While the sound of aluminum bats hitting baseballs can’t be heard following the end of the NCAA season, college baseball doesn’t finish when school gets out for summer. For many college players, summertime means the beginning of an entirely new season, one that is short on the aluminum and long on the opportunities.
Summer collegiate baseball is considered to be the bridge between a player’s collegiate season in the spring and the following school year in the fall. Hundreds of players participate in nearly 50 amateur leagues peppered throughout the nation every summer, allowing them an opportunity to develop the stamina needed to play professional baseball.
For Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee, the idea of year-round baseball gives his players a chance to face stiff competition in the offseason and an opportunity to hone their baseball skills.
“A lot of it is like Minor League Baseball,” Lee said. “Some of these leagues they play a majority of days over the course of a week and it prepares them for, if they’re good enough, down the road to play professional baseball.”
It also gives younger players time to develop and an opportunity to face more college level competition before the next NCAA season.
“It’s kind of a confidence booster,” former Cal Poly pitcher Kyle Anderson said of playing throughout the summer. “It’s time for you to get away from schoolwork and just focus on baseball and pretty much have some fun.”
Almost all the leagues involved in summer ball require the use of wood bats to mimic the playing conditions of the pro ranks. For position players, this offers a sense of hitting at the next level while it helps pitchers keep potential home runs in the ballpark, Anderson said.
Players are unpaid and often play in leagues far away from their home university. Much like studying abroad, they stay with volunteer host families in their team’s home city and are chartered to away games.
League rules often require that these players have played one collegiate season and have at least one year of eligibility remaining to be considered for a spot on a summer team roster. The decision of where to play is largely made via talks with a player’s college coach and prospective team’s managers.
“For most players it’s needed for them to develop,” Lee said. “It’s great for (the players) to get away from us as coaches and figure some things out on their own.”
While many returning players from Cal Poly’s roster are on a diamond this summer, some are playing in more prestigious leagues than others. In a well known hierarchy of summer leagues, Cape Cod League is considered to be the premier destination for top college prospects.
The Mustangs have sent several players through the Massachusetts-based outfit, which is likened to high-A Minor League Baseball, including current right-handed closer Chase Johnson.
Johnson, who tied for third in the Big West Conference with eight saves on the year in 2012, sports a 2-0 record and a 3.24 ERA in 8 1/3 innings of relief with the Orleans Firebirds this summer.
“It’s really tough competition out here,” Johnson said. “Playing against some of the best players in the country in college is a really great experience.”
The level of competition that Johnson faces every game forces the hurler to rely on pitches other than his esteemed fastball. He notes that he’s had to rely on off-speed pitches in conjunction with the heat to get “all-star” level hitters out.
“It’s kind of making me a more elite pitcher, I think, compared to last season where I was relying on my fastball a lot,” Johnson said.
The veritable Cape Cod League has often acted as a conduit for players on their way to Major League Baseball (MLB), and has hosted notable players such as Kevin Youkilis, Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun. It boasts the most alumni playing in baseball’s top tier, which is no surprise considering MLB has partially funded league operations for over forty years.
Similar to other leagues, the Cape Cod League has 10 teams, each vying for a shot at a league title. This brings about a point of contention for many college coaches, according to Lee, as pitchers tend to get overworked when their summer team is in the hunt for a championship.
“We send out players to develop, but there are teams out there that play too much to win,” he said. “That’s why relationships (between college and summer league coaches) are important.”
Currently, 16 total Mustangs are participating in summer collegiate baseball. Infielder Denver Chavez is having a breakout summer. He’s hitting .355 with 22 hits and 13 RBIs for the Conejo Oaks of the California Collegiate League. He’s joined by pitcher Braden Young, who has posted a 1.77 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 13 innings of relief for the Oaks.
Other notable players include infielder Ryan Drobny — who is hitting .319 for the Bend Elks of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League — and outfielder David Armendariz of the Green Bay Bullfrogs batting .277 in the Northwoods League.