Each summer, the center of the scouting world shifts to a group of small towns in eastern Massachusetts, where the country’s best college baseball players compete in small ballparks sometimes lacking permanent seating or lights. Admission is free.
The Cape Cod Baseball League has existed in some form since 1885. In 1963, the NCAA officially sanctioned the league, making it the college baseball proving ground it is now.
Summer college leagues are abundant today, but there is no debate that the Cape is the best league in terms of player quality and scouting environment. Pick out any MLB player with college experience, and he most likely played in the league. Josh Donaldson was a Harwich Mariner in 2006. Todd Frazier played for the Chatham A’s in 2005 and 2006. Buster Posey was on the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in 2006 and 2007. In all, 276 former Cape Leaguers played in the majors in 2014.
The league has a rich history as basically the summer college league of record, and it is an extraordinarily friendly scouting environment, with dozens of stud prospects competing against each other in temperate weather and with just an hour’s drive (plus traffic) separating the eastern and western-most teams. Those are the two main reasons why the Cape gets the best talent. But to examine the league’s coaches and their player acquisition strategies is a telling study on how some of the most important parts of coaching take place away from the field.
Kelly Nicholson has been managing the Orleans Firebirds for 11 years and was on the coaching staff for four years before that. Jeff Trundy has managed the Falmouth Commodores for 18 seasons and spent three previously as an assistant coach. For both coaches, the most important part of building a Cape team is not talent evaluation, not charisma or salesmanship, but relationships.
First, they had to establish them. Nicholson is a former pitching coach at Loyola Marymount of the West Coast Conference, so when he got the job managing the Firebirds he already had well-established connections at the Division I level. But he still took the time to sit down with former LMU head coach Frank Cruz and enlist his help in building the 2005 Firebirds. Coaches, scouts, and players’ “advisors”: All are enlisted in finding and choosing a team’s players. Over the years, a coach’s network will grow and he’ll have new names to turn to.
When Trundy started, it was mostly he making the calls, just to get his name in coaches’ minds. The first two players he signed as manager of the Commodores came on the recommendation of then-Tulane assistant Jim Schlossnagle, who is now TCU’s head coach, and Trundy has maintained a relationship with Schlossnagle ever since. Coaches want their players on the Cape due to the scout presence and high level of competition, and due to human nature they tend to stick to what — and whom — they know.
Word tends to travel, too.
“If they had a good experience with you, and they felt like their kids were well-used and were coming back better players through the whole experience, sometimes they’d point you in directions or recommend you to someone else,” Trundy said.
All coaches try to expand their networks and bring in players from as many programs as possible, but Cape teams are often built on past histories with coaches and schools. Trundy has Schlossnagle, and Nicholson has coaches like Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin.
“I feel like any time they’re calling us, we’re friends now,” Trundy said. “It’s kind of an odd thing, where there’s many of these guys I deal with every year who I consider friends but I’ve never met face to face.”
Those relationships are certainly built on name recognition but are also strongly grounded in trust. College coaches trust that their players are going to be treated well during the summer, and in return, summer league coaches trust the college coaches’ judgment on players they send.
“I trust that Vanderbilt’s gong to send us the right guys,” Nicholson said. “I don’t need to see them or cross-check Tim Corbin or (Vanderbilt assistant coach) Scott Brown.”
“The only think I ask them is how many guys do you want to send this summer,” Nicholson went on to say with a laugh.
The biggest part of a Cape Cod League coach’s process of vetting a player is checking his character: Making sure he gets along his peers and coaches, treats his host family well and is an overall strong representative for the organization. If a player is great, the coach and program look all the better. If he’s a malcontent, it might affect their relationship with the league.
But in terms of how the players are with a bat or ball in their hand, Cape coaches tend to leave that to their college counterparts. They’ll take into account the team’s current makeup and needs, and Nicholson said he tends to value “Moneyball”-esque stats like walks per nine innings and on-base percentage. With qualities like arm action and bat speed and defensive actions, however, the college coach’s word rules. Nicholson doesn’t need to take a scouting trip to feel comfortable connecting a player with Firebirds general manager to take care of paperwork.
So deep is the trust between the two sides that Cape coaches typically don’t see players in action until the first day of practice. After watching three or so practices and maybe weighing players’ spring performances, a coach makes the lineup, and then it’s showtime.
With the rise of the online scouting blogosphere and ESPN’s televising of hundreds of college games, coaches aren’t going on blind trust quite as much as they used to do. Putting together a team is a year-round process — I recently spoke to a college coach who mentioned multiple Cape coaches clamoring to get a player who’s currently in another league for next summer — so if a coach sees a promising freshman on TV in April, when he’s already signed with someone else, the coach might ask after the player in preparation for the following year. Nicholson lives in the Los Angeles area, a college baseball hotbed, and checks out teams around the area both to look at players he has coming in and watch for new faces. Putting trust in coaching connections does not mean Cape coaches will disregard their own judgment altogether.
If anything, the college baseball’s increased exposure has made it tougher than every to get a spot on the Cape, with rosters filling up too early and late bloomers who belong in the league sometimes being left out.
“I think when you’ve got X number of guys going early, then you kind of feel like you’re forced into it, so to speak,” Trundy said. “You know, I think it’s sad. There’s no question there’s a lot of kids who maybe weren’t highly touted coming into their freshman year in college, but all of a sudden they blossom and they become a great player, and they’ve committed to another league because there’s no room in the Cape in the fall.”
Nicholson and Trundy want to keep building their networks of loyal coaches and schools, because though winning isn’t as important to their jobs as it is to a Division I coach, they still have to satisfy their natural competitiveness. Trundy wants a player from Louisville, for example.
There’s no real recruiting pitch, however, no talking up a team’s tradition or downing another team’s buses or sharing gossip about the conditions of a nearby beach. Cape coaches know they’re being handed a huge responsibility, and they don’t try to smear other teams or talk up their own experience and expertise. They just rely on relationships and make sure a player’s experience is good enough to keep the program coming back.
Not that there aren’t certain home-field advantages some Cape teams will make sure to mention to college coaches.
“If it’s a pitcher, I make sure they know it’s 434 feet to dead center,” Nicholson said.