking at how some of this spring's college heroes are doing as newly signed professionals this summer.

Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.

Let's start with Jake Mangum, the SEC's all-time hits leader, who batted a robust .356 for his four-year Mississippi State career. Though Saturday's games playing for the Brooklyn Cyclones in the Class A short-season New York-Penn League, Mangum was hitting .248.

Granted, he started slowly and has hit well over .300 for the last month or so. But Mangum will tell you the pitching he faces every day in Class A baseball is far superior to what he faced in college.

“We see some really good pitching almost every night,” Mangum said. “It's like you're facing a guy with SEC Friday night stuff every time you go out there.”

It's not just the pitching; it's the adjustment to wooden bats. “The easiest way to put it is that the wood bats are less forgiving,” Mangum said. “You have to hit it in the sweet spot.”

In the pros, you must get used to increased travel, overnight bus rides and playing every day instead of four times a week. In the pros, mid-week pitching is the same as you face in mid-week.

“The whole thing has been a really big adjustment,” Mangum said last week. “It took me a minute.”

It is taking some others much longer. For the Cyclones, who play there home games at a ballpark at Coney Island, Mangum is teammates with LSU hero Antoine Duplantis, who ranks No. 2 on the all-time SEC hits list. Duplantis, who hit for power and average for the Tigers, is hitting .232 with zero home runs at Brooklyn. He hit 12 home runs this spring for LSU, zero so far as a professional.

Mangum and Duplantis are the rule, not the exceptions.

Slick-fielding shortstop Grae Kessinger hit .330 for the Ole Miss Rebels this spring. He is hitting .236 as a pro – and, at that, already has been promoted once.

Thomas Dillard, Kessinger's high school and college teammate, hit .310 with 14 home runs this spring for Ole Miss. He is hitting .241 with five home runs in Class A.

We could go on. And perhaps we should...

Matt Wallner, who hit .323 with 23 home runs for Southern Miss this spring, is hitting .272 with five home runs in rookie ball this summer. He is doing far better than most – and has been a virtual doubles machine with 19. But .272 and five dingers is a whole lot different than .323 and 23.

“Velocity, to me, is the biggest difference,” Wallner said. “Everyone here throws harder, but other than that it's not crazy different. The biggest adjustment is probably getting used to playing every day.”

It says here catchers Dustin Skelton of State and Cooper Johnson of Ole Miss both have a chance to make the big leagues because of their work behind the plate. Still, they are going to have to hit it better than they have Skelton hit .315 for State and is hitting .158 as a pro. Johnson hit .277 at Ole Miss and is hitting .196 in Class A.

The biggest problem all these guys have is using wooden bats for the first time against pitchers such as Ethan Small, the Milwaukee Brewers' first-round pick out of State. The Brewers are bringing Small along slowly after he threw 101 innings this spring at State. So far, he has allowed only one earned run in 13 innings of Class A ball, striking out 21 and walking only one. For Small, at least, it's just a matter of time and staying healthy.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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