Many have come: few are chosen

Kingsley Collins

11 June 2015

 

Australian baseball is now seeing increasingly more of our young players signing to United States professional contracts – in some cases rivalling though not yet exceeding the few massive sign-on bonuses awarded over the past two decades.

 

Nevertheless, there is increasing disquiet in the Australian baseball community about a process that enables players to be signed professionally as teenagers who may be lacking – in many cases – both the physical and the emotional maturity to deal with being away from home and seeking to make the grade in a man’s world of competitive, professional baseball.

 

It is a disquiet that some believe might best be addressed by a mandatory raising of the minimum professional signing age to at least eighteen or nineteen years.

 

While we naturally applaud and congratulate those young players signing to professional contracts rather than pursuing the college pathway, we should place both their situation and their prospects in perspective.

 

The fact remains that it is currently very difficult for Australian teenagers seeking to forge a career in professional baseball because they are simply not ready for the transition.

 

United States, Puerto Rican and Canadian players are required to go through a process which prevents them from being drafted until they have finished high school. The United States kids, in particular, might play up to 150 games a year in junior teams – ours perhaps thirty games per year.

 

Only the elite of high school kids in United States are drafted, so that most of the players our own kids are pitted against will inevitably be 20 - 22 year old men who are a lot more physically and emotionally matured and who have played hundreds if not thousands more games than Aussies.

 

The more games of the baseball you play, the more you understand your swing, your movements, your strengths and your shortcomings. We learn about ourselves and we refine our skills largely through a process of constant repetition that is relatively limited in an Australian baseball environment where we play far less games.

 

As an established baseball scout told me just recently, “We simply do not play enough games in Australia. We have a fascination with “training” as an end in itself – an end whereby kids do very little in the way of actually learning about their game.”

 

“Think of a normal training session (in Australia) where the player may take BP and get ten to fifteen quality swings. He will stand in the outfield, talk and shag some flyballs for an hour, then take maybe fifty ground balls.”

 

“The US kids have taken millions of ground balls and had millions of swings in the equivalent time, so our kids are really up against it – just from that viewpoint alone.”

 

Reputable and knowledgeable people in the sport have been clamouring for an increase in the signing age – at least to eighteen – to help provide our kids with a greater chance of establishing a lengthy professional career.

 

The physical side of the equation is daunting. We generally tend to think of baseball players being matured by the time they are 26 or 27 years of age, making it a huge risk to sign youngsters who are up to ten years younger. Further to that, when a teenager signs there is a period of up to six years of club control to make a decision on whether a player is retained or whether he becomes a free agent. That decision is currently being made for many of our 19-20 year-old players, when – if those players were born in United States – they would still be in high school or just starting college, and not yet have entered the professional system.

 

Raising the signing age to eighteen would appear likely to be beneficial to young Australian players in giving them more time and potentially greater opportunities to succeed. We regularly hear of players of nineteen or twenty being released – at a time when they are still not physically and emotionally mature.

 

Compounding the disappointment and often the trauma of being released, those players may return home with minimal prospects of meaningful employment compared, say, with their unsigned peers who have been engaged in education, learning a trade and forming social networks. Little wonder that they might feel lost - or at least uncertain about what their future might hold.

 

Given the opportunity, they may conceivably be very good baseball players at age 25 and could still be in the system given a rare second chance – such as was the case with Peter Moylan, who was released by the Twins at twenty years of age yet emerged as a Major League presence in 2006.

 

Although not signed professionally as a youngster, Victorian Andy Russell attended college in United States and was inked by Atlanta Braves as a 27 year-old pitcher who made a rapid progression to AAA level during a four-year stint before being released in 2014.

 

A current bullpen coach with AAA El Paso Chihuahuas who is rumoured to be on the verge of a playing comeback, former college superstar and Major League pitcher Josh Spence (pictured above) has regularly acknowledged the efficacy of his own decisions by saying if he had signed out of Australia he thinks he would have been released before getting out of A ball.

 

He chose to go to College to mature and to prove he could pitch at a higher level, whilst getting an education. He needed more innings under his belt, to learn his craft and to understand more ways to get people out. Despite the earlier opportunities that Josh had to sign – as a high draft pick - his stellar college career enabled him to play plenty of games and to refine his capacity as a finesse pitcher who subsequently progressed to Major League level.

 

Major League Baseball has a rule whereby international players can sign once they turn sixteen (as long as they turn seventeen in their first year of professional baseball). In contrast with the Australian approach, Asian countries do not allow their kids to sign until they have finished high school. That way, at least the youngster has some schooling behind him to make a go of his life when or if he is released.

Although we rightly celebrtate the achievements of out players who have made it all the way to The Show - like Spence, Moylan and Graeme Lloyd (above), the fact remains that less than ten per cent of Australian kids signed professionally will ever make it to Major League level. Interestingly – for whatever reason - our numbers stack up pretty well against a five per cent record anywhere else. Interesting, too, are records that I have seen showing that although there are more Australian players making the majors from the 17 year-old signing group, the higher percentage is for those who ink contracts at a later age – suggesting that there is no formula, and there is no magic pudding given the variables that are involved.

 

The message in all of that must surely be that it is never over until it is over. It is wrong for any Australian player not having been signed by Under 18 level to believe that he is finished. That he has run out of opportunities. Quite wrong. Anecdotally it appears that plenty more scouts are waiting to see how the player develops at a more mature age – including at Under 25 level, where there might be some identification of late developers or of those players who were on the fringe when they were younger but now may be in a better space to achieve at professional level.

 

By raising the signing age – and allowing greater allowance for education, perhaps through the provision of negotiated clauses in any contract - we will be giving our kids more opportunity to succeed when they go overseas and more confidence to make a go of their lives in the event that they may be released without establishing a solid playing career.

 

The Australian Baseball Alumni Board understands the complexities of the decisions facing professionally-signed baseball players and it can empathise totally with the difficulties that many face in adjusting to release, to prolonged injury or to the myriad of other issues occasioned when young men are living away from their family, in another country, especially in the unforgiving and relentless drudgery that Minor League baseball can become.

 

That is precisely why we have established an Alumni mentoring service that has been enthusiastically embraced by many of our former Major League players who have been there and who are committed to help out in any way that they are reasonably able.

 

To any of our current or recently released professional baseball players, we recommend our free Alumni mentoring service. If there is an issue with which you require assistance, just ask. Please. If you are seeking specific advice on any baseball matter, or if you are simply looking for a sounding board, our mentors are readily available.

 

The above article is predominantly an opinion piece compiled by a baseball dinosaur with admittedly minimal understanding of many of the issues and the situations that may be involved or implied. Australian Baseball Alumni invites any person with a view on any of these matters - including player choice between the college and professional pathway - to engage with us directly on Facebook or to present any original article to us for potential publication (email kcollins@iprimus.com.au).

Josh Spence

Graeme Lloyd