The major league record book is rife with names that are household words, at least in households where the inhabitants follow baseball. The Division I college baseball record book is another story. To be sure, some records are held by recognizable players; but far more records are held by people you have likely never heard of.
There are a number of reasons for that. For one thing, there are far more Division I teams than major league teams. That means the quality of the teams—and players—is highly variable. Some teams are regularly loaded with talent, others couldn’t field a team without walk-ons. As a result, some teams frequently appear in the College World Series, and others will never make it to Omaha unless they happen to have Creighton University on the schedule.
But a good player in a mediocre conference can put up good numbers and challenge standing records. Meanwhile, a similarly talented player in a tough conference might put up so-so stats and never come close to setting a record.
Also, a college player is something of a work in progress. His skills are still evolving and evaluation is an ongoing process. It’s not unusual for a position player to go to the mound now and then, or vice versa. The position he plays in college may or may not be the path he follows when he signs a professional contract. For example, Dennis Cook, who pitched for 15 years in the big leagues, was all-Southwest Conference in 1984 and 1985 as an outfielder for the University of Texas.
Another reason for all the unfamiliar names in the record books is that some players peak too early or just never adapt to professional life, where playing ball is a job and not an extracurricular activity. A really good college player may have reached his peak in his early 20s, and after that may stagnate. Of course, injuries play a big part in impeding progress.
For all of the above reasons, leafing through the NCAA Division I record book is almost like browsing through the phone book. Who are these guys anyway? Well, let’s identify some of them.
The NCAA Division I career leader in runs scored (420), hits (418), and total bases (730) is Phil Stephenson, who played for Wichita State from 1979-1982. His major league offensive stats weren’t even close. He didn’t make the big leagues till age 29 when he came up with the Cubs in 1989. When he retired at age 32 (he spent 1990-1992 with the Padres), he didn’t have much to show for it: 60 hits and a .201 career average.
At least he got to play during several seasons. Not so the NCAA career leader in games played, namely, John Fishel with 295. He’s also the career leader with at bats (1,114). Those records show he was a valuable and durable player for Cal.. St. Fullerton, but his major league experience was limited to 19 games and 26 at bats with the Astros in 1988.
In 1989, P.J. Forbes set a season record of 377 at bats with Wichita State. I think it’s fair to say that a player who sets a record for at-bats is likely a major contributor to his team’s offense. Forbes, however, had to wait till age 31 (1998) to break in with the Orioles, when he came to bat 31 times. He resurfaced in 2001 when he came to bat seven times for the Phillies.
You have to hand it to Forbes (Stephenson also) for hanging in there, season after season, enduring the Spartan lifestyle of the minor league ballplayer. When you have achieved success at the highest level in college ball, it must be frustrating to find yourself stuck in the minor leagues during your prime years. The temptation to pack it in must be all but overwhelming.
But at least Fishel and Forbes made it to the Show for a cup of coffee or a refill. Others didn’t even get close enough to smell the coffee.
For example, the record for highest batting average in a season was set by Keith Hagman of the University of New Mexico. He hit an astounding .551 (125 for 227) in 1980 and also set the record for triples in a season with 17 in 63 games. His major league career? Don’t ask. He retired at age 25, having made it as high as Double-AA ball for 123 at bats.
What about Jeff Ledbetter, who played for Florida State from 1979-1982? He still holds the career record for RBIs with 346. He is in second place career-wise in home runs (97) and total bases (704). In his senior year he hit 42 home runs and amassed 273 total bases. As a pro, he never made it beyond Double-A. After five seasons in the minors, he had just 43 home runs and a batting average of .246.
And the same goes for pitchers. Twenty-game winners are rare in the big leagues and almost nonexistent in the short-season college ranks. Nevertheless, two pitchers managed to emerge victorious 20 times in the span of one season. They are Mike Loynd (who also shares the record for games started with 24) of Florida State in 1986 and Derek Tatsuno of the University of Hawaii in 1979.
Loynd started eight games for the Rangers in both 1986 and 1987. He retired with a 3-7 mark and a 5.82 ERA. Tatsuno, on the other hand never made it to the Show. His best year in the minors was with Single-A Stockton when he was 10-6 with a 3.24 ERA. He retired at age 29 after a couple of forgettable seasons with the Hawaiian Islanders of the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A).
Don Heinkel never won 20 games at Wichita State, but he did set a career record with 51 victories from 1979 to 1982. When he finally made it to the big leagues at age 28, he discovered that his first victory was also his last. His total for the 1988 (Tigers) and 1989 (Cardinals) seasons was 62.2 innings, a 4.74 ERA and a 1-1 record.
Or how about John Hoover of Fresno State? If you like innings-eaters, you’ve got to love Hoover. He set the record for most complete games in a season (1984) with 19, and shares the career record with 42. At the big league level, this workhorse barely got out of the barn: He made two appearances for the Rangers in 1990. Total innings pitched at the big league level: 4.2.
Now I don’t want to imply that setting a Division I college record dooms a player to professional obscurity. To be sure, there are names in the record book that do ring a bell.
For starters, how about Pete Incaviglia, who was voted not just the college player of the year or the decade, but the college player of the 20th century!
Incaviglia set the season records for RBIs (143), home runs (45), total bases (285), and slugging percentage (1.140) in 1985. For good measure, he is the only player to ever reach triple digits in career home runs. He hit an even 100 from 1983 to 1985. Since Inky was playing for Oklahoma State, for sure he was playing against top competition.
If you want to project his 1985 achievements over something close to a full major league season, just double the total bases (285) and at-bats (250) stats and you would have 570 total bases in 500 at-bats. By way of comparison, the major league record for total bases is 457 by Babe Ruth in 1921. The major league record for slugging percentage in a season is .863, set by Barry Bonds in 2001.
Of course, making such comparisons is fun but ultimately meaningless. How many times have you heard a play-by-play announcer or a color guy say, “Right now, he’s on a pace to…” or words to that effect? I think deep down we all know that the “pace” is just fiction. If a major leaguer hits two home runs on Opening Day, is he on a pace to hit 324 home runs? Technically, yes, but realistically, not even close. If he hits 15 home runs in April, is he on a pace to hit 90 home runs? Technically, yes, but realistically…well, don’t bet on it.
But there is something instinctive in making such projections. It’s sort of like when you learn the age of a dog and you find yourself automatically calculating how old it is in human years. You can’t help yourself.
Having said that, it’s hard not to apply projection to one of the most remarkable accomplishments in college baseball: Lance Berkman’s total of 134 RBIs in 1997. Now a couple of paragraphs ago, we mentioned that Pete Incaviglia held the season record with 143, but he did so in 75 games. Berkman’s total was achieved in 63 games. That works out to 2.12 RBIs per game, and that is an NCAA record.
Here’s where you can’t help but project those totals: Multiply 2.12 by 162 and you get 343.44 RBIs over the course of a major league season. Okay, subtract a few games for R&R or injury, and you’d still have an impressive total of around 300.
Absurd, you say? I don’t know…134 RBIs in 63 games is also absurd, yet there it is in the record books. There was nothing flukey about it. Berkman was playing for Rice, so you know he was facing top-drawer competition. I doubt that Rice was lucky enough to miss its opponents’ best pitchers all season long.
Another offensive record held by a familiar name is the career batting average of .465 (254 for 546) achieved by Rickie Weeks at Southern University. You may not think of Weeks as a slugger (his major league slugging percentage is .425 as of this writing, and his best effort was .517 in 2009), but he holds the career record for slugging percentage at .927 (506 total bases in 546 at-bats), covering 2001-2003.
And we would be remiss if we did not mention J.D. Drew, who was a 30-30 man (31 homers and 32 stolen bases in just 67 games) in 1997 with Florida State.
Honorable mention must go to Carlos Quentin, who is in the books for being hit by a pitch five times in one game! Anyone can take one for the team, but five? Clearly, Quentin was the ultimate team player for Stanford. Since this painful record was set on Feb. 9 of the 2002 season, it is likely that the opposing University of Florida pitchers’ control was not in midseason form.
Now if you peruse college pitching records, you find that Greg Swindell shares the record for career shutouts (14). Swindell had a long career (17 seasons) in the big leagues, so it’s no surprise to find his name in the college record book. Also, Floyd Bannister of Arizona State holds the record for innings pitched with 186 for Arizona State in 1976. Like Swindell, Bannister is a player with a notable presence (15 seasons) in the big leagues.
Some of you may remember Ryan Wagner out of the University of Houston, who holds the record for strikeouts per nine innings with 16.8, based on 148 strikeouts in 79.1 innings in 2003. He made his major league debut with the Reds later that year and pitched in the majors through 2007.
The relative paucity of familiar names in the pitching records may be because so many high school phenoms go directly to the pros. Should they choose to go to college and show any promise during their underclass years, they will discover that the guys with radar guns are still monitoring them. If the money is good enough, they will probably deep-six their college careers, which would explain why the career records for college pitchers are held by guys who have had little if any major league success, the notable exception being Swindell and his shutout record.
One name, however, stands out in bold relief in the college pitching records. You’ve heard of him—he’s still active and his major league career dates back to the 20th century—but you wouldn’t expect to find him here.
I refer to Todd Helton.
Yes, that’s right, the Colorado Rockies first baseman with the lifetime batting average hovering around the .320 mark . . . leader of all active players with a an on-base percentage of close to .420 . . . five-time Gold Glove winner . . .five-time All-Star . . . four-time Silver Slugger winner . . . 2,400-plus hits. Yeah, that guy.
As a first baseman at the University of Tennessee, he won the Dick Howser Award as the outstanding college player in America. So what is he doing in the NCAA record book for pitchers?
He’s holding down the record for consecutive scoreless innings in a season, namely 1994, with 47. As if being a star first baseman and a starting quarterback at Tennessee weren’t enough, Helton is immortalized (at least for the time being) in the NCAA Division I record books for pitchers.
I don’t think they have ice hockey at the University of Tennessee, but if they did, maybe somebody should have given him a hockey stick. Hey, did anybody think to hand him a basketball? I know they had that at Tennessee.
Helton certainly paid off on the promise he showed as a college player, but the same can’t be said for a lot of other top-rated prospects, even those good enough to set records. If you’re wondering where the old-timers are in the record book, keep in mind the NCAA didn’t start keeping records till 1957. The achievements of college players before then may be recorded at individual schools, but there is no central clearing house. You might have heard about Lou Gehrig tearing it up at Columbia or that Eddie Collins was once a Yale man, but as far as the NCAA record book goes, they are non-persons.
If you want to know more about college baseball records, you can find the record book at http://www.ncaa.org. The online book was posted in 2009, so it is possible that some of the records listed have been surpassed in the last few seasons. But the book clearly demonstrates that more often than not, those labeled “can’t miss” end up missing in action.