Monday, June 8, 2009

Stock market isn't always high


RT Staff Note: We have been watching Robert Stock play ball since he was 11 years old. Here's a follow up story on him and his decision to leave high school early, spurn the draft and enter college at USC. The story is from the L.A Times and Gary Klein.

More baseball players are leaving high school early for college, but caution is urged.

By Gary Klein
June 7, 2009

At the time, Robert Stock did not consider himself a trailblazer.

It has been three years since, at age 16, he decided to skip his senior year at Agoura High to enroll and play baseball at USC -- a move that started a local trend that shows signs of gaining traction elsewhere.

Long Beach State pitcher Jake Thompson and UCLA pitcher Trevor Bauer followed suit, as did North Carolina freshman Levi Michael, a star second baseman who might shine a national spotlight on the strategy if the Tar Heels advance to the College World Series.

"I never really thought of myself as a pioneer," said Stock, a pitcher and catcher. "It was just a good personal decision for me, and those guys found it worked for them too."

How well it worked for Stock will be measured, on one level, when Major League Baseball begins its annual draft Tuesday.

When he left Agoura, Stock was projected as a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, which might have made him an instant millionaire. But after three college seasons, Stock's value apparently has dropped.

Based on conversations with major league scouting directors, Baseball America magazine ranks Stock 118th on its list of draft prospects, projecting him to go between the third and fifth rounds. After batting only .226 this past season, but going 5-4 with a 2.90 earned-run average on the mound, Stock is viewed as a better pitching prospect than catching prospect.

"From a purely baseball draft standpoint, it's easy to second-guess his decision and say he should have graduated from high school and been a first-round pick," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, which has tracked the draft for two decades. "But if you flip it around, he got to play three years of college baseball and made a lot of progress toward a degree.

"The worst-case scenario is he comes back next year and gets his degree and goes into professional baseball at 20. I don't know how that's bad."

Stock, 6 foot 1, 195 pounds, has no regrets. He said his decision to enter school early and bypass the draft "definitely" was not about money. And though he acknowledges underperforming at the plate -- "I haven't hit up to the level I or other people hold me accountable to," he said -- he has not given up hope of reaching the major leagues as a catcher, or at least starting his pro career as one.

"I would really like to go out as a catcher," he said, "because you can see people who have switched from being a position player to pitcher, but it's rare that you see pitchers become position players."

While athletes in other sports have jump-started their college careers by leaving high school early -- former quarterback John David Booty and basketball point guard Daniel Hackett are two recent examples at USC -- Stock was believed to be the first baseball player to give up the option of being drafted so he could go to college.

Thompson did the same the next year, though under different circumstances.

He had transferred from Lakewood Mayfair High to Long Beach Wilson after his sophomore year in 2006 and was regarded as a prospect after playing in Team USA, Junior Olympic and Area Code tournaments. Eligibility questions because of the transfer prevented him from playing for Wilson in 2007 and also put his senior season in doubt, prompting him to call former Long Beach State assistant Troy Buckley.

"I said, 'Why don't we try a Robert Stock?' " Thompson recalled, chuckling. "I think he hung up on me."

But a determined Thompson completed the academic work necessary to make the jump.

In 2008, Thompson was the 49ers' No. 3 starter, going 2-5 with a 4.95 ERA on a team that reached the NCAA tournament and produced 11 draft picks. This season, he was 4-7 with a 5.61 ERA.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Thompson, who will be eligible for the draft next year, advises caution to players contemplating a similar move.

"There were times [as a freshman] I came off the mound thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It was a big mental test to see how mentally strong you can be," he said.

Bauer, who on Wednesday was named Collegiate Baseball's national freshman pitcher of the year, said he feels more at home at UCLA than he did at Newhall Hart High, and that Stock was "the catalyst" for his decision to start college early.

Shortly after enrolling in Westwood, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Bauer started the season in the Bruins' bullpen.

He eventually joined the starting rotation and finished 9-3 with a 2.99 ERA and two saves.

The transition on the field, he said, was relatively easy.

"Probably the roughest part was that I never missed class in high school," said Bauer, who is studying engineering.

"So to try and get adjusted to the pace of classes and missing them for travel with baseball means you're always playing catch-up."

In 2008, the NCAA increased the number of required core classes for incoming freshmen from 14 to 16, making it tougher for high school players to complete the academic work necessary to graduate early.

That was good news for professional baseball scouts, who are not big fans of the trend.

Stock has worked out for several teams in preparation for the draft, but the player who was in a hurry to get to USC might not be in such a rush to leave.

"We'll have to see what happens," he said. "I'm always looking ahead and I'm excited for whatever the summer has in store, be it playing wood-bat baseball in the Cape Cod League or going out to a short minor league season.

"I'm just looking at what I can do to become a major league baseball player."

gary.klein@latimes.com

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