Photos Courtesy of Pepperdine Athletics
Most students dream of graduation day. Pepperdine baseball players dream of the draft.
If draft comes first for the player, they have a tough decision to make.
Pepperdine is no stranger to the annual Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. They took a total of 161 Waves in the team’s history, including 10 players the past three seasons.
This season, major league teams are looking at five Pepperdine baseball players. And while there is little to no offseason for players trying to make a roster, the players, Head Coach Rick Hirtensteiner and Sport Administration Professor John Watson agreed on the importance of coming back to finish their degree during or after their career.
“Even for the guys that do make it to the big leagues there has to be something after baseball,” Hirtensteiner said. “That’s really what they’ve put that work in the classroom for.”
The chances of any college player getting their shot in the major leagues is marginal. There are over 1,600 college baseball programs and 299 are Division I. That’s a span of over 50,000 players across all levels, according to the Athletic Scholarships website.
With such a big talent pool to pull from, only so many of these players get on a professional radar. The National College Athletic Association research group estimates that 7,773 are draft eligible any given year. Out of the 1,200 annual draft picks, only about 735 players played in college. And out of those drafted, less than 10 percent make it to a major league roster.
The number of players selected is very different when compared to the National Football League draft
fix link -sf” class=” collapsed”> that has seven rounds with 32 teams. The National Basketball Association draft has two rounds with 30 teams total, along with many undrafted free agent opportunities. MLB is a different animal, having about 40 rounds among the 30 teams.
In Minor League Baseball, or MiLB, there are six different leagues. They range from a rookie team league that plays 80 games to develop the players, all the way up to Triple A, which is the highest minor league level and best chance to get called up to the major leagues. There is a total of 256 minor league teams.
Pepperdine has produced steady talent in the draft the past three seasons. Three players went in 2016, five in 2017 and two in 2018. Of the 10 players, only two currently have their names attached to a team’s minors affiliate while the other eight are bouncing around freelance Single-A teams.
Right-handed pitcher AJ Puckett will play this season for the Double-A affiliate of the the Chicago White Sox, (a step below AAA). Right fielder Jordan Qsar will play for the Class-A short season affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, a step above the rookie league. The minor league system is a changing one and Puckett and Qsar’s roster status will inevitably change at some point in the season.
One of the players getting looks from MLB is Brandt Belk, a redshirt sophomore infielder and business administration major. Belk, who plays first and third baseman, partially tore his hamstring in a game March 1 versus University of California, Santa Barbara, but it isn’t affecting his draft stock.
Belk said he remembers when scouts came into the picture.
“Last year after we played LMU I got some calls,” Belk said. “I hit well in that series. Since then they’ve come in, they’ve watched our practices and they see me do what I can do. So far I’ve been in communication with the Rays, the Blue Jays, the Oakland A’s, the White Sox and the Cubs.”
Belk is content giving the sport his all if he is drafted in April. What he isn’t clear on is when he would come back to complete his degree.
“I’m gonna dedicate all my time to baseball when the time comes,” Belk said. “But I definitely think about how baseball doesn’t last forever, so after baseball I’ll definitely come back and graduate at some point.”
Another player that’s fairly new to the recruiting process is Quincy McAfee, a junior shortstop and sport administration major.
McAfee said he doesn’t put a large emphasis on his draft stock at this point in the season.
“Recruiting has died down a little bit since the fall,” McAfee said. “This spring I’ve just done a few things here and there with looking at the next level. I haven’t really focused on that. Instead, I’m focusing on baseball and school here … As they come, I speak with them before getting back on the grind for this season.”
McAfee said he’s always wanted to play professionally and the goal seemed attainable when he knew he would play in college.
“It’s always been a dream to play professional baseball,” McAfee said. “I felt like once I was able to play college baseball, the next step is to play baseball professionally. Although none of my family members have played, I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from them.”
McAfee played a variety of sports growing up. He said it was an injury that took him away from other sports.
“Baseball didn’t really affect any of the sports I wanted to play growing up,” McAfee said. “Sophomore year of high school I was playing baseball and football. I tore my ACL in football and that made me focus primarily on baseball from that point on.”
McAfee said that if he were drafted in April, he doesn’t know if he would dive into the major leagues.
“That’s definitely going to be something to talk about,” McAfee said. “Right now I don’t know. But there’s always a life after baseball. And especially when you hit 40 or so. I’d make sure I can get school handled after baseball or even come back one more year and finish off school before playing professionally.”
Pepperdine has one player who’s been getting looks long before he put on a Pepperdine uniform.
Easton Lucas is a redshirt junior pitcher and liberal arts major. As a senior at Grace Brethren High School in Simi Valley, California, he had the opportunity that many high schoolers only dream of as a left-handed pitcher.
“I did talk to some scouts in high school,” Lucas said. “I talked to the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers. They wanted me to come play minor league ball. It was tough sort of laying out my options in terms of what was better. I obviously chose college.”
While he’s a senior by academics, he would have the opportunity to come back as a fifth-year player on the team due to being redshirted his freshman season. If he were drafted in April, he said he thinks he is ready to be a professional.
“If I’m taken in the spring I’ll be able to focus on baseball full time,” Lucas said. “This past summer I pitched well in the Cape Cod League and that’s what has really put me on the map. Since then, I text a couple scouts every week. The past year or so I have met up with around 10 to 15.”
The major leagues are also eying senior outfielder Matt Kanfer. His scouting began last season but he is in contact with four scouts this season.
Had Kanfer been selected last season, his decision on returning to school or immediately pursuing professional baseball was an easy one.
“I definitely would have come back and got my degree,” Kanfer said. “That’s something that I value and has kind of been instilled in me since I was a kid from my parents. And also I value a degree.”
“The first time I was contacted by scouts was in high school but I didn’t really have any intention of getting drafted,” Jensen said. “It was this year at the beginning of the fall that I started talking regularly to scouts. There are eight to 10 that I talk to often.”
Even before Jensen heard his name among draft circles, he said he believed he was MLB material.
“In high school when people told me that I had a projectable body and a live arm I finally realized that there was a legitimate chance that I could play professionally,” Jensen said. “But for me, I have always believed that I could make it, even as a kid.”
Jensen was a multisport athlete in high school before choosing baseball to be his main focus.
“I was a huge sports player and growing up I played basketball, tennis and golf,” Jensen said. “The only other sport I played competitively was basketball, so in high school I had to give it up for baseball. I would still play a ton recreationally but now that I am injured I’ve realized that these other sports need to be put on hold for awhile. They put my arm and body in jeopardy.”
Jensen said he does not rule out completing his degree during his rookie season but leaves the door open for waiting until his career ends.
“If I am drafted I would either try and finish my last two semesters during the first year of pro ball or I would come back once I’m done and grind until I finish,” he said.
Head coach’s and professor’s experience
The Pepperdine Men’s Baseball players have the opportunity of playing for a head coach that’s been in the same situation.
While it would have been easy for Hirtensteiner to sign any of the first two contracts, he had his own reasons for staying.
“As a senior in high school, I knew I just wasn’t ready, physically or mentally,” Hirtensteiner said. “I knew I had a long way to go. As a junior, the money didn’t make sense. It would have been better financially to come back to school and be better set up later. I loved college baseball so much I wanted one more year of it.”
Hirtensteiner played five seasons in the minor leagues. He played for several independent leagues and in big league farm systems like the Los Angeles Angels and Florida Marlins but never cracked an MLB roster.
Watson was the athletic director at Pepperdine from 1998-2011 and is now a sport administration professor. During his time overseeing Pepperdine athletics, he made it a point to educate players on what they were getting with the draft.
“I would always encourage our coaches to help our players who were considered as prospects,” Watson said, “While everybody has that dream, to be certain that the athletes understood the importance of finishing their education at some point in your career.”
Watson said pursuing the MLB is important but leaving one’s options open is essential.
“You don’t want it to interfere with the responsibility and the dream of playing professional baseball,” Watson said. “For a lot of our players, they get drafted at the end of their junior year. And so for a lot of these players, in my opinion, they’re sacrificing a lot to leave and follow a dream in that such a small percentage actually make it to the major leagues.”
A caveat of being drafted is being able to negotiate one’s contract in more ways than just a dollar amount. Watson said he always wanted his players to discuss their contracts to have ways that help them in the future.
“While you’re an active player there’s not much time, if at all, to finish your degree,” Watson said. “We counsel them to always be certain that as they negotiate their contracts to have an element in there where the Major League Baseball team that drafts them will ultimately pay to complete their education whenever they can. In the past some have included that, some have not found it very important. It’s all individual choice.”
Hirtensteiner believes that players should ask teams to pay to complete educations when the player is ready.
“I think that in a contract it’s ideal,” Hirtensteiner said. “Anytime you’ve gone three years here and put in the hard work in the classroom and are three-quarters of the way through to getting a Pepperdine degree you definitely want them to finish it off. It always makes sense to finish it, no matter when you finish your minor league or major league career to come back and get it.”
Watson also said that for the players who didn’t plan on finishing school, he wanted them to be sure they would be financially stable for years to come.
“I frequently would tell individuals that had allowed themselves to be drafted, to make sure they get at least a million dollar signing bonus,” Watson said. “Because the difference between an earned degree and not having one is about a million dollars in a lifetime. So you might as well get the money up front.”
For reference, Beyond the Box Score research found that top five picks receive signing bonuses of around $7 million while picks in the advanced second round, or 60-75 range, will receive bonuses of $700,000 to $1 million.
Hirtensteiner also has advice for all players going through the draft process.
“I mean it’s important for them to know how difficult it is,” Hirtensteiner said. “It’s such a great opportunity to play professional baseball. Not many people get to do it. But the guys need to know that it’s a complete grind. Players come here so they can make it to the major leagues. But in case that doesn’t work out, there has to be something else that they’re gonna do. That’s why a Pepperdine degree is so special.”
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