In looking at the top of the Draft, there’s a lot of hype around Kyle Lewis and his massive numbers. There should be. His triple slash in 2016 of .395/.535/.731 is quite impressive, and 20 home runs in 296 plate appearances sure suggests he’s got some legit game power. It all added up to some prestigious awards, including being named Baseball America’s Player of the Year.
But it’s the conference that causes pause. Lewis plays for Mercer University in the Southern Conference, which is a weaker conference of NCAA Division I. Mercer has never had a first rounder taken in the draft. Pat Creech for now holds the honor of highest pick from the university as a second rounder in 1973 (although 32nd overall would be in the first round today).
Other Mercer alumni of note are Billy Burns, who broke through as a rookie last year before tailing off this year, and Cory Gearrin, whose been a viable relief option for the Giants this year despite some valleys along the way. Then it’s crickets. Those are the only two Mercer players drafted to ever put up a positive bWAR.
Now a school and a conference don’t mean that Kyle Lewis won’t become a great major league player, but it does raise a flag about how real his numbers are, and might help explain why he fell to the Seattle Mariners at 11th overall when he was projected to be a top 3 pick by many leading up to draft day.
Meanwhile, there’s Corey Ray, the now Brewers selection as the fifth pick in the draft, who was not getting quite the same amount of love before the draft as Lewis. This is understandable as Ray is hitting a very good .319/.396/.562, but those numbers are well off Kyle Lewis’s monstrous pace.
But does Ray’s star shine less brightly? Let’s dig a bit deeper into the competition these two have faced because it helps explain why Ray might have jumped ahead of Lewis.
Kyle Lewis plays for a team with the 96th best RPI (168th in strength of schedule) while Corey Ray plays for a team with the second best RPI (12th in strength of schedule). The team performance based on strength of schedule favors Ray, and it’s not even close.
The thing we can do with Ray that we can’t do with Lewis is see how he performs against better competition. Looking at Ray’s performance against teams ranked in the top 25 of RPI, he’s had some series where he’s struggled (Miami, 3; NC State, 9), and some series where he’s done very well (Clemson, 6; Ole Miss, 8). But such variation is expected at any level of baseball across a season. How has he done overall against better competition?
|Non RPI-25 Total||182||.331||.414||.586||1.000||14%||13%|
Ray’s numbers dropped a bit, but he still performed at a very high level across 115 plate appearances this year when facing top-tier competition. That raises my confidence as he moves forward into professional baseball.
When it comes to Lewis, there was only one team in the top 25 of RPI he faced, Georgia Tech (20th), and he did not do well, slashing .125/.300/.250 in 10 plate appearances. He hit a double and walked twice.
If we look at the next tier of competition for Lewis by including all teams with an RPI higher than Mercer’s, he was outstanding, slashing .370/.507/.685 in 69 plate appearances. But is performance against second-tier competition raising my confidence he’ll move successfully into professional baseball? The teams in his top tier of competition included the University of Georgia (41st), College of Charleston (69th), Xavier (72nd), UNC Greensboro (74th), and Georgia Southern (85th). These aren’t exactly powerhouses in baseball. UGA is only that high because they have the 2nd toughest strength of schedule, but they haven’t done well with it, finishing below .500 overall. UNC-Greensboro was the best school in the Southern Conference with an RPI that placed them well outside of the top-tier.
Representing the Southern Conference in the Regionals was Western Carolina (97th in RPI), and Lewis hit very well in 30 plate appearances against them, .368/.600/.526 with 11 walks. However, Clemson absolutely crushed Western Carolina in the Regionals by scores of 24-10 and 15-3 (and Clemson did not advance). So what can I really tell about Lewis from his ability to hit well against a team that got crushed against real competition?
That stands in contrast to Ray, who hit .368/.429/.632 in 21 plate appearances against Clemson when Louisville took three of four games from them. Also, Ray’s Louisville team played in the Super Regionals and advanced without a loss. Ray hit .308/.400/.308 in 15 plate appearances in the first round of the playoffs, which occurred right before the draft.
So Ray hit well against a team that destroyed a team Lewis hit well against? It doesn’t mean Lewis is not going to do well. It doesn’t even mean Lewis is worse than Ray. But it does make me waiver in assuming Lewis’s superior stats make him the superior player going forward to professional baseball.
With Lewis, we are guessing at how he might play against better competition with very little to go on. With Ray, we see directly how he matches up against some of the best in college baseball.
When comparing the two based on their stats alone, be careful. Lewis could be great. He could be better than Ray. However, saying Lewis’s superior stats mean Lewis is better is about like saying a player in Single A ball is superior to a AAA player because his stats are better. If a guy is doing well against advanced competition in AAA, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable calling him up to the next level than bumping a guy up three levels because he’s doing better against inferior competition? I would definitely put more stock in the AAA guy because of the level of competition, so how is that different than here?
I did not start off digging into Lewis and Ray in order to downplay Lewis’s accomplishments. In fact, when I started this research, I had him second on the list of players I wanted my team to draft (behind Jason Groome). However, digging into his college competition and then comparing it to Ray made me more bearish on Lewis and more bullish on Ray.
When mesmerized by Lewis’s 20 home runs, don’t forget Ray hit 15, and against much, much better competition. Also, I must mention that Ray stole 44 bases (85% success rate) while Lewis stole 6 bases (55% success rate).
In the end, there are no sure things in baseball, and that is never more true than the draft (though I did analyze past drafts and top picks do have a higher chance of being impact players in the majors). I wish them both success. But if I were a betting man, and I was told to pick one college outfield bat, my money would be on Corey Ray.