Sunday, August 22, 2010

A video is worth a thousand words

The Deep in the Hole scouting staff are forever scouring the airwaves and internet looking for the next big story to break. As stated previously in this forum, Australian Baseball League stories have been few and far between. Little bits and pieces have begun to dribble out but nothing that the Defensive Specialist and baseball fans can really sink their teeth into.

In light of this dearth of information, the Defensive Specialist has upped the ante on his own web based research time (code for surfing the net when Mrs the Defensive Specialist asks what the Defensive Specialist is up to on the computer). Last week the Defensive Specialist was meticulously reading each and every article on the Baseball WA website when he stumbled upon an entry that included a bunch of emails from Americans looking to play down under. What struck the Defensive Specialist was the sheer volume of kids looking to live the Aussie dream.

Now in the past the Defensive Specialist has waxed lyrical about the virtues of playing baseball down under in the offseason so its no surprise that Americans have a genuine interest in coming here to extend their careers. But what really struck the Defensive Specialist was the content of some of the emails. Before the Defensive Specialist gets to the amusing stuff, it would be prudent for the administrators of the ABL or franchises to put out some definitive parameters around what constitutes import players because a number of the emails sent to BWA request an opportunity to play for the Perth Heat.

The Defensive Specialist did find the following passage on the Sydney Blue Stocking website that alludes to the make up of teams:

What players will compete in the ABL and how are they sourced?

You might be surprised to learn that Australia is one of the world's largest producers of professional baseball talent.  To date, over 300 Australians have played professional baseball with Major League Baseball affiliated clubs in the United States.  For decades, Australian baseballers have excelled on the global stage. The ABL will provide an opportunity for these immensely talented athletes to showcase their talents on home soil.  As such the vast majority, approximately 70% of roster spots, will be held by Australian players, drawn from other professional leagues around the globe. In baseball, the player list is referred to as the "roster," and ABL rosters will feature 22 men, with nine, including the pitcher, competing on the field at any one time.   The ABL works closely with Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball to identify talented players in each club system who would benefit from the coaching, training and development provided by the ABL. In addition, the ABL will source import players from other premiere international leagues.

To a trained professional like the Defensive Specialist, the last sentence suggesting that the ABL will source import players from other premier international leagues is the money shot. With Major League Baseball firmly behind the league, it is safe to assume that import players will be professionals (either US minor leaguers or professionals from Asia) and that teams will not be in the situation they were last year when they could snag an American who may be in Australia playing at the club level to fill a gap.

Obviously franchises aren’t going to hang a sign on their website saying “No non MLB affiliated players need apply” but perhaps there could be a little clearer clarification around what sort of import teams will be looking for. The deep recesses of the Defensive Specialist’s memory bank seems to recall Greg Jelks coming to Australia to play club baseball before he was drawn into the Heat team in the early 90’s and tearing the league a new anus so obviously that approach has worked in the past for franchises – although the ABL didn’t have Major League Baseball propping it up back then with a substantial financial stake.

Anyway, getting back to the import emails, it would be poor form to sit here and make fun of people trying to find an opportunity playing baseball in another country. Its safe to say that the vast majority Americans emailing state associations aren’t going to end up on ABL rosters, having said that, local clubs are always looking to supplement their teams with additional talent and often use imports to assist with junior programs. Many would argue that the local competitions have been enhanced by Americans participating and bringing additional skill sets to the league. So instead of taking the easy route and making fun, let the Defensive Specialist offer some advice to imports and help them get their message across:

1) If you’re a college player or independent leaguer, it is imperative that you reference an Australian with an ounce of respectability. It is almost pointless listing your career statistics from the past 10 years and the ratings that unmentioned scouts have affixed to you if you have no link to an Australian that can back up your claims. There aren’t many smart local clubs that will take a flyer on an American without an Aussie eyeballing them.

Here’s an example of what the Defensive Specialist means:

Lead the Alexandria Aces in RBI (35) and walks (37), second in OPS, second in doubles with 10, first in productive outs and third in HRs with 5 in 159 at bats as well as first in runs scored with 40. Most sacrifice bunts and sac fly balls. Only player on the team with more walks (37) than strike outs. Finished with a .270 batting avg but easily could have been over .300 with the amount of balls that were hit hard and the amount of quality at bats. Led team in batting avg. with runners in scoring position (.340). .400 OBP and .400 slugging. 5 stolen bases in 7 attempts. Mostly hit in the leadoff or 2 hole until the last few weeks they moved me into the 3 hole. Always moving runners over and getting guys in.
Zero errors in 52 games. My arm was rated a 60/80 from the outfield and I run the 60 in 6.7.

The Defensive Specialist will give it to the guy; he’s a big time optimist! “I hit .270, but it could easily have been .300” and the glass is half full too! The numbers were put up in an independent league, which makes it very tough to verify the level of competition. The final sentence with arm ratings and 60 times is an example of the unqualified scout rating. How many times have you heard a guy say he throws 91mph, only to see 87mph come out of his hand?

And another example:

After I graduated, I attended Professional workouts for MLB teams, such as a Pre Draft Showcase for several MLB teams where I ran a 6.43 sixty, threw 93 mph from the OF.  This summer, I attended a Scout Day for the NYSL and ran a 6.48 sixty. 

The Defensive Specialist wishes scouts would put this information on certifiable documentation, it would make things so much easier.

So how does an American overcome this issue? Either find an Aussie playing in your league and hope that he isn’t a slapdick back home and that his word carries some weight or buy your own plane ticket and get yourself out to Australia where you can showcase your skill set and back up all of the claims. You could also use an American who has played out here previously as a reference; just make sure they left on good terms!

The only way you could pull this move off is if you have played minor league baseball. A dude who put up numbers at the AAA level is always going to be appealing and every baseball club knows what sort of talent you generally have to have to play at the AA or AAA level. It’s probably not going to have the same impact if you have one season at the rookie ball level under your belt however. The great unknown here of course is the “cultural fit”. A player may have all the tools in the world, but if they don’t fit in at an Aussie club they can cause more damage than good. Once again, the only way around this is the Aussie reference.

2) There is about a 2% chance that a team will pay your way out to Australia if you don’t have an Aussie contact backing you up. The 2% is made up by clubs who are prepared to take a flyer on the rare AAA guy who expresses an interest in coming down under and even then, most clubs extract their pound of flesh by making the guy work his ball bag off coaching!

3) Rattling off 48 names and phone numbers of American guys who’ll say something nice about you is worthless if no one knows them. It’s like listing your mum on you resume as a referee. They’re always going to say good things, unfortunately no one can verify them.

4) Try to demonstrate that you’re literate and don’t overvalue your accomplishments. Here’s an example of both:

I threw a COPMLETE GAME SHUTOUT, scattering 7 hits, striking out 9 and not walking anyone.

We all understand baseball players aren’t known for their academic prowess but this is kind of like a job interview. The first impression is a lasting impression. Put your best foot forward young soldier! It is also important to note that in Australia we have experienced complete game shut outs before. This is not a feat that will have club presidents scrambling for their cheque book unfortunately.

The Defensive Specialist admires and appreciates American’s looking to get down under and play baseball in our local competitions. It makes the game better and it advances our own players and competition. However, it’s tough to get a gig when you don’t know anyone who carries any sort of weight here. So what’s the answer if that’s your situation? – Make a video like this one:

Monday, August 16, 2010

The IMPORTance of Talent

November 6th. That’s the date the Defensive Specialist has circled on the giant calendar located on the Deep in the Hole refrigerator. Every morning at 4.45am the Defensive Specialist crosses off another day and then heads to the gym for his daily 3 hour work out. The counting down allows the excitement to build and motivates the Defensive Specialist to push through his 7th set of 150 kg bench press. As we get closer to the season, the Defensive Specialist’s attention moves away from incidental little things like team names and uniform colours and begins to focus on important stuff like the make up of rosters and talent.

Astute readers will notice how the Defensive Specialist cleverly worked the subject of today’s post into the title above. It’s clear that each Australian Baseball League franchise will have a heavy make up of international imports on their rosters and today is a great time to chat about how that will work and what sort of talent we can expect to be sent down under by Major League organizations. Unfortunately the Defensive Specialist doesn’t have any great insight into players who may be sent to play in Australia or if franchises are aligning themselves to specific Major League teams (major let down by your favourite baseball blogger)

The Defensive Specialist has heard all sort of talk about how many imports each team will have, ranging from 4 – 7. 7 guys on a 22- 25-man roster is a significant number of players to be bringing into each team. For the sake of discussion, the Defensive Specialist is only going to focus on imports coming from Major League organizations. There has been a lot of discussion about Asian baseball teams sending players to play in the ABL, but it’s a very grey topic and the Defensive Specialist has limited (see: none) information on how those relationships may work.

Allow the Defensive Specialist to discuss a couple of topics:

Why send prospects to play in Australia?

We can all agree that baseball is a game of repetition. The more you do it, generally the better you get at it. Professional baseball players typically finish a season and then look to pick up more playing time in an offseason league. The best prospects are sent off to Arizona Fall League which commences in October and concludes in mid November. You’ll see genuine stud horses participating in this league with each team providing 7 of their best prospects. Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic also have offseason baseball leagues that are wildly popular with locals and often attract major leaguers.

So why Australia? Well for starters have you looked outside lately? It’s not a bad place to live. Our summer is the US offseason, we speak English and living conditions are pretty decent. Sure it’s a significant distance from the US, but Australia provides excellent conditions to have your prospects working on their game in the offseason. If you’ve spoken to any Aussie that’s played in a South American league, most will mention the difficult conditions, rabid fans and the not so safe conditions that they sometimes face as deterrents.

The cons to playing down under are obviously the tyranny of distance and the less than stellar paychecks that are likely to be on offer.

The upsides include living conditions, beaches, and how well the American accent goes over with young and impressionable women. There are worse ways to spend an offseason! Major League teams would surely feel comfortable sending their talent to Australia, knowing that they can get 40 games under their belts in a competitive league…and come back with killer sun tans!

Will major League teams send their best prospects down under?

Unlikely. As mentioned, the studs head to the Arizona Fall League while many young players (particularly pitchers) will be shut down altogether so as not to exceed inning restrictions and to allow rest.

Having said that, the first ABL saw approximating 90 professionals who tasted the major leagues pass through the competition. At the time these players were typically at the single A level. You can scan Flintoff and Dunn’s website and see a collection of big leaguers who’ve graced our shores and see some of the talent that participated in the first incarnation of the ABL. The biggest names still playing in the Major Leagues would be Vernon Wells (who until this season was a contender for the most grossly overpaid big leaguer with his 100 million salary and middling numbers) and Kevin Millwood who had some solid years pitching for the Atlanta Braves Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers.

Undoubtedly, the new ABL will feature young players that will some day end up in the big leagues. The guys sent down to Australia wont be chopped liver, they’ll definitely have some tools and be exciting to watch.

What does each Australian team require?

Geez the Defensive Specialist is asking himself great questions today!

Without knowing the roster make up of each squad its difficult to say what the breakdown of imports for each team should be. Its fair to say that pitching will be high on each teams list of requirements as every team will want to be competitive on the bump and avoid having to roll out a 79 mph pie thrower to get assaulted late in a series when all of the live arms have been used.

Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane will all likely be putting their hands up for pitching (bother starting pitching and relievers). Sydney seems to be well placed in the pitching ranks especially if the vast majority of their pro guys make themselves available like Damian Moss, David Welch and Brad Tippett. If Tim Cox and Wayne Lundgren toss their caps in the ring, Sydney is strong from an Australian talent standpoint. Having one or two import pitchers who can take the ball in 2 of the 4 games each series definitely lifts some of the burden off local pitching stocks and increases the caliber of arms in the league. If Victoria can entice Travis Blackley, Josh Spence, Shane Lindsay and John Hussey back home for the summer, their local pitching talent looks very competitive as well.

The challenge with professionals participating is the inning or pitch restrictions placed on each guy. If a starter has a cap on the number of innings he can throw or a reliever has a pitch count in place, we could see some series being compromised by these limitations.

Offensively, each team will have different holes to fill. Adelaide will likely lose Michael Collins to Canberra so they’ll not only have to replace a big bat, but also a catcher. The Defensive Specialist’s boy – D Wash (David Washington) will not be back in South Australia so a lead off hitter with speed will be in order. The boys from SA were very light on offensive at both second and short so upgrades will be required there.

Perth was decent offensively last season but will need to replace Nick Kimpton in centre who the Defensive Specialist anticipates returning to Canberra. A bat at second base or shortstop and a banger out in left field would also be very handy.

Brisbane was extremely young last season and will need to inject some offensive into an anemic lineup that was low on pop and woefully outscored. Upgrades in the outfield and some thunder at the corner infield positions would definitely be of assistance.

Canberra is a great unknown although the addition of Kimpton and Collins will help the lineup. They’ll be thin in both the pitching and hitting categories and the Defensive Specialist wonders whether or not they’d be better suited focusing on one area and load up on that rather than spreading themselves thin. Either out pitch or out slug the opposition until they can develop or entice talent to the team.

Melbourne posted decent offensive numbers without a high volume of professionals on the roster.  They could probably do with an upgrade offensively behind the dish and add some oomph at first base although if Justin Huber is available that position should be in good order. Some pop and speed in the outfield never goes astray either!

The Defensive Specialist has already stated that he thinks the Sydney Blue Stockings are the team to beat this year with the pitching they potentially have available. If they could insert Trent Oeltjen into their line up and add a quality bat at second and third they could be explosive. There is word that they may have the services of Scott Campbell who is a New Zealand native with family ties in NSW currently playing AAA in the Blue Jay organization. Any time you can add a AAA bat, you make that deal. The Defensive Specialist would be interested to know if a New Zealander counts toward a teams ration of import players though?

There is always the risk associated with bringing foreign players into a league, mainly around cultural issues and idiosyncrasies. The wrong mix of personalities and work ethic can be damaging to a team and its fabric. Having said that, the Defensive Specialist is excited to see the talent level of these players and how they affect the quality of the baseball in Australia. We’ll know in 81 days!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Let me Check my Schedule

Right off the bat, the Defensive Specialist needs to apologise for his tardiness over the past two weeks. Loyal readers have come to expect a certain level of output from Australia’s premier baseball blogger and quite frankly one post a week is just not going to get it done. The Defensive Specialist would love to say that he’s trying harder to be more productive but the words of his mentor ring loudly in his ear whenever he considers trying harder; “I could walk down to the street corner and find any slappy who’ll come in here and try, just f*cking do it!” How’s that for a credo to live by?

Anyway, the reason for the sluggish output is that the Defensive Specialist has been basking in the miracle of childbirth. The last 7 days have been spent changing nappies, settling and working on the double play feed from second base. With all of that mastered, the Defensive Specialist is ready to get back to business. With a new, self generated time constraint in place, the Defensive Specialist has been thinking long and hard about schedules. How does a man with a million things on the burner fit them all in? Tightly controlled timeframes and schedules that’s how!

Since the Defensive Specialist is now operating on a timetable that is managed to the nearest minute, it seemed like a great opportunity to spend some time talking about the schedule for the upcoming ABL season. Before we do that though, it’s probably worth considering a couple of late name changes that have taken place with 2 of the ABL franchises. Late last week the ABL launched its team names and accompanying websites. The Sydney franchise was originally thought to be called the Sting, but it appears that there may have been conflicts with another prominent Sydney sporting team who already have dibs on the name Sting (or Stingers). You never want to go head to head with a permanent fixture in the Sydney gay and lesbian sporting community!

So in order to avoid a litigation nightmare, the Sydney franchise has gone with the name Blue Sox which may in fact sound even gayer but at least isn’t in use by another team in the immediate vicinity. A cursory glance at the new Sydney website shows that the team colours are primarily powder blue which could make for some woeful looks if players choose to go with high pants and show off their pale hosiery! On the upside, it’s a definitive baseball name (Red Sox & White Sox) and light blue can look really good on the diamond when done tastefully.

Early on the Canberra franchise was rumoured to be called the Canberra Colts, which the Defensive Specialist derided as being completely boring. Such is the Defensive Specialists impact that the powers-that-be swung into action in order to find something a little punchier. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Canberra Calvary! Ok, so that really isn’t any better and did have the Defensive Specialist scouring the Internet looking for Canberra water polo teams with the same name. The one major upside to the team name is that the bugle and charge call that seems synonymous with Australian baseball suddenly resonates with the Canberra franchise like no other.

Lets get back to the schedules. We know that each team will be playing 40 games over the course of the season with 20 at home and 20 on the road. What we don’t officially know is how those games will be dispersed. There has been a lot of scuttlebutt about the schedule in various forums with games said to be played on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in combinations that include double headers.

The thing that intrigues the Defensive Specialist about the schedules is the ability for franchises to pull a crowd during the week. Some may argue that teams would be better off playing 2 double headers on the weekend in order to maximise the number of patrons coming through the gates. Frankly the Defensive Specialist is excited about the possibility of catching a ballgame on a Wednesday night but the greater question is – what sort of crowds will teams manage to draw during the week with work and school playing a key factor in deciding whether or not to head to the yard?

Obviously the argument differs in every state. For an upwardly mobile individual like the Defensive Specialist who chooses to live reasonably close to the central business district in Sydney, getting out to the Blacktown baseball facility in peak hour traffic mid week is an absolute nightmare with travel times easily in excess of an hour. The congested roads may be a significant determinant of crowd size mid week when fans simply don’t want to sit in traffic for large portions of time. On the flipside, the traffic may be less of a problem for baseball fans that don’t live near the city and a mid week game is a great opportunity to take the whole family out.

Another question worth asking is how the crowd sizes may vary from midweek to weekend. One would expect the numbers to be up for weekend games by quite a margin, especially if teams can run smart promotions that draw kids into the action. Recently the Defensive Specialist had an interesting conversation with a peer who argued that perhaps teams should just play 2 double dips on the weekend. His stance was that teams would obviously get greater numbers on the weekend, so why not play all 4 games over 2 days and give the paying fans an awesome experience.

The Defensive Specialist countered that teams would be giving up 2 extra days of gate receipts (unless they pulled the old “clear fans out after game 1 and charge them to come back in for game 2” stunt which would likely lead to a revolt). The comeback to that argument is that gate takings mid week may be insignificant. The great unknown here is how many fans would you expect on a Wednesday or Thursday night?

Another issue with double headers is the impact that it has on local baseball. A double header on Saturday or Sunday affects either a junior or senior league in almost every state in some way, shape or form. If you play a double header on a junior baseball day, you eat into your fan base by eliminating the kids and their parents who would typically come to the game. These are the fans that the ABL wants to attract because A) they normally come in packs; B) they’ll be the future of the league.

Playing a double header on a senior baseball day impacts a portion of the baseball population who are likely to attend a series as well. On top of that, local competitions may be adversely affected because there will likely be ABL players who would also squeeze in a club game that could no longer do so as a result of conflicting schedules.

Double headers are worth avoiding for the impact they have on the player experience. Forget Ernie Banks, the modern day players simply does not enjoy double headers. On top of that, the ABL should be a league that is run along the same lines as professional baseball. That is, players should be playing as often as possible. The majority of players in the competition will either be playing professionally or aspiring to do so. The league will need to be as close to professional baseball as possible in that players are on the field competing almost every single day. Replicating the conditions is critical if the league hopes to be a development ground used by Major League organisations.

In the Defensive Specialists opinion, games spread across the week is the way to go.  If the ultimate goal is to create a viable league that is appealing to Major League teams as an option for prospect development then it has to resemble a professional season in structure and feel. Teams that put together interesting and entertaining packages for fans will draw crowds (and obviously bigger crowds on Fridays and the weekends).  The good news in all of this is that in under 3 months, we’ll know if its going to work or not!