During Unprecedented Summer League Season, Players’ Goals Are Unchanged

Image credit: Opening Day in the San Diego League (Photo courtesy of the San Diego League)

Summer leagues are traditionally an important part of the college baseball calendar, giving players an opportunity to get more games under their belt, learn a new position or simply challenge themselves against premium competition.

But this is an unprecedented summer in an unprecedented college baseball season that was thrown into disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The traditional summer ball hierarchy—USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team putting together an all-star squad, the Cape Cod League serving as a summer home to the best players, the Northwoods League providing important developmental opportunities for young players, etc.—was upended by cancellations and caution. There is no CNT or Cape Cod League this summer and many players opted to play in leagues close to their home or college rather than traveling across the country to play.

As the virus continues to spread, summer ball this week got a stark reminder of the challenges of playing during a pandemic. The Northwoods League’s pod playing in Traverse City, Mich., was forced to pause and reassess its season Sunday after “players on the teams” tested positive for COVID-19. After another round of testing and revised protocols, the teams hope to resume the season Friday.

In an uncertain summer unlike any other, what are players hoping to get out of this season and how are their college coaches evaluating their progress?

For the most part, the players who decided to play this summer have the same goals as they always do in summer ball. They want to make up for the at bats and innings they missed when the season was canceled in March. They have individual developmental goals—improving a changeup or refining their defense, for instance—and want to use this time to get better.

Cal Poly infielder Tate Samuelson originally wasn’t slated to play this summer. But once the spring season was canceled, the junior signed on with San Luis Obispo in the California Collegiate League. The CCL eventually canceled its season as well, leading Samuelson, a San Diego native, to the San Diego League.

At Cal Poly, Samuelson has split his time between first and third base but has primarily been a first baseman. This summer, he’s playing third base in an effort to improve his defense at the position. But, mostly, he’s just happy to be playing.

“I’m getting defensive reps at third, specifically,” he said. “The at bats, too. We’re one of the only leagues playing. Getting those at bats against live arms—good DI arms—you can’t beat it.”

Florida State outfielder Robby Martin before the pandemic was slated to return to Cotuit with the Cape Cod League, where he played last summer. After the Cape’s season was canceled, he wasn’t sure what to do or if there would even be a summer season. Eventually, he made a late decision to play for the Orlando Scorpions in the Florida League, joining his Florida State outfield-mate Reese Albert on the roster.

Martin said this summer will help him in a variety of ways.

“I’m getting more reps after not playing a whole season,” he said. “I’m working on things I think I need to work on and showcase more of what I maybe haven’t done during the season at school.

“I’m trying to showcase more of what I can do as well as get more reps.”

College coaches said they mostly gave their players going into summer ball similar instructions to what they always do. Some players are there to improve or refine specific things. Some simply need the reps.

“It depends on who you are or where you are in your baseball life,” Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said. “Some guys are playing summer ball that weren’t playing much in the abbreviated season and some guys were everyday players. It’s kind of an individual thing. I don’t think there’s that much different from a normal year in that respect.”

While the mindset hasn’t changed much for players that are playing this summer, the environment around them has. There are fewer premium players in summer leagues and they are much more spread out, instead of being concentrated on Team USA or the Cape. About 40 percent of the top 50 players in the 2021 draft class are playing in summer leagues. In a typical year, that number is around 80 or 90 percent.

In some ways, that changes the way players can be evaluated in the summer as they face more uneven competition. But coaches and scouts alike are not expecting players to return from a three-month shutdown in mid-season form.

“You’re limited in what summer is,” Bianco said. “You’ve got all these different leagues and kids are choosing to either play or not and get in the weight room and summer school. Now, we just want them doing something. If that’s in the Northwoods League, great. If you’re here locally in Jackson, Miss., and you’re playing a couple times a week, that’s awesome.

“But the other thing is we have handful of guys who are here. We’ve had anywhere from 9-12 current players here since June 8 and we have 12 incoming frosh here, so we have 20 guys here in the weight room, hitting in the cages, throwing and doing their stuff.”

While summer ball is important developmentally, summer ball statistics are not necessarily indicative of spring performance. Florida State coach Mike Martin Jr. roomed with Todd Helton in 1994 when they played on the Cape. Helton, famously, did not hit a home run that summer (though he did win the home run derby).

That experience, as well as nearly 25 years spent as a college coach seeing how players have responded to summer ball, has led Martin Jr. not to get too caught up in summer ball statistics in any year, and especially not this year.

“It’s just one of those things,” he said. “I want guys hitting the books and to see the transformation of bodies.”

Summer ball may not look like it usually does—and with good reason. But for the players, some things have absolutely not changed.

They’re excited about the opportunity to get back out on the diamond and refine their skills. But they’re also excited about the chance to compete.

“My No. 1 goal is to win—nothing beats winning,” Samuelson said. “Going out, creating relationship with these guys and winning is what will make that the best. For myself, continuing to get better at the plate and continue to get reps at third base.

“Just continue to get better.”

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