If you are coaching a baseball team between June 1 to around August 15, this is one phrase you do not like to hear from your players:
"It's just summer ball."
Granted, there is a natural let down from the rah-rah intensity of a college baseball spring to the more serene, developmental baseball experience of summer baseball. It is a "winning at all costs" mindset vs. a "I'm trying to get better for next year" thought process of the summer baseball leagues.
What other time will a ballplayer be able to work on making adjustments with little pressure and ample patience while playing? This is the minor league baseball model - compete hard but make adjustments which could send you to the big leagues. It requires a balance between competition and development that many fans - along with players and some coaches - have a difficult time understanding.
It is a very important part of a college player's development.
A manager or head coach is out there to win each game. Summer ball coaches have the added concern of providing ample opportunities for each player to perform and develop for larger personal goals. It is not an easy dynamic, this summer baseball season. A friend, who is a Cape Cod Baseball League coach (the Cape League is the most elite summer league in the country), has a great line regarding college players coming to play on his team for the summer:
"We treat the guys like library books, we return them the way we got them."
While he is not wrong, there are players who are desperately seeking to improve their stock - either for their college coach next fall or maybe the MLB scouts prior to the draft. Pressure is less in summer than college, although it may not feel so. Players are literally and figuratively as far as from their college program for the nine weeks of summer ball. Now is the time to try new things.
It is a great model for college baseball development, but the problem summer teams face these days is that more players choose not to stay nine weeks. As a matter of fact, many stay for half of the season only. For pitchers, it may be an issue of high innings pitched during the spring, causing college coaches to shut them down early. Maybe colleges want to see a guy work on gaining a better secondary pitch or give them high leverage innings at the end of a game to see if they can come back as a closer. They allow a few weeks of pitching, but then want them to be rested enough for fall workouts. This is normal. What is increasingly abnormal are the number of players who choose to shut themselves down for their own various reasons - some are tired, some homesick, some want to train somewhere to find more velocity.
Velocity is a constantly trending hot topic among pitchers - I'm not telling you anything you don't already know if you are reading this. Whether this is the best thing for pitchers to develop during the summer season is another blog topic for another time. It has definitely led to many developing young pitchers pass up a chance to work on their craft in a nurturing environment. These are opportunities they will never get back.
Enter the NCAA Transfer Portal. The latest college athletics phenomenon which has changed the landscape of college athletics, to put it mildly.
Putting this in simple terms, for those who are not completely familiar, athletes are able to enter themselves, online, into the portal, making them "free agents" to be recruited by any and all college coaches (who are likely to sit at their desks and recruit players rather than scout ballgames and showcases like we are used to seeing). A player can be on their current school's roster on Monday, enter the portal that evening, and commit to a new school on Tuesday. This isn't the norm - there are some players who are not approached and end up staying at their school - but for the most part colleges have a whole new scouting base that was never there before. It is the number one discussion point between players during the summer season. Some are unsure about entering at first, do some investigating with teammates who may have transferred or talk about others who have, then take the dive themselves. Any summer coach faces the challenge of keeping a player who has showcased himself while in the portal, then committed to a new school, from leaving the team mid-summer. It is not easy.
On top of the portal, there is now the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) opportunities that are available for student athletes. They are now compensated by the school in exchange for use in advertisements, endorsements, and appearance deals, among other things. There are players lured by some of the Power 5 conference schools with six figure (or more) deals. Players who may be at a school without the financial resources for lucrative NIL deals are dipping their toes in the portal and seeing who may give them the best offer for their services on and off the field.
So, if a player is in the portal, he could be looking for an NIL deal on top of going to a "better" program. Summer leagues then deal with players leaving early to get to their new campus asap. Once they get that new deal, the motivation to continue to play drops dramatically. The new coaching staff sometimes ask them to get to school early, but not as often as it is made to seem.
The money is real, I have talked to players and coaches who can confirm the deals that are out there, for example, a player from a New England school was offered an NIL deal worth $250,000 from a top 20 Power 5 program to play his last year and attend graduate school there. He was also drafted in this years draft - which leads to the question, "Do I go to this top program, earn the money, then take my chances for next year's draft? Or do I become a pro now?
He signed and is playing in the minor leagues - good for him.
Back to the initial summer ball dilemma, players leaving early. Are these players really looking to improve? Are they looking to keep busy for the part of the summer, use a few weeks to "showcase" themselves, take some time off at home, then go back to school? Some players need summer ball. Others use it.
All players should want summer ball.
Pitchers, it does not matter where you pitch, you must want to be there and you owe it to yourself to compete, always.
There seems to be no answer to correcting the college summer ball mindset. Coaches will continue to recruit players throughout the summer, frantically searching for players who may or may not be available, to fill spots vacated with little advance notice. It is a time consuming and sometimes frustrating process.
One last thought:
Every player has their own window of opportunity in baseball. No one really knows when that window is open until they look back and analyze their career. So, it is important to play when you have the chance to play, train when you have the chance to do train, and rest when it is time to rest. Don't sacrifice one of these for another. Keep your window to success open as long as you can and stay true to your development. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to greatness.