You have the desire. You have the run-through-a-wall-to-win attitude that could help a team. And you're not some wanna-be whose baseball career ended when you graduated from high school. You played four years of college ball, didn't get drafted but want to continue your baseball career.
Here's some bad news; independent baseball probably doesn't have a job for you.
It's a simple numbers game. What was always a long shot has become a much longer shot. The United League, a long-time reliable home of dozens of indy ball rookies, shut down in the offseason. Several prospective fledgling leagues announced plans for 2015 only to quickly shut down as well. Those that did begin shut down almost as quickly as they started.
Almost no player jumps straight from college baseball to the Atlantic League. So that leaves the Pecos League and Pacific Association out West, the Frontier League and the American Association in the Midwest and the Can-Am League on the East Coast.
There are very, very few rookie jobs in those leagues. Take the American Association, Can-Am and Frontier Leagues. Allowing for in-season turnover there are roughly 200-250 jobs for rookies a year, according to estimates of managers and player personnel directors from the leagues. Add in the Pecos and Pacific Association and you might have another 150-200 jobs. When you add together Division I, Division II, Division III, junior colleges and NAIA schools, there are as many college baseball teams as there are rookie jobs.
And being as good as a veteran isn’t enough to win a job. A more athletic 22-year-old shortstop might not be able to push aside a less rangy 27-year-old with five years of track record. There is a natural bias toward the known current player versus the unknown rookie.
“Indy managers are hired and fired for wins and losses," said Nick Belmonte, player procurement director for the Ottawa Champions. “They will keep a guy who they have had there and they know what they are getting. It helps them keep their job as opposed to giving a new guy a shot."
So know that the chances are slim, but for those who want to play in independent baseball, here's what you need to know to try land one of those rare jobs.
Most independent league players have affiliated baseball experience. Teams prefer to sign minor leaguers who showed at some point they were draftable players. By being drafted, a player has already passed a very verifiable test–a team thought they were good enough to play professional ball. That’s the kind of confirmation that makes an indy ball manager’s job a lot easier.
But for those who don't have affiliated time, there are two normal paths to indy ball: a scout's recommendation, or impressing someone at a tryout camp or in an offseason winter league.
Your college career is your resume. The vast majority of indy ball rookies were typically among the best players on their college team and usually some of the better players in their conference.
“Our first baseman Jarrud Sabourin, he's the all-time hits leader at Indiana. That's who I'm looking for. I'm not looking for the guy who played American Legion ball," Southern Illinois manager Mike Pinto said.
Before any indy ball player is signed, managers are going to check the stats.
It's a sliding scale. Throw 95-plus with a lively fastball? A 10.00 ERA at an NAIA school might be forgiven (one-time Lincoln closer Marshall Schuler actually posted a 10.01 ERA at the Colorado School of Mines, but then he did play affiliated ball). Throw 85-87 mph with precise command but no plus pitch? That sub-2.00 ERA and quality strikeout-to-walk ratio better have come from a top Division I program.
“If you're a rookie and you don't have a direct contact to one of the baseball procurement people, everything is based on numbers," Evansville Otters manager Andy McCauley said.
Right away this disqualifies many players with indy ball dreams. Every coach, manager and player personnel director has heard many a player begin their sales pitch with “but…" They've heard all the stories. The college coach who buried you on the bench. The bad outing that expanded your ERA. The lack of quality instruction that kept you from unlocking your full potential. The injury that held you back.
None of it matters. They aren't looking for projects who might turn into something two or three years down the road.
“I can't wait for them to develop," Pinto said. “We can't start from scratch with a player."
How To Contact A Coach
Pinto estimates he gets at least 10 emails a day from prospective players. Most are quickly shuffled to his trash folder. It's not that Pinto enjoys crushing dreams, but most emails don't give him the information he needs.
Don't spend paragraphs gushing about your love of the game, everyone does that. Feel free to tell the prospective manager that you'll work hard, but that isn't going to get you a call or a job.
Do send a clickable link to your college stats (or even better your pro stats if you were released by an affiliated team). Do include the name and contact information for your college coach. Have an area scout who saw you and liked you? That's even better. Include their names and ideally their contact information as well.
You need to make the job of the manager or player personnel director as easy as possible. And it's vital to be able to provide the name of an impartial evaluator who can vouch for your ability.
“(That kind of email) means I can easily then text the scout and ask, 'Have you seen this guy?' " Pinto said.
Nowadays, many players will include video of their swing or their pitching delivery in hopes that it will add to their resume. It's not a bad idea, but if you want to stand out, send a copy of a game broadcast. An edited video of a player's best swings or 10 perfect pitches from a bullpen session doesn't demonstrate nearly as much as video of the same player in actual game action where an evaluator can see the good and the bad.
Area scouts are a great resource. If you have a scout for an affiliated team that turned you in as a draftable player, he could be your best ally. A recommendation from an experienced evaluator can open a lot of doors.
But even if they didn't turn you in as a draftable player, a conversation with a scout who has seen you play can still be very valuable. Ask for an honest assessment. If they tell you things to work on, work on them. If they tell you that you aren't a professional player, thank them for their input.
And then you might want to look at other career options. Indy ball isn't for everyone.
Mastering The Tryout
Whether it's a 400-person cattle call at the Frontier League open tryout or a smaller tryout, players need to understand that only the loudest tools will stand out. If you're a below-average runner with a fringy arm but a solid swing, you're going to have trouble getting noticed. At many tryouts you may never even get to swing a bat.
“Say you have bad numbers in college, you better do something at a tryout to stand out. Run a 6.6 60-yard-dash or show a plus arm from right field. As an infielder show hands, good actions and range," McCauley said.
At the more expensive tryout camps, you will get a better chance to show what you can do over a longer period of time, but even then, it's all about the tools. Feel for the game isn’t going to get you signed nearly as easily as a tangible standout tool. You have to demonstrate to teams that you are an asset with some sort of game-ready ability.
The pay-to-play winter leagues offer a different approach. There you get to play over a lengthy period of time, which may be enough to make a well-rounded player stand out in a way a showcase can’t. But even there, you’re spending significant money ($2,500+ in many cases) in the hopes that someone will sign you to a $600 a month contract. Financially, it makes no sense, but when it comes to baseball, logic isn’t really a part of the equation—it’s all about chasing a dream.
In many cases, it’s hard to realize that the dream is over. We’re talking about players who have made baseball their focus for 10-15 years in many cases, spending thousands of dollars on instructors and summer travel ball teams. It's hard to come to the realization that there is no payoff at the end of the road. It’s easier to believe that you’re that hidden gem who just hasn’t been spotted.
Unfortunately the unnoticed budding baseball star is usually mythological.
“You weren't overlooked," McCauley said. “If you are playing at a D-III, NAIA or a junior college, they will see you. This isn't just where you go to after college."