Recruiting Talk Dominates ABCA ConventionNews
INDIANAPOLIS — Most of the discussion at the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association convention this weekend was centered around potential changes to the recruiting calendar. As we detailed last month, 16 Division I coaches met for a recruiting summit in Charlotte on Dec. 5, and the ABCA then surveyed D-I coaches on the recommendations made at the summit.
The survey results overwhelmingly supported the addition of three new dead periods in the recruiting calendar: from May 22-June 3 (79.6 percent of head coaches in favor, 84 percent of assistant coaches in favor); from June 15-17 (76.9 percent of head coaches, 81 percent of assistants); and July 3-5 (79.6 percent of head coaches, 86.1 percent of assistants). The goal is to improve the quality of coaches’ lives by giving them more time at home, and also to give them more time on campus with their current players, and to allow coaches to enjoy the first weekend of the College World Series — the sport’s premier showcase event.
In addition, 87 percent of head coaches and assistant coaches support the extension of the end-of-summer quiet period from 18 days to 25 days, which will allow assistants to be on campus for early fall workouts and skills work when players arrive on campus. Coaches were a bit more divided about a proposal to begin the fall/winter quiet period three weeks earlier (mid-October instead of the early signing period in November). But 66 percent of head coaches still supported that notion, and 74.7 percent of assistants did as well. Part of the rationale behind that proposed change is that it would encourage high school prospects to shut down earlier in the fall for much-needed rest and arm care.
And ultimately, that’s one of the best things college baseball can do for the good of the game overall. Arm injuries have become more and more common during the era of year-round travel ball, and it has become common for people in baseball to blame the never-ending showcase circuit for leading to more injuries. But rather than bemoan the demands of the showcase circuit, college baseball has an opportunity to steer the schedule constructively. If coaches are out on the road recruiting less often, there will be much less incentive for high school players to compete all year long. And that will be a good thing for baseball at all levels — especially if the leaders of college baseball can reach out to Major League Baseball and get scouts to stay away from events scheduled for times of the year when players should be resting.
With the support of the coaches, those changes to the recruiting calendar seem likely to pass. Some coaches at the Division I business meeting questioned whether the changes were being pushed too hastily, but ABCA executive director Craig Keilitz argued that the time is right to take action.
“We’ve been complaining about this for 10 years, 15 years, we’ve got to do something,” Keilitz said. We came up with, we thought, a very good plan, and the numbers support it — the lowest possible in favor of it was 67 percent. We’ll never get 80, 90, 100 percent on some of these issues, so 67 percent is very solid. If you look at the recruiting model for baseball, compared with football, basketball and the other sports, we’re killing ourselves. Coaches out 300-plus days a year because of our recruiting calendar.”
Coaches Debate Early Recruiting
The other major topic of debate was about early recruiting. Currently, college players can’t make official visits until the fall of their senior year of high school, and they can’t sign an official letter of intent until that November. But in practice, many players make verbal commits much, much earlier — sometimes as early as their freshman year, or even eighth grade. Many coaches believe this process has gotten out of hand, because it encourages young players to make major decisions before they’re truly mature enough to make them, and because it results in teams essentially giving early recruits a “try out” and then cutting them loose if they don’t develop as hoped.
I spoke to some other coaches this week who argued that there’s nothing wrong with players making those decisions at a young age, and that it should be up to their parents to determine whether or not the players are mature enough to commit as 14-year-olds. But anecdotally, most coaches I spoke with seem to support curtailing the early recruiting, in the interest of “cleaning up the game,” as UCLA coach John Savage put it during the D-I business meeting.
ABCA Division I chairman Jim Schlossnagle (TCU) said the coaches at the recruiting summit were split down the middle (8-8) on whether or not to pursue the “lacrosse model,” which prohibit any contact between coaches and prospective recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Given how divided the recruiting summit was on that issue, the ABCA did not include that question on its survey, much to the chagrin of many coaches, who wanted to see some polling on the issue.
Keilitz did say that the NCAA’s Division I council could take this decision out of the hands of baseball anyway; that council currently has proposed a new recruiting schedule for all sports that would move official visits from opening day of classes during a prospect’s senior year up to Sept. 1 of his junior year. It would also prohibit any involvement with unofficial visits until Sept. 1 of a player’s sophomore year in high school. Those proposals will be voted upon in April, and Keilitz said “there’s a good chance that both of those could pass” because they were generated by the Division I council, based on the work of the student-athlete advisory committee and the student-athlete experience committee.
Another potential solution that many coaches support is allowing teams to sign players as early as they want — but forcing them to sign players to official NLIs, so that they can’t back out of the agreement later on.
“I think if we hold people responsible for their offers, at the end of the day it gives them more time to evaluate the prospect, and it cleans that dirty little secret — really the elephant in the room — up a little bit,” said Savage, who also acknowledged that he deserves some of the blame for helping to kickstart the trend of early recruiting over the last decade.
Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack also pushed for that solution. “What about changing the NLI? I think that would curtail some of the stuff John (Savage) brought up — if you like somebody, sign him,” McCormack said. “I think that would curtail some of the stuff that John was talking about with teams trying guys out.”
But Keilitz and Schlossnagle indicated that such a proposal would be very difficult to pass in the current climate, because the NCAA is trying to get away from individual sport-specific legislation. Many coaches chafe against that trend, because baseball has a unique set of circumstances between the impact of the MLB draft and the realities of trying to build a 35-man roster with 11.7 scholarships — but there’s not much Keilitz or Schlossnagle or anybody else can do about the current NCAA reality.
“We will certainly look into that and keep pushing it, but I don’t know that that has much chance of passing,” Keilitz said.
• The NCAA’s Division I Council will also vote April 17-18 on a proposal to allow baseball to play four fall exhibition games against outside competition. This should be a no-brainer — it would add very little cost to a team’s budget, because games would have to played against opponents within a 400 mile radius and would result in no missed class time. It would be a simple bus trip, and a return on the same day. Also, softball is allowed to play eight fall exhibition games, and baseball — a comparable sport with a comparable number of games in the spring — is inexplicably allowed to play zero.
“We’ve been talking about four fall games for a long time, and the girls have eight,” Oregon coach George Horton said during the Division I business meeting. “I don’t understand, it’s a comp sport. If we’re fighting for four, why aren’t we fighting for eight?”
“We certainly could,” Keilitz said. “We thought four was a good number and that was what a conference was willing to push for. But I don’t have an answer for why they have eight and we have zero. That’s something you need to talk to your AD about.”
• Schlossnagle, Keilitz and South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner (the chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee) still think baseball has a chance to land a fourth paid coach, especially after football just got a 10th paid coach, using the argument that it’s about student-athlete welfare and reducing the player to coach ratio. “Coach Tanner feels like we can piggyback on that, hopefully, to have a shot — if you’re at practice (and not on the road recruiting),” Schlossnagle said.
• Overall, the sport’s power brokers agree that college baseball is very healthy. Keilitz pointed out that the Division I college baseball tournament brings in more than $10 million for the NCAA, and graduation rates, Academic Progress Rates and GPAs have never been higher. “College baseball is great,” Tanner put it succinctly.
For the first time, the top 16 teams will be seeded in the 2018 NCAA tournament, instead of just the top eight national seeds.
“We do seed the top 16 this year, so progress continues to be made in college baseball,” Tanner said. “It would be great if we got to (seed the top) 64, but we’re making progress.”
• The statistical trends in college baseball mirror those in MLB: home runs are on the rise, and so are strikeouts. Homers increased from .61 per team per game in 206 to .75 per game in 2017. Strikeouts increased from 7.17 per game to 7.54 per game, a new record high. ERA was also up, from 4.70 to 4.90. College baseball officials seem very pleased with the performance of the flat-seamed balls, which have restored equilibrium to the college game after the advent of BBCOR bats suppressed offense dramatically earlier this decade.