By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
One week before the inaugural Tournament 12 showcase - which, if you can believe it, took place half-a-decade ago back in 2012 - Toronto Blue Jays Area Scout Jamie Lehman was busy getting married. Along with planning his wedding, he had just spent his entire summer traveling across Canada in search of the country’s top amateur baseball players who might fill T12’s first official rosters.
Lehman even delayed his honeymoon so that he could be present at the Rogers Centre to witness the event in person, and therefore watch the players he helped select compete on this new stage.
Five years later and he continues to spend much of his summer going from province to province evaluating the T12 hopefuls. For Lehman and his team, these evaluations are truly a grueling, year-long process - a process that essentially begins immediately after the trophy of the previous tournament is presented.
Yet despite the taxing schedule, it is a process that Lehman treats as seriously as his professional scouting jobs. Not only is he a proud Canadian who relishes the opportunity to grow the game north of the border, but he has also seen first-hand the significance a T12 invitation can have on a young player’s career.
“Especially me as a Canadian growing up in Brampton and playing in that area, I understand the impact of this tournament,” Lehman said. “I know that it can be a life changing event for someone who gets to play in it, and we owe it to all the players who are selected - and those who aren’t selected - to absolutely do our due diligence and have some real structure and consistency to our selection process.”
This year, Lehman coordinated with the Blue Jays three area scouts from Canada - Don Cowan, Adam Arnold, and Jasmin Roy - to better expand their data points at each tryout. For the sake of consistency, Lehman said they had weekly discussions throughout the entire summer. They also share a massive electronic spreadsheet that allows them to rank players at each tryout and then share it with the other evaluators in real time.
By the end of the year the data they have compiled is immense - a testament not only to the pride that he and his team take in the process, but in the prestige and importance of the tournament itself.
“We are not saying we get it perfect,” Lehman admitted. “Although we certainly try to. What we are saying is that we are doing everything we can to be as thorough and as structured as possible so that we are being consistent and correct. And I think if we do that we can sleep at night knowing that we really gave everybody a fair chance at playing in such a great event.”
Having Cowan, Arnold, and Roy involved in the evaluation process has also allowed Lehman to contend with the huge growth of the tournament, not to mention the rising talent pool of baseball players across Canada in general.
“The first year [of Tournament 12], when people didn’t know what it was, we actually had some people turn it down. Now we are at a point where they are banging on our doors, and major league teams and college coaches are asking for information - they really want to be there and take it in. That’s what’s really neat, what the players and the product has grown to become.”
In order to come up with an equitable roster, this year the Blue Jays held selection tournaments in Atlantic Canada for the maritime provinces, followed by three days of open tryouts in Toronto at Rogers Centre. There were also tryouts in Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, along with a call-back tryout in Ajax, Ont.
But even with the increased interest, Lehman and his team continue to do everything in their power to make sure everyone who wants to tryout gets their shot. The tryouts in British Columbia saw over 100 players attend, yet the selection committee refused to turn anybody away. The only tryout that had to be capped due to numbers took place in Toronto.
“It can be a long day,” Lehman said. “But at the same time, if a player wants to be at T12, we want them to come tryout ... we try to keep it as open as possible across the country.”
Those long days are definitely not made shorter by the variety of drills each player is put through. But Lehman believes it is the only way for the evaluators to come up with a proper, complete ranking. He admits it’s a process designed to maximize consistency and accuracy rather than efficiency, something he is more than willing to sacrifice in order to make sure all of the classic “five tools” are examined.
During a typical tryout, players run the 60-yard dash to measure pure speed, infielders and outfielders will take ground balls to observe footwork and arm strength, and, of course, there is the ever-important batting practice to measure all aspects of the players’ swings - including bat-speed, strength, and hand-eye coordination.
Pitchers are also evaluated during separate bullpen sessions, and, when possible, are placed into simulated game situations.
Lehman contends that this is a more effective way of scouting talent rather than simply observing players during league games or tournaments. What he finds difficult, however, is trying to communicate to players, coaches, and parents alike that it is not necessarily the best performers on their teams who are selected.
“[This process] allows us to stick to our vision from the scouting perspective ... we really try to take players who have a lot of upside and who have a chance to impact the game, whether it’s at college or at the professional level ... It might be a player that’s athletic and big and strong, or they have a clean delivery and good arm action - do they have those things that are predictive of future success? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Of course, predicting success in the sport of baseball is never easy, nor is it an exact science. And as the number of elite players in Canada continues to increase, Lehman knows the selections are only going to get more difficult.
“We noticed this year, and even last year, it’s become a lot harder to make those final bubble decisions because of how close these players are. I think that is a testament to the quality of the players, and a testament to our process and the evaluations of our scouts in the Baseball Academy.”
Being able to observe and rate so many different players is part of what makes this selection process so unique. It also happens to be what can make it so rewarding.
Lehman says that even with his large data sets on players all across the country, he and his team are constantly being surprised by someone new at just about every tryout.
“I think at some point that is what it’s all about. Especially as an evaluator for the Toronto Blue Jays in Canada, we want to see these players get to the next level. So to see those guys make the jump, or to see a player that nobody knew about, that’s really exciting for us and I think that really is what drives this whole thing ... So believe me, when those things happen that’s what makes all the hotel nights, all the hours on the road or in a airplane worth it.”
Of course, not everybody gets the chance to participate in T12, a fact that can be very difficult for those players whose current skill-set places them right on the outside of that “bubble.” In those situations, Lehman tries to stress that not being granted an invitation doesn’t guarantee that a player won’t be successful down the road.
However, he also hopes those players who aren’t selected choose to take that as motivation.
“If you really want to be a college baseball player or a professional baseball player, what’s going to allow you do that is going to be that drive and passion to get there. And so I’ll be pulling for the players that do prove us wrong.”
When asked what the one piece of advice he would give to a player looking to participate in next year’s event, his answer was simple ...
“Work your butt off.”