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December 5, 2012

Scouting the Great White North

The Evolution of Baseball in Canada

by Hudson Belinsky

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“An athlete’s an athlete, whether it’s a Canadian kid out of Port Hope or a kid from San Diego.” —Paul Quantrill

Tony Lucadello developed a reputation as one of the best scouts in baseball. In his career, Lucadello signed dozens of future big leaguers, most notably Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Ferguson Jenkins. As Lucadello pursued young talent, he not only brought talented players into professional baseball, but he also, perhaps by accident, sparked a cultural phenomenon.

“He had an impact on me,” Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin said of Ferguson Jenkins. “Wanting to play the game and recognizing that Canadians [could] play baseball” was huge not only for Melvin, but for Canadians everywhere. Melvin and Jenkins hail from the same hometown of Chatham, Ontario. Canadian baseball has made slow progress over the years, and star players like Jenkins have helped to blaze a trail for other young players. But Jenkins could only do so much; the scouting scene in Canada wasn’t what it is today. When Melvin grew up, he didn’t encounter scouts until he attended a tryout camp in Midland, Michigan as a 13-year-old. “Back then it was tryouts…[it was] an era when if you wanted to play baseball in Canada you almost had to go and seek out the tryouts. [They] were the best way [to be exposed].”

Melvin was followed loosely throughout his high school years before Pirates’ scout Ken Beardslee signed him to a contract with a $1,000 signing bonus. “Yeah, it’s a little different now,” Melvin joked. “At the time you don't even negotiate; you’re just thankful that you got recognized, and you’re afraid to ask for $5,000…because you understand [that] the opportunity is more important than an extra thousand dollars or so.” Young Canadian players needed to really love playing baseball if they wanted to sign pro contracts in the late 60s and early 70s; the days of million-dollar bonuses were many years away.

Today, things have changed. Every organization now has scouts who cover Canada. Just about every young player, even those with a remote interest in baseball, can find a place to play the game. The talented players are on everyone’s radar. One such player is Cal Quantrill, a projectable Stanford commit who can run his fastball into the low 90s. Cal’s father, Paul, enjoyed over a decade of playing in the big leagues.

Paul Quantrill grew up in Port Hope, a small town in southwestern Ontario. His father’s work relocated the family to Okemos, Michigan, where Paul’s baseball career took off. He was first drafted in the 26th round of the 1986 draft but decided to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison instead. After school, he became a sixth round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1989.

Quantrill had the unique experience of playing baseball on both sides of the border. “The real difference with the baseball in Canada was that it was very difficult to be seen back in the day; it was very difficult to find a place to play that exposed you to scouting, or to even recruiting for college.”

Today, it’s not very difficult for Canadian prospects to be seen. There’s a huge club contingency, and the top clubs are usually sending multiple kids into the draft every year.

Quantrill attributed much of the interest in baseball today to Canadian star players. “Larry Walker, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto. Those are the names that everyone knows.” Elite players have inspired young Canadians to pursue baseball. “I know they’re clowns, but everyone else thinks they’re great guys,” Quantrill joked. But these players have not only inspired young players to get into baseball, but they’ve also inspired teams to get into Canadian baseball. With MVP-caliber talent coming out of Canada, it would be absurd for an organization to shy away from the area.

Cal Quantrill isn’t going to be a first round pick, but his 6’3, 170-pound frame has scouts optimistic about his future. He’ll need to tap into more velocity to make it, but there are encouraging signs. “The thing that makes him better than a lot of guys is that he knows how to pitch,” one area supervisor remarked. His pitchability could make him an excellent college pitcher, and it makes him an excellent fit for the Canadian Junior National Team.

Cal Quantrill isn’t the only standout on the Junior National Team. In the confusion of trying to pronounce his last name, scouts adoringly call a 15-year-old kid “Demi.” Demi Orimoloye has the makings of a top pick in the 2015 draft*. Demi is a special player, with the wheels and instincts for center field, a laser arm, and tons of potential at the plate. The profile is scary, and it’s even scarier when you consider that he’s already shown the ability to barrel elite velocity.

*The season before Demi was born, Derek Jeter won the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Demi wasn’t born in Canada; his parents moved to Canada from Nigeria when he was an infant. This reminded one scout of Ntema Ndungidi, who came to Canada after being born in Africa. Ndungidi had the tools to warrant Baltimore’s use of a sandwich pick to draft him, but he failed to make it through the climb to the big leagues, perhaps largely due to makeup issues. Ndungidi turned out to be the player with the incredibly high ceiling that flamed out in Double-A. It’s unclear what type of path Demi’s career will take, but the tools will create several chances for Demi to fail.

Players like Demi and Ndungidi are rare, but they prove Paul Quantrill’s point. An athlete really is an athlete. In this day and age, a player in Canada is the same as a player from any other domestic scouting territory. Like any other territory, some teams draft more Canadians than others.

Franchise

Total

Canadians Drafted

Percent of

Canadians Drafted

NYY

36

4.5%

BAL

27

3.4%

TBR

9

1.1%

TOR

102

12.8%

BOS

6

0.8%

DET

12

1.5%

CHW

9

1.1%

KC

20

2.5%

CLE

11

1.4%

MIN

36

4.5%

OAK

15

1.9%

TEX

18

2.3%

LAA

26

3.3%

SEA

37

4.6%

WAS

42

5.3%

ATL

20

2.5%

PHI

15

1.9%

NYM

32

4.0%

MIA

16

2.0%

CIN

23

2.9%

STL

11

1.4%

MIL

51

6.4%

PIT

19

2.4%

CHC

17

2.1%

HOU

21

2.6%

SFG

24

3.0%

LAD

86

10.8%

ARI

15

1.9%

SDP

27

3.4%

COL

16

2.0%

Since Canadians have been eligible for the draft, 799 picks have been used on Canadian citizens. This figure includes drafted players multiple times; Nyjer Morgan, for example, is counted twice. The stipulation about Canadian citizenship exists to account for players who may have played college baseball in the U.S. after not being drafted or choosing not to sign.

The Jays are responsible for a remarkable 12.8 percent of those picks. This makes some sense; when it’s totally even between one guy and another, why not pick the kid who grew up rooting for the Jays? This table doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Teams have changed their strategies over the years, with some scouting departments expanding their coverage of Canada and others. For example, the Washington Nationals, who used to be the Montreal Expos, were one of the most active teams in Canada prior to their move after the 2004 season, accounting for 7.7 percent of the Canadian picks. In fact, since ditching Montreal for greener pastures, the club has drafted less than 1 percent of the Canadian draftees.

Another notable observation: since Doug Melvin took the reigns in Milwaukee following the 2002 season, the Brew Crew is responsible for drafting 13.8 percent of the Canadians selected—just six fewer than Toronto over that period.

It’s one thing to look at the number of Canadians each team is taking, but determining if some teams are getting more or less bang for their bucks might be a much more valuable question to answer. As it turns out, there is no discernible leader in Canadian drafting despite the high number of players taken by a couple clubs. Fifty-one players have successfully made the trek through the minor leagues, though none drafted since 2008 has made it so far. (There are a handful of guys still trying, including Tyson Gillies and Nick Bucci.) No one team has drafted more than four Canadian big leaguers, and only one team has drafted more than one 10-plus WARP player: the Twins, who took Corey Koskie and Justin Morneau.

Teams are seeing the same talent. With the huge burst in club teams and the successful organization of the Junior National Team, it’s nearly impossible to hide prospects, and it’s not getting easier. The Blue Jays recently announced a five-day showcase that will be hosted at the Rogers Centre next fall.

It appears that it’s getting more and more difficult for scouts to get the talent they want, but the talent is there. Tony Lucadello might not have to discover Ferguson Jenkins today. And for the same reasons, kids like Demi Orimoloye and Cal Quantrill have tough decisions to make over the coming months and years. Ultimately, after decades of cultural development and the evolution of a sport, Paul Quantrill is right: “An athlete’s an athlete, whether it’s a Canadian kid out of Port Hope or a kid from San Diego.”

Special thanks to Ryan Lind and Dan Evans for their assistance in constructing this piece.

Related Content:  The Who,  Canada

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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adrock

Nyjer Morgan is Canadian? Perhaps Tony Plush is his American alter-ego.

Dec 05, 2012 08:07 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

He's not. He's from San Francisco. He spent a few years in his teens in Canada as a junior hockey player in BC and Saskatchewan.

Dec 05, 2012 09:41 AM
rating: 0
 
newsense

What about the near disappearance of professional baseball in Canada? There's the Jays, a short-season A team in Vancouver & two independent league teams.

Dec 05, 2012 10:08 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Hudson Belinsky
BP staff

From a developmental standpoint it doesn't make a ton of sense to have a full-season minor league affiliate in Canada. So many young players have never played in a below-70 degrees environment, and exposing them to the 30s and 40s in April might have a significant impact. Short-season ball makes a ton more sense.

I think baseball could have survived in Montreal, and it's revival doesn't seem outrageous to me, especially given the sharp increase in interest in baseball among young people. Some very basic market research *could* be enough for baseball to revisit the possibility of baseball in Montreal.

Dec 05, 2012 10:21 AM
 
Florko

So having teams right on the American- Canadian border is fine (Tacoma) but as soon as your drive another hour north its too cold?

Dec 05, 2012 11:32 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Hudson Belinsky
BP staff

Ehh, it's sort of a different scenario. At the Triple-A level, a guy should be learning to handle any type of baseball environment. I wouldn't stick my 16-year-old Dominican bonus baby in High-A Saskatoon.

Dec 05, 2012 11:55 AM
 
canada

Interesting article.

The thing that stands out to me about the current state of Canadian amateur baseball is the presence of these elite club teams. For the most part, the results have been positive (months spent in the US playing in tournaments and showcases, reasonably good coaching and consistent winter workouts), but the composition of the good elite teams (at least when I played about 10 years ago) was maybe 1/4 legitimate NCAA D1 or JUCO D1 talent, 1/2 marginal college talent (D2, NAIA, etc - I fell in that bucket) and 1/4 roster filler - kids whose parents could afford the $5,000+ annual cost but really had no business being there. This may have changed but from what I have heard from those still involved it is definitely the case, at least in Ontario

This has caused a vacuum which results in players who live in Canadian baseball hinterlands (anywhere outside of southern BC, Calgary, southern Ontario or Montreal) having to uproot their whole lives to come play for these teams, or having kids whose parents simply cannot or will not pay these fees. Unlike in much of the states, it is very very difficult for the kids who fall in category to make it anywhere. Now it's not likely that many of these kids would get drafted or make the majors, but I think it just reflects the imperfection of the system.

Some of these kids do end up playing US college baseball as a result of pounding the pavement with college coaches who have a history of recruiting Canadians, especially in border states (or in completely random locations - in my cohort, Graceland University, an NAIA school in Lamoni, Iowa had a roster which had probably a dozen Canadian players). With NCAA baseball being an 11.7 scholarship sport, many of these kids, and those who came up through the elite system, end up coming back up to Canada or never leaving at all. I played in Ontario's university baseball league after deciding to stay in Canada for school, and most of the teams had at least a handful of kids who had gone down to play in the states but came back soon after.

Dec 05, 2012 10:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Florko

The "Elite Club Teams" are getting out of hand, to many people trying to make to much money.

Dec 05, 2012 11:37 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Hudson Belinsky
BP staff

It is a real barrier for the sport's expansion. Quantrill brought this up when I spoke to him. He compared it to hockey in the United States. It takes money to play the game, and many of the club teams (including his son Cal's) traveled to Canada to face superior competition.

Not having sports affiliated with high schools makes it nearly impossible for a kid in tough economic circumstances to play baseball.

The next big advancement of baseball in Canada is likely to come if and when the NCAA starts dishing out full scholarships. Baseball will equal an opportunity to get an education to play a game. I don't think we're too far from this happening; I'd expect to see it this decade.

The growth of college recruitment in Canada is also huge. People are going there to find talent, which speaks even more so to the growth of Canadian baseball.

Dec 05, 2012 11:45 AM
 
canada

From my understanding, hockey in the US is a very good comparison, at least at the elite level.

There are high school sports teams in some areas (Toronto for sure), but high school baseball isn't meaningful at all. The players who play for elite teams are very limited in terms of what they can do, if they are even allowed to play for their high school teams anymore.

I think that will be a big change. I was an A student in high school with a well above average SAT. During my recruiting process, I attended a couple school's camps that were timed with downtime in my elite team's travel schedule and talked to a few coaches across each of very low D1, D2 and JUCO. I found that I (my parents) were going to have to pay a significant amount for me to go to a good academic school, or I could get a full-ride through a combination of academics/athletics at a lesser academic school. When you consider that tuition runs about $6k a year in Canada, it was a pretty easy decision to make.

One final note: As a proud Ontario university baseball alumnus, it should be noted that this year marks the first time a player was drafted out of our league (Shaun Valeriote - drafted by the Jays somewhere in the 30s - he broke Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish's records)

Dec 05, 2012 12:10 PM
rating: 0
 
canada

Oh, and the big name to watch out for in Canadian amateur baseball is Gareth Morgan - PG's #6 prospect for the 2014 draft!

Dec 05, 2012 10:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Hudson Belinsky
BP staff

Morgan is definitely a guy. I used Demi because of his background--born in Nigeria, moved Canada as an infant. It plays more into the "an athlete's an athlete" theme that I wanted to emphasize.

Dec 05, 2012 11:04 AM
 
R.A.Wagman

I think the biggest hurdle yet for Canadian kids is in the younger age groups. Hardball is not big enough a thing to get young kids here playing enough such that they will even get the chance to be elite when more age appropriate.
I can only speak to Toronto and the surrounding areas, but there are not even that many hardball diamonds. When I returned to Toronto from a few years living in Israel, I could only find two adult men's leagues - one which played in very, very pool fields and the other which was taken less seriously than the Israeli men's league.
Talent will certainly rise, but the second tier of player - the kid who, if a Californian or a Floridian, would have been playing well his whole life and been a good candidate to play for a lower level NCAA team - gets relatively fewer chances to take off.

Dec 05, 2012 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
canada

I don't disagree, there is an impact. There's a big demographic change that has been very negative for baseball in Canada.

On another note, if you are looking to play, there are plenty of men's "hardball" leagues to be played (I still refuse to use that word seriously, no offense - there's baseball and there's softball to me). There's the Scarborough Adult Baseball League, Mississauga Men's Baseball League, Golden Horseshoe Baseball League, Greater Toronto Baseball League and of course Intercounty. There might even be more I don't know about. I don't know anything about Scarborough or Mississauga, but I know that Golden Horseshoe and Greater Toronto are quite competitive.

Dec 06, 2012 07:42 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

BTW - thank you Hudson for writing about this.

Dec 05, 2012 16:54 PM
rating: 0
 
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