San Luis Obispo County is hardly an undiscovered hotbed for baseball players. It has frequently produced college-level talent.
But it would be hard to find a better crop of area players than this season, especially condensed within SLO city limits, or a season in which more will at the very least continue playing at the Division I level of college baseball.
Historically, it has not been uncommon for area teams to feature one or two players headed to college to continue their playing careers. Rare have those players gone onto Division I schools — rarest of all are local Major League draft picks.
In SLO alone this year, six players are committed to play at the Division I level. Even more rare, four of those players are on the same team — including two of the nation’s top prospects.
They may even skip college baseball all together. The MLB Draft will conclude June 5 with the strong possibility of at least two of those players being selected.
Switch-hitting San Luis Obispo High School shortstop Brooks Lee is the 41st ranked prospect overall, according to MLB Pipeline — that includes college players. Teammate Cooper Benson is also projected to go in the second round, and is viewed as one of the top pitching prospects in California.
Lee has committed to play for his father at Cal Poly, while Benson has committed to Arizona State.
“It just goes in cycles,” said Cal Poly baseball head coach Larry Lee, who himself was recruited out of SLO High to Pepperdine before becoming Cuesta’s head coach and eventually Cal Poly’s. “There will be a number of years where the talent level is down a tick. Just over the last two or three years, there’s been a resurgence of high school players with the higher talent level.”
Recent history of talent
In 2017, two local players were also drafted. Former Templeton graduate and Cal Poly ace Spencer Howard was drafted 45th overall by the Phillies. Howard is now one of the top prospects in the Phillies’ minor league system after walking on at Cal Poly.
Righetti’s Matt Sauer was selected nine picks later by the Yankees after MLB Pipeline ranked him as the 42nd overall prospect out of high school.
Before that, former Nipomo High graduate Jeff McNeil was drafted by the Mets in 2013 out of Long Beach State. McNeil made his MLB debut last season at 26 and finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. McNeil is hitting .352 this season and has posted the fourth highest batting average in MLB since his call up.
Besides Lee and Benson, the other four future Division I players in SLO are SLO High outfielder Emilio Corona, who will be headed to Washington, SLO High second baseman Wils Guy (Cornell), Mission Prep’s Dylan Beavers (Cal) and pitcher Kai Janowicz (UC Davis).
Beavers led the Ocean League with 11 homers and hit .607 with five doubles and four triples. Janowicz had an ERA of 0.38 over 37 innings pitched with 55 strikeouts.
Guy, the lead off hitter for the Tigers, was hitting .533 midway through the season with 22 runs scored with 12 RBI.
Corona, a three-sport athlete, hit two home runs in the regular season and will graduate in 2020. Complete SLO High stats weren’t made available by the team.
This influx of college-level players should come as no surprise.
Rise in showcase industry
The uptick in local talent coincides with the rise of the baseball showcase industry, led by companies such as the Perfect Game USA. The process for getting noticed by colleges starts early, and it’s starting even earlier these days. By the time players are in high school, it’s often too late. Scholarships have already been been offered and players have been scouted.
These companies put on showcases and tournaments across the country, and allows for amateurs to post measurables such as bat speed, exit velocity and pitching velocity collected at the showcases for scouts to peruse on their websites. Scouts can compare this data to professional products and project from there.
This has also allowed for players from non-traditional hotbeds to get noticed.
Lee said these tournaments are important because they expose players to top talent, which allows them to see where they measure up. The problem for players SLO County is that they have to travel — either north or south — to participate in showcases.
Although last season, Cal Poly hosted a prospect camp for players from grades nine to 12 last summer for those interested in playing Division I baseball.
Coincidentally, the majority of the local players headed to Division I have played travel ball or have played in Perfect Game tournaments — or both.
“Up until a few years ago, a lot of the local baseball players didn’t get outside of this community to see where they measured up against players in Orange County and San Diego.” Lee said. “That’s very important to have those experiences and to not just be successful at a local, small community (level).”
These competitions prepare players for the college game through pressure situations, playing for titles against the best competition on the biggest stage. Many of the players that they play against in these tournaments will be their same opponents in college.
“If you’ve been exposed to that and you’ve played against those players, now when you’re in college playing against those players, it’s nothing to you,” Lee said.
‘Playing the best competition’
For Lee, Benson and Corona, it means playing on the same team. The three play together on the Baseball Performance Academy (BPA) travel ball team, which routinely competes across the country, from places like Georgia to Arizona.
“With travel ball, you’re always playing the best competition,” said Corona, who hit a two-run home run and had a two-run single in San Luis Obispo’s 8-4 win over Western Tulare in a first-round CIF-Central Section Division I game Wednesday. SLO takes on Clovis West in a second-round game Friday.
“Me, Brooks and Cooper have been blessed to play for Jared Sandler from Orange County. He always has his guys ready to go. He teaches you how to play baseball the right way. And so, I think us three, especially, are always mentally prepared and know what we have to do.”
Lee said the better the youth program, the better the high school product will be. Teaching fundamentals, he says, is the most important thing at a young age. Lee believes players with solid fundamentals will eventually pass up players who were able to get by on physical maturity and didn’t work on their overall game.
He also said that players develop at different speeds and that many times the best player at the college or professional level is not the best player at ages 8, 10 or 12.
In Howard’s case, no scouts came to see him and he was forced to walk-on at Cal Poly, red-shirting his freshman season.
Lee started Howard on his journey into becoming a coveted Major League prospect by simply giving him a chance. It wasn’t until his junior season that Howard had fine-tuned his game enough — on and off the field —to become a starter and an eventual second-round draft pick.
It makes sense that clubs are taking a hard look at players from the county. If anything, San Luis Obispo County has under produced players.
Baseball America released an article in 2018 listing the hotbeds for high school players, using the high school location of nearly 12,000 active players in both the minor and major leagues. California was second only to Florida, averaging 5.70 pro players per 100,000 residents. SLO County had a population of 283,405 in 2017.
“It’s been good for the community and surrounding communities that here’s been some players that have been very successful at the high school level that have a chance of becoming good college players, and a handful that will get opportunities to play professional baseball,” Lee said.
Scouts have combed through the Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Ventura and Riverside counties for years. With San Luis Obispo County sharing many of the same conditions for incubating baseball talent and being surrounded by known hotbeds, could it be the next consistent hotbed for baseball talent?
Playoff scores, schedule
First round, Wednesday
San Luis Obispo 8, Tulare Western 4
Buchanan (Clovis) 5, Paso Robles 0
Righetti 5, Centennial (Bakersfield) 3
Arroyo Grande 9, Tehachapi 3
Templeton 4, Selma 1
Atascadero 5, Reedley 3
Nipomo 10, Kerman 2
Santa Maria 3, Immanuel (Reedley) 0
St. Joseph 4, Ridgeview (Bakersfield) 3
North (Bakersfield) 8, Mission Prep 4 (8)
Highland (Bakersfield) 14, Pioneer Valley 0
Morro Bay 8, Taft 1
Second round, Friday
Liberty vs. Righetti, 2 p.m.
Clovis West vs. SLO High, TBA
Arroyo Grande vs. Porterville, TBA
Templeton vs. St. Joseph, TBA
Atascadero vs. North (Bakersfield), TBA
Nipomo vs. Santa Maria, 4 p.m.
Morro Bay at Fowler, 4:30 p.m.