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August 14, 2012
Baseball Down Under: Looking for the Missing Link
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Drew Samuelson is the Player & Coach Development Coordinator for the Australian Baseball Federation and has worked in baseball since 2007. A native Seattleite, Drew spent two seasons as the Director of Baseball Operations at Seattle University as it resurrected its Division I baseball program after a 30-year absence. He also worked for the Tacoma Rainiers in 2009 as their Media Development Coordinator. Drew spent two seasons managing his own website, pacificprospectreport.com, which produced proprietary video and scouting reports of prospects in the Arizona Fall, California, Pacific Coast, and Northwest leagues. He is an alumnus of Marist College (NY) and Seattle University. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ABF.
The Australian Baseball Federation (ABF) governs all amateur and professional baseball in Australia and employs me as its Player & Coach Development Coordinator. I am tasked with the development of players from ages six to 23. Our talent identification and talent development processes are driven by high performance programs, such as the MLB Australian Academy Program and its six underpinning State Academy Programs. Additionally, the ABF hosts annual National Youth Championships where state all-star teams compete in 14U, 16U, and 18U age divisions.
The National Youth Championships and MLB Australian Academy Program—also called the MLB Academy, or MLBAAP—are the two major showcases for MLB scouts. The National Youth Championships occur each January. The MLB Academy operates from late June to early August. The MLB Academy started in 2000 and has positively impacted MLB signings in Australia to the effect of an average of 15.7 MLB contracts per year from 2001 to 2012 versus an average of 9.0 MLB contracts per year from 1987 to 2000.
2012 has been a bumper crop for Australian MLB signings. There have been 17 Australians signed to major-league deals (16 international free agents and one Rule 4 draftee) this season, which is the most since 2008. MLB clubs have spent nearly US$2.2M on Australian talent in 2012, yet those same clubs spent less than US$625K on Australian talent in a non-capped market in 2011 in which the league spent over US$75M on international talent acquisition.
Despite the successes of 2012, MLB’s newly capped international free agent system is likely to ultimately diminish the number and value of MLB contracts on the Australian market, and thus create a need for the ABF to invest in the growth and promotion of non-MLB player development pathways. This is an issue, because Australia affords very few player development resources to players from age 18 onward and has traditionally advocated a single player development pathway: Major League Baseball.
Historically, the ABF had not provided any official promotion and/or preparation resources for the hundreds of Australian ballplayers that were capable of playing college baseball in the United States. That had to change. I came to the ABF from NCAA Division I baseball, so the assembly of a program that would advance baseball careers via intercollegiate athletics immediately became my pet project.
The goal was to quickly and aggressively establish a placement program that would: 1a) Educate players and their parents/guardians to the realities of intercollegiate baseball; 1b) Provide players and their parents/guardians with resources to aid development, recruitment, and placement; and 2) Develop a robust network of trusted player development-centric baseball coaches throughout NAIA, NCAA, and NJCAA.
The slogan for Phases 1a and 1b is, “Create educated consumers with realistic expectations.” To that end, I now conduct informational seminars at the MLB Academy, State Academy Programs, and National Youth Championships. Each seminar is tailored to its audience (i.e., players, coaches, and/or parents) and addresses the following:
A. Intercollegiate athletic association structures (e.g., NAIA, NCAA, and NJCAA);
B. Scholarship basics;
C. Admissions processes;
D. Academic standards;
F. Athletic standards;
G. Recruitment processes;
I. Benefits; and
The program provides families with several helpful documents, such as frequently asked questions; a glossary; spreadsheets to help organize the selection of programs and contact of coaches; samples of resumes, introductory letters, interview/visit questions, and scout videos; schedules that outline the school year, baseball season, and the recruiting calendar; and timelines to help plan a student-athlete’s developmental activities throughout his high school years.
The ABF has an existing network of credible coaches throughout NAIA, NCAA, and NJCAA, but we are always seeking to expand the reach of that network. The 2013 or 2014 ABCA convention would be the most effective event to spread word of our desire to both export Aussies to the US college ranks and import American teams to play exhibition series versus our elite 18U-, 21U-, and 23U-aged teams.
Every one of the 144 players that compete annually in the 18U National Youth Championships possesses the requisite baseball talent to play college baseball in the United States. The only other question is how many of those players also possess the requisite academic prowess, financial resources, and heart to travel thousands of miles to a foreign land in pursuit of their goals.
Australia’s existing player development systems are sound, but they have limitations. Australia’s “tyranny of distance,” otherwise known as geographic isolation, precludes any college evaluation and/or recruitment at either the National Youth Championships or MLB Academy. This significantly limits player development opportunities for the 100-plus adequately talented teenaged Australian ballplayers who do not ink an MLB deal. (The isolation of Australia actually keeps away some MLB clubs too, as only about 18 clubs have a full-time presence down under.)
Technology helps to mitigate these geographic circumstances, but email and video scouting are no substitute for face-to-face contact. Talent evaluators want to see players firsthand and interview prospective acquisitions. Australia has, in years past, sent teams to compete in showcase tournaments, such as the Area Code Games. Such ventures sought to facilitate face-to-face scouting and recruiting, as well as the opportunity to face advanced competition and become acclimated to the daily grind of collegiate/professional baseball. Though an incredibly rewarding experience, this is an expensive and time-consuming effort, which is why we are seeking to advertise our available talent through new school channels.
To further aid this matchmaking process, we are in the early stages of building a player development database that tracks A) Traditional quantitative measures; B) Qualitative scouting reports from the managers of our State Academy Programs; C) and Performance video. This database will provide objective assessments from ABF personnel and ostensibly operate as an “eCatalog” for US-based talent evaluators. Data will dually benefit both MLB and collegiate talent evaluation as it is collected from state academies, major domestic and IBAF tournaments, and MLB Academy activities.
Community/Junior college baseball is an ideal development pathway for Australian amateurs. With over 500 NJCAA baseball programs, it is possible to accommodate nearly any level of baseball talent. There are also five logistical advantages to being an NJCAA student-athlete prior to being selected in the Rule 4 Draft and/or transferring to an NAIA or NCAA institution:
A. Academic requirements are less stringent. Australian teens need only successfully complete high school, without any concern for the ACT, SAT, class ranks, grades, or completion of core courses required by the NCAA. This is especially important to Australians, because the process of translating Australian curriculum and grades into an American standard can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Furthermore, many Australian students opt to pursue intercollegiate athletics in their 11th or 12th school year, when it’s too late to fulfill the NCAA’s core course requirements.
B. Athletic scholarships are more prevalent. NJCAA Division I offers 24 athletic scholarships per team, while NAIA offers 12 and NCAA offers 11.7 at Division I and 9 at Division II.
C. Tuition is much cheaper. According to 2011 data from the College Board, an American student can expect to pay an average tuition of less than US$3,000 per year at a community/junior college, versus US$8,300 at a public university or US$28,500 at a private university. Associated living costs of a college student average about US$13,000 per year. International students have much higher tuition fees. The difference between a full NJCAA scholarship and a partial NAIA/NCAA scholarship can easily equate to US$5,000 to US$15,000 per school year.
D. Play now and play every day. Due to natural turnover, two-year programs afford the opportunity to contribute immediately on the field, whereas student-athletes at a four-year program may not play regularly until their third or fourth season. Australian ballplayers are typically less polished than their American counterparts, so every competitive plate appearance and batter faced is of great value to our boys.
E. Retain Rule 4 Draft eligibility. NJCAA student-athletes have the freedom to pursue a professional career at the conclusion of each season.
College baseball has been kind to Australians. Josh Spence pitched well for Arizona State University at the 2009 College World Series before rapidly ascending to the Padres bullpen in his first year of professional baseball. Craig Shipley played for the University of Alabama before spending 11 seasons in the majors and ascending to the position of Senior Vice President of Player Personnel and International Scouting for the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein. Australians also won an NJCAA championship (James Darcy of Iowa Western Community College), won an NAIA championship (Dale Ricketts of Tennessee Wesleyan College), and were selected in the 2012 Rule 4 Draft (James Brooks of the University of Utah)—all within a span of one week this June.
There are some interesting contrasts between Australian Rule 4 Draft selections and international free agents. The average draft selection earns 40 percent of the average free agent signing bonus, but the average draft selection career is 4.7 seasons long, versus 3.7 seasons for free agents. Drafted players also become professionals an average of three years later than their free agent peers, which calculates to an end of career at the age of 25.7 for draft selections, versus 21.7 for free agents.
The longer Australians play competitive baseball—collegiate and/or professional—the more likely they are to return to Australia as baseball development resources for subsequent generations of Australians. The ABF, and I, have an obligation to advance as many baseball careers to the highest level of baseball achievable. That is the only way that we’ll ensure a prosperous future for baseball down under.
Australia has the raw talent. The trick is getting that talent on stage—the stage with the best competition and largest audiences. Much of our new college baseball placement program requires no more than communication, which means the education of Australian families and the establishment of professional relationships with American coaches. With any luck, Australia ought to be able to triple its exportation of collegiate baseball talent—from 25 players per year to 75 players per year—within three years.