OCEAN CITY — Tom Finnegan first picked up the phone to call a Division I college baseball coach when he was in eighth grade.
Even Finnegan thought that was a little crazy.
“It kind of blew my mind,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what high school I was going to.”
The 6-foot-6 Finnegan recently completed a successful freshman season at Ocean City High School. But before he even threw a pitch in high school, the 15-year-old had already verbally committed to attend the University of Kentucky on a baseball scholarship.
Finnegan’s story isn’t that far outside the norm. Colleges are recruiting athletes at earlier and earlier ages.
The rising cost of college and the limited number of scholarships available in baseball have influenced players’ decision to commit earlier, said Mike Bylone, head coach at St. Augustine Prep.
Unlike Division I football and basketball, full scholarships in baseball are rare. A Division I college baseball program is allowed to give up a maximum of 11.7 scholarships. Often college coaches split up their scholarships to entice players.
“This is a little bit of an epidemic,” Bylone said. “To have (a scholarship) offer come through, for families it’s like, ‘Wow.’ College coaches are under the gun. Their competition is signing players out of the eighth grade.”
A 2017 NCAA study on early recruiting revealed 46% of all Division I baseball players were contacted by colleges before their sophomore year. The average Division I baseball player makes a verbal commitment during the second month of his junior year. Only lacrosse players in the sixth month of their sophomore year make earlier verbal commitments among male athletes, according to the study.
Social media, websites such as Perfect Game that detail a high school player’s career and skills, and national showcase events make it easier than ever for players to attract the attention of college coaches.
As an eighth-grader, Finnegan pitched at a 2017 fall showcase in Jupiter, Florida. He threw five innings. The scouts stood behind home plate with their radar guns pointed at him.
When Finnegan walked off the mound that day, he was an NCAA Division I prospect. Finnegan throws his fastball 87 mph.
The University of Kentucky discovered Finnegan at a winter showcase in Egg Harbor City his eighth-grade year. He threw 20 pitches. Video of the session was posted on Twitter and Instagram.
A few days after that showcase, a local travel team coach told Finnegan to call a Kentucky coach at 7 p.m. on a specific night. College coaches are not allowed to contact young athletes directly, but they can talk to the player’s travel coaches or advisers. Players are free to call college coaches.
“It really took me by surprise,” Finnegan said. “I hopped right on my laptop and looked up Kentucky.”
Finnegan eventually attended a Kentucky camp for high school players this past February.
Camps were the only time college coaches could talk to freshman and sophomore high school players about recruiting.
“When I went to Kentucky, I was welcomed with open arms,” he said. “I was like ‘How can I not love this school?”
Soon after, Kentucky made an official scholarship offer and Finnegan decided to make a verbal commitment.
Many high school players and college coaches favor early signings because it gives both sides security. Players can enjoy their high school career and not worry about how every pitch or at-bat is impacting their scholarship chances.
“You can be a .500 hitter your sophomore year,” Bylone said, “and a .300 hitter your junior year.”
There is also the chance of injury.
Meanwhile, college coaches want to know who comprises future recruiting classes.
“At the higher levels, college sports is a cutthroat business,” Cumberland County College baseball coach Keith Gorman said. “If they don’t get these recruits locked up early, they feel their job or their livelihood might be on the line.”
Although players give a verbal commitment, nothing is official until players sign a binding National Letter of Intent. Baseball players can’t sign that letter until November of their senior year.
Finnegan finished 4-2 with a 0.82 ERA this spring. He struck out 34 batters in 34 innings. Because he’s a freshman, there are limits on how much he can talk to the Kentucky coaches. He can’t make an official visit to the school until his junior year, under NCAA rules. But he sent a video of each one his outings this spring to the Kentucky coaches.
“Parents and adults, Gorman said, “need to make sure that they’re allowing the children to be children and not get caught up in the business of college athletics.”
Meanwhile, Finnegan is thrilled with the decision and has no regrets. In most ways, he’s not all that different from his classmates.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “You could say things have changed. I’ve committed to college, but I’m still the same kid I was before I did that. I love hanging out with my friends, going surfing.”
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