Early Commitments Raise Concerns

As College Recruiting Targets Younger And Younger Players, Many Look For A Way To Slow The Process

(Courtesy of Perfect Game)

 

Listed at 6 feet and 215 pounds, Blaze Jordan struck a physical presence as he dug into the batter's box on one of the backfields of the Marlins' complex in Jupiter, Fla. His team, the Jordan and Dulin's Dodgers, were facing off against righthander Jack Anderson and FTB/Giants Scout Team at the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association World Championship with dozens of scouts watching from behind the backstop.

Anderson, a Florida State commit and an intriguing prospect in the 2018 draft class, was running his fastball up to 92 mph. But he hung a breaking ball to Jordan, who pounced on the mistake. With a strong swing, he drove the ball out to left field for a home run.

It was the latest impressive display of power from Jordan. He won the Power Showcase home run derby in January and clubbed a 504-foot home run, two feet farther than Bryce Harper hit in the same event.

Jordan's prolific power displays would stand out if he, like Anderson and most of the rest of players in Jupiter this year, was in the class of 2018. But his power feats are even more impressive because he is a freshman, just beginning his high school career. And he has already been committed to Mississippi State for a year.

"He reminds me a lot of Mookie Betts, who played with us, for his ability to adjust and his temperament, (and) how he goes about his business," coach Tim Dulin said. "He's very gifted from a physical and talent standpoint, but mentally he's years beyond where most kids are at that age."

Jordan, considered one of the best players in the 2021 class, committed to Mississippi State last year, after appearing in Jupiter as an eighth grader. His commitment was the latest in an ongoing trend of younger and younger players being recruited by colleges.

The trend worries many around the game. Up until about 10 years ago, most players picked their college destination as high school seniors, typically after taking a few official visits. Then, they started committing as high school juniors. The process has accelerated even further to underclassmen now routinely committing, a change that has transpired within the last five years, coaches say.

The median commitment date for the top 50 players on Baseball America's high school draft prospects list in 2015 was Oct. 17, 2013. The median commitment date for the top 50 high school players for 2018 was Jan. 18, 2016. In just three years, the typical elite player's recruiting process had sped up nine months, moving his college decision from his junior year, about 13 months before he could sign his national letter of intent, to before his sophomore season even began.

The trend toward earlier and earlier commitments is concerning to most college coaches.

"I think it's ridiculous," Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "The more competitive that college baseball becomes, the more money that's invested—which makes the fragility of jobs increased at the high end programs—that just pushes the envelope on everything. That doesn't make it right—it just is what it is."

"When we got into (coaching), we were recruiting one class," Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said. "Now, we're recruiting four. It hasn't bettered the sport. The same kids will end up at school, we're just competing to get them faster."

"I think what we're doing at this point is insane," UC Santa Barbara coach Andrew Checketts said. "I find it hard to believe that 15-year-olds are mature enough, have been exposed to enough things to make major, life-changing decisions like where you go to school."

The trend to earlier recruiting mirrors what is happening with major league organizations in Latin America, where teams are now reaching agreements with players well in advance of their 16th birthday, when they become eligible to sign pro contracts. And among college sports, it is not a unique problem. Many sports are dealing with similar issues, and they are especially acute in women's sports because girls tend to hit puberty earlier than boys.

Men's and women's lacrosse this year pushed a rule change through the NCAA's legislative process to become the first sport to address the issue head on. The rule, which went into effect immediately, prohibits contact with potential recruits before Sept. 1 of their junior year. For all other sports, the NCAA bars coaches from contacting underclassmen, but they can still receive phone calls, host them on unofficial visits and make scholarship offers.

In the wake of that legislation, baseball is exploring rule changes of its own. The American Baseball Coaches Association in December will bring together 16 coaches in Charlotte to discuss a variety of issues related to early recruiting. Executive director Craig Keilitz said he hopes from that meeting and continuing conversation at the association's convention the following month, they are able to agree on a consensus about whether rule changes are needed and if so, what they might be. The ABCA would then survey the membership to determine what it supports and then proceed to the legislative process.

The coaches invited to the recruiting summit were carefully selected to make sure to have a variety of opinions and kinds of programs represented. Keilitz said the ABCA will not be leading the discussion, but is instead trying to facilitate it so he can support whatever changes, if any, the coaches want.

Baseball America spoke with more than two dozen people in the sport, and it seems clear that there is a desire for change. Coaches around the country can see where the trend is going and are looking for a way to stop it.

"Common sense has to prevail," Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown said. "People on the outside (of college baseball) can't believe recruitment has gotten to that level where it has led to these issues."

 

Perfect Game's Freshman World Wood Bat Association World Championship was first held in 2013. The tournament is a spinoff of its WWBA World Championship held annually in Jupiter that draws hundreds of executives, scouts and college coaches. This year, taking advantage of the new complex built for the Astros and Nationals in Palm Beach, Fla., less than 30 minutes from Jupiter, PG moved the Freshman WWBA to the same weekend as the WWBA World Championship.

With the two tournaments on the same weekend, some college coaches were able to double up on tournaments, particularly when rain washed out most of one day in Jupiter, but play was able to continue in Palm Beach. One recruiting coordinator who coaches at a Power Five school had never before been to a tournament for players that young and was initially worried how his presence would be received at a tournament that was for players in the high school class of 2021. He quickly had his fears assuaged when he got to the field.

"I felt a little weird coming in the gate," he said. "But then I see who's here and it's just like another day (of recruiting)."

Coaches at more than a dozen schools, mostly in Power Five conferences, took in some of the action at the Freshman WWBA. Many schools already have at least one commitment in the 2021 class. Nearly every major college program has multiple 2020 commits.

While recruiting coordinators are working on their 2020 and 2021 classes already, most, if not all, are apprehensive about the practice. They know it is harder on both players and coaches to make informed decisions. The size differential in 14- and 15-year-old boys is significant. While some freshmen, such as Jordan, fit in physically with high school upperclassmen, there was also a lefthander listed at 5-foot-6, 100 pounds, who started a prominent game in Palm Beach. Evaluating players that young can lead to a bias toward players who mature sooner.

Coaches also understand recruiting underclassmen is at least somewhat inefficient—the younger a player is, the more the coach has to project and the more likely it is that a player doesn't develop and ends up decommitting or providing minimal impact in college. But many feel that they have to do it or risk getting left behind in an increasingly competitive landscape.

"In the conversations I've had, I don't think there's anybody who likes it," Schlossnagle said. "But there's not a whole lot you can do about it, at least individually as a program, until we do something as an industry."

Collectively, there are a few strategies baseball could take to curb early recruiting. The rules could be changed to follow the lacrosse model and prohibit contact with recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. The recruiting calendar could be changed, decreasing the amount of time coaches can spend on the road, forcing them to focus more on upperclassmen. Or baseball could lift its gentleman's agreement to not recruit already committed players, making for a recruiting environment more like football, where flipping commitments is common. If players regularly flipped, there would be less of a rush to secure commitments only to have to fight to hold on to the recruit for three or four years.

Each potential path has its own shortcomings, but the lacrosse model has many proponents. Coaches are not eager to start recruiting committed players, a practice they generally regard as indecent. Simply changing the recruiting calendar may not go far enough to curb the trend.

The lacrosse model has its own drawbacks. It could create a Sept. 1 bidding war for the best players, making the already difficult process of balancing 11.7 scholarships even harder. Perhaps more importantly, even its supporters question its enforceability. Camps would still be allowed and there is little way to monitor conversations that take place in that environment. And, while it would be prohibited, coaches could still easily get word to recruits through travel ball coaches or other third parties. Ultimately, much of the enforcement of the rule would lie on the coaches to police themselves.

When lacrosse's rule changes were passed, the NCAA did not indicate what penalty would be assessed for violating them. Multiple baseball coaches expressed concern that minor penalties would not be enough to stop early recruiting and some would like to see the penalties include scholarship reduction.

"People have responded, 'You can't regulate cheaters,' " Bianco said. "I know, but we have to compete against them."

Schlossnagle and Checketts support the lacrosse model, but also would like to see it accompanied by a reduced recruiting calendar. Both have drafted their own revised calendars with the goal of reducing the amount of time coaches can spend on the road. Among the ideas are to create a recruiting dead period during the College World Series, which would match how other sports handle the period surrounding their championship event and enable coaches not involved in the CWS to get a break following the season, as well as lengthening the fall quiet period and adding dead periods around holidays.

"If we have enough time to evaluate freshmen and eighth graders, we have too much time to recruit," Checketts said.

"College baseball coaches could do a lot better job of dictating their schedule, and we could also focus on coaching our own team and developing players at a better rate than we do now if we weren't so concerned with running off every weekend in the fall," Schlossnagle said. "I think we're starting to create a breed of assistant coach that is all about recruiting and not about coaching and developing young people."

No matter what rule changes are passed, part of the onus to slow down the recruiting process falls on coaches themselves. But many of them have come to the conclusion that they need help to do so.

 

Players speed through their recruiting process for a variety of reasons. Some are eager to accept an offer to play at their dream school. Some feel pressure from schools to make a decision. Some see players they know committing and believe they need to lest they get left behind. Some are afraid they won't ever get another offer.

For those players and parents, who typically have never been through the recruiting process before, it is difficult not to jump at early offers. Former All-Star righthander Ben Sheets now runs Sheets Baseball Academy in his home state of Louisiana. Many boys there grow up dreaming of playing in Alex Box Stadium and when Louisiana State comes calling, they are eager to commit. But childhood dreams don't always lead to the best college experiences, especially when considering off-field aspects.

"It's hard to tell a kid he doesn't want to go to LSU," Sheets said. "If everything's right, that's where he wants to go. Is it a fit for everyone? That's what I'm trying to tell them. LSU isn't the fit for everybody. I went to (Louisiana-Monroe) and that's not the fit for everybody. To decide what your future holds at 14 or 15 is difficult, I think, personally. All the bells and whistles and the glitter, that all wears off eventually and it comes down to how do you fit on this team and are you going to play?"

Joe Gray, who ranked No. 28 in the high school class going into the fall, was patient throughout the recruiting process and committed to Ole Miss in January, one year after the median commitment date for the 2018 class.

Gray said he wanted to take his time to learn about the programs recruiting him so that he could make as informed of a decision as possible. He said he wouldn't have known as much about the schools if he had committed as a freshman or a sophomore.

"I would have gone in blind," he said. "You look at so many kids, they commit so early and they get to their junior, senior year and they decommit, and it's because they don't really know as much as they need to know before they got into that school."

Bianco has seen recruiting change significantly since he took over the Ole Miss program in 2001, let alone beginning his career a decade earlier as an assistant coach at Northwestern State. It wasn't until 2004 that he offered a scholarship to a player that wasn't a senior and he remembers that required Dan McDonnell, then his recruiting coordinator, twisting his arm "several times."

Now, Bianco is going through the recruiting process not just as a coach, but also as a parent. He will not coach any of his three sons, a decision he and his wife made long ago to make it possible for their children to get a more normal college experience. Ben Bianco, the oldest of the brothers, is a freshman at Louisville. Drew, a senior at Oxford High, is committed to LSU. Sam, a sophomore at Oxford, might end up as the best of the trio and remains uncommitted.

Bianco's inside knowledge of the recruiting process gives him an advantage when helping guide his sons through their college decision. His advice to other parents is to not start visiting schools until their son is ready to commit.

"If you're not ready to start making decisions, you're probably better to not start visiting schools yet," he said. "If you're ready to take that on, if it's a school want to go to, I don't see anything wrong with that. It's the ones that aren't ready to make a decision and now you start to draw it out."

Some kids may need to wait until they're older before they are ready to make a college decision. But some know early on. Blaze Jordan knew he had found the right place when he visited Mississippi State last year as an eighth grader. Mississippi State was not the only school interested in Jordan last fall and it was not the only place he visited. But none of them felt the same way Starkville did.

"When I did go to other places, I thought I could have gone there, but it didn't feel like a home like Mississippi State did," he said. "I knew I'd fit in."

Jordan is Mississippi State’s only 2021 commit so far. But even for a player as talented as him, there are perils to such an early commitment. He has been competing against older competition for years and his power will likely play in the Southeastern Conference. Still, he has plenty of growth and development as a player to go. And just in the brief window of his recruitment, Mississippi State went through a coaching change, when John Cohen was promoted to athletic director and hired Andy Cannizaro as his successor. While Cannizaro seems to be on a path to success in Starkville, leading the Bulldogs to super regionals in his first season despite a rash of injuries, the college baseball coaching carousel is now spinning faster than ever. What the next four years hold for both Jordan and the Bulldogs is full of unknowns.

Whether Jordan becomes one of the last middle school players to commit to a college or if his recruitment becomes more typical remains to be seen. But he's ready to put the work in to keep improving on the diamond, preparing himself to play in Dudy Noble Field.

In 2022.

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