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.
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.
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:
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.