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.