Cal Poly Baseball Players Persevere through the Minor Leagues

(This was originally an article for JOUR 203)

On June 4, 2019, Cal Poly pitcher Bobby Ay was drafted in the 9th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He now gets to add himself to the list of Cal Poly baseball alumni who are fighting through the grind of minor league baseball, going all the way back to 2011. Over the past decade, Cal Poly has had plenty of success in Baggett Stadium, but often times we see our favorite baseball players’ names disappear after graduation.  

This arduous process is not unheard of for most college baseball players, as the game of minor league baseball produces far more losers than winners.

In most sports it takes time to get to the top, which is why almost all major sports have lower talent leagues. Whether it’s the G-league for the NBA, the CHL for the NHL or even the former European League and soon-to-be XFL for the NFL, new players can almost always come to expect this addition to their professional career. 

Nowhere is that more true than the MLB, which has eight different levels of minor league teams, not including independent or international leagues. This, combined with over 1200 players being drafted each year (not including international prospects), means that to get to the MLB you have to prove you belong.

In the 2010s, 36 Cal Poly alumni have been drafted and played minor league baseball. The final addition to this list, Bobby Ay, was the only player drafted from Cal Poly in the 2019 MLB draft, the smallest number of the decade. The year before in 2018 three players were drafted, including Alex Mckenna, who recently was involved in a car accident. 

These players are Cal Poly’s new wave of talent, and are still looking to establish themselves in the minors. Teams typically give their prospects two years after being drafted to evaluate before releasing them, so once they survive this their minor league career is much more solidified.

As simple as it sounds, making it more than two years in the minors is far from a given. Twenty of Cal Poly’s 36 prospects couldn’t make it past this two year milestone, including every Cal Poly player drafted in 2016. With the high number of prospects entering the minors yearly, talent alone isn’t enough to stick around. To make a career out of baseball, you gotta have the intangibles.

Larry Lee, coach of Cal Poly’s baseball team since 2002, believes that coachability is a crucial part of making it up the minor league ranks. “Work hard, open minded, continue to get better on a monthly basis, it’s an impossible game to master so you just have to keep making small improvements. 

He also mentioned how unpredictable the success of certain players can be, saying that “there are very few sure things in baseball”. If you were drafted in the first round, you wouldn’t really be any more likely to make the majors than someone from the tenth round.

However, where you get drafted does determines the amount of money you make in your minor league career, which makes it more difficult to stick around if you get drafted in a later round. The 2015 Cal Poly draftees have found ways to defy this, with three people drafted after round 10 still playing in the minors. The five active players from this draft class are the most of any year.

If 2015 was the year of quantity, then 2012 was the year of quality. The two most successful Cal Poly baseball players from this decade were both drafted in 2012; Mitch Haniger and Mike Miller are the only two players this decade to have played in the MLB from Cal Poly. 

Mitch Haniger is one of the MLB’s rising stars, being rewarded an all-star appearance and Most Valuable Player votes in his only full year of MLB baseball. His 2019 season was cut short due to a ruptured testical and strained back. He is the only prospect to be drafted in the first round from Cal Poly this decade.

Mike Miller was drafted almost 300 spots later, but worked his way up to AAA ball in only 4 years. On June 27, 2016 he achieved his dream of playing in the MLB. After coming in as a defensive replacement in the top of the 9th inning down by 6, he grounded out to the shortstop. 

The game ended quickly thereafter, and so did Mike Miller’s MLB career. He has not played in the major leagues since that at-bat. He’s back in AAA ball now trying to get back to the show, but as of right now, his MLB career reads one game, one at-bat, one ground out.

Lee also touched on a second, equally as important factor in reaching success at the professional level: luck, especially for later round picks. “It’s really political, things really have to fall into place if you don’t sign for a lot of money,” Lee said. “Sometimes you just end up in the wrong organization, stuck behind some high level guys in the majors.” 

Quite frankly, for a lot of prospects, it just doesn’t work out.

While most of the other Cal Poly draft classes from this decade are remarkable for what was achieved in the diamond, the 2014 class was far more notable for what they did outside of the minors.

Nick Torres, the only player from this class still playing baseball professionally, has recently abandoned minor league baseball to play in the Mexican Baseball League. As baseball becomes more globally connected, playing in an international league is quickly becoming a viable pathway to the MLB.

Matt Imhof was one of the most highly touted prospects to come out of Cal Poly when he was drafted in the second round. Only three years into his career, at only 23, he experienced a freak accident while lifting weights and lost his eye. 

After major struggles with depression and self-identity following the injury, he announced his retirement to focus on life after baseball. 

Chris Hoo was the complete opposite as Imhof. Drafted very late, he was never particularly close to making the majors. After he was demoted back to A Ball, the Marlins offered him a job as a bullpen catcher, allowing him to fulfill his major league dream in a different way. 

Recently, he took a job at Cal Poly to work with the baseball team and be closer to his family in California.

Life after the minor leagues doesn’t always have to come at the expense of baseball. Giving up the grind of the minors doesn’t immediately void these prospect’s love for the game.

Nick Grim was the third and final player drafted in 2012. He didn’t have the same success as Haniger or Miller but he played minor league ball for a few years before calling it in 2016. He recently began playing in a low-level independent league called the Pecos League.

“I’m not really trying to get back into affiliated baseball, I just want to play for fun and it’s 10 minutes from my house,” said Grim about what motivated him to play in the Pecos League. “The chance to play [baseball here] in a competitive setting was more fun, especially now that my family can see me play”. 

Many other prospects have continued to quench their thirst for baseball post-retirement with similar independent leagues, which allows them to enjoy the intensity of professional baseball in a more comforting environment. Grim is still deciding if he’s going to play next year.

Baseball more than any other major sport is about patience. This translates aptly to the minor league process. Cal Poly alumni have had to struggle through the grind of uncomfortable bus rides, nights away from family, and constant pressure of performance all at a chance of their life-long goal of making the MLB. Even if it’s just for a single at-bat.

Luckily, these athletes are not isolated in their pursuits. The brotherhood created at Cal Poly between prospects doesn’t end at graduation, or even after the minors. They are forever connected by their sport, by their college, and by their dreams.

When asked about staying in touch with teammates, Grim laughed and mentioned that he talks to his teammates all the time, to “see what they’re up to”. Last Saturday, Grim, along with a bunch of other teammates attended 2014 draftee and bullpen catcher Chris Hoo’s wedding. 

Their names may have disappeared to us, but the brotherhood that was formed with each other will never wither.

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