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Most Baseball Prospectus readers are familiar with the challenge of putting together a fantasy baseball team. Owners spend weeks scouring various information sources (including BP’s own Player Forecast Manager), sorting through hundreds of players to determine those that will be the most productive or are most likely to be undervalued by the dozen or so other owners in their league. Armed with their personal draft board, fantasy players then go through a structured draft or auction process, making decisions on the fly as certain needs get filled while others go wanting. It’s an intense and rewarding process to winnow through so many variables, negotiate the complex draft-day tango, and wind up with a team you can use as a weapon with which to bludgeon your friends and enemies.

But what if you were competing against not just a handful of other owners for the best players, but hundreds? And instead of several hundred well-documented players to research and rank, what if there were literally thousands of players to choose from – most of them not old enough to drink, and all of them with a very short statistical track record? Oh, and did I mention that there isn’t any sort of formal draft procedure? Instead, you just let a player know you’d like him to play for you, and if he wants to, he agrees and signs a contract – and if not, you move on to the next player.

Such is the challenge that faces CJ Thieleke and Vern Stenman, Manager and GM of the Madison Mallards, every year. The Mallards compete in the Northwoods League, one of several dozen summer collegiate baseball leagues across the nation. Each year thousands of college players leave their dorms, frat houses and poster-strewn crash pads to spend their summer traveling by bus, stinging their hands with wooden bats and learning the life of a professional ballplayer.

The Mallards are currently one of the most successful summer collegiate franchises in the country, both on the field (making the playoffs in three of the past four seasons) and at the turnstiles (averaging 6,000+ fans per game in 2008, the most in summer collegiate ball by a country mile). And unlike affiliated minor league franchises, where winning is often secondary to player development, the Mallards’ financial success depends significantly on their ability to field a competitive team. So what’s their secret sauce? I sat down with CJ and Vern several days before the Mallards 2009 opener to find out, and they were kind enough to describe their process eloquently and in great detail. But since this is BP, and we’re talking about a college-level league, I’m going to apply my own “translations” to their responses to account for differences in league context and baseball knowledge (theirs, of course, being much greater than mine).

Usually only a handful of players return for a second year, so the Mallards need to fill around 25 roster spots each season. To help narrow down the thousands of college players eligible for and interested in summer ball to those 25, the Mallards do exactly what you might expect: they create a draft board. And there are three main categories of information applied to each potential player to determine whether they make the board and, if so, how they’re ranked: Signability, Statistics and Makeup.


Signability

The Cape Cod League is traditionally viewed as the premiere summer collegiate league, attracting the most talented players from the biggest programs. So franchises in other leagues know going in that certain players will likely not be available to them – although with its large crowds and a brutal travel schedule that’s viewed as being more similar to the Jimi Hendrix Low Minors Experience, the Northwoods League is definitely closing the talent gap.


Ken:
“So a lot of it really is, in a way, signability – if you look at it in terms of, say, the major league draft.”


CJ:
“Sure, there’s a tier of players I think you feel you can get. Yet we’re getting more and more kids that understand, and they want to handpick their place in the summertime just like they pick where they go to school. And the word has gotten out, and the best word in the world is just players talking to players, saying, ‘Hey, that Northwoods thing is really a neat deal, and if you can get to Madison, that’s where you want to go.’ So we’ve got those phone calls, too. So that’s good. That’s good.”


Translation:
You know how Brian Cashman has to smile whenever he thinks about the budget he has to work with when talking to free agents? That’s how CJ and Vern smile when they think about the playing environment they can market to prospective players. As one hyperactive baseball philosopher noted, “Fun is winning, and winning is fun.” Not only do the Mallards win, they do so in front of the largest crowds of the summer, in a city frequently listed on numerous “best places” lists. In an open recruiting market, this has to give the Mallards (like the Yankees) a competitive advantage.


Statistics


Ken:
“So all the statistics that you have from different college programs, how much do you really look at that when determining who you want playing here?”


CJ:
“I always tell Vern ‘stats lie’, and you really have to bear down on the stats … you have to really look at where these stats come from and how they’re produced. The big stat for me — I just like watching what they do on Friday nights, the offensive guys, because that’s when you know they’re facing an ace starter, and if they can have good at-bats against that kind of pitching, you’ve got a good feel for who’s a competitive hitter.”


Ken:
(Embarrassingly longwinded propeller-head question about the need to translate statistics between conferences when comparing players.)


Vern:
“A lot of times you can tell what’s going to happen based on the conference a given player is in. But a lot of times that can be misleading too, because they might come in with a different attitude, and a league like this is still an amateur league, where these guys are young … and getting away from home for the first time, you just never quite know, even if they’re coming in with success from a big- time program in a big-time conference there’s always that variable that you can’t really quantify, I don’t think. And it just kind of comes down to the feel you have with the given relationship with the player and the coach and the school and all those kinds of things.”


Translation:
What, are you nuts? See, we look at players from dozens of different conferences; college teams don’t play that many games; and the variability of competition is just massive. We understand you can’t just compare a number to a number – you have to understand the context. We get that. But it wouldn’t be worthwhile for us to translate all those statistics when, in our experience, we have a much better predictor of success in our league, something that the college coaches and pro scouts we talk to can help us with:


Makeup


CJ:
“We’d like to hit on every player from a character standpoint, and a makeup standpoint … and that’s translated for us in my time here to always be in the top end of things and competing. It takes a kid that’s really into baseball. You know, it’s tough after you come off of 8 straight months of really intense baseball. Nine out of every 10 players don’t understand what’s ahead of them – the grind of it, the amount of work that actually goes into hitting tough pitching on a nightly basis with a wooden bat. A lot of these kids don’t understand that getting here.”


Ken:
“Not until after they go on a long road trip and then come back exhausted.”


CJ:
“And they look at their numbers and they’re hitting .210 and walks are way behind the strikeouts. I’ve always said it’s 60-80 points what the aluminum does to the wood. But that goes back to us doing a good job with the initial players we sign. I’m looking for playability, IQ, that little point guard mentality – if I can have 6 or 7 of those guys on my team, gym rats, they’re going to get through the tough times and still come to the park and give you that consistent effort.”


Translation:
Think about it – you’re 19 years old and you’ve just finished your spring season, hitting .360 with power while your team’s won games 14-10. And now that summer’s here you’ve moved away from home and school to live with strangers, take bus rides to Brainerd and Thunder Bay, and hit .270 with a wood bat while learning to bunt and hit-and-run so your team can win 4-3. Sure, you’ve got a dream to play professional baseball – but on the cool spectrum, summer baseball has to rank somewhere between parachute pants and Members Only jackets. It takes a certain kind of kid to thrive in that environment. So the Mallards cultivate relationships with college coaches and pro scouts, who spend time with these kids and have a good idea of who can make it through the inevitable struggle, and rate their recommended players accordingly.

So it appears the largest ingredient in the Mallards’ secret sauce is “makeup” – not very appetizing for a burger, but a requirement for summer collegiate baseball success. But how can makeup be measured? The uncomfortable answer is that it probably can’t be, except by reflection. As much as we’d like to quantify everything, there will always be factors that affect baseball performance which are beyond our ability to objectively measure. But in the Northwoods League, CJ would say you measure makeup with two occasionally overlooked statistics: Wins and Losses. And as I write this, the Mallards are 5-2, including a win in their home opener that featured a 2-run walk off home run by NC State’s Harold Riggins. After the Mallards blew a one-run lead in the ninth, Coach Thieleke told his first baseman to hit one out – and Riggins complied.

I guess in the Northwoods League, what CJ says doesn’t need any translation at all.

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wcarroll
6/07
I've really liked Ken's pieces in the first two weeks, but this one leaves me flummoxed. It's just so much stuff in so many places. The odd structure of the interview and the "translation" leaves me cold. I hated the "(longwinded propellerhead)" thing. The whole structure is just a bit too cute. He doesn't give me any of the flavor of a Mallards game (though having been to that park when it was the Muskies, I know how great it can be). I really think he could have gone three directions with this piece (flavor of the minors, interview with mgr/gm, and makeup) and instead, kind of did all three. All that said, it's not a BAD piece. It's just neither up to Ken's standard from the first few pieces or up to his competitors standards, which just seem to be going up each week.
kgoldstein
6/07
I'm going to differ a bit with Will here. Maybe it's just because I really like the subject so much -- it's an inspired idea for sure. My only complaint mirrors one of Will's -- I wish you would have written around the interview part and led us on as opposed to just a transcript of the discussion.
ckahrl
6/07
Like Kevin, I loved the subject and individual elements within it, but I guess the staccato-like narrative flow ended up being a bit distracting. It should have been either more of a story, punctuated with the questions and answers and returning to the team and the league and the challenges, or just a straight Q&A. In some ways, Ken gets in his own way, having already done good stuff in terms of the actual legwork in talking to Ken and CJ. Not exactly a misfire, but also something that ends up feeling like a first draft that would make me ask you to restructure it and give us something more along the lines of what I think all three of us as judges wanted to see.
mhmosher
6/07
I enjoyed it.
braden23
6/07
As a Madison area baseball fan, I can say people go to Mallards games for the social factor and the all you can eat Duck Pond over the players in the game. The Timberattlers (Appleton) gaining Brewers affiliation this year will affect attendance of local baseball fans. I live 30 minutes from Warner Park and have not set foot in the stadium in several years.
kenfunck
6/08
True, the Mallards have done a terrific job of marketing their product and making their ballpark a destination. I'll be interested to see how they do at the ticket window this year given the economic downturn, etc. So far they're averaging 5,030 -- not too shabby given the uneven weather.
strupp
6/07
Thumbs up, but the criticisms are worth noting. I wonder though, if the nature of competition and showing that the writer can do many different things is partially at fault here. Any one of the three would have been interesting, but did seem somewhat crowded in a 1500 word piece. Of course, how could I NOT vote for a Madison Mallard article though?
molnar
6/07
Oh, I thought this was easily Ken's best piece yet. The subject was fresh and interesting, and gave us a better idea about Ken's versatility. There were a couple little things that bugged me, but the structure was not one of them: he noted that there were three different aspects to what the club looks for in a player, and then gave some insight into how the club incorporated each of them. And I wouldn't have made the analogy between Madison and the Yankees' payroll, so I thought the "translations" worked. Since Ken states that the interview took place *before the season started*, I think the criticism that his piece did not give the "flavor of a game" is off-base.
ssimon
6/07
Good job with this one. Ken's was the last of the 8 entries I read this week. I found myself voting for 5 of them... the highest percentage I've approved thus far. BP Idol is really fun -- I can't wait for more.
adecker31
6/07
Is Will "the bad cop" - he's like the nun-teacher of the group. Which is cool. Anyway - I liked the subject A Lot - this is one of those things I'd thought about before and had no idea about. If the structure was a little clumsy, lacked a little grace - isn't that the kind of thing that a beginning columnist learns how to manage better as they come across these problems and solve them then solve them again? I liked this article and it was great to see how different kinds of people involved in amateur baseball development and scouting think. Another sign of a good columnist must be the originality of their ideas, if they have to write consistently every week, shaking the idea tree might get a little difficult sometimes. This seems to indicate to me that this columnist will probably have a pretty successful run at figuring out nifty, somewhat subtle things to think write about.
josh7798
6/07
I thought this was a very good piece, but I too hate when authors try to write interviews verbatim rather than incorporate them into a more well-written paragraph. If you had intertwined their quotes around the statistics re what players have succeeded or how their numbers improved by playing in the league, it would have been a better article. Still a thumbs up, though
nickgieschen
6/07
I really liked this piece. And he actually got quotes - something Will praised in the Women article but made no mention of here. And what's wrong with the propellerhead thing? We all knew what he was talking about and we didn't have to labor through the long windedness. And it also added a bit of levity. Lighten up Will.
SkyKing162
6/07
I really enjoyed the introduction, which got me excited about the topic, but there was something about the organization of the interview part that didn't give me the information and entertainment I was hoping for.
leez34
6/07
Go Mallards! Watched them beat up on Team Sweden two weeks ago, and I hope to recognize you there some time - I'll buy you a beer. Oh, and great job on the article - I liked it much more than any of the judges, but that might be more because of all I didn't know (and wanted to) about the Northwoods League.
Oleoay
6/07
Sometimes you get too cute and make yourself the subject of the story instead of the people you are interviewing. When a writer says they are translating sources it makes me wonder how much of what was said by the sources were altered. Yet the sources were interesting and insightful and I wanted to hear more from them. Thumbs up.
dcarroll
6/07
I enjoyed this article, and not just because I have been to Thunder Bay. Ken is an outstanding writer who knows how to create interest in his audience. Even though I agree with others that this is not Ken's best effort, it was still a pleasure to read.
anderson721
6/07
I would have liked a mention of a Mallard alumni or 2.
DigBaseball
6/08
Yeah, absolutely! I have never heard of this league, or this team, which is part of why this article was so joyous for me. Props for bringing me into something completely foreign. The only downside is, I wish it had connected more to the game as I already know it and follow it.
kenfunck
6/08
Ryan Spilborghs is the only Mallard alumnus in MLB. Curtis Granderson and Andre Ethier are a few other Northwoods League players currently in MLB. The league posts a list of alumni currently in professional baseball here: http://northwoodsleague.com/view/northwoodsleague/alumni
SirVLCIV
6/07
I enjoyed the article, as it's something I have absolutely no prior knowledge of (collegiate summer leagues). This was my final article, and I gave 5 thumbs ups (the most of any week). Much better articles, on the whole, guys! I just wish there had been one independent league article. Amazing how many of those guys are 29 year old former non-prospects, and still going at it.
nickojohnson
6/07
Members Only jackets are sweet!
kenfunck
6/08
Especially when you've got a few bandanas tied around your legs.
JayhawkBill
6/07
I see this as one of the best articles thus far. I'm impressed with the flexibility and wit Ken demonstrated. Thumbs up.
DrDave
6/08
I don't understand the staff criticisms at all -- this one's an A+. A topic I knew _nothing_ about, made immediately interesting and relevant, discussed in just enough detail to not wear out its welcome, with real insight from the experts who do it for a living and some convincing humility from the author, who makes me believe he actually learned something unexpected. The format was fine, or even a net positive. Way to go.
DigBaseball
6/08
Sorry, how was this "relevant"? I agree that it's cool to read about things we know nothing about, but at what point did you read something in the article that connected it to anything? I agree that it didn't "wear out its welcome," but I feel like this piece -- compared to the one about minor league attendace, for example -- neither invites nor warrants further study. It's a nice and tidy read on its own, but I would have actually liked more reason to care about this league and its participants. Just sayin.
DrDave
6/08
Poor choice of word on my part -- I meant well-suited to the challenge given. 'Appropriate' might have been better.
jimnabby
6/08
The only comment I have that hasn't already been said is that I found the cutesie "Translations" a bit insulting, as if what CJ said wasn't clear or was intentionally misleading and therefore needed to be rephrased. Otherwise, I really did like the article and it got a thumbs-up. This is an amazing turn-around. I gave only one thumbs-up last week, and so far this week, I've thumbsed-up every piece I've read. Just 3 more to go...
kenfunck
6/08
That's a good point. I sent a copy to CJ and Vern late last week and made sure to explain why I did the "translations" -- not because what they said truly needed translation, as they were both very clear and articulate, but as a framing device for the piece.
Scartore
6/08
Gotta say, until I read this I didn't know what the Cape Cod League was. Thumbs Up.
jtrichey
6/08
This was something I could easily see being published in Baseball America (that is a compliment by the way). It has major potential, but I agree that the "translations" got in the way and were too cutesy. Still, a very refreshing piece, and a thumbs up.
bmmcmahon
6/08
I agree the "Translations" schtick was too cutesy, but even with that caveat this was one of my favorites of the competition so far. Ken's stories are now getting my first "click" every week. I knew nothing about this, and now I feel both smarter and well-entertained. Thanks Ken.
hotstatrat
6/08
By sheer coincidence, I had time last night to read and review all but the top three Idol contenders: Ken, Tim, and Matt. First up today I snuck in Ken: Fantastic! What a fun piece! How original – I loved the "translations". Then it all fit with the ending. I have no major quibbles. The fantasy league and NY Yankee analogies may have been stretches, but not outlandish ones. They gave us something concrete to relate the entire thrust of the article to - choosing players for these real life teams. The writing here was more The New Yorker than BP - which is about the only complement of that sort I could give.
hessshaun
6/08
You are lucky that you are getting a vote from me. Let the story tell itself, no need for four dialects in the piece. Your main theme Your question His answers Your psychoanalysis Too much, but very interesting topic. I learned something.
jpkand
6/08
Is it appropriate to do the translation thing when you're reporting an interview? That threw me off of this article so much.
hotstatrat
6/08
It was funny and original. On top of that, deep down it was usually insightful.
BurrRutledge
6/09
I found the whole submission to be funny, but the interview was probably the weakest segment. While I read it in the spirit of a Stephen Colbert sort of interview, poking fun at one's self as well as those being interviewed, it did fall a bit short. Baseball humor is hard. Translation: another thumbs up, Ken, but it's going to get a lot tougher to stay in this competition next week...
jenizie
6/09
Interesting article -- thanks! It leaves this former Madisonian with a question, though. I lived in Madison during the years of the (late, lamented) Madison Black Wolf. At that time the general wisdom seemed to be that Madison couldn't support a baseball team; hence the departure of the Black Wolf. So what's changed? Or what are the Mallards doing right that the Black Wolf did wrong?
kenfunck
6/09
The Mallards have marketed themselves better, for one. They've made Warner Park (the Duck Pond) a destination (as Braden23 notes above, the Duck Blind party area is very popular -- Madisonians live for a good party). They've improved the ballpark, built better partnerships with the north side community and the city in general, and held really clever promotions. There's also a theory that being a university town there's more fondness for college players, rather than A's farmhands (the Muskies) or indy-league players. Oh, and they win. A lot.
Oleoay
6/09
Just a thought, which might be wrong, but moving the Brewers to the NL might've stoked a rivalry with the Cubs and thus, increased Wisconsin interest in baseball in general for those who live a bit farther from Milwaukee.
crperry13
6/09
reading the article was not a wonderful experience, but I really like the subject and the trouble he went to talking to actual people. This article wasn't fantastic, but the approach makes me want to read more of your stuff.
mickeymorley
6/09
Ken--I really enjoyed this article and wanted you to know you have my vote. While I agree with other's comments that the "Translations" weren't needed, I can at least see what you were trying to do there. Also, your "propeller-head" comment made me laugh out loud. I'm looking forward to reading more of your stuff in the future.
mkblais
6/09
My chuckle out loud moment came at "parachute pants and Members Only jackets", but you already had my thumbs up by then.
kenfunck
6/09
Just wanted to thank everyone for the comments this week -- insightful as always. I agree that the structure of this article was not ideal -- I struggled with how to put CJ's "voice" in the piece (he had a lot of interesting things to say, and a great way of saying it, so I really wanted some of his direct quotes), and it seems breaking out the quotes the way I did was a little awkward. Good lessons I'll try to learn from.