Playing for an MLB team is a privilege attained after overcoming various barriers and statistical improbabilities. Players are drafted from all over North America, and unlike other sports, there’s a competitive and very lengthy minor league system designed to filter out players who won’t have long, sustainable careers.
Once a player is drafted or signed by an MLB club and begins to go through the minor league system, each player only has a 7% (!!) chance of playing in one MLB game. One.
Therefore, by definition, no matter the round that players were drafted, MLB rosters are made up of the cream of the crop. For every top pick that fizzles out like Todd Van Poppel or Bryan Bullington, there’s a Kevin Pillar (32nd round pick) or Mike Piazza (62nd round pick) that greatly exceeds expectations.
This piece will focus on the 93% that do not make it to the majors, however, and the recurring challenges that consistently offset and derail players’ careers and MLB aspirations.
A Lack of Maturity
At most jobs, people aren’t judged at age 18, nor does anyone attempt to project their entire career before they even start one. But with players predominantly drafted when they’re teenagers, that’s their life and the built in reality that comes with the territory. Players are supposed to be mature, responsible, and terrific role models, because they represent entire cities, states, and countries and play a game that kids around the world admire. However, because of the many daily distractions, it’s easy for players to fall into bad habits, including not working out, not getting enough sleep, and not eating well.
A farm director once told me that they paid special attention to players’ bodies before and after the season including how they adjusted to the daily grind with scarce healthy food options. That evaluation greatly affected how the organization thought of them. These players were so good in high school that they didn’t need to manage their own diet, stay after practice for extra grounders, hit the weight room, or run extra sprints. Many did, but many also didn’t have to. Success came naturally to them.
The way in which they adapt to a sudden need to work hard can often be the difference between ascending and stagnating through the minor leagues.
The Wrong Coach at the Wrong Time
Athletes, like most highly ambitious, motivated and hungry professionals, put enough pressure on themselves that they don’t need it from outside sources.
There’s a reason coaches like Steve Kerr, Joe Maddon, and Gregg Popovich currently receive world-renowned praise for their leadership style. They fuse in-depth tactical knowledge with addictive, contagious, positive personalities and give their players space to be themselves.
Conversely, a coach that micro-manages a young player at a tumultuous point in their career could really shatter that player’s confidence and stunt their growth. Often times you’ll hear of a team drafting a player and ‘not touching him’ for a year. By this they mean that they’ll let him play while only giving him small, subtle tips, as opposed to larger ones like trying to overhaul their swing or arm slot.
Sometimes, coaching staffs try and rationalize their job by interfering and suggesting new techniques. In that way, they can say ‘we fixed his swing once we got him’, and grow their personal clout within the organization.
Stated another way, imagine how many people have taken credit for helping Mike Trout or Manny Machado throughout their entire careers. Or at a traditional job, how many times has a boss tried to intervene or take credit where none is due to them? Sometimes the tips are genuinely helpful, but many other times they’re only shared in an attempt to progress one’s own career. The incentives are perverse, but there’s been little attempt at fixing them.
The Family Situation
This situation presents itself in a few unrelated, but still pervasive situations.
In one example, you have player’s that don’t come from wealthy families, and as a result they send their paychecks directly back home. Sometimes it’s even to a young wife and children. I can tell you that at least three or four times per season I had to give salary advances to players. Keep in mind that these players are usually between the ages of 18-22 and make $12,000 a year.
There’s pressure to either get a real job to provide, or to make it all the way and set the family up financially for generations.
In another example, you have players that are related to former big leaguers. As the new minor leaguer becomes relevant, you’ll see their dad, uncle, or other relative get a sudden relevance renaissance as local media tries to talk to them about what it feels like to have their son or nephew follow in their footsteps. Unlike most other players, when these players’ parents show up at the ballpark, they talk, they talk to the team in the clubhouse and get asked for autographs from coaches and fans.
It’s a large, unspoken, and implied shadow that weighs on a lot of players.
In our last example, there’s the players with incredibly overbearing parents, like those of like those of Todd Marinovich and Tiger Woods, who’ve received worldwide attention for their cautionary tales. While the overbearingness usually isn’t very public, this pressure-packed situation rears its ugly head all too often. I once had my MLB affiliate warn me about how a draftee’s parents would berate their son during a game. We had to sit them in the bleachers as to avoid causing a scene.
Each scenario is unique, but all similar find a way to derail a youngster’s career.
The Talent Expiration Date
This is a sad one, because usually fans, players, and coaches see it happen right before their eyes. It happens when a player’s career has reached a certain level and they can’t squeeze out any more high level production. When this happens, and the player has a high self-awareness about it, he acknowledges it, has been planning for life after baseball, and knows that it’ time to move on.
When it goes well, it’s likes any other life or career change. Baseball has enriched this player’s life, perhaps given them an education, signing bonus, and a lifetime of memories and friends. They’re grateful.
When it goes poorly, it’s like watching someone trying to revive a dead iPhone, frantically pressing buttons with no avail. There’s only so much time that a player can put in to try and turn their fortunes around. At some point, the talent just isn’t there.
When this happens at the MLB level, players will bounce around with a few teams looking for a revival, and of course still be living off of their guaranteed contract and reputation. Think of Mark Prior, or closer to home, Ricky Romero.That player might have options and people that can help turn their career around.
At the MiLB level, however, players have a lot of less leverage and far fewer contacts, so it’s likely the end of their road. A sad, but eventual ending for a large portion of the 93% of the minor leaguers who don’t make the major leagues.
The higher a player ascends in the minors, the more likely he is to find a less than ideal clubhouse environment. This IS counterintuitive to rationale, but AAA rosters are often filled with players who’ve either played at the major league level and are angry that they got demoted or player’s who fit the classic AAAA mold and can’t seem to find a consistent major league home. This negativity can seep into players and stunt their enthusiasm and passion.
I was lucky to have worked with great organizations that were aware of this effect and worked to counteract it.
One way that they did this was by ensuring that specific living arrangements were met. In one case a former first round pick that’s now lighting up the major leagues was sent to us a week after he was drafted. Our MLB affiliate told me to ensure he lived with a specific player because they’d developed a relationship a few years back in high school. I have no doubt that this relationship helped him adapt to his new career and allowed him to vent.
Another way that they did this was through actively providing mentorship. Another MLB club that I worked with had three to four active players that served as mentors. They weren’t everyday players, nor did they have a realistic chance of ascending, but they were respected, young veterans with high emotional intelligence and that developed strong relationships very quickly. They were assigned to live with top prospects and be a ‘babysitter’. Needless to say, this was a secret amongst the staff and players.
Too Much Money and Fame, Too Soon
It isn’t natural for people to go from being broke to absurdly wealthy in literally one day. That’s why those who win the lottery so often spend it away. This issue with athletes is well thoroughly documented. However, it’s the reality for top draftees and international signings.
I remember one particular top pick with a large signing bonus that was more interested in discussing my mortgage than talking baseball. Most of these players are left footing the bill for their teammates, childhood friends, and many new friends and hangers-on. They also get pre-occupied with material things, thinking they’ve ‘made it’ and don’t need to put in the work.
In the end, making an MLB roster is hard enough based on talent and work ethic alone. When you then start to throw other factors in to the mix, it should make fans and teams appreciate just how rare and gifted MLB players are. In any other job, a number of things can derail you from immediate progression, but most issues won’t ruin your entire career. For a minor league baseball player, however, a few bad incidents can derail a lifetime of work. There’s a reason that major league teams consider makeup to be a main factor in their prospecting decisions, and the ones who are best at identifying it are often the ones who are most successful.
Lead Photo: Mark J. Rebilas USA TODAY Sports Images