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December 5, 2012
Scouting the Great White North
The Evolution of Baseball in Canada
“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.
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.