On Sunday I was on the road by 7am, heading south on the turnpike from the Lehigh Valley. While I was over to pick up my fiancé (I was going to drop her off in the city to see friends) I ran into her little sister who was up early, GameBoy in hand, the unmistakable Pokemon soundtrack blaring from its tiny speakers. She was desperately trying to get deep into the Safari Zone (before her time in there ran out) where the chances of her stumbling upon rare Pokemon dramatically increased.
That day, I spent about eight hours taking diligent notes in a freezing cold fieldhouse at the Under Armour National Baseball Tryouts at Swarthmore College. The frigid, finger numbing temperatures of the gym were actually a welcome respite from the harsh baseball winter we in Pennsylvania are forced to endure. On a day when the sort of talent I’m used to looking at was scarce nay, non-existent, there was plenty to learn about what it means to play and work in baseball in the Philadelphia area. It’s an undertaking of tedium and patience certainly worth sharing.
First, I need to explain what the Under Armour Baseball Factory is all about. The Baseball Factory provides a stage on which young baseball players can display their skill set. Players attend the workout and are put through your standard pro style gauntlet; a sixty yard dash, throwing velocity measurements, defensive drills and work in the cage. During all of this, the young men are evaluated and may ultimately be invited onto the Under Armour National Team roster, where they’d receive the most exposure. If not, they can also pay for an online video package that they can send to college coaches in hopes of being noticed.
The fact that this is mostly a pay to play program creates a sub-optimal evaluation environment. Economically disadvantaged youth is less likely to participate in such a program (you can pay $99 just to work out or $499 for the video package and webpage which looks like THIS ) which limits the talent pool. Sadly, the athletes that can’t afford to pay for the video package are also the kids who most need the scholarship money one can acquire from impressing college coaches with such a tryout, especially when baseball money is incredibly scarce because the sport generates no revenue for most schools. Of the approximately 60 athletes I had a look at on Sunday, only two were black.
But the socioeconomic hurdles inherent in amateur baseball are far too intricate and labyrinthial for me to sort through on my own. I can, however, scout the hell out of some local high schoolers for you.
Let me first remind you that talent here is scarce. Of all the kids I saw, maybe one will have his name called on a future draft day. I do not envy those whose task it is to scout our section of the country. Our weather conditions limit baseball development which means there’s less talent to see. Less talent means teams see no reason to spend money pumping a dry well which means they keep scouting staffs small in our region. Most northeast area scouts cover four or five states. It’s an insane schedule. The weather also shortens our amateur calendars, which means area scouts need to cover those five states in the country’s shortest time span. This limits the number of looks a scout can get at a kid which leaves them less confident about a player’s abilities than they would be if they had seen them multiple times. Are you starting to see why Mike Trout didn’t go until the latter half of the first round?
Let’s talk about some of the kids. My favorite was lean, tall, right handed pitcher Russell Rhoads from Episcopal Academy in Brookhaven. Just a junior, Rhoads sat 82-83mph with the fastball and touched 85mph on Baseball Prospectus writer Hudson Belinsky’s gun. Rhoads has the frame to add strength and weight and maybe some velocity. He’s quite athletic and has impressive command for his age, not only of his fastball but of his secondary offerings as well. Both his upper 60s curveball and mid-70s changeup show promise and advanced refinement for someone so young. This is someone to watch for sure and someone I might seek out for another look in the future.
The other arm I liked quite a bit was attached to the shoulder of RHP Ben Deaver. Deaver made the drive up from Towson Maryland to show off what was, for my money, the best secondary pitch of the workout in an explosive 12-6 curveball. Deaver sat in the low 80s with his fastball, touched 83mph. He too has some physical projection left but not as much as Rhoads. A senior, Deaver is committed to Rider University.
The other two players that caught my eye did so with their legs. Both players ran sixty yard dashes below seven seconds in a workout where speed was scarce. The fastest of the day was run by William Tennant High School (Warminster, PA) shortstop Brett Kozlowski. Kozlowski needs refinement in skill areas but the speed tool is a loud one. Some mechanical adjustments could be made to squeeze more out of his arm and defense as a whole.
The better all around player, for me, was Methacton High School shortstop (Audobon, PA), Kyle Lowery who is the son of Phillies associate area scout, Ed Lowery. Lowery ran well but showed impressive defensive polish and the best bat speed of the workout. There were also several interesting young catchers who had average-ish MLB pop times as well.
I hope these kids (and really all of the kids at the workout) can parlay this experience into some college money for themselves to lighten the burden of whatever college loans they may or may not incur. I’ll likely head to at least one more event of this ilk during the winter to see what else is out there. For now, I’ll just continue to admire the mileage scouts put on their odometers in search of rare baseball talent in our area the same way I admire my future little sister-in-law’s pursuit of Kangaskhan is a sea of Nidoran.
(Huge thanks to Will Bach at Baseball Factory for letting Hudson and I invade the facility and to Hudson for giving me someone to talk to for hours about baseball, hours that otherwise would have been spent listening to old UP & In episodes on my phone while I scouted)