College Baseball Recruiting Has Gone Online, But It Hasn't Slowed Down
Sitting in his home office this summer, a recruiting coordinator pulled up a live stream feed for a game that featured a player he was recruiting. Just as the player came to bat for the first time, the internet feed glitched and went out. It came back moments later and the player was standing on second base.
A couple innings later, the player was back up to bat. The feed was working well this time and the camera was positioned to show the at bat from the player’s open side. Only this time, the on-deck batter stood in front of the camera to warm up, obscuring the view.
“(The batter) ends up on third so I guess he did something good, but I didn’t see the swing at all,” the recruiting coordinator said. “Stuff like that is frustrating.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee on March 13 instituted a recruiting dead period, the day after the NCAA canceled the College World Series and all other winter and spring sports championships. That dead period – during which in-person contact with recruits and off-campus recruiting is prohibited – has since been extended multiple times and will last through at least Aug. 31.
As a result, recruiting has gone virtual this summer.
Instead of college coaches traveling across the country to watch players in person at events like Perfect Game’s WWBA national championship or Prep Baseball Report’s Futures Games and the slew of showcases and tournaments that make up the summer evaluation period, they are watching the events from home on live streams. Instead of recruits visiting schools, either to take part in camps or for an unofficial visit, they are learning about the programs they are interested in through FaceTime conversations and virtual facility and campus tours.
“Who knew it would be more difficult to get from field to field in Atlanta and building your schedule the night before than pulling up live streams?” one recruiting coordinator said. “You’ve got Periscope, PlaySight, FloSports. You’ve got to have 10 different log ins and passwords. What time zone is it in?
“You’re not sitting outside sweating bullets, which is nice. But you never know what kind of angle you’re going to get. If you’re looking at a position player, you finally get a ground ball to him and the camera angle cuts out. It’s fairly easy to see at bats, but sometimes the camera is up at the top of the press box or too low and then the umpire and the catcher are in the way. It’s a big operation.”
Converting the traditional recruiting process to a virtual one has at times been clunky. Seemingly every coach has a similar anecdote to the first recruiting coordinator – glitchy internet, a camera knocked out of position and now showing the concession stand instead of the game, feeds effectively rendered useless because of a poor angle, really just about anything that can go wrong with a DIY broadcast. It’s just another part of an unprecedented year in college baseball. And while coaches aren’t thrilled about the arrangement, they understand why they’re not being allowed out on the road to recruit and are doing their best to adapt to the situation.
Recruiting Goes Online
Once the dead period was extended through June, event companies and tournament operators sprang into action to make sure their events would be available on live streams. It is an important part of their sales pitch – part of the reason to play in many showcases and tournaments is for the exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. If college coaches aren’t allowed on the road to watch games (though junior college coaches are) and pro teams are limited to three scouts per event (and some teams have scaled back scouting this summer due to budget cuts and health-related concerns), providing a live stream ensures there is still an opportunity to be seen.
But not all live streams are equal. The broadcast at PG National was universally praised by coaches. The showcase was held at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, the home of the SEC Tournament, and it made use of a stadium that is setup for high-end broadcasts, using multiple camera angles and a broadcast team.
“PG National was almost like watching a major league game with some of the production,” one recruiting coordinator said.
PBR also earns praise for its live stream from the LakePoint complex in Atlanta using PlaySight. Coaches have also been impressed by FloSports, which some tournaments have used.
“LakePoint is really good,” another recruiting coordinator said. “They have a high home camera, a center field camera and you can go backwards a few seconds and watch things over.
“PG National was like a live broadcast, zooming in, using different angels. That’s the best of the best. FloSports isn’t bad either. But sometimes you’re getting these Periscopes from the stands.”
Even if the livestream isn’t professional quality, coaches agree that some video, even bad video, is better than no video. So, they keep watching the feeds. Some are being judicious about what they tune into, mindful of the limitations of a livestream. Others, however, are watching as much as they can and have outfitted their office with a second monitor or TV to watch it all.
Players this summer are getting scholarship offers out of the events and live streams. In most cases, coaches say the offers they are sending are to players they were already recruiting and who they saw play live last summer or fall. For those players, they can watch for specific improvements and then act on what they see.
But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, seeing a player on a live stream, combined with talking to his current coaches or other sources and applying whatever data – TrackMan, Rapsodo, Blast Motion, etc. – is available is enough for a coach to make an offer. As the dead period has gotten longer and longer, some staffs are getting more comfortable doing that.
One mid-major recruiting coordinator with about a dozen offers out said half were to players they had not yet seen play in person.
“We were trying to delay until we could get out and see players,” he said. “But when we couldn’t get out at all this summer, we felt like had to offer.”
Other staffs are remaining firm about not offering players that they haven’t seen live.
“We haven’t offered a player we haven’t seen yet,” one recruiting coordinator at a Power Five conference school said. “I think recruiting is so much more than see ball, hit ball and pick up ball, throw ball. How are they interacting with their teammates and coaches? Do they have leadership qualities? It’s tough to tell when you’re not there in person and able to use all senses, being able to hear and stuff.”
No matter how many offers a coach has made this summer, there is a consensus about what they’re missing by not seeing players in person. Makeup and leadership are virtually impossible to scout from a live stream. Some coaches like to watch players in the dugout to see how they react to an error or strikeout and to see how engaged they are. Seeing body language is also a challenge as players are often off camera.
“There’s a lot of value in sitting there and seeing how he interacts with his teammates and does he backup the ball?” another Power Five recruiting coordinator said. “Those things are things there is no metric for and things you need to see with your eye.
“A 60 (yard dash) time? I can dang near nail it on video. A breaking ball? I can see that on Rapsodo. Makeup? That’s the one thing you can’t measure right now from where we’re at.”
The next most common complaint about what you miss on a live stream is the ability to watch players on defense. Even on an average MLB broadcast that isn’t easy. The camera doesn’t always show how a player is lined up before the pitch or the route a defender takes to the ball. On a live stream it’s even tougher. The camera is focused on the pitcher and hitter and doesn’t always track batted balls well or quickly. Gauging speed and baserunning ability are both just about out of the question as well.
There’s also the trouble that not every game and event is getting live streamed. It’s impossible to know what players are getting lost because they aren’t performing in a setting where they can be seen, but it is undoubtably happening.
“It’s almost like everyone is watching the same live streams,” one recruiting coordinator said. “But not every game in the summer is live streamed. These aren’t all the best players in the country. These are just the ones on live stream.”
The campus visit is also a critical part of recruiting, as it gives the recruit and his family a chance to get familiar with the staff, program and school all at once. But during the dead period, with in-person contact not allowed, those have had to go virtual as well.
Some programs have developed impressive online packages with a rich multimedia experience to give recruits a feel for the program. FaceTime walk-throughs of the stadium and facility are also popular – but with every school operating under different restrictions about coaches being on campus and in their offices, even walk-throughs aren’t easy.
“We’ve been under pretty strict lockdown, so we have to be sneaky, smarter about doing it,” one recruiting coordinator said. “I know there are some coaches that have been in offices the entire time, but we haven’t. We have to get them strategically lined up so we can do them.”
Largely, however, coaches have successfully incorporated FaceTime and Zoom calls into their recruiting efforts. No one would argue that they are substitutes for face-to-face communication and normal campus visits and tours, but they are a solid alternative during this strange summer.
“We’ve been able to do some cool things from virtual tour side,” one recruiting coordinator said. “We can showcase what we feel like is our niche, why we feel like we have some success.”
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Eventually, the recruiting dead period will end. Whether that’s this fall or sometime in 2021, coaches will eventually get back on the road and resume in-person recruiting. When that time comes, what will the recruiting environment look like?
While some might have expected the recruiting process to slow down this summer, the feeling around the sport is there have been about as many commitments as usual. This summer has also failed to reverse the trend of players committing earlier in their high school careers.
Because of those two trends, there is now an expectation that over the next couple years there will be more de-commitments than ever before. The de-commitments are likely to be initiated by both sides—coaches who get to see players live and realize that they made a mistake in their initial evaluation off live streams, and players who are able to spend more time around a program, school and staff and realize it isn’t the fit they thought it was from afar.
“I think these ‘23 and ‘24 classes will be most de-committed classes you’ve seen in your life,” one recruiting coordinator said.
Several coaches speculated about another reason there could be more de-commitments in the years to come: recruit flipping. The practice of actively recruiting a player who is verbally committed to another school has long been common in football. Baseball coaches, in contrast, have generally upheld a gentlemen’s agreement not to recruit committed players, though that agreement has shown cracks in recent years.
The extended dead period could be a catalyst for a sea change, however. If a coach did not have the opportunity to see a player live before he committed to another school, will the coach steer clear or will he act like any commitment made during the dead period is a soft one? If it happens, there will be no committee meeting or official proclamation that the gentlemen’s agreement has been tossed aside. It will just become apparent that baseball coaches are no longer treating verbally committed players like they are off limits.
While some coaches prefer the status quo, there are many who wouldn’t mind the change and believe it would serve to slow down the recruitment of high school underclassmen, reasoning that there would be little point in committing a freshman or sophomore only to have to continue recruiting him for the next 3-4 years make sure he remained firm in his commitment.
While those effects won’t be apparent for another couple years, coaches do expect some of the lessons they’ve learned during the dead period to resonate once they’re allowed back on the road.
Many programs and individual coaches have used the shutdown as a chance to improve their use of data and technology in several areas, including recruiting. Without the opportunity to scout recruits in person, the ability to gather and analyze data from TrackMan, Rapsodo and Blast has helped to deepen coaches’ understanding of recruits. Now that those advancements have been made, they won’t be forgotten when in-person evaluations resume.
One Power Five recruiting coordinator said his program has previously used Rapsodo and Blast extensively on campus but didn’t incorporate it into recruiting. That, he said, will change going forward.
“We’ve done it in camps but never outside of that,” he said. “Why we haven’t is not really smart.”
Like many people around the country, coaches have also gotten very familiar with Zoom and other video calling services during the shutdown. Communication has always been an important tool in recruiting, but they’ve been even more focused on it this because it is one of the few things they can do. Zoom and FaceTime have helped coaches develop stronger relationships with the whole family.
Coaches have also spent more time talking with the high school and travel ball coaches of the players they are recruiting to get a better sense of the player because they can’t see them in person. That step is always an important part of recruiting, but where a coach might have only talked to one or two of a recruit’s coaches before, they may this summer be talking to four or five.
All those skills will likely continue to be important because, at least in the short term as college sports works through a challenging financial situation, it is likely that recruiting budgets at many schools, especially mid- and low-majors, will shrink. That could mean less travel and more time watching live streams, even once in-person evaluation is again allowed.
“I think a lot of the video feeds will continue on,” one recruiting coordinator said. “There’s no telling what budgets will be, so maybe you can’t just fly all over the place. Maybe instead of flying across the country you can pay a little bit of money to watch the live feeds.”
Finding more efficient ways of doing things will also be critical in that kind of environment. The lessons of this summer may be helpful to that end, as coaches learn how to better incorporate video and data services into their recruiting processes.
“We’ve all been guilty in the past,” another recruiting coordinator said. “We were go, go, go. Now, we’re finding more time researching, and working smarter not harder. It used to be every event that you knew 5-6 kids were at, you went. Now, maybe you just pull up the live stream and the data.”
Recruiting coordinators are still going full bore this summer, even with the restrictions and challenges presented by a unique situation. There’s no playbook for how to handle the virtual recruiting world they’re living in, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to figure it out on the fly.
So, they’re opening as many live streams as they can and diving into the data, trying to find the next great players for their program.
“This is the only way we can work,” one recruiting coordinator said. “We’re all competitive, we’re all workers. We’re not going to not work, that’s not the way any of us are built.”