Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Savin’ Me

What an interesting week in Australian baseball. We had the upstart Canberra Cavalry landing in Perth and stealing 3 out of 4 from the previously undefeated Heat. We had the Blue Sox taking steps to right their season by winning 3 out of 4 against the Bandits (with a little hand from their fans) We had Adelaide and Melbourne split even though slugger Denny Almonte dropped 12 rbi’s on the Aces across the 4 game series.

Unfortunately, all of that was over shadowed by even bigger news – Aussie big leaguer Peter Moylan getting into a Twitter stoush with the rock band Nickelback. Seems Moylan was suitably inspired by a recent Foo Fighters gig to call out Nickelback:

"Note to @nickelback please attend a @foofighters concert. That's how's it should be done chad,"

Unfortunately for Moylan, Nickelback fired back and fired back in style!

"@PeterMoylan Foos are killer for sure. We're doing just fine too thanks. ? for you Pete, is watching Kimbrel better from the bench or on TV?"


Nickelback 1, Moylan 0

Anyway, enough injured relief pitchers and Canadian soft rock bands; lets get back to the ABL.

Heat V Cavalry

The Defensive Specialist suggested in a recent post that the Heat’s recent foibles in Asia could lead to a Cavalry upset. Unfortunately your old pal also predicted that the winless trip abroad would fire the Heat up and lead to a demolition of the Canberra outfit…  Canberra were having none of that, shutting down the Heat offensively in the first 3 games and having their way with the Heat pitching staff to the tune of 25 runs in the first 3 games.

Blue Sox V Bandits

Keen meteorologists will tell you that Sydney is currently in the midst of the coldest December in recent memory. As a result, the Blue Sox faced the proposition of playing the Bandits in wet and wild conditions. While the inclement weather threatened the contest across the weekend it also allowed the Blue Sox to expand their roster to 145 as the local fans came out onto the field to assist pulling the field tarp across the diamond.  In more serious news, the weekend saw the Blue Sox take steps towards respectability by adding 4 games to the win column. The key additions of Mitch Denning, Joe Hage and Brandon Barnes paid dividends immediately and manager Kevin Boles will hope and pray this newfound offense can be sustained.

Bite V Aces

Adelaide will be less than impressed after splitting a home series with the last placed Melbourne team although centerfielder Denny Almonte definitely gave the home fans something to talk about, exploding for 12 rbi’s across the series The highlight was obviously game 2 when he hit a grand slam, mixed in an RBI single and them ended the game with a walk off 3 run blast. That’s the sort of game you hang your hat on!
Denny Almonte enjoying a big series
After 5 years of continued success and prosperity in Sydney, the Defensive Specialist is pleased to announce that the entire Deep in the Hole operation will be relocating to Western Australia as of next week. While the logistics of moving a franchise are daunting, the Defensive Specialist is confident that a seamless transition can be made. The Defensive Specialist has a  a single Blue Sox season membership available to anyone who’s interested, simply drop the Defensive Specialist an email with your mailing address and it’ll be sent through at no cost – well actually there will be a cost, you’ll likely be accosted by autograph hounds who’ll mistake you for Australia’s preeminent baseball blogger – don’t worry, you’ll grow to love it!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stinky Tofu and Baseball – The Asian Series

With no baseball taking place in the Emerald City this weekend, the Defensive Specialist was forced to camp out in front of the Deep in the Hole Super Computer with a bowl of Stinky Tofu to watch the Perth Heat take part in the Asian Baseball Series. Aside from the fact the commentary was in Taiwanese, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience.  The camera work was professional, the graphics were solid and best of all there was a message board in real time next to the screen which allowed the Defensive Specialist to road test all of the gags you’ll read throughout this post.

(Editors note: the message board was non-English speaking)

The Asian Series came at an interesting time for the Heat – smack bang as they’ve reeled off 11 consecutive wins and shaped as the form team of the competition. While the Defensive Specialist is sure Heat Manager Brooke Knight would have liked to stay downunder to continue punishing the local teams, the Asian Series did present an opportune time to showcase the Australian Baseball League and to measure up against Asia Pacific’s best teams.

Unfortunately the Asian holiday didn’t run to script as the Heat dropped all 3 of their games. Other than a blow out late in game 1, the contests remained fairly close and the WA lads will take some comfort out of knowing that they can compete at that level. What the series did do was raise a couple of questions that your old pal has some thoughts on:

1) How will losing 3 games affect the Heat when they get back to business in the ABL?

Interesting question and one that the Defensive Specialist is glad he asked himself. Momentum is a HUGE thing in baseball and the Heat had a whole lot of it after they finished boat racing the Blue Sox in Sydney last week. The vast majority of the offensive line up was hotter than hell fire and the pitching staff had looked sharp throughout the series. The jaunt to Asia probably didn’t come at the best time and may have 1 of 2 results when the Heat return to action

A) The 3 losses will shake the Heat’s confidence and Canberra will ride into town to steal a couple of ballgames from the Heat on their home turf;


B) The Heat will return home, somewhat embarrassed after dropping all three games and drop a severe beat down on the Cavalry in revenge.

You often hear teams that are running off a ridiculous winning streak state that the first loss was almost necessary. That’s an easy thing to say immediately after an L but when you think about it, it does make some sense. Winning multiple games in a row can often allow complacency to creep in and see teams going through the motions.  The advantage the Heat has is that the games they’ve lost mean nothing (other than a blow to the Australian baseball psyche). The net result may be that the Heat evaluate some of their weaknesses, make the necessary adjustments and get back on the horse this weekend (and yes that was a clever metaphor about the Heat pumping the Cavalry).

2) What did the 3 losses expose in the Perth Heat?

Defense, defense, defense

The Heat may swing it with the best of them but their defense hurt them at almost every turn. 9 errors in 3 games is just not going to get it done when you’re playing a quality opponent and with a pitching staff that relies on command and control rather than brute force, additional outs are not so easily overcome with the strike out.

Mitch Graham's hitting is outperforming his defense
While shortstop Mitch Graham has been a revelation at the plate early in the season (.435 AVG, 4 HR, 16 RBIs, 10 runs), his unreliability in the field (6 errors on the season, 2 during the Asian Series) at a premium position is something that the team cannot afford. Manager Knight obviously saw about as much as he could stomach as Graham finished out the Asian Series at second with Mychal Givens taking over at short. Moving forward second base may be a much better fit for Graham (assuming Givens can handle short) but this poses a problem with Luke Hughes returning eventually. If Graham continues to hit, it’s a nice problem to have!

3) Was the Heat pitching staff exposed in Taiwan?

Simply – No

As stated above, the Heat doesn’t have a staff full of guys who blow 94mph but what they do have is a bunch of guys who can pitch. By pitch the Defensive Specialist means they throw strikes, work quickly and limit the damage. Both Ben Moore and Trevor Caughey yielded only 1 earned run (unearned runs were a different story) and while Daniel Schmidt was a little less effective than normal he only gave up 3 unearned. The Heat bullpen could really do with a power arm or two because the plethora of finesse guys has a tendency to all blend into one meaning that hitters can sit on a certain speed however the return or Brendan Wise at some stage definitely boosts the Heat pen. At the end of the day, the Heat proved last year that the control guys who ate up innings were the way to the Championship so why deviate from a proven formula?
Ben Moore provided another solid outing
No matter the result, the Asian Series is a great opportunity to showcase baseball and specifically the ABL. While it would have been great to win a couple of ball games, the break from regular competition could be the revitalizing shot the Heat need…… or it could completely derail their season. We’ll soon see.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Laser Show

As you could probably tell from the absolute lack of activity here at Deep in the Hole, the Defensive Specialist has been suffering from a serious motivational issue. When you’ve been at the top of your game for a countless number of years, it’s tough to keep finding challenges to spur you on. If anything was going to get your old pal back behind the keyboard, it was a visit to Sydney by the league champs – the Perth Heat.

The Defensive Specialist has been hearing the hype regarding the offensive juggernaut brewing over in the West so this was a chance to get a look first hand, especially since they’d be squaring off against the usually pitching rich Sydney Blue Sox. The Defensive Specialist definitely got to see the Perth boys roll the pole as they exploded in game 1 of the Saturday double header for 24 hits, and then backed it up in the Sunday session with another lazy 20 knocks. Instead of a comprehensive review, the Defensive Specialist is going to keep it fresh and real with a number of key insights: 

Key Insight 1

There wasn’t a great deal happening during the offseason regarding the ABL – well unless you count fraudulent player movements as interesting, but one thing that caught the Defensive Specialist’s attention was the news that the Heat had snagged last year’s MVP Jamie McOwen. Either McOwen was a clubhouse cancer with a body odour problem or the Heat paid a king’s ransom to get him – how else could you explain the Bite allowing him to move? Turns out McOwen is a good dude who paid his own way down under just so he could keep playing during his off season. It’s a good thing table setting lead off hitters grow on trees……. The Defensive Specialist was left scratching his head as to what the Adelaide brains trust was thinking especially as McOwen scored 8 runs in 4 games. Rumour has it they had no spots available with a new set of imports being sent down, so McOwen was forced to shop himself around and foot the bill.
Have MVP award will travel
Key Insight 2

After handing out a pasting last year regarding some of the uniforms, it was great to see Major League Baseball take the Defensive Specialist’s sartorial advice and splurge on some new sets. The Blue Sox looked virginal in their all white home uni’s and the new red road jerseys the Heat were sporting looked pretty damn good!
The virginal Blue Sox
The Heat rocking the red
Key Insight 3

Regular readers will recall the Defensive Specialist lamenting the lack of offensive firepower from the Sydney line up last year. In a busy off season they went out and added…..1 bat. Granted, Mitch Dening has not returned to active duty but his bat alone is not going to dig the Blue Sox out of the offensive quagmire they currently reside in. There was not a single Blue Sox player who could have cracked the Heat line up over the course of the weekend. There – the Defensive Specialist said it!

While the Defensive Specialist is all for allowing the Aussies to play, surely Sydney could find a big league club prepared to send down at least a few prospects to beef up their line-up? With every club adding international talent, it’s baffling to see Sydney stick with locals who don’t necessarily match up to the level of talent on offer from other teams.

Key Insight 4

Speaking of the Heat line up, it’s stacked. The team bangs 1 through 9 especially with the addition of Brenden Webb who arrived just in time to play in game 1 of the series. In fact Webb was lucky to play at all since no one was at the airport to pick him up from the US. A charming smile enabled him access to a hire care computer terminal where he used the internet to locate the ABL phone number and managed to make contact with someone who then arranged a pick up - after a 3 hour wait.

To make matters worse for opposing ball clubs, Luke Hughes is still to play meaning that the Heat are able to add a major weapon to an already potent line up. It will be interesting to see how manager Brooke Knight manages his men with so many bats at his disposal.

Key Insight 5

The Blue Sox have made some reasonably major changes to their field with the addition of primo seating directly behind home plate and down the foul lines. The new seats are a really nice addition that allows fans to get much closer to the action and the Blue Sox to expand their fan base with additional vantage points. Of course if the Sox continue to get swept on their home turf, they may need to take them out quick smart because there will be a lot of spare seats.

Key Insight 6

With last year’s no-hitting ace David Welch no longer on the roster and stalwart Chris Oxspring working out of the pen, the Sydney rotation is currently thinner than rice paper. The Heat essentially took batting practice in games 2 and 4, lacing balls all over the yard and taking advantage of a series of arms lacking velocity and control (not a good combination). A rotation headed by Oxspring and Wayne Lundgren will allow the Blue Sox to be competitive but they need another big arm if they hope to get through the season in any sort of winning form.

Key Insight 7

The Heat are trying something unique with their imports this season. As the Defensive Specialist discussed last year, having pro arms can be more troubling than it is useful with pitchers on strict inning counts and often not available come playoffs. The Heat have obviously read the Deep in the Hole SWOT analysis and this year invested their import allotment towards the offensive side of the game. With 5 bats in the line up they are set to score a plethora of runs. The approach to pitching is right out of the Defensive Specialist playbook – find a bunch of solid non pro arms and ride them to the play offs. The Heat managed to bring back Trevor Caughey and Matt Zachary to play for them and then work their relationships with local clubs to borrow the likes of Jacob Clem and Geoff Brown. When you add these pitchers to local arms like Daniel Schmidt and Warwick Saupold you have a bunch of solid inning eaters that are available all year and who keep their team in the contest.

All in all it was an interesting series to attend, mainly to see the stacked Heat line-up go to work. The old adage goes “good pitching beats good hitting” but the Defensive Specialist is prepared to suggest that there may not be enough pitching in this league to stop the Heat bats in a 3 game finals series.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Rumour Mill

The hustle and bustle of living a double life is absolutely impacting the Defensive Specialist’s ability to provide content – who’d have thought being a highly successfully business man would take up so much time? Anyway, a couple of interesting rumours have come to the Defensive Specialist’s attention that may make for interesting discussion.

  • Despite a long relationship with the Baltimore Orioles, it appears that the talent pipeline has been severed and the Perth Heat will be looking for a new source of imports. This will be a disappointment to the fan base who have enjoyed watching high level talent come through Perth via the Oriole organization. The team suffers as they relied heavily on the output generated by Widlansky, Curry and Welty. Many will speculate that Don Kyle’s move back to the corporate sector was the trigger for the relationship breakdown but the Defensive Specialist was informed ‘off the record’ that the ABL requested more funding from the Orioles (likely to assist with housing and supporting the players) and the Orioles decided to spend their money elsewhere. Whatever the reason it’s a huge blow to the reigning champions who’ll either have to find another source of professional talent or rely on an array of former pro’s to fill the gaps.
  • Word on the street is that the Sydney Blue Sox will be appointing a new manager for the upcoming season. The Defensive Specialist is  unsure as to why Glenn Williams is not continuing but the replacement manager is likely to be Kevin Boles who’s currently managing the Portland Sea Dogs – the Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The upside to such a move for the Blue Sox and their fans is greater access to Red Sox affiliated professionals who may aid in boosting last seasons anemic offense.

The Defensive Specialist should reiterate that these nuggets come from a series of networks that have no true link to either franchise so make sure you have ample water available to assist with the ingestion of the grain of salt.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is More Less?

After making the foolish promise to up the output from a blogging perspective, the Defensive Specialist has been pacing back and forth in front of the Deep in the Hole super computer desperately trying to come up with decent ideas to waffle on about. Mired in the dead of winter is not helping the creative juices flow and the Defensive Specialist fights a daily battle against the urge to comfort eat. Fortunately Tuesday saw a breakthrough with the genius idea to talk about the 2011/2012 schedule!

Before you click off the page in disgust, remember the Defensive Specialist also committed to shorter posts (in order to avoid repetitive strain injury after a lengthy lay off). So even if it’s a crappy topic, you’ll only have to endure 500-750 words on the matter as opposed to the usual 1500-2000. That’s a win win right?

The biggest change from last season is the addition of 6 more games, increasing from 40 games (20 home / 20 away) to 46 (23 home / 23 away). Regular readers of this fine, upstanding site will know that the Defensive Specialist has long championed the idea of playing more games. For those disinclined to read through the archives to find these well-written gems and in order to pad the word count, let your old pal quickly rehash the topic.

If Major League Baseball wants to run an offseason league that’s taken seriously by its franchises then it has to offer more games. The reason? MLB teams who want their prospects to play offseason baseball are looking for 3 things: 1) quality competition, 2) quality standard of living and environment and 3) volume. We all know that you get better at baseball by playing it a lot (hence the 162 game MLB schedule). Teams want to get games into their prospects against solid competition. The more games they play (particularly offensive players who don’t need to rest their arms as pitchers do), the greater the benefit. There is a huge advantage to Australian professional players as well as they now have a legitimate offseason league to continue their development in. Think back a couple of years when an Australian kid’s offseason program included club ball and a week long Claxton Shield tournament. Now compare that to a 46 game season with games running 5 days a week!

So this new schedule is a good thing right?

Yes and no.

Obviously from a players perspective it’s a great thing. As outlined above, playing every day is only going to ratchet up the development time and skills of all players involved. It’s going to expose Australian youngsters to good baseball and allow our professional players to hone their talents. From an imports perspective, they get to continue their growth in Australia during summer while drinking better beer.

So what’s the downside you ask? Well there are a couple of issues the Defensive Specialist sees: 
  • Firstly, playing more games actually impacts the ability of both non-professionals and professionals to hold down regular jobs. We all know that minor leaguers are not paid any sort of princely sum and require off-season work to survive. We also had a decent level of non-professionals / amateurs taking part in the league last year who work first and play baseball second. With games now taking place on Wednesdays, players are effectively only able to work 2 days per week (when on the road). There aren’t many gigs around that A) support working 2 days per week and B) pay enough. What we’re likely to see is the number of mature non-professionals / amateurs decline and an increase in younger players (bankrolled by mum and dad!) and non-professional imports (sponsored by local clubs).
  • The effect of extended series on crowd support. When contacted by the Sydney Blue Sox to continue membership, one of the selling points to re-up was the addition of games. “Instead of 4 games per series, you get 5!!” went the spiel. That looks good on paper until you consider the thought of attending 5 games a week from Wednesday to Sunday. In fact attending that many games in a week would lead to divorce papers, which wouldn’t look so good. Obviously most people wont be attending all 5 games in a series unless they have a child or loved one playing so the effect on crowd numbers will be interesting to study. Will more games allow fans greater accessibility and options or lead to apathy? You know what they say -increasing supply decreases demand.
  • From a revenue perspective, franchises will be expected to give fans and supporters a great show no matter the day of the week.  You’d expect numbers to suffer on Wednesday and Thursday nights which means that the bottom line may hurt as teams aren’t pulling $$$ from concessions, alcohol, parking and the gate. Teams can’t afford to cut back on the bells and whistles on Wednesday and Thursday because they cant afford to give fans a reason (other than the night of the week) to not show up.
Another interesting scheduling curiosity to note is the ABL continuing with the New Years Eve / Day scheduling. The Defensive Specialist can think of nothing better than bringing in a new year watching baseball. Unfortunately not all family and friends may agree. Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne are the teams scheduled to host the games over the New Year period, which is also interesting. A case can definitely be made for Adelaide who have a rapid fan base that are likely to turn out in droves (plus there’s bugger all else to do in Adelaide anyway). Both Melbourne and Brisbane had sketchy attendance numbers last season so when you couple that fact with a tough date are they asking for trouble (or did they have a huge offseason membership drive that influenced the scheduling?)? Surely teams with stronger attendance figures  (Canberra and Perth) would have been better choices to host on these dates as they have a better chance to at least pull a crowd.

The Defensive Specialist has blown out his target of 500-750 words and is starting to cramp up. At the end of the day, more baseball games is a good thing for the players involved and for the perception of the league. It’s the hard to measure things that bare watching as the season progresses.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

102 Days

102 Days....

That’s how long your old pal has been off the interweb much to the chagrin of the loyal readership. That’s more time off than someone on long service leave! There’s a plethora of conspiracy theories as to why the Defensive Specialist has been absent floating around so this is probably the best forum to debunk a number of them:

No – the Defensive Specialist was not leading Seal Team 6 in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

No – the Defensive Specialist was not busy creating the wedding gown for Kate Middleton.

No – the Defensive Specialist was not working with the Australian Prime Minister to draft the new carbon tax.

In all honesty, the Defensive Specialist was side tracked by a 10-month-old baby who decided that she flat out did not enjoy sleeping. Long time readers probably just regurgitated their morning lattes hearing the news that one of the games sharpest minds was waylaid by an infant. In response to your snort, the Defensive Specialist offers this statement:

“There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as torture”

Anyway with the sleep issues now in the past, the Defensive Specialist thought it was time to ease himself back into the drivers seat and start pumping out some content. Today, lets take a look at a couple of Aussies in the big leagues.

Back when the Defensive Specialist used to write more, you may remember a post outlining how tough Hughes plight was going to be playing the role of utility man. Inconsistent at bats makes keeping ones swing fine-tuned pretty tough to do. Fortunately Hughes managed to pick up some regular playing time before being demoted back to AAA. The stint in the minors lasted briefly and Hughes was back in the show playing predominantly at first base but also filling in around the infield. The thing that really stood out in the early days of Hughes season was his steadfast desire to get on the fastball ASAP (and who can blame him, it beats the hell out of flailing against hellacious breaking stuff). The downside to this approach is that you don’t really give yourself much of a chance to walk resulting in a paltry on base percentage. While Hughes is not being confused with Rickey Henderson of late (second all time base on balls), the number of pitches he is seeing each at bat is increasing which means he’s either developing more of a discerning eye or his manager has gone all junior baseball on him and told him not to swing until he has a strike!

Spence was the second person from the 2010 MLB draft called to the big leagues, which is pretty damn impressive when you consider the feat. Making things more interesting is that he doesn’t fit the mould of a “quick to the big leagues” reliever. Instead of a polished power arm, Spence comes at hitters from numerous arm angles with an array of breaking balls and a reliance on touch, feel and command. In 12 appearances Spence has allowed a solitary run (a big fly to Andre Either of the Dodgers) while punching out 7. It seems he’ll play the role of LOOGY (lefty one out guy) meaning that he’ll take on the opposition’s big lefty bats late in the game. The Defensive Specialist is intrigued to see if Spence can survive as a reliever without power stuff at the big league level.

Before the Defensive Specialist develops RSI from all this typing, it’s important to make you aware of an outstanding show featuring the San Francisco Giants currently playing in the US. Called “The Franchise” it chronicles the Giants trials and tribulations during the 2011 season. So far the Defensive Specialist has only been able to find the show on YouTube. Check it out:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 4)

Well the Luke Hughes watch fizzled out from about the time the Defensive Specialist hit the “post” button on the last offering. You’re old pal isn’t suggesting that he put the kybosh on Luke’s push to make the Twins big league roster but if you reflect back on the Defensive Specialist’s efforts to pick winners and forecast the future you’d see a trail of despair and destruction. The good news is that Hughes is one twanged hamstring away from a call up to the Big Leagues!

Today’s post is the final instalment of the SWOT analysis the Defensive Specialist has been working on for what seems like the past 8 weeks. The topic for consideration on this occasion is the threats to the growth and success of the ABL. The Defensive Specialist isn’t one to typically dedicate a post to anyone, but today seemed an appropriate time to recognise arguably the most unpopular man in Australian baseball – Matt Tolbert, the guy who beat out Hughes. Here’s to you Matt!

Arguably the biggest threat to the success of the ABL is a lack of fan support. Without punters coming through the turnstiles, the league will never be self-sustaining and eventually Major League baseball will grow disgruntled, cutting the cheques and severing the purse strings.  Individual teams and league administrators have to build on year 1 attendance figures and drive customers through the gates with creative marketing and solid on-field entertainment. MLB cannot and will not play the role of sugar daddy forever so it’s imperative that teams set up solid fan bases and generate consistent revenue streams to ensure long-term viability.

Recently the Defensive Specialist received a friendly email from Sydney Blue Sox administrators informing him that foundation members had to re-up their memberships before April 30 if they wished to maintain their existing seats. The reason for the push so early in the year? Apparently demand for memberships is so high that there’s a chance all seating will be taken up by members in 2011 / 2012. While the Defensive Specialist is sceptical of the demand for memberships after seeing a multitude of empty seats during the playoffs, it does pose an interesting question: “Is it a good thing to use up all seating on members?”

On one hand the franchise is guaranteed revenue (even if the total amount is less than what would be generated if seats were sold to casual fans) for the season which allows efficient and accurate budgeting and franchise management from a financial perspective – you have a fixed revenue stream from the outset of the season even if people don’t show up to the game. On the other hand, you are denying the casual fan who shows up for a game a premium experience because they’re likely to land a seat in a less than optimal position down one of the baselines (for those unaware, the Blacktown Olympic facility does not have seating down the foul lines). Would this experience result in them not returning?

Personally the Defensive Specialist would take the guaranteed full house and a thriving membership book any day of the week!

While expansion is most definitely an opportunity for the ABL, it also poses a serious threat. The thought of taking the game to different markets (NZ, regional Australia) is exciting but also fraught with trouble. While baseball fans would love to double the numbers of teams in the competition, serious questions have to be asked first:
  1. Can the location support the team from a fan and spectator perspective?
  2. Will local sponsors get on board?
  3. Can the Australian pool of talent support more teams? 

Obviously the first 2 points relate to the financial wellbeing of clubs. The last point is just as salient as the availability of quality Australian players is finite and if clubs cannot field competitive teams then fans and sponsors will not show up.

Adding additional teams also increases cost – travel and accommodation being the most significant. While it sounds great in theory to have a team in New Zealand, the cost of getting a team there from Perth is substantial (mind you the strength of the Australian dollar reduces accommodation expenses!). The same can be said for having teams in Asia or tougher to reach Australian locations. Careful consideration has to be given to a multitude of factors before any new franchise can be added.

While every existing team was able to secure their own home, questions have to be raised over the quality and location of some of them. Quality plays a role not only in fan experience but also in determining whether or not MLB teams will send down their better prospects. The higher quality prospects we have in Australia, the better the standard of the game and the more fans that will be drawn. There is no way that a Major League team would look at the Melbourne Showground sandpit and sign off on one of their upper echelon prospects playing on it – there is simply too much to risk health wise.

Location is surely a factor in attendance. In places like Western Australia and NSW the facilities are located some distance from the CBD, which works for part of the general public, but add in lack of public transport and it causes problems for the remainder. Crowd numbers may be strong at the moment, but location may impact each franchise’s ability to increase these figures.

While it was important to have a MLB representative heading up the new ABL in year 1, eventually the lack of Australian leadership may prove to be detrimental. It is yet to be proven that an Australian can effectively administrator a competition like the ABL. At some stage Major League Baseball is going to want to take the training wheels off and see if this thing can walk on its own. While the jury is out on the management style of the current regime, the fact remains that the league got off the ground and ran successfully in its first year. Moving forward and to be truly self-sustaining, Australians need to step up in to management roles and administer the league in a profitable manner and the biggest threat is that they’re not being groomed and prepared to do so.

If you see any potential threats that the Defensive Specialist may have missed, add them in the comments section below.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 3)

Apologies for the lack of activity last week – the rigours of travel and a Luke Hughes vigil consumed the Defensive Specialist’s time and prevented any form of creative output. Hughes is obviously getting a lot of press at the moment with his scorching hot Spring Training (second in homeruns and RBI’s) but the Defensive Specialist wanted to spare a paragraph or two to discuss his plight.  For those of you unaware, Hughes is currently in a battle to win the utility infielder role with the Minnesota Twins.  His plight seems to resonate with the Australian baseball community because we’ve not seen a position player earn a roster spot out of Spring Training for some time and because it would be totally cool to have an Aussie hitter on a big league roster with some regularity!

Ideally what you’re looking for in a utility guy is someone who plays multiple positions (to cover for injury and provide a rest to the regulars) and who can swing it a little. While his manager indicated that he’d never be a gold glover, he’s given Hughes time at second, third, leftfield, first base and short stop to get a real look.  The knock against him is that he doesn’t profile as a guy who could handle shortstop (primarily due to a lack of range and arm) but that may be purely academic as the Twins have other options to mitigate that problem. If you scan big league rosters, the back up infielder is generally an “all field, no hit” type of player so Hughes flies in the face of this by being more offensively minded which provides another weapon to his skipper.
Baseball fans will know all of the above so as per usual, the Defensive Specialist wants to take things a little deeper by discussing just how tough it is to play the role of a bench guy. If you look at Hughes’ numbers this spring, you’ll see that he is at the top end of at bats on the Twins. This indicates that he’s getting plenty of game time and the repetitions necessary to keep his bat going. And herein lies the rub – as a bench guy, he may only play 2-3 times per week meaning that it will be tougher to find a rhythm and stay in tune with his swing. No measure of batting practice makes up for the daily live pitching that regulars see. If Hughes takes an 0-4 in AAA, he’s back in the line-up the next day ready to make amends. At the major league level, he may sit on that 0-4 for a couple of days before he gets a chance to get back out there which makes it very difficult to work out the kinks and maintain any semblance of timing.

The Defensive Specialist doesn’t raise this point to poo poo his effort – the fact is, being a bench guy is a tough job that requires a special sort of resilience to be ready when the manager pencils your name in. Of course, the 400k+ salary makes swallowing that pill a little easier!

All right, lets get back on track and continue the in-depth SWOT analysis that your old pal has been cooking for a few weeks now. Today’s instalment is probably the Defensive Specialist’s favourite section – Opportunities. In this component, its time to look at the avenues the ABL could take to improve and grow the competition moving forward.

The Defensive Specialist has mentioned it repeatedly but it bears stating again – television coverage. Telecasting the Grand Final series and doing it well highlighted the opportunity to take the game to a wider audience if done properly. As much as it pains the Defensive Specialist to say it, its pretty obvious that trying to broadcast every game would be financially ruinous, but strategically showing big games, key matchups or final series is definitely a way to market the competition. The Defensive Specialist has spent plenty of time thinking about the best format to showcase the game on TV and surely it has to be a “game of the week” and then a highlights type show that is lighter on content but higher on razzle dazzle. The benefit of doing something like this is that it reduces the cost (a game of the week requires only one crew and on air talent), which then allows a more polished production. The ultimate goal of this strategy is to capture the casual observer and keep baseball front of mind for the kids who the ABL desperately need to draw into the game.

Expansion. On one of the Defensive Specialist’s many jaunts to New Zealand over the past 6 months there was a back page news story on softball, which referred to Baseball New Zealand’s quest to have a team in the ABL. With 6 teams currently in play in Australia’s largest markets there is a definite opportunity to expand into other regions such as New Zealand, Asia and regional Australia. Logical expansion destinations would include northern NSW and New Zealand (although that would be a killer road trip from Perth). Asia is probably the biggest jewel in the expansion crown due to the passion incited by baseball in that region and the money that sponsorship and crowds could generate.

Playing more games is a definite opportunity for the ABL, and arguably it’s the lack of games that currently prevents some of the better MLB professionals being sent down under to get their offseason works in. If the ABL could present 5-6 games per week and effectively recreate a professional environment (in terms of volume of games) then there is significant value to prospects participating in the competition. Obviously there is significant cost and effort involved in staging that many games per week for each team as well as travel and accommodation expenses but the opportunity to be a premier offseason league is not too far off. The benefit of having higher profile prospects taking part is that they bring with them “higher ups” from their respective clubs, which has the carry on effect of exposing more Australians to the eyes of key decision makers.

With year one under the belt and reasonably solid crowd numbers in play around Australia, there is a definite opportunity to ramp up the marketing and suck more and more kids into the sport. Baseball saw fantastic growth in the halcyon days of the first ABL with teeball seeing robust participation rates. Now is the time to leverage the ABL by pumping up the profiles of local talent, promoting our professionals and showcasing Australian Major League players to junior competitions. It’s obviously tough promoting the ABL when the season runs through the school holidays and the offseason (the time when school visits and camps would normally be conducted) sees our talent ship off to their US seasons, but nonetheless, the time is right to promote the game hard and jack up the number of kids taking part.

The carry on effect from this marketing is a growth in crowd numbers. Increased promotion to children as well as a television presence will surely increase the number of punters pushing through the turnstiles. More fans in the stands equals greater club profitability, which allows teams to invest both on and off the field and improve the product.

Leverage the relationship with Major League Baseball and run more sanctioned events like camps and coaching seminars. Flying out a couple of MLB stars, running educational coaching sessions or conducting skills camps is only going to benefit the game. The ABL was successful in using mostly home grown coaching staffs but how much access does the average coach have to their skills and expertise? Imagine having an MLB hitting or pitching coach run a session on their specific skill set and the value it would bring to the Australian baseball community? It’s these big ticket names that will draw more and more people to the ball park and inspire kids, coaches and parents to be involved in the game.

The Defensive Specialist promises to come back with the 4th instalment in a more timely fashion – unless of course Luke Hughes lands himself a starting gig, then all bets are off. As usual, if the Defensive Specialist has missed any opportunities, hit the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 2)

If you’re just tuning in you’ve landed smack bang in the middle of a complex SWOT analysis designed to peer deep inside the ABL after its inaugural season. Before you scramble to click off the page, today the Defensive Specialist is covering “weaknesses” which generally seems to hold people’s attention more than any other part of the breakdown. As with any start up venture, there are ups and downs – before you’re old pal dives into the downs, a couple of strengths were sent in by reader Wagga Mick that the Defensive Specialist kicked himself for missing: 
  1. Internet streaming – the ABL did a great job of bringing real time scores and plays to baseball fans around the country through their own and each club’s website.
  2. Using the MLB website format as a platform for local teams’ sites. The upgrade happened overnight and absolutely took the accessibility and professionalism to another level (although content was sometimes lacking but this can be attributed to lack of resources available to produce content). 

All right, lets roll up the sleeves and get into the juicy stuff…


  • Although another anonymous reader suggested that the marketing was good, the Defensive Specialist has to disagree. Readers only need cast their mind back to mid 2010 when baseball fans were scrambling for information about the ABL and the Defensive Specialist was receiving thankyou emails for speculating on team names. Baseball people were genuinely excited and the ABL could have played on that by strategically and creatively dripfeeding information. It’s undeniable that teams absolutely made the best of a poor situation in terms of promoting themselves but it’s also undeniable that overall publicity and marketing was probably not where it should have been. Having said that, it’s worth considering who the ABL was trying to market to. If the first year goal was to get the baseball community buzzing, then it’s fair to say that was achieved. If the goal was to draw in the uninitiated then the view would be significantly different. The Defensive Specialist is surmising here that the year 1 goal was to get baseball people on board and then leverage that group to attract feeder groups like teeball, softball etc. Once you have a solid fan base then you can expand to a broader market and hope that Joe Public shows some interest and gets hooked on the product, but until you have the baseball community involved there’s no point even bothering for the uninitiated (either way, you’re old pal has just invented a sweet excuse for the ABL if ever questioned on publicity “yeah, our first year goal was to get baseball people….”) 
  • The powerbrokers at ABL HQ have to have concerns about attendance in a number of key states. The Blue Sox failed to sell out numerous games in a final series and attendance appeared to be an issue in Melbourne throughout the season. While franchises like Canberra and Adelaide enjoyed solid numbers and enthusiastic crowds, the league will never be considered sustainable until fan support is consistently high across the board. The only ways for teams to break even is to have sponsors on board and punters streaming through the gates… or a bunch of poker machines. With the two largest markets having splotchy attendance figures, the viability of the league has to be questioned. Speaking as a season ticket holder, the Defensive Specialist can attest to the quality of the product both on and off the field as well as the affordability of the event in Sydney – so there must be other factors keeping fans away (location, brand, venue etc) that have to be addressed. 

  • (File this one under minor weakness) The Defensive Specialist lives by numerous credos, none more important than: “the body is a temple”. So you can imagine the Defensive Specialist’s dismay when the healthiest options on a ballpark menu were green apples and bottled water. Seriously, the Defensive Specialist took to packing a picnic dinner so as to avoid greasy burgers, chips and myocardial infarctions. Obviously catering to everyone’s dietary tastes is not the easiest and cheapest thing to achieve but surely you’re old pal isn’t the only person who doesn’t have the tastes of the morbidly obese? Why kill the fans you’re attracting to games? 

  • Professionals on the roster. HOLD UP!!!! Ok, so professional hitters are fantastic to have on your ballclub, it’s the pitchers that seem to cause a problem. Let the Defensive Specialist explain. Professional arms are typically on a fairly strict innings restriction, meaning that by the last month of the season their workloads are being reduced or they’re being shut down. This is all well and good if you’re team isn’t going to make the playoffs, but if the ABL Championship is a goal then not having your best arms available is definitely detrimental. We saw the Perth Heat win the flag on the backs of 2 former pros who were neither restricted by pitch counts nor inning restrictions. There isn’t really any way around this issue unless you play it like the Bite did with Brandon Maurer which was to start him out with a small workload and gradually build him to a 5 inning starter. Fortunately for the Bite they mashed early in the season and had some decent arms to cover the load. So how do you fix it? The Defensive Specialist uncharacteristically doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. If a team brings out an import they are here to get their work in and will do so under instruction from the parent team. Australian pro’s are governed by the same rules so you cant even rely on home-grown talent to fill the innings.
  • Which leads us to the next weakness – imports being pulled from local competitions. Teams will evaluate how the Heat won the championship and see that they relied heavily on imports that came from the local leagues to fill out their roster and play key roles during the finals campaign. While its safe to assume that local teams consented to their imports being made available (its important to remember that the vast majority of local imports are flown out and supported at the clubs’ expense), there may come a point when local teams refuse participation. What we saw with the Heat is that former pro’s are durable, proficient, reliable and a huge asset. Expect franchises to explore this resource in greater detail next year.

  • The number of games played across the course of the year (40 plus finals) was a step up from the Claxton Shield in years past but may actually be counterintuitive to attracting the very best professional prospects to our shores. As baseball fans know, baseball is a sport best played on a daily basis, which means that until the ABL can offer more than 4 games per week, the best talent will elect to play elsewhere. The problem we face in Australia is A) the cost of teams playing 6 out of 7 days per week (travel, accommodation, meals etc) and B) getting crowds to midweek games. If teams could count on solid attendance mid week then the idea of a 60 game season becomes more palatable although it severely impacts the availability of non-professional players who still have to pay their bills by working regular jobs.

  • Finally, a lack of television exposure is definitely a weakness for a professional league trying to get a footing in a busy sports calendar. The Defensive Specialist has discussed on a number of occasions ways that the game could be promoted without televising entire series or multiple games per week (featured game of the week and a highlight show as examples) and while it is unrealistic to expect a huge television presence, it is critical in capturing non-baseball people. The impressive ads that hit the screens before the season commenced really didn’t drive people anywhere and this is where some television presence would have filled the void and allowed those not familiar with baseball to turn.

As per usual, the Defensive Specialist is interested in hearing the readers thoughts on perceived weaknesses from year 1 of the ABL. Part 3 of the SWOT analysis will cover Opportunities – stay tuned. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 1)

Right, 2 weeks seems an appropriate amount of time off between the conclusion of the ABL Grand Final series and the Defensive Specialist switching into off-season coverage mode. The past 14 days were a great opportunity to recharge the batteries after the inaugural season and attend to the many goals and objectives the Defensive Specialist sets for himself on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis – like reading the entire Harry Potter series! (Don’t laugh, that’s 4,176 pages in total or 298.28 pages per day!) Anyway, loyal readers will know that inactivity and the Defensive Specialist cannot coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship, which is why your old pal has decided to cast an analytical eye over the first ABL season and conduct a SWOT analysis.

For those less academically inclined, a SWOT analysis is traditionally a planning method used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats involved in a business venture or project.  Before you role your eyes and click off the page fearful of some egghead style analysis, please consider that the Defensive Specialist will not be adhering to any sort of structural guidelines (like internal or external factors) and promises to inject his rapier like wit wherever possible.  So let’s get the ball rolling by considering the Strengths of the Australian Baseball league after its first season:

  • Well first and foremost the fact that the league actually commenced has to be considered a strength doesn’t it? They say the first step is often the most important on a difficult journey (see the Defensive Specialist drawing Harry Potter like analogies onto this??) so getting the ABL up and running was a huge achievement. The baseball community had been whispering about the reappearance of a MLB backed baseball league in Australia for quite some time, but as each year passed it looked to be fanciful talk. By actually pulling teams together and getting the ball rolling there is every chance that the competition will go from strength to strength (assuming careful management and planning) and become an integral part of the game and its development in Australia. On top of getting teams out on the field in every major Australian market, the ABL and its franchises managed to create a reasonably sound product (quality of games, entertainment etc) that will only continue to grow. 

  • You’d have to say that fan support was a real strength in season 1 with towns like Adelaide and Canberra drawing consistent numbers, especially when you consider that games were spread across 4 days and often included a Thursday night event. It must be disconcerting that Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane had splotchy numbers across the season but with a year under its belt, venues bedded down and hopefully television coverage the crowds will increase. 

  • While the Defensive Specialist wasn’t able to attend games in each location (the Deep in the Hole budget is still feeling the effects of the GFC), the general consensus was that franchises put a good product on the field every week. It was obvious that a lot of time and effort had been put into in-game entertainment, game day activities and the team in general (solid uniforms, conditions, travel) which once again creates a solid foundation for development. 
  • Each team has a home. As amusing as that sounds, establishing facilities for each franchise was critical and although it came down to the wire in Melbourne and Brisbane, they found homes. While many would say that the Melbourne Showgrounds is a poor excuse for a baseball field, what were the alternatives? Road trips to Geelong again or worse yet Altona? The fact that hitters can hit pop ups that drift out of the yard for homeruns is both a pain in the backside and a quirk (much like Boston’s Green Monster) that needs to be embraced and incorporated into a team’s game plan. On the other hand, all reports suggest that the field in Canberra has an amazing playing surface and the makings of a fantastic facility. 

  • A definite strength of the ABL was the level of local talent. While every team had an infusion of imported talent (some more than others), the vast majority of squads were primarily constructed around local Australian talent. For too many years our professional players returned home to Australia and the only preparation they had for upcoming professional seasons was to play in local competitions that in all likelihood did not present the development opportunities that they needed for advancement. By forming a league that operates across the US / Asian offseason our young talent has the forum to compete against their peers and enhance their skill sets. On top of this, non professional players now have the opportunity to compete and measure themselves against the best our baseball community has to offer.For too long we’ve been forced to trumpet the success of long retired players like David Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd because we haven’t had the stage to showcase our current players. While guys like Grant Balfour and Peter Moylan are probably past their ABL used by date (meaning they’re unlikely to ever play in it), the next wave of young players is given the opportunity to creep into the consciousness of children who can say they watched them as a nobody now that they’re in the big leagues – that’s how you build and promote Australian baseball legends (wow, that was getting seriously deep). 

  • Confirming the point on local talent was the fact that players actually signed professional contracts while competing in the ABL. That may not have been the primary objective of the competition but it has to make the league powerbrokers warm and fuzzy in the trousers to see a number of guys extend their baseball careers. In what other way would 33 year old Chris Oxspring get an opportunity to sign with the Detroit Tigers if he didn’t have the ABL? With greater access to high quality games, we can expect more signings as players are able to showcase their skill sets.
  • The quality of imports has to be considered a real upside for the most part as each franchise benefitted in some way, shape or form by having foreigners on their roster (as evidenced by the Heat winning the championship behind the efforts of 2 import pitchers in game 2 &3). The Defensive Specialist mentioned many moons ago how appealing a strong league down under has to be to professional organisations who know its safe (not considering natural disasters), similar in culture to player’s homes (more so the US) and has brilliant weather. While the imports definitely lifted the quality of competition, you’d have to think that the 40 additional games in Australia assisted in their development. The Defensive Specialist will talk more on imports in some of the other sections but for the most part, their addition to the league was a real benefit. 

Ok, the Defensive Specialist is heading into novel territory as the word count reaches 1200. Hit the comment section with any other strengths you saw in the ABL’s inaugural season while the Defensive Specialist sets to work on the next phase of the SWOT analysis – Weaknesses, which should appear later this week.