Every summer, thousands of teenage baseball players travel to amateur showcases and tournaments in hopes of being seen by coaches and scouts. In many cases, they pay hefty registration fees for this privilege. They—and their parents—assume that money is well spent, especially if they come from parts of the country that are not traditional hotbeds of baseball talent.
Over the last 15 years, the baseball showcase industry has ballooned into a multi-million-dollar juggernaut. But is the cost of exposure for amateur baseball players really justifiable?
At the forefront of the industry is Perfect Game USA. Founded in the 1990s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Perfect Game bills itself as "The World's Largest Baseball Scouting Service." Though it is not the only organization in the amateur showcase and tournament landscape, Perfect Game has the greatest reach and draws the largest number of participants. Other organizations, like Prep Baseball Report and RBI Baseball do some of the same things, but Perfect Game set the trend that the amateur baseball world follows.
None of these companies responded to repeated requests for comment, but they all offer kids as young as pre-pubescence the chance to be seen by scouts. The process starts early because for many ballplayers, waiting until the time in high school when most of their peers start thinking about which college to attend—their junior or senior year—is already too late. Scholarships have already been offered. Opinions already have been formed by pro scouts.
The allure of Perfect Game is obvious. The largest of its tournaments brings in thousands of spectators, including hundreds of scouts and college representatives, and generates half a million dollars in profit. The company boasts a list of alumni participants who have gone on to college and professional baseball. Its website features a testimonial from New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and an ad with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon's bespectacled mug.
Perfect Game promises to get you seen. But not for free. Registration fees for showcases, some of which goes toward facilities and giveaway swag for the participants, can range from $100 to $1,000 per entry. There's also Perfect Game Series Challenge testing that measures a player's attributes separate from the showcases and costs $200. Test results are included in the individual player profiles maintained by Perfect Game, and they can impact a player's overall ranking—only adding to the pressure for high school kids to participate.
Then there are the tournaments, which are separate from the showcases and require joining a travel team—itself a costly proposition. Even watching isn't free: Showcases charge subscription fees for scouts to have access to the reports and full rankings lists. Everyone pays into the machine.
For some young players, the cost is worthwhile. They have Perfect Game and similar organizations to thank for attention from major universities and Major League Baseball franchises. They've been drafted out of high school in the first and second round despite coming from places where only a sprinkling of Division III colleges bother to attend their prep games, and even then, that's usually because a high school coach has asked them to come.
Gavin Lux was selected in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of a high school in Kenosha, Wisconsin that had never before seen a player selected. He's exactly the kind of player who seems to have benefited from Perfect Game. Ben Rortvedt, who was plucked by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the same draft out of Verona, Wisconsin is another.
"I played on a really good travel ball organization, and that got us into the Perfect Game tournaments. Doing that led to a lot of great opportunities," Lux told VICE Sports following a game in the Single A Midwest League where, just a year removed from high school, the 19-year-old is already playing in full-season affiliated ball.
Lux drew attention from scouts because of his middle infield defense and promising hitting, and he also has some pedigree—his uncle, Augie Schmidt, was a 1982 first-rounder. Still, small high schools in southeast Wisconsin generally don't draw a lot of eyes.
"I got involved with a good travel team, which set me up with some opportunities to get in front of the right people," said Rortvedt, who played on the same summer ball team as Lux. "I mean, people in the Midwest haven't been popping up in the past, but all of a sudden, these teams are showing up, and it's become a little better for us cold-weather players."
Some people in the baseball industry say that players like Lux and Rortvedt would have been discovered anyway—never mind the weather—and that they have their own skills and hard work to thank for their high draft positions, not Perfect Game.
Brad D'Orazio, Rortvedt's high-school coach at Verona, believes that his former player would not have been noticed without Perfect Game. But he also sees a potential problem for the kids he coaches. While Rortvedt was talented enough to be selected to invite-only tournaments like the World Wood Bat Association (WWBA) World Championship in 2015, many other young players are left to wade through the proliferation of travel teams that may or may not be avenues to something similar.
The problem? Anyone can start a travel team, provided they pay entry fees to get their teams into tournaments. There is no vetting process. Legit or otherwise, the teams typically participate in at least two tournaments a month beginning in June and going deep into the fall and even winter.
And they aren't just for high schoolers, either. Travel teams for kids younger than 10 are common. Parents feel the pressure to get their children involved before they have reached middle school, because the perception is that travel ball is better than the traditional Little League system that serves as a prequel to high school baseball.
A National League scout who spoke with VICE Sports said that both the showcases and tournaments are becoming watered-down because so many athletes are showing up.
"There have been a lot of these travel teams popping up," D'Orazio said. "Not that long ago, there were none, and now there are 10-12 just in our area. I'm not sure how legitimate some of them are. Five or six years ago, these guys went the more traditional route—you needed a college coach to see you, but now we've got almost half the kids in our program doing this."
Twin brothers Tyler and Zach Mettetal are recent graduates of St. Charles North High School in suburban Chicago, not far south of where Rortvedt and D'Orazio played in Wisconsin. Both brothers are headed to Division I schools that would not have been on their radars if not for Perfect Game.
Their experience with the system has been mostly positive, perhaps because they almost entirely resisted the pull to sink excess money into showcases.
Despite a student population of about 2,100 and some athletic success in the region, St. Charles North does not draw the attention of major college coaches, let alone MLB scouts. Tyler, who will start at the University of South Carolina in the fall, never expected that he would be on the school's radar.
"I had my sights set on a couple of schools, but I didn't think a school like that would come and recruit me," he said. "But after going to the Perfect Game tournament in Georgia, they saw me there and they called me."
Tyler's involvement with Perfect Game started when he was 15 and just finishing his freshman year of high school. For the most part, he chose to shy away from the showcases, which resemble scouting combines in that each player has the chance to demonstrate things like bat speed, pitching velocity, and speed on the basepaths in isolation.
"They [Perfect Game] advertise those all over Twitter, but I mostly just did the tournaments," Tyler said. "Most of the showcases are pretty pricey. The tournaments are beneficial, but the showcases are not."
Tyler recalls participating in showcases alongside guys who probably didn't belong in Perfect Game tournaments, including some workout warriors who could dazzle scouts with blazing fastballs and moon shots at the plate, but couldn't make anything happen in actual baseball games.
Zack skipped showcases altogether. "I got emails to do showcases with them, but most of those are a lot of money, and some guys can do well in showcases," he said. "But me, showcasing is not my specialty. I'm more of a grinder type player; I don't hit the ball the farthest or throw it the hardest. With the showcases, I wouldn't stand out in that way."
Zach will play at Memphis in the fall. Echoing Tyler, he doubts that he would have caught the school's eye without Perfect Game. At best, he thinks he would have ended up at a Division III program like the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater or Benedictine University—both colleges, Zach recalled, were among the handful who would come to see his varsity games.
"Our coaches here are great about contacting colleges, but usually you'd have to go to their camps if you want a specific college to see you," Zach said.
Zach said that Memphis never actually came to his high school to see him play; instead, all of the school's recruiting happened at the summer tournaments.
Even for the athletes who opt out of showcases, the youth baseball industrial complex can produce opportunity costs. Tyler and Zach were both successful high school football players, and each had to sacrifice giving that sport their full attention because of summer baseball.
"In the summer, between football camp and summer baseball, it was stressful," Zach said. "I'd have a tournament with Perfect Game, and it's a week long, so I'd miss a week of football practice. I love both sports, and I wanted to do both at the same time, but I couldn't."
Thomas Hatch, the Chicago Cubs' 2016 third-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State, took part in Perfect Game tournaments and showcases while he was in high school. Now pitching in high-A ball in Myrtle Beach, he still questions how necessary the showcases are.
"In my opinion, they do aid recruiting to an extent, but if you're good enough, you'll be found regardless," Hatch said.
Years ago, Hatch might have been right. But the climate of amateur baseball has shifted in the past two decades; the summer machine is entrenched. Each of the first-rounders in this year's MLB amateur draft was a Perfect Game alum by either showcase, tournament, or both. This leaves current high school players and their parents feeling like there is little choice but to play along. If you are looking to grab the attention of colleges or major league scouts, you had better find a good travel team, and write a few checks for the showcases.
Division 1 coaches, MLB scouts, and agents—the people who draw the prep athletes to showcases by virtue of their attendance—haven't done much to stop this shift. But there also isa belief that the environment fostered by the likes of Perfect Game is doing harm as well as good.
To wit: the top-ranked players often don't need the showcases; instead, the showcases need the them. One MLB agent told VICE Sports that the best of the best aren't paying to attend. Instead, the implication is that these players are invited to attend for free by organizers in order to attract the registration dollars of the starry-eyed masses who want to play alongside future first-rounders. Those players aren't on the same level, but their parents' checks clear. They pay, get a duffle bag of swag with a fancy logo on it, and then strike out royally against the best arms in the nation.
"It's absolutely a big business," said the agent. "They'll take money off of the rich kid who will go up against a top arm and strike out."
A Division I coach who spoke with VICE Sports said that the culture of year-round showcases has made his job much more taxing than it once was. "It's become a 365-a-year thing, and sometimes you just want to say 'uncle' and take a day off, but that can mean you miss out on someone," he said.
The constant stream of showcases and tournaments also may be creating a physical and developmental strain on players. "There are injuries that are the product of ramping up for radar guns because kids are scared of dropping in rankings," the MLB agent said.
The NL scout echoed this concern, acknowledging that scouts and agents are a part of the problem. "Kids are getting hurt younger and younger, quicker and quicker, and it's partially our fault because we come to these showcases to see them, and they don't get a break," the scout said. "As a result, we often have to take care of a player's health before we can develop them."
Studies have shown that overuse injuries are affecting athletes at younger and younger ages, and that over half of Tommy John elbow ligament surgeries are now performed on high school students. Tyler Mettetal had to stop pitching in April 2016 because of Tommy John surgery.
Hatch sat out the entirety of his 2015 season at Oklahoma State because of a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, and the Cubs shelved him after taking him in the third round last year. Beyond a handful of bullpen sessions, Hatch said he didn't throw at all upon joining Chicago's organization.
Along with the growing injury concerns, especially for pitchers, teams are finding that their newly selected players are behind on the skill-development path from where they might have been, say, two decades ago, before showcases became so popular. Flashy tools will help prospects jump up the amateur scouting rankings and entice agents to sign on as advisors, but they won't help them remember the right base to throw to or teach them how to cope with an 0-for-20 slump during their first season in minor league baseball. Players need quality coaching, something that the travel team and showcase environment can dilute.
For years, this same type of criticism has been leveled at Latin American amateurs, who almost exclusively are scouted through showcases and private workouts before they sign each year on July 2. While several showcase leagues have sprouted up in the past few years in the Dominican Republic to provide an environment where players are actually getting game experience, Latin American prospects are still mostly evaluated through private workouts.
Now this same type of environment is prevalent in the U.S.
"There are kids who are getting really good at showcases, but they don't have a clue how to play the game," the scout said. "They're focusing on things like bat speed, exit velocity, arm speed, and they don't know game situations or the ins-and-outs. That's why you're seeing mistakes at the big league level—even the guys with the best tools are still learning the game, and that is putting pressure on managers to develop them once they're at the major league level.
"Maybe if we stopped showing up to all these random showcases, the business side of this would just stop."
That seems unlikely. Akin to college coaches, scouts are under constant pressure to stay on top of the who's-who of high school baseball players. Tournaments and showcases are a convenient way to do so. Kids keep coming in droves, and checks keep clearing. Ultimately, the amateur baseball industrial complex sells the most American of products: hope. And the price keeps going up.
"The motivation is money," the scout said. "Look at how much those showcases cost. That's what it's really about."