The University of North Carolina offered everything James Triantos had hoped for.
In most sports, his commitment would be seen as odd: Triantos, 15 at the time, hadn’t even started high school. But in college baseball recruiting, this has become the norm.
In basketball and football, most top prospects commit to a college when they’re upperclassmen. Baseball used to be that way, too, but gradually coaches recruited younger and younger players until, over the past five years, most top prospects have committed to a college before playing in high school.
“I think we all realize that a 15-year-old doesn’t have the benefit of perspective,” said Triantos’s father, Jim. “A kid goes to a camp, sees the incredible facilities, the very cool buildings around the campus and gets a chance to interact a bit with the coaches. … [It’s] tough on both the kids and the coaches, who have to make decisions on kids before they fully develop. Regrettably for everyone, that’s how the system is set up.”
In the mid-2000s, Dan McDonnell read a Sports Illustrated article that mentioned college basketball star JJ Redick committing to Duke before his junior year of high school. At the time, college baseball recruiters, including McDonnell as an assistant at Mississippi, mainly homed in on players early in their senior years. But if Redick and Duke were interested in each other and decided their plans early, McDonnell wondered why baseball programs couldn’t recruit the same way.
Looking for an edge in the competitive SEC, McDonnell, now Louisville’s head coach, was one of a handful of recruiters who began offering scholarships to players early in their junior years. From there, the race began to see who could offer top players first.
Soon, coaches offered players scholarships at the end of their sophomore years, then at the beginning of their sophomore years, then at the end of their freshman years and then at the start of their freshman years. Now colleges begin scouting players as early as seventh grade and offering scholarships the next year.
While some coaches say they don’t enjoy recruiting players that young, they feel they must to keep pace with the competition.
“If you hesitate,” LSU Coach Paul Mainieri said, “then by the time you’ve seen a player play enough and you feel confident that he can be a really good contributor to your program, well, he’s probably already committed to another school.”
Peer pressure is one of the primary reasons that early commitments have become popular, coaches believe. Archbishop Spalding shortstop Caleb Estes is a good example. He has always played a year older than his age in travel baseball, and as a 13-year-old he was hoping for scholarship offers after he noticed his teammates committing to colleges. In October 2018, he committed to Maryland as a 15-year-old freshman.
Many players feel there’s no point in waiting if they receive a scholarship offer from their dream school. The family of Ethan Robinson, a freshman at Nashville’s Donelson Christian Academy, taught him the history of Vanderbilt baseball when he was growing up. It was a no-brainer to commit to the SEC power in August, soon after beginning high school. Seven of Perfect Game’s top 10 recruits in the Class of 2023, including Robinson, are committed to colleges. Many still have yet to play a high school game after spring sports were wiped out this year by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
So why has this trend taken over baseball and not football or basketball? For one, most top recruits are guaranteed full scholarships in those sports, regardless of when they commit. Division I baseball teams can only offer 11.7 scholarships across 35-man rosters. By committing early, players sometimes secure larger portions of those scholarships. If they take too long to commit, that scholarship money might go to a different player.
Then there’s the fact that baseball has become a more data-driven game; those metrics are tracked on recruiting websites, making it easier for coaches to forecast potential based on exit velocity and pitch speed. For coaches wanting an eye test, many of the country’s best players are grouped together on travel teams.
Another factor is cultural. Baseball coaches said there’s a gentleman’s agreement to not recruit a player who has committed to another school. In football and basketball, a player typically continues to hear from rival coaches until signing a letter-of-intent.
“If you’re one of the first kids to commit to a school for that class, they want to build it around you,” Estes said. “You can help them build it and be the guy who talks to everyone and creates that culture early on. That helps down the road when you’re trying to go to Omaha [for the College World Series] and win something.”
But there are drawbacks to early commitments.
NCAA rules prohibit a high school student from taking an official visit to a program until September of his junior year, and coaches aren’t allowed to call before then, either, so it can be difficult to build much familiarity. The main way a baseball recruit meets coaches and explores campuses is by attending school camps, which cost $70 to $400, with additional expenses for travel and lodging.
And just because a player commits early doesn’t mean his place is solidified. If a school is displeased with a player’s development or health when he’s an upperclassman, it’s common for a coach to pull a scholarship offer. Also, an offer can be withdrawn if the coach departs or the school over-recruits.
Commitments can crumble in both directions. Players who feel they settled on a lower-level program or see their chosen school with stiff competition at their position might decommit. Plus, many top recruits are selected in the Major League Baseball draft out of high school and skip college altogether, another factor coaches must consider.
“The earlier and earlier you make some of these decisions, the more mistakes you make,” Minnesota Coach John Anderson said. “It’s the most important decision these kids make in their young lives because it's going to have tremendous impact in the next 50 years of their lives. Why [do] they have to hurry up and make a decision so quickly?”
Asked whether the NCAA sees the trend as a problem, a spokesperson said the organization doesn’t recognize scholarship offers and commitments because they’re nonbinding.
For now, many players, including Triantos, are making use of the setup by signing up with their top college choice — even if just in pencil.
“I know where I’m going,” the 6-foot, 185-pound utility player said. “I just got to work to get there.”
Triantos is relieved his college decision is complete, but he knows firsthand how circumstances can shift. After a freshman season in which he was a first-team All-Met selection at St. John’s, he transferred to Madison.
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