Building a Network

The Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network is scouting for scouts. (via Joel Dinda)

The Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network is scouting for scouts. (via Joel Dinda)

The college baseball season can easily be considered grueling. Student athletes are forced to meet the demands of several different people and institutions, balancing academic, athletic, and social calendars contemporaneously. As if the grind of the spring is not enough, most baseball players who are serious about the sport continue playing past the last game of the NCAA season and into the summer.

The decision to play in a college summer league is popular among student athletes, often facilitated by their coaches. The summer season provides opportunity for a ballplayer to grow and develop skills in the hands of a different coach, though likely a coach endorsed and trusted by his college coach. Recently, summer ball has transitioned from a dominantly developmental asset to more of a showcase to professional scouts.

This extended playing time allows very limited time for rest and recovery from the college season, spending time with family and to be a normal college student. Despite these concerns, summer ball has proven to be an excellent way to gain exposure, especially if one attends a school unlikely to be visited by scouts. A smattering of different people can be found in attendance at summer games – from host families, to tourists, to children imagining themselves on that very field one day – but for players hoping to get noticed, the most important people in the audience are the ones with the radar guns.

For those who make the commitment to continue playing past the college season, the Cape Cod Baseball League is arguably the most popular of leagues in which to pass the hottest months of the year. Made up of 10 teams, it hosts around 300 players a season and boasts of many alumni competing at the highest level. Last season, the CCBL reported 297 active players tearing it up in the major leagues.

With those kinds of numbers, it seems like summer baseball is an obvious choice for any college athlete interested in making baseball a career. With 40 leagues to choose from, there are plenty of opportunities, but selecting and being recruited for a team does not come with as much freedom as it appears.

“Mostly, the process is about relationships,” said Frankie Piliere of D1 Baseball. “A summer coach and a college coach have an offseason phone call and agree to send players.”

This way of doing things limits teams to reaping players from a small pool of athletes coming from programs in which they know the coaches.

“Summer coaches have often been doing their job for a very long time and they develop strong working relationships with certain schools,” Piliere said. “Especially when it comes to these valuable arms and modern innings limits, college coaches need to be able to trust the teams and coaches they are sending their players to.”

Those eligible are left in the hands of their college coaches to choose a spot for them to spend the summer. The athlete does have the freedom to refuse playing or play elsewhere, so some summer teams search for more guarantees. Regarding the Cape Code League specifically, the process is not as difficult, since most college coaches are aware of their desire to have their players there. Leagues that are regarded less highly may have to work harder to recruit their players, but the recruiting effort of the teams can certainly impact the outcome of their success. This is a consideration, as oftentimes players do not spend the entire season with their summer team. A player can get caught up in the playoffs, be injured, receive a call from Team USA, or anything else.

“The successful summer teams are the ones that are prepared with roster depth and have the right contacts to find a replacement player,” Piliere said. “The Cape League teams and coaches do this the best because players are lined up to play there.”

There are ways to get around the typical process, like the college player presenting himself directly to the team, but general managers are more likely to accept players from coaches and programs they know, just as college coaches are more comfortable sending their players to leagues and teams they trust. Since this type of recruiting hinges largely on established relationships, it can be a biased system. In the more elite leagues, there are some teams who traditionally recruit and fill roster spots with players from certain schools.

“For instance, Stanford players play for Cotuit quite a bit. Florida tends to send their top guys to Falmouth or Yarmouth-Dennis,” Piliere said.

This is a common occurrence among the top leagues and teams. Generally, the process is biased, but it may be on its way to a system makeover.

Justin Volman, 22, is a junior at the University of Alabama. He is first and foremost a sports management student, but he also works for the baseball team, aiding in recruiting, breaking down video, and putting together scouting reports on hitters the Crimson Tide is set to face. He has a passion for baseball and spent last summer in the Cape Cod League working for the Brewster Whitecaps. In his time there, he got to observe the imperfect process of how players come to be part of the Whitecaps. It works well enough, but Volman was not satisfied.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

One Saturday night earlier that summer, Volman had been carpooling to his night shift for TrackMan baseball with a fellow intern. He was in the middle of reading The Only Rule Is It Has To Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. Inspired by their enthralling story of taking over a California indy-league team in the name of sabermetrics, he had an idea. The question that plagued Volman was: “How can I help build a baseball team while still in school?” That night, the answer came to him: he would create a company, a scouting network comprised of college students.

Plenty of baseball aficionados roam Division I college campuses all over the country, and Volman knew this. Why not employ those students, who are likely already planted in the bleachers during every home stand, to scout their own players? Rather than summer teams relying on the network of their manager to recruit players, Volman could create and market a plethora of information to summer teams, making more players accessible to recruit. Piliere offered that, “even in an elite league, you can see some teams just out hustle others.” This would provide a summer team a grander opportunity to do so. Volman could end up giving every manager access to every Division I college player eligible.

“The first part of my idea started with my project for the Brewster Whitecaps,” Volman said. “I put together a similar scouting network for them and helped them evaluate and identify talent.” Whitecaps’ head coach Jamie Shevchik discussed Volman’s role with the team.

“He’s doing a lot of the research, making a lot of the phone calls; he’s physically getting out there and scouting players and putting together a sheet of the best possible players in the country who can come play in the Cape Cod Baseball League,” Shevchik said.

So, with an idea full of potential, Volman began a company to make it a reality. The Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network is in its first year of operation, with more planned to come.

“Everything is going very well,” Volman said. “We are at 25 schools so far and I anticipate adding another five to 10 in the 2017 season.”

He has reached out to dozens of sports management professors from across the country, emailed college coaches and messaged people on LinkedIn to get a feel for interest in his company.

“I’ve tried many different avenues to build the network and I hope that more students will find out about this opportunity,” he said.

While having the proper amount of students is necessary to make the company a success, even more so is the ability and integrity of those students to assess talent. Volman has taken on a daunting task in attempting to construct a scouting empire in his early twenties. Without credibility, the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network would not have reliable and valid information to provide to summer teams.

“It is very obvious who has a knowledge of baseball and who does not,” Volman said.

After speaking with many people in the industry to figure out what qualities to look for, he decided to assess potential scouts through a review of his or her resume and an evaluation of a mock scouting report to get a practical example of their baseball knowledge. Volman plans to build trust by letting the work speak for itself. His work for the Whitecaps is his first example.

“What he did this year, and what we’re hoping he continues into next year, is act as an independent scout, putting together research on players who are going to be potential Cape Cod League candidates,” Shevchik said. “We start putting our team together in June or July for the following year, so Justin and his team did a great job of identifying some prospects, both on the east coast and on the West Coast, to backfill some of the spots for this year. Next year, when we get into May and June, we’ll have a comprehensive report of 2018 candidates so we can start committing those guys to our roster.”

In the first year of the company’s operation, Volman hopes to help as many of the 40 summer leagues as he can. He wants to provide as much information as possible on the players the leagues will acquire.

“Theoretically, we could grow the company to heave scouts at all 300 Division I baseball programs,” he said.

Having scouts at all D-I schools is without a doubt a lofty goal, but Volman seems confident that it’s within his reach. Regardless of how large his company expands, Volman is sure that he will make an impact in the process of how summer leagues select their players. In simple terms, his goal is to create a company that provides the various summer leagues with an unbiased third party scouting network.

“There are some really good up and coming successful leagues like the West Coast League, even with such a strong competition for talent,” Piliere said. “The players looking for their best placement could benefit from it, I think.”

Volman will have to protect from bias since students are scouting their own college team, but his idea would certainly eliminate the existing limitations.

On the analytics side, there is room to expand as well, since the world of college sabermetrics remains largely untapped. Volman created an analytics department for CBSN, which is working on bringing the 21st century to college baseball by way of advanced metrics. His company will not build itself, and Volman is aware of the challenge he faces in expending as much time and energy that is necessary to turn his idea into a reality. He is not only concerned with creating success for himself, though. He also aims to help all his scouts be hired full time wherever they hope to work.

“If I have to find a whole new group of scouts each year, then I would be very happy,” Volman said.

Rachel studies Applied Statistics at the University of Virginia and works as a student manager for their baseball program. She also writes for Beyond the Box Score and has written for the Cavalier Daily.
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