Scouting Internationally, A Lesson in Standing Out

My first trip to the Dominican Republic as a scout for MLB Scouting Bureau was better than any Christmas morning. I felt like a kid walking downstairs, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes in order to focus on all the sparkling new toys that Santa left.

I could hardly contain my emotional state, as I looked around the stadium at all the veteran and rookie scouts from all 30 MLB teams. It was the annual International Prospect Day held every March. The day these teenagers have worked toward since the first time someone told them they had a gift.

The Blue Team was made up of Dominican and Colombian players against the Red Team of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bahamas, Curacao, and Panama.

Some of the players were already in negotiations for big contracts and were simply going through the motions while trying not to get hurt. Others had everything riding on having a big day in order to turn some heads and hopefully get enough interest to sign on July 2nd.

I could overhear the rumors of certain players getting upwards of three to five million dollar signing bonuses.

What? WOWZER!

I couldn’t believe that a 16-year-old kid who had never seen a professional pitch was going to cash in a life-changing lottery ticket of that magnitude.

This was my first international showcase and our assignments were being doled out by our supervisor. I was informed that I would be evaluating Dominican Shortstop, Yasel Antuna and a pitcher whose name escapes me. Quickly, one of the veteran scouts pointed out that Antuna had already been offered close to four million dollars by the Washington Nationals.

 

Awesome! No pressure to get this report correct.

I was flush with anxiety and immediately felt a lack of confidence in my ability. It was more nerve-racking than being at the plate with two outs and the game on the line. I was definitely going to be compared to other veteran scouts who had been watching this kid since he was 12 or 13 years old.

All of the reports we write as MLB Bureau scouts are submitted and reviewed before being added to the EBIS International database for all the MLB scouting departments to scour. It isn’t just one team of experts looking at your work as it is when you scout for an organization it is every team of experts judging your knowledge, competence and writing skills. The challenge was greater than anything I had ever been tasked with in school, the Marines or life up to this point.

I sat there intently trying to keep up with what was going on. Taking it all in and still trying to maintain focus on my players. Talking back and forth with scouts sitting around me. Picking up tidbits here and there. Scribbling notes all over my clipboard. Asking questions. Sneaking peeks at my neighbor’s paper, anything I could think of so as to not look clueless.

I watched these kids, and they are still just kids, run around trying to do something that stood out. I had a vivid flashback to the first day of boot camp and the words of my Drill Instructor while standing on the yellow footprints of MCRD Paris Island, SC.

He said, “There are only two ways to get noticed in a large competing group, do something outstanding or do something stupid.”

I quickly decided that if I did neither, maybe I could get through the next 16 weeks of hell unnoticed.

I digress.

When I stopped thinking about myself, I started to feel for those kids. They were all trying to do something outstanding and not one of them was looking to go unnoticed. The pressure had to be overwhelming, to say the least. All the long hot days in the cage, the avocado and milk protein shakes, the time away from their families in order to train at the academies. It all boiled down to this day.

I can’t help but think of the future. How long will it take before the international market takes over the domestic market? How long before U.S. players are outnumbered on every roster in both leagues?

Currently, almost one-third of all MLB players are born outside of the United States. Another 45% born on foreign soil litter the ranks of the minor league system at the same time.  The Coaches Development Programs (CDP) put on by Major League Baseball’s International Development department is rapidly exposing the popularity of the game. The brand of baseball is growing exponentially worldwide.

In the first six months of 2018, the World Baseball and Softball Confederation has 72 of the 125 countries currently ranked by a competitive play point system. The points are accumulated through internationally recognized tournaments for age groups 12u to 23u including the World Baseball Classic (considered an amateur event).

It is no surprise that the United States (5025pts) is ranked #1, and close behind #2 Japan (4609pts) lead the hunt. Korea (4158pts), Cuba (3152pts) and Mexico (2613pts) round out the Top Five.

Hmm.

Where is the Dominican Republic ranked? MLB organizations sign north of 250 players every year from that small island. How can they not be in the Top Five? What about Venezuela, or Panama? They too produce a large number of prospects every year.

The truth is those countries have a hard time keeping up with the point system. With issues such as visa grants and travel expenses, it is financially difficult for them logistically, to pack up every age division and go to Asia or the United States for tournaments. If you don’t participate and compete on the global stage you don’t earn points.

The growth of the game can additionally be credited in large part to the internet, where a massive amount of young boys and girls across the world can tune in and watch games through numerous available streaming sites and of course catch highlights and bloopers on YouTube. This interest from the youth around the world is leading the way.

Did you know that both China (Hai-cheng Gong) and South Africa (Gift Ngoepe) now have players that have reached the highest level of the sport? It’s true.

 

Soccer, er, Fútbol may still be the world’s most popular sport but the national pastime of the United States, Japan, Korea, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Panama to name a few are still loving the game within the game. They continue to pass on the tradition from generation to generation.  More and more countries are jumping on board and introducing the sport to their youth as they are experiencing a rise in the number of kids that are looking for other sports to learn and embrace.

I spoke with a friend just yesterday that is pioneering a grassroots youth program in Kosovo. He plans to join forces with other Western European countries in an effort to expand the game in that area of the globe.

Kudos to you Michael Johnstone!

I can’t really put a percentage of growth on my prediction but I feel confident in saying that the number of countries that will be playing this sport and the number of roster spots that will be occupied by international players at the professional levels is only going to rise in the very near future.

Who knows maybe I will live long enough to see the Dodgers sign a switch-hitting catcher from Yemen!

Hell better yet, maybe I will be the one that signs him.

Now that would be outstanding!

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

Photo Credits: NotesfromtheSally.com, esquire.com, mlb.com

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Those who can’t play, coach.

“Those who can’t play, coach.”

This was the version of a quote or should I say misquote that a parent said to me one day while we were discussing my former playing career and why I became a coach.

“Those who can’t do, teach.” was the way I remembered hearing that saying as I assume many of you reading this have.

There are variations of this quote that have been attributed to  George Bernard Shaw and his play Man and Superman in which the line is “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” No, I did not know that was the origin of the quote until I looked it up and then skimmed the Cliff notes.

Gotta love google.

I wanted to make sure I had the correct quote before I decided to write about it in personal experience. More importantly to avoid any embarrassing tongue lashings from you Shaw disciples or dedicated playwrights correcting me in the comments section.

That parent’s choice of words may have been a little different than the intended quote, but the message was clear. It sounded like a backhanded compliment to me. It isn’t meant to be as negative as it sounds. I remember it stinging a bit. I also remember being offended by it at first. I rarely get offended by anything. It felt like an insult to my ability as a player. Why? What did he know? He had never seen me play.

“Those who can’t play, coach.” Seriously?

Yeah, I guess I was a little bit more than miffed. Maybe a tad “chippy.” I am sure he didn’t mean anything negative or hurtful, which is why I was having trouble understanding why he said it at all. What was I misinterpreting? I gaffed it off with a shrug and a smirk agreeing with him at the moment.

Internally I was boiling in my ignorance and feeling pretty perplexed and rattled. As days and weeks went by I would find myself revisiting those words in my head trying to turn the negative translation in my head into a positive feeling.

What was the true meaning?

Why did this guy say that?

Was I never good at any of the skills required to excel in baseball?

I started to pick apart my physical and mental weaknesses and shine a bright light on what I thought were the reasons I never made it further in the sport.

Was it my ability? Was he right?

Could I really not do?

It wasn’t until I deeply thought about what the true meaning was in that quote. It started to become more clear the more I coached and taught. The things I was learning from other coaches was helping me understand.

Right or wrong my interpretation of those words came to this: only a handful of gifted people in an area of expertise have the incredible ability to achieve the highest level. Translation: they can do. Better yet, they can do extremely well.

Conversely, in my quest for the true meaning, I discovered years later that in several instances those that can do, cannot teach.

Aha. What was that?

Think about it. When it comes to baseball have you ever witnessed a gifted player try to explain hitting, pitching or anything else to a young player? Ever realize how they struggle to simplify the basic fundamental instruction? It is remarkable how well they know exactly what to do and yet a lot of them have no idea how they do it. They just do it. Freaks of nature I like to call them.

Some of you reading this may disagree because you watched an MLB player on TV explain how they achieve launch angle or maximum exit velocity.  They must know. They are the best, right? This thrilled me to no end. I realized some time ago that I wasn’t put on this Earth to be a player at the highest level but rather put here to teach and help mold others to reach their highest level.

If you do not possess that elite level of skill or natural talent that doesn’t mean that you cannot teach it. If you continue to learn more about a particular subject and understand what is involved to progress, you can teach it. The key is the ability to communicate and pass on that information to those who stand in front you seeking answers.

Not everyone can be rock stars, Nobel Prize winners, Oscar-worthy actors, world-famous architects, or Hall of Fame athletes. The world needs people to help those who are still learning how to raise their game. Students and players need to be taught how to decipher information that is given to them. They need help to get more out of themselves when they feel that there is nothing left. The world needs teachers, coaches, and mentors to assist in the learning process of those who are destined to reach the pinnacle of their journey and attain their greatness. This helps future teachers and coaches to be inspired and pushed to do the same for the next generation.

Think of all the best or most successful coaches in the world of sports. I can’t think of nor could I find in my research any Hall of Fame players that were also Hall of Fame (HoF) coaches. I did find a lot of HoF players that went on to be good coaches. I also found a lot of HoF coaches that were merely average players. I could not find anyone that accomplished HoF status as both a player and a coach.

Yep, googled that too.

Let that sink in. What does that tell us?

You can do and teach at the same time. Some are great at doing and some are great at teaching. It takes hours of trial and error to acquire the ability to take information, absorb it completely, analyze it from every angle and then present it to the student in a way that they can understand it more clearly and easily. All the while keeping in mind that every student is unique; they all learn differently. Figuring out how he or she learns best so that you can adapt to them is key.

A favorite quote of mine by Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

It is a never-ending schooling process for us as the teacher or coach. We should always continue to learn more, to sharpen our skills in our ability and our advancement towards superior teaching and coaching. If you are not on board with extending your learning capacity or operating from a growth mindset then you are doing a disservice to yourself, other teachers and coaches and more harmfully, to your students.

A note to all you coaches and teachers out there that did not achieve your playing goals or reach your desired level of excellence in sport or otherwise. Remember, it is your decision to believe in whether you can or cannot do anything. Whichever you choose to believe, either way, you are correct.

The great John Wooden said, “You have not taught until they have learned.” He was pretty good at doing, teaching and coaching.

Keep doing.

Continue teaching.

Never stop learning.

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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Oh Man, I Love This Game!

I have to thank my Uncle Tom O’Brien for introducing baseball to me at the age of 7. At least that is as far back as I can remember. I loved to play catch, and field grounders and pop flies with him every day after school and on weekends. He taught me how to use a high leg kick like Roberto Clemente, his idol. At that time, 1977 we still used wood bats in Little League. I remember the feeling of connecting with that baseball, ah the sound. The smells. Wood and leather. Fresh cut grass and dirt. Complete euphoria. I was hooked.

Oh, man I love this game.

My first glove was a Rawlings, 12 inch Reggie Jackson model with the basket web. The thing that stands out to this day and brings me back to my childhood instantly is the smell of that new leather glove and the glovolium that gave it life. I spent hours rubbing that oil into every crease and wrinkle and knot, shaping the fingers and the web. Popping the ball in and out repeatedly before wrapping it up tight with a belt and shoving it in between my mattress and box spring. The final step to a perfect break in. A lot of you are smiling right now as you remember doing the same thing. Maybe your Dad ran over it with the car to speed up the break-in process.

Man, I love this game.

Life as a baseball player was all I could imagine from that day forward. Anyone that plays this game most likely started off thinking how great it would be to play this game forever. How many young boys stood up in class when asked: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” answered confidently and matter of factly “I am going to be a Major League Baseball player.”
One of my favorite quotes from my teenage hero Cal Ripken, Jr. is, “you can be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball.”

At some point along the journey, we realize that this is a young man’s game and unfortunately not everyone gets to play past a certain age. Sometimes it is a decision made by our bodies. Sometimes it is a decision made by our opportunities or lack thereof. Maybe it is a decision made solely on realistic views of our future livelihood. In most cases, the majority lack the ability to compete at the next level along the long, treacherous road to the Bigs.

Now don’t get me wrong I love other sports too. I played football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf you name it. One of the things I feel is lost in kids today is the exploration of other sports. Too many parents are caught up way too early in sports specialization for their kiddos. I am not sure when or how this transpired. Maybe the rapidly rising cost of college mixed with the delusional expectations of parents living vicariously through their kids’ accomplishments. I don’t know. That is a whole other article to be written at a later date.

Baseball might arguably be the most intricate game on the planet. I know it is boring for a lot of people. It has a lot of rules. The superstitions and routines that players have created over decades can be puzzling to many. The number of little things that go on during the course of an inning let alone a whole game can confuse the hell out of an avid fan much less the casual onlooker.

Then again, it is a thinking man’s game. Doh!

You can be an average athlete and still excel in baseball if you understand the games that go on within the game. You can have a lot of success regardless of your size and physical attributes. It has been stated that the hardest single thing to do in all sports is to hit a baseball. I won’t get into the science or mechanical specifics that are involved with this extremely arduous task. Essentially, hitting a round object with another round object squarely, at any speed makes for some immediate frustration. For those that have never tried, give it go and see what you think. Even the best fail seventy percent of the time.

Man, I love this game!

The average age of kids that stop competing in this game is about 13-14. Ironically, the same age puberty starts. School, music, video games, other sports and socializing start to take precedence in their everyday life. Those things were fun for me too, (maybe not school so much) but nothing was more fun than playing baseball. I suppose at some point in the back of my mind around 17 years old I started to see the proverbial writing on the wall. The realization of actually getting paid to play was starting to dwindle as I prepared for the “real world” and the next chapter of my soon to be adult life.

This game over the years has evolved in many ways from the equipment to the size of the players, to the superhuman acts of athleticism on the field. One thing that remains constant is the dimensions of the playing field. The distances from home plate to the fence vary from park to park, but the base paths and pitching distance have remained the same since the inception of the game. When you let that sink in it is indeed stunning to ponder. As humans we have gotten physically stronger and faster in the past hundred years and yet the ground ball to short and throw to first is still a bang-bang play. The arm strength has evolved with the foot speed or vice versa, depending on how you want to look at it.

Man, I love this game!

We have all heard it a million times that baseball is a game of failure. After hearing legendary college coach Augie Garrido explain it in his point of view, I have changed the way I think about that popular statement today. Augie says that maybe it is a game of opportunity rather than a game of failure. Perhaps we are missing the numerous amount of opportunity that every failure creates for us within the game. Example; that next at-bat after striking out creates an opportunity to possibly win the game in a later inning. Booting that ground ball in the third and then making a diving catch to end the opponents scoring threat in the sixth inning. These are just two examples of looking at it from a different perspective. Failures can create opportunities.

Hmm. I like it. Perception is up to the individual, and your perception is your reality.

Baseball may possibly be the most over-coached, self-esteem destroying game ever invented. What other fields of expertise can you fail three times out of ten and still be considered a success? (See batting average). Coaches around the globe will preach that the game is ninety percent mental yet only spend ten percent of the time on training the mental side. Perfecting mechanics are trumping natural athletic ability and becoming the focus of most inexperienced coaches. The game requires intuition, instincts, physical and mental prowess mixed with a short-term memory to excel pitch by pitch for nine innings or more.

It is an individual, team sport. Essentially pitcher vs. batter. No one person can take full responsibility for the outcome of the game. The team wins, or the team loses. You may have hit the game-winning home run, but it is impossible for you to play all nine defensive positions in order to keep the other team from scoring.

Overcoming fear and self-doubt, pushing limits, staying present and ultimately consistently getting up and dusting off every time you are knocked down. The lessons learned from the competition, adversity, and teamwork has been and always will be a perfect metaphor for life.

Oh, man do I love this game!

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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A Story About the Young, Eager Christian Yelich

(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Ian D’Andrea)

I tell this story every chance I get to be in front of aspiring baseball players and coaches of all ages. As coaches, we say things all the time that get repeated over and over again, especially when it comes to mechanics or motivating a player. We never really know when a player is going to “get it” if ever. It is one of the greatest feelings in the world when a coach or a teacher sees that light go off in their student’s head and they have the ‘aha’ moment.

It is why we do it. Right?

I had the pleasure of coaching this kid back in 2007 when he was a sophomore in high school. I was asked to take a team in that summer’s Gabe Kapler Games organized by my good friend John Novak. At the time I was an Associate Scout with the Oakland A’s and managed their scout ball team every Fall. I looked over the roster of players that were handed to me that day and recognized a few names from the surrounding high schools.

As I scrolled down the alphabetically listed roster there, he was the last name on the list.

YELICH, Christian – OF, L/R

I covered the San Fernando Valley and Orange County areas looking for players.  I didn’t get out to the Westlake area too often. I remember thinking I finally get a chance to see this kid. I had heard good things about Yelich at the time and how he was projected to go in the first three or four rounds in two years. I also had heard he might go to UCLA instead of signing a professional contract, a typical conversation among scouts when a kid like Yelich matures early on in their high school career. No one knows what will happen until it plays out.

On the first day of the showcase, I told all my players that I would be videotaping all of their swings. Yes, it was the actual videotape; MiniDV to be exact. I also told them at the end of the weekend that anyone wanting to meet me in the press box I would be happy to show them their swings and go over any red flags. Give them some positive feedback that they could work on to improve their swings. I was using Don Slaught’s Right View Pro video analysis program and loved how you could put any hitter side by side with a Major League hitter and compare mechanics.

So we play out the weekend of five games in three days.

Yelich struggled a little at the plate that weekend, and in his young mind, he was concerned that he had not performed well in front of the scouts and college coaches in attendance. When the final game was over on Sunday, I announced again to the team that I will be in the press box if anyone wants to come and see their swings. They all took off to the parking lot before I even had the camera off of the tripod. Half dressed, dragging their gear behind them with their girlfriends hanging on their arms.

They couldn’t wait to get home.

Every one of them. Except two.

Two players out of twenty thought it might be a good idea to do more than just “want” to get better.

TWO!

A catcher from Notre Dame HS whose name escapes me and you guessed it, future MLB Gold Glove winner and now Milwaukee Brewer, Christian Yelich.

They both sat there like sponges as I drew lines over the screen and pointed out balance points and contact points and such.  They couldn’t get enough. Christian made me rewind and fast forward and pause, and then rewind over and over. The three of us sat there talking about the swing and comparing it to A-Rod, Pujols, and Miggy for a solid 45 minutes. He listened and asked questions but mostly absorbed what he saw on the screen.

I never saw him again after that weekend, but I did follow him over the next two years before he decided to pass on UCLA and sign with the Miami Marlins as the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 Draft. As they say, the rest is history.

Scouts often say guys that are good are good from the start and not much mechanically changes over time. Sure they may make minor adjustments from time to time and maybe even flirt with some major ones, but for the most part, they are the same guys as they have been since way early on in development.

Take a look at that day back in ’07.

 

…and with the Brewers in 2018.

 

If you want to be a Big League player and you think you can get by on your talent alone. You are dead wrong. Yelich decided it was essential for him as a hitter to see his swing in a way he had never seen it before. He even listened to a coach he had never met before and took something positive away from it.

I tell every player I have the privilege to coach if you continue to play this game you are going to run into a lot of different coaches with a lot of different philosophies and advice. Sometimes we say the same thing but with different terminology. It is up to you as a player to take that information decipher it and use what applies to your style of play and your philosophy. Discard what you know doesn’t fit but only after giving it a chance. That is your responsibility if you want to get better.

Above all, you have to want to get better every single day and then put in the work. Bad days, good days, rain days. You never get to say that you have this game figured out. Even if by some miracle you do figure it out; you will be too old to play anyway.

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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Part 3: Pitchers, Identifying Differences in Latin and U.S. Players

(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Periodico JIT)

 

 

I remember years ago watching an SEC college baseball game with some buddies and noticing that all the pitchers had the exact same delivery. We all noticed and then we couldn’t unsee it. It was quite impressive honestly to see the same mechanics from the starter to the reliever to the closer on both teams entire staff.

Both teams.

PITCHERS

Arm slots varied slightly but the way they reached their balance point with no wind-up, high knee lift, toe pointed straight to the ground, and a quick take away was identical. “Cookie cutter” as a lot of coaches like to say and yet try to avoid. There was a time when that was the way many programs built their system of pitchers and hitters. This is how we do it at X University, and this is the way you will do it, or you will be gone for not buying into our formula for success. Old school.

Closer to the equator the pitchers all want to be Pedro Martinez with blistering fastballs and a bugs bunny changeup. The mechanics are raw the ability is limitless, and the ceiling for potential is high. Of course, it is. Why wouldn’t it be? No cookie cutters or formulas for anything.

They are all still growing. Still learning. Still applying.

“If you put ten pitching experts in a room when they come out, they will have agreed on one thing.” “That one thing is they do not agree on anything.”

I only put that in quotes because I wasn’t the one to say it. No idea where I heard it but I like it.

With the technology that exists today, we have hours and hours of video analysis footage and more data than ever before on the kinetic chain and its role in throwing a baseball. We have sports scientists, physicists, doctors and mental conditioning coaches. The fact remains that every human body is different and reacts differently to the tremendous amount of stress and pressure that is put on the arm when it is used unnaturally as it is in the overhand throwing motion.

Okay sorry, I am getting off topic; reign it in Holmes. This is not a medical thesis on proper throwing mechanics, and I am not going to open up a debate on anything related to pitching in general or specific.

My apologies; let’s move on.

FIELDERS

Latin players continue to let the tools shine in the rest of their game as they do in hitting. Flashy glove work in the field. Acrobatic athleticism displayed on a regular basis. The flare, the pirouettes, the arm strength that makes hard plays look routine and routine plays look hard. It is the fun-loving style that kids grow up practicing on the sandlots while imitating their heroes. Bottlecaps and broomsticks. Milk carton gloves and tape balls.

In the States, players are taught very early on the basic fielding fundamentals in a well planned out orderly progression that gets regurgitated from one coach to another coast to coast. You are probably already thinking about the terminology that you have heard a million times and most likely used yourself. Triangle base, bend at the knees, not the waist, get in front of the ball and use two hands, etcetera. Coaches tell young players don’t do what you see on TV in fear they will pick up bad habits all the while in Latin countries that is EXACTLY what they say. “Do it like him!” (pointing to the TV).

The game of baseball has historically been slow to evolve in comparison to other major sports. I feel with technology and young progressive-minded coaches entering the world of learning and teaching that the evolution of the game is picking up speed and gaining momentum more rapidly than ever. There is more thinking outside of the box. Coaches may not be trying to reinvent the wheel, but they are trying to make it spin faster. They are willing to try “crazy” things to see what else we can learn from practicing that school of thought. Athletes are capable of doing greater things than fifty years ago so why not push them too with our crazy ideas.

As I mentioned in the first two articles on the differences between players of a particular origin, in this case, Latin American and North America. We are starting to see more players relying on their body’s natural movement repeating what has felt natural to them since an early age. More coaches are allowing that to happen within the player’s development and they are less likely to reinvent the player’s intrinsic movements by forcing them to change its natural course. There are still minor mechanical adjustments being made, and the visible red flags that lead to injury are hopefully being addressed. Coaches are making changes in their way of thinking, communicating, and executing the instruction all while learning more about themselves and their players along the way.

LABELS

I learned something from a coach/friend of mine that we are all guilty of at times when observing or working with players or people for that matter. That is labeling. If you are labeling a player, you are not helping him. It doesn’t matter if you are predicting that he is going to be an All-Star or MVP at the highest level or labeling him to not make it past Rookie ball. You do not know for a fact one way or the other where he will end up or what that player’s final destination will be.

We have to stop labeling. Why?

Simple. We do not have a crystal ball. We are not wizards.

You do not know what that individual is capable of becoming or what his limitations are in the future. Athletes are notorious for proving themselves and others around them wrong time and time again.  We have all been proven wrong at some point with someone we were certain was “this guy” or “that guy.” It can be easy to say “I know how this is going to turn out” based on the amount of baseball you might have experienced in your respective field as a player, coach, scout, GM whatever. The fact remains.

You still do not know with 100% certainty.

No one knows.

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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Part Two: Hitters, Identifying Differences in Latin and U.S. Players

(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Periodico JIT)

Part one of this series, on the general differences between Latin and U.S. players, can be found right here

When it comes to hitters, you will hear a lot of talk around the cages from scouts, hitting coaches and other players that Latin hitters all look the same. Yes, I know that is a broad statement. Of course, there are exceptions and not everyone is precisely the same. Let’s go ahead and snuff that comment out before it flames too high. I will say a “high percentage” of hitters born in Latin American countries have a similar display of athleticism in their approach.

We don’t need the opinion versus fact police infiltrating the comment section before I even get started.

Latin Hitters

There is quite a bit of evidence in more than a few young hitters that show high hands and elbow, open stance with a lot of movement in the upper and lower half, aggressive and at the same time “loosey- goosey.” Visually, the parts appear to move independently of each other, and somehow all come together in the end; beautifully choreographed.

Latin hitters rely on their tools to stand out more than game IQ. More than the intricacies of hitting 101. Feel good, get in there and hack. Show us what you got kid. It can be traced back to education. There is a gap in the level of learning. We know this. When you have more knowledge to work with, you have an advantage of progressing faster. More substantial strides in growth emerge. If the instruction is lacking and the information is unattainable there ceases to be any expectation of profound advancement or evolution in the process. There is also something to be said in ignorance is bliss.

It’s energetic. It’s flashy.

U.S. Hitters

Hitters from the U.S. appear mechanically poised; tight but fluid from the bottom to the top in their stance. Similar to well-oiled cogs in a machine. Everything moves in sync, one link in the kinetic chain at a time. You see it ripple through the body and explode through the extension and finish as if powered on steam and pressure.

It’s forceful. It’s polished.

Repetition and constant improvement with minor mechanical adjustments create consistency among U.S. hitters that increase efficiency and productivity. They are used to hearing terms like load, rotation, linear movement, tall backside, etc. They are driven to the perfection of fundamentals first, and then encouraged to master those mechanics.

The Two Common Differences

I inquired within my circle of influence before writing this. I asked friends that are currently invested in the development of professional hitters both foreign and domestic. The consensus came back and the two differences that seemed to be of popular opinion were…[drum roll]

Approach and mechanics.

Both are learned at the root of the mental process. How do hitters think in regards to approach and mechanics? It goes back to the amount of coaching and game speed at-bats they are experiencing (see part 1). When you get to see a lot of pitches at game speed it allows the hitter to recognize and develop a pattern to be analyzed. Then, an approach to attack that pattern can be outlined or prepared. Educated hitters are also learning the tendencies of the pitchers they face. Successful hitters are schooled on how a pitcher wants to get them out. Pitchers want to get ahead in the count. They aim to keep the hitter off balance.  Acquiring knowledge and retaining information going into the battle puts you in a much better position to win the battle.

Having an approach before getting into the box – before the on-deck circle; before sitting in the dugout; before BP in early work – makes every day that you pick up a bat important.

Relying on and trusting the approach, you have designed to execute the plan of attack. Pitch by pitch that plan may alter. Possessing the understanding of flexibility and when it needs to be used helps in this situation. Making adjustments when the plan is not working or deciding to trust it enough to stick with it above all costs could be the answer. I don’t know the answer. I do know that you must have some feel and ability to swing the bat somewhat mechanically sound. I am also convinced that wanting to get a hit is not an approach.

Hope is not a plan.

Preparation is a lot of work. To some hitters and coaches maybe even a lot of BS. Some may say that thinking can do more damage than good.

“Don’t think; it hurts the ballclub.” – Crash Davis.

Many may argue that having no plan at all and relying solely on raw instincts and athletic ability frees your mind from all the noise and you can relax and react quickly without hesitation. If you are thinking about your stride or your hands you can’t focus on the ball. Therefore hindering your chances of making any contact at all.

See ball, hit ball.

Again, I am not 100 percent convinced of either school of thought. I would also add that it doesn’t matter where you were born at some point you have to be self-aware enough to know what works for you. I will let you decide which one is more deserving of trial and error.

I Call Roberto Clemente

Kids grow up watching their heroes play the game, and they want to be like them. It is no surprise that today’s heroes in Latin America like Jose Altuve, Big Papi, Adrian Beltre or in the States; Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Giancarlo Stanton are rubbing off on the youth.

Did those hitters copy their heroes? Something tells me they did at some point in their life.

Ask any player past or present, and I would bet they will give you the name of the guy they always “called” in that backyard Wiffle ball game or home run derby – the swing they imitated; the guy they wanted to be.

I call Roberto Clemente.

 

I wonder who Big Papi called?

Hmmm. Maybe this guy?

Love the Game. Live the Dream

 

Photo courtesy of Matt Lisle (@CoachLisle) on Twitter. His post reads, “Hitting sure has changed in 100 years #sarcasm” — You can find Matt’s tweet here.
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Identifying the Differences In Latin and U.S. Players

THE QUESTION

I was recently asked a question in regards to scouting in Latin America. “Do you look at those players differently than the kids from the U.S?”

I was reminded immediately of the first time I actually scouted in the Dominican Republic while attending MLB Scout School in 2010. There was something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something that raised a brow while watching these young, tall, lanky, athletic ‘peloteros’ dance their dance and play to the rhythm in their heads.

It was raw. All of it.

THE TOOLS

The hitters, the pitchers, the flashy infielders. The arms were live and powerful. The movements were graceful. They were so young. I remember thinking that it looked effortless and almost fake in a CGI special effects kinda way. They were smooth yet needed to be tuned. There was an aura about them that you don’t see as much in the United States.

It looked like they were enjoying every minute of what they were doing. The fact was, every day could be their last opportunity to show they belong and yet they play like that isn’t even a possibility. They are void of tension and stress. Or at least they don’t show it. I loved the way they smiled and joked with each other from the time they laced up until the handshake after the last out.

From the view that I had every day in those bleachers and along the fenceline you could see the tools. The tools were evident. The speed was raw, the arms above average, the future-6 power, and the 95-plus fastballs. All of it is amazing to witness.

They all showed well.

Then came the games.

THE INSTINCTS

Overall instincts are typically expected to correlate with tools. The student of the game is to reveal himself. The baseball IQ seemed to be the challenge with many of them. Balls sailed over the first baseman’s head. Catchers who just threw 1.8- and 1.9-second pop times on a dime were struggling to get a throw off in a game situation and when they did it was launched into centerfield. Guys that put on a clinic in BP were swinging out of the zone. Lacking barrel awareness and finishing off balance. Pitchers were throwing hard but with no clue where it was going. They were having a difficult time getting ahead of hitters and hitting their spots.

Then you remember they are 16-17 years old. They have spent a lot of time putting in the work, doing the drills, working out and practicing until dark. They don’t play a ton of controlled, structured games outside of the friends they have growing up early in life. They don’t get a lot of personal coaching or good instruction until they show some above average natural ability and then get the opportunity to join an academy and workout with a ‘buscone’ and his team. Maybe they win the lotto and get signed by an organization and then they finally receive what they longed for.

THE OPPORTUNITIES

When I think of the same aged kids in the U.S. I realize they have been playing structured organized baseball since they were as young as five years old. They have had the privilege of having volunteer coaches of Dads and Moms and Uncles who played college or pro ball helping them after school and on days when they didn’t have an organized practice or game. Then they play travel ball with experienced coaches and then on to high school. Their educational opportunities to better themselves in academia are more prevalent. The game is taught to them in a different way that forces them to use more subjects to solve a problem; subjects they have already learned.

They look different.

The flash, the fluidity, the overall athleticism may be lacking to a degree, but the consistency, the repetitiveness and the tightness of execution added to the fundamentals and in-game instincts are slightly sharpened. They are muscular and well fed. They have kettlebells and speed ladders and trainers and dieticians. They carry themselves tighter and with stern purpose; business-like, militant to some degree.

THE CHALLENGE

The downside from a psychological standpoint?

This behavior can lead to the quest for mechanical perfection trumping the ‘outside of the box’ experimentation. The need to be BETTER NOW can become more important than making yourself better than yesterday en route to winning the end game. Focusing on personal achievement stifles the love of the game. The constant stress of overachieving and trying too hard to rise above the pack can have a reverse effect.

Today more than ever, the pressure of excelling above and beyond the best of the best in order to obtain a college scholarship or sign with a professional team are slowly becoming detrimental to the growth and development of our youth players. The enjoyment of competing for fun is overrun by the fear of failure and surfacing in way too many cases.

THE ANSWER

To answer the question that was asked to me. “Do you look at these kids differently?”

The answer is yes. Because they are different.

They come from different cultures.

They come from different mindsets.

They come from different opportunities.

They come from different places.

Not better. Not worse. Just different.

To be a good scout you have to be open to and accepting of ‘different.’ It is hard to really know a person until you get to know them. The same goes for baseball players. Be open in your mind and in your evaluation process in order to find the outliers and the pioneers of the next generation. They will present themselves and you will see them clearly. They are everywhere.

Love the Game. Live the Dream

Part 1 of a 3 part series

PART 2 – Specific Differences in Hitters – Coming Week of 2/5

PART 3 – Specific Differences in Pitchers and Fielders – Coming Week of 2/12

(Photo via Periodico JT, via the Flickr Creative Commons)

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Costa Rica To Corner Brook: Coach Holmes Returns To “The Rock”

How did you end up in Newfoundland?  Is the first question I get asked when they hear my American accent.

I tell them the truth. I went looking for baseball opportunities as I do every year. There is an online service that my friend David Burns runs called Baseball Jobs Overseas.  If you are a player or coach looking for opportunities outside of the U.S., I highly recommend checking them out. (www.internationalbaseballcommunity.com). His company has placed over 100 players and coaches annually in the past 2 years.

When I first spoke to David he had not used his placement system for 45-year-old coaches with a family and really wasn’t quite sure what the feedback would be. I asked him to use me as a guinea pig and see what turns up. Within a couple of weeks, I had received emails and offers from seven different baseball organizations across the globe. China, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, Indonesia, Switzerland, and Canada. They were all interested in hiring a coach from the U.S with my background and international experience in coaching and scouting. The offers varied in salary and job description.

When I got the email from Corner Brook, Newfoundland I immediately went to Google maps as I did with Lucerne, Switzerland and Jakarta, Indonesia. The images of this small but quaint little town of 20,000 people nestled on the bay of what they call “The Rock” was breathtaking. It looked like a painting of a 19th-century eastern seaboard fishing town. My first thoughts took me to Ireland. The forty shades of green in Tipperary and Kilkenny mirrored that of their neighbors directly across the Atlantic. The tepid waves crashed the rock with cookie cutter houses laced throughout the hills permeating their bright vivid colors against the lush vegetation. I had to see it with my own eyes. When else in my lifetime would I get the opportunity to visit such a remote part of the world and get paid to do what I love to do?

After meeting several times via email and phone with Robert Park, the Director of Minor Baseball in Corner Brook, I was sold. The offer was generous, the job description was perfect and on top of everything I was able to bring my wife and daughter along for the 12-week journey that turned into 16 weeks. Yeah, we were not ready to leave before we witnessed the change of seasons. After spending the past 5 years in Costa Rica where the weather is either HOT or HOT and HUMID our bodies longed for some change in the temperature. It was everything I had expected and more. The people were by far the nicest surprise of the entire experience. Originally a Mid-westerner that migrated to the deep South I can say I have been around very hospitable and generous folks. The citizens of Newfoundland reminded me of that same type of gracious, honest and welcoming persona. I had only been in town less than 24 hours and was invited to three backyard BBQ’s and a  cod jiggin’ fishing trip.

As I mentioned in one radio interview during my stay, this place is ranked in my top 10 as far as beauty and natural landscape in the world. Add the people and I bump it up to my Top 5! Now some of you reading this may be shaking your head at the thought of such a cold and lonely speck on the planet being so highly thought of by someone who has been to places like Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan or Thailand. Well, I am here to tell you. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. Hell, I have met a ton of Canadians that have never even thought of visiting “The Rock”. If you ever get an opportunity I highly recommend taking the trip and while you are there visit Gross Morne National Park or head up to St. Johns and look out over the Atlantic from the furthest Eastern point in North America. Both breathtaking to say the least.

Oh yeah! Don’t forget to get ‘screeched in’. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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Beyond Baseball

The idea for World Baseball Experience stemmed from my experience working with the great group of people at Beyond Sports Costa Rica. If it wasn’t for the owners Grant Leslie and Josh Erickson giving me the opportunity to coach in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama with their study abroad program for student-athletes, I would not have been in the right place at the right time to manage the Costa Rica National Team in the 2013 Central America Games.

I was at the end of a two-year stint covering Nicaragua as a scout for the Texas Rangers in May of 2012. After speaking with Josh and Grant a few times it was all set for me to join them in San Jose as they looked to add baseball to their list of sports offered to college students from the US looking for a study abroad/sports experience.

The program was amazing and was something that peaked my interest immensely. I had to get on board and work with these guys. I spoke to my wife and after very little convincing I was ready to land in CR at the end of May 2012.

Oh yeah did I mention we had a 9-month-old baby at the time? I know, huge life move, to another country with an infant. Crazy! Sold everything we could, donated the rest and kept a few pieces of inherited furniture, boxes of pictures, some baseball memorabilia and stored them in Grandma Maggie’ s garage.

I’ll save that complete story for another blog. We were off.

When I arrived at the head office for Beyond Study Abroad I was greeted with the question from Program Director Grant Leslie. “Nice to meet you in person coach, are you ready to uni up and play?”. I thought he was joking and then quickly realized he was not.

I was given a roster of about 12 players from California, Colorado, New York, Tennessee, North Dakota, Texas, and Minnesota to name a few. All Division III level baseball players with the exception of one DII guy. We were scheduled to have two weeks of practices and a couple of scrimmage games with local teams from San José before venturing across the borders to Nicaragua and then to the beautiful islands of Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

The baseball in Nicaragua and Panama is far superior to the level of play in Costa Rica, as it is their national sport and Costa Ricans or Ticos, as they are referred to, are partial to the sport of fútbol. In order to give these college players a truly unforgettable experience we not only had to show them the beauty of Central America and the cultures that lie within but we also had to provide some strong competition.

 

 

Needless to say, the experience for all involved was life-changing. The boys left with plenty of stories to tell back home about the poverty they saw, the people they met and the joy they witnessed in the faces and spirits of one of the happiest places on Earth.

The baseball was great, but at the end of the day, the relationships that were formed and the memories that were made will be the things that matter 20 years from now.

 

I will never forget the time spent with these players and of course a huge thanks to Josh and Grant.

 

Love the Game. Live the Dream

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World Baseball Experience

World Baseball Experience