The MLB’s Player-Making Machine
The US got their first glimpse of German player development in April 2013, when Donald Lutz debuted with the Reds. They were reminded, once again, this September when Max Kepler was called up by the Twins. Lutz and Kepler, were both trained by Martin Brunner at Regensburg.
With eleven signed players, including two who have made it to the show, Regensburg is the most productive of the 57 MLB-supported academies throughout Europe.
Unlike the US, Europe does not host sports competitions through school but rather, through the nationally-funded organizations that support the Olympic and national teams. If a town does not host a Bundesliga team then there would be no regular, local exposure to the game. That is why the MLB academies are essential to the sport’s growth.
Regensburg regularly hosts European competitions between academies and professional teams. The level of play their student-athletes are exposed to is second-to-none for the continent. “We will do everything we can to justify the trust placed in us and would like to keep the MLB European Academy in Regensburg on a long-term basis,” Martin Brunner says.
The academy itself is primarily sponsorship and family-funded. Until baseball was cut as an Olympic sport, Regensburg did receive governmental funding. In 2012, that money was severely reduced. MLB stepped in to make up some of the difference, contributing $1.5M in the 2015 season.
While there are baseball camps in the US there is nothing that truly compares to the Academy. With two lighted fields and an indoor facility Regensburg runs 330 days a year. Players, ages 14-19, live on the stadium campus… or at least they will come spring when their brand new dorms open. At the moment students reside in a local hotel just down the street from the complex. “The Academy creates a productive environment. That is the core behind the success of the program,” says Brunner.
That environment includes group housing, tutoring, access to state-of-the-art facilities and social events. With everyone vested in the same on-the-field goals, they learn to organize school with sports demands.
An individualized plan, to meet a student’s specific academic and sports needs, is created upon entry. Career planning is also in place. Two years before graduation, staff work with players to build a presentation portfolio used in the application process for universities, apprenticeships and scholarships. The player’s background in school is combined with their SAT and TELFEL tests as well as a personal profile.
Since the Academy first opened in 2006, each year they’ve taken in 4-7 new players. Regensburg not only has a 100% graduation rate but one in every four players has been signed to a professional contract. Signing with a team doesn’t mean a trip across the Atlantic however.
There is a commitment from the MLB to work with the local European teams, not just take their talent. “The youngest you can sign as a player is July 2nd of your 16th year, for the following year. When that happens it becomes a development cooperation process with the individual club,” Martin Brunner says.
The academy doors are open to everyone. German players have priority followed by Europeans. “We want the students approaching us. Their interest is a good tell,” Brunner explains. “When they come with a drive and desire to play, along with the mental make-up, they don’t need to be a prospect at the start.”
The ideal age to start is 14 according to Brunner. Earlier is not only too young to take them from their families but it is difficult to assess either talent or personality. On the flip side, even in the best program it takes time to filter through the growth process. By 16, an athlete, adds Brunner, is probably past the point of being ready in time. “It takes 3–4 years to accomplish what we need with the players. The Academy’s goal is for a player to be decided - pro or scholarship route – by their 18th year.”
So what’s a day in Academy life like? Just like every other kid in the country, the players get up, head out the door and go to the local school selected to fit with their personal career goals. When the school day is complete, things vary, ever so slightly.
The workout schedule changes with the seasons. Here’s the weekly breakdown: Off-season 46 sessions of 90 minutes/each. Pre-season 19, 2.5 hours practices. Season 23, 90 minutes training sessions plus games. The Academy plays 127 games. Position players average 85 games and pitchers 94 innings. Student-athletes participate in media events and team duties as well.
Regensburg has five staff coaches. Each coach has two jobs; bench coach for one of the Bundesliga teams and a focused position such as hitting, catching or pitching. Stefan Miller, Regensburg’s strength trainer is also a World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) representative. He educates the players on the guidelines and implements workout regimens to help each athlete achieve results from the body they were born with.
To compete internationally all European athletes must be eligible to play under the WADA guidelines. Brunner says he likes the guidelines. “Unlike the MLB policies, which are always changing, the WADA policies are well thought out and easy to maintain.”
Skipper Martin Brunner began coaching for spring training camps in the USA in 1999. He continues to go back, in part he says, to “make sure I don’t become 'business blind', lose perspective. It’s a good way to get myself in check.” He says these annual trips help him raise the bar for Regensburg and, his record seems to indicate he’s right.
Since we spoke with the player development director last winter the graduates have been busy making the program internationally renown. Max Kepler started for the Twins mid-season and never looked back. His first homerun in the bigs was a walk-off three run shot to end an extra innings game against the Sox. In August he earned Player of the Week honors after going 9-27 with a .370 average that included 9 runs, 4 homers and 11 RBIs.
Sven Schuller, who plays in the Dodgers organization, was promoted mid-season and has been invited to stay on through the winter in the instructional league. He shares a parent club with Pascal Amon.
Amon spent his first season in the MLB playing with guys averaging 2 years his elder and still managed to put out 81 of them from the outfield committing only 1 error in 55 games.