LAKELAND, Fla. — At one point this spring, the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse featured an unusual collection of players with educations from an impressive list of high-achieving universities. Pitchers Chris Young and Ross Ohlendorf are Princeton graduates with degrees in political science and operations research and financial engineering, respectively. Pitching prospect Erik Davis, a Stanford graduate, spent four offseasons analyzing crime statistics at his hometown police department.
First-round picks Drew Storen and Ryan Zimmerman were groomed at Stanford and the University of Virginia, respectively, before leaving early for baseball. Infielder Will Rhymes, a William & Mary graduate with a degree in biology, shared the same end of the clubhouse with fellow Tribe baseball player Bill Bray before Bray was sent to minor league camp.
“And me, Sac City Junior College,” pitcher Ryan Mattheus said with a grin.
In major league baseball, it’s rare to find an assortment of players with such educational backgrounds. A Fox Sports survey last season found that only 39 major leaguers, or 4.3 percent, graduated from four-year universities. That is a product of the system: Baseball players can be drafted out of high school, talent can be found in the international market and Division I baseball is a partial-scholarship sport.
So is the Nationals’ collection of smarty pants a bit of trivia, or a hidden success factor? Baseball is an intricate and highly detailed sport, and some players argue that their developed critical analysis skills are helpful.
“People might say I’m analytical when it comes to my preparation as far as scouting reports, studying video and looking at the numbers and stats and stuff,” said Young, who signed with the Nationals three weeks ago to serve as starting rotation depth. “But I’d say that’s really the only way. I try to be a baseball player and be one of the guys.”
Several others disagreed. Asked how much his education has helped him in the major leagues, Rhymes said: “Absolutely not. I haven’t used much of my biology degree here.”
Rhymes, who along with Ohlendorf is a non-roster invitee to Nationals camp, considered attending medical school if baseball didn’t pan out after 2005, his senior year at William & Mary.
“I don’t know what job I can get with that,” he said before adding: “I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I took a serious major in college and took it seriously. It was important to me to at least to keep my options open.”
Storen, 25, who spent two years at Stanford pursing a degree in product design before he was drafted by the Nationals with the 10th overall pick in 2009, wants to finish his degree when he finishes playing baseball. Players such as him and Zimmerman, a sociology major who left Virginia after three seasons in 2005, could have cost themselves millions by staying in school to finish their degrees.
Storen said what he learned in the classroom doesn’t translate onto the field, but playing at a high-level program did.
“Playing in the College World Series is as close as you can get to playing in the big leagues without playing the big leagues,” he said. “. . . It’s not like I was doing a kinesiology [class] that directly related to over here. I didn’t really take any of those classes. It’s interesting. Sometimes with this game you can over think it and you need to turn that part of your brain off anyways.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo said he is aware of a player’s education history when evaluating him but doesn’t consider it a determining factor. Stanford and Virginia, he said, are examples of universities that offer elite educations and top baseball programs. The team’s collection of players from top colleges, however, he said is mere coincidence.
“But I do I think there are some smarts that translate into performance,” he said. “They’re guys who are book smart but not street smart. There are guys who are street smart but not book smart. And those guys are both.”
All the players interviewed said lacking an education from a well-regarded school wouldn’t preclude them from excelling in baseball. For example, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth, who were drafted out of high school, and Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche, who attended junior colleges, are known as smart and keenly aware baseball players.
“There’s guys I’ve ran into who are analytical, very sharp guys, who were high school-drafted guys,” said Mattheus, 29, who could have attended Arizona State but chose to sign with the Colorado Rockies in 2004. “As far as does it make a difference in your playing career, I don’t think so. There’s guys who get drafted out of high school who could have went to Princeton. To say they’re at a disadvantage, I don’t think there’s anything to that.”
While most players sit at their lockers and play with their cellphones, listen to music, watch television or socialize, Davis sits at his locker and reads books. On average, the 26-year-old reads from five to 10 books each season.
“Baseball is my job, I love it,” said Davis, who was added to the Nationals’ 40-man roster over the winter. “But it’s not who I am. I like to broaden my horizons a little bit.”
Each winter from 2008 to 2011, Davis, who has a degree in political science, worked at the Mountain View (Calif.) Police Department. He helped crunch numbers, worked on grant proposals and gave speeches in front of city officials. Davis is interested in pursuing a career in consulting once baseball is over. Knowing he has received a degree from his dream school has given him peace of mind in the meantime.
“It’s something that I can pursue it to the fullest and when I’m done, enjoy the workforce and not have any lag time,” he said.