Justin Black and Montana Major Leaguers

On Monday, the Atlanta Braves took Justin Black in the fourth round, the 149th overall pick. It may have been seen as an overdraft by some — Black was seen as a top-500 talent by many draft evaluators but not necessarily a top-150 talent — and it may have been an oblique result of the new draft rules that may incentivize overdrafting to save money. He’s raw and toolsy, and he’s already signed with the Braves. But one of the most interesting reasons for his rawness is: his high school didn’t even have a baseball team, because he grew up in Montana.

I spoke to a Montanan friend of mine, and he explained that this is relatively common in his home state, and leads to interesting solutions. The best high school players can play American Legion ball, as Black did. They can try out for the Billings Mustangs, a single-A team that boasts George Brett and Trevor Hoffman among its alumni. Black even went to Arizona in March to play with a traveling Canadian club team. Black is clearly dedicated and has a lot of confidence — in a predraft interview he said he expected to be drafted in the 3rd or 4th round — but there isn’t a whole lot of precedent for it. In fact, there has never been a great position player from Montana. Ever.

The best player from Montana is Dave McNally, one of Baltimore’s four aces. McNally won 184 games and made three All-Star teams; no other Montanan has even made a single All-Star team or won more than 41 games. Montana’s best position player of all time is John Lowenstein. (“Whenever the wind whistles through the leaves, I’ll think Lowenstein, Lowenstein.“)

Lowenstein was a supersub. He had a McEwing Scores of 7.5 in both 1971 and 1974. He played 16 years, amassing as many as 400 PA exactly once, in 1974, his age 27 season. His absolute best season came in a WHAAAA? spike in 1982, when he was 35, and all of a sudden hit 24 homers in 322 at-bats, but Earl Weaver still platooned him in left field with Gary Roenicke (brother of Brewer manager Ron) and Benny Ayala. He compiled 12.1 WAR in a 16-year career, 4.4 of them in his career year in 1982. John Lowenstein is the best major league position player ever born in the state of Montana, and he didn’t even grow up there: he went to high school in Riverside, CA.

Since the advent of baseball’s amateur draft in 1965, there have been 62 players drafted out of the state of Montana, 58 high schoolers and four college students. Three of these 62 have made the majors, and all three were pitchers. (The list doesn’t count players like Lowenstein who went to school out of the state.) The last to do so was Jeff Ballard, a seventh-round LHP drafted in 1985 whose career ended in 1994. (He’s still a year younger than Jamie Moyer.)

Last year, there were two Montanan high schoolers selected in the draft but both went to college rather than sign. The previous Montana high schooler to be drafted suffered a skull fracture and never played an inning in the minors. The previous one was Nate Weidenaar, a 48th-rounder in 2004 who washed out of the Atlanta Braves system in rookie ball. Black’s fourth-round selection is the earliest that a Montanan has been drafted since 1966, when LHP Leo Pinnick was taken in the second round. He never made it out of A-ball with the Twins. There is, actually, no precedent for Black to succeed.

That’s not to say that there are no successful athletes in Montana’s history. Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in NBA history and a decent Knick backup, was born in Deer Lodge, Montana. Rodeo Hall of Famers Bill Linderman, Dan Mortensen, and Montie Montana were born in the state. (This gives me a chance to plug Rank, one of my favorite documentaries ever, which is about championship bull riding.)

There’s baseball in Montana, but you have to go out and find it, like Black did. It just isn’t a baseball state. British Columbia, just north of the border, is much more of a baseball hotbed: the Langley Blaze, the Canadian team that Black played for in Arizona, are from BC. One hundred thirty-six high schoolers have been drafted from BC, more than twice as many as the number of Montanans, and a lot more of them have succeeded, including Justin Morneau, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Jeff Francis, and Brett Lawrie.

That doesn’t mean that Black’s journey is impossible: ultimately, the miracle and mystery of learning the strike zone has to do with more than just where you’re born. But Morneau grew up in a better place to learn and play baseball than Black, and Black may have a harder road because of a relative lack of reps.

Some players are gifted enough that they take to it effortlessly, like Brandon Beachy, who went undrafted as a third baseman and then started pitching in an independent league, where a Braves scout discovered him. Black may be a natural. But if he is, then he’ll be the first in the history of his home state.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

20 Responses to “Justin Black and Montana Major Leaguers”

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  1. John says:

    Strange. No mention of the Pioneer League? Which I (so proudly) am an alum of!

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    • Sorry, John! I confess that I don’t know a lot about it — do many high schoolers play Pioneer League ball?

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      • Ryan says:

        Drafted high schoolers do, since it’s advanced rookie ball with affiliates of the White Sox (Great Falls Voyagers), Brewers (Helena Brewers), Reds (Billings Mustangs), and Diamondbacks (Missoula Osprey) based in Montana – the other 4 teams in the league are in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.

        It’s hard for high schoolers to play since baseball isn’t a high school sport here, but there’s still great baseball action for fans during the summer when the short season leagues are going alongside legion ball. A lot of the fun is seeing 16-year-olds drafted out of the Dominican get their first taste of ball in the States – Montana is a real eye opener for them. There are also the occasional rising stars who come through (Pedro Martinez and Prince Fielder types), though they’re obviously rare.

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      • I see. In that case, then, it isn’t really much help to people who want to play baseball when they’re still in high school, before they enter the amateur draft.

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  2. Luca says:

    As a resident of Red Lodge, MT (Linderman’s grew up here), I found this article pretty interesting. Good luck to Justin Black!

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  3. Eric Cioe says:

    We were just having a conversation about this at work in Missoula a few weeks ago. I’ll have to print the article for my older coworker.

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  4. dan says:

    Alex –

    I’m not sure about the “try out for the Billings Mustangs” line. The Mustangs are part of the Pioneer League which is an affiliated minor league. I’m not sure they hold open tryouts. The team, like all P-League teams is stocked with players from their parent organization who primarily come from the draft. Brett played for them when they were an affiliate of the Royals and Hoffman (who was a position player at the time) played for them as a member of the Reds org.

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    • I actually don’t know the mechanics of the tryouts. But my friend — the one I mentioned above — told me that they hold open tryouts. (My friend played Legion ball himself, so I trust that he knows the Montana baseball landscape.)

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  5. marc w says:

    I know you’re only looking at guys “drafted out of Montana” but given the constraints you talked about (little to no HS baseball), that’s going to pick up very few players with MLB-ability.
    Most probably do what Rob Johnson did and go to college or JuCo ball out of state.

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  6. radicalhenri says:

    I’m from vermont, and i’m pretty sure no one has ever been drafted from my state. I don’t know if anyone’s even gotten a D1 scholarship. Does anyone know?

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    • Not true! 36 people have been drafted out of Vermont, 15 out of high school and 21 out of college. (18 of the college boys went to the University of Vermont.)

      The only Vermont-drafted player to make the majors is Kirk McCaskill, who was born in Ontario, went to high school in New York state, and then attended the University of Vermont. He had a 12-year career as a league-average starter, retiring after the 1996 season and finishing with a 106-108 record.


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  7. D.t. says:

    It should be noted also that the University of Montana and Montana State University don’t support baseball as a scholarship sport, they’re club sports. And the only reason I know it is a club sport and not ignored completely is that the news mentioned it once, I can honestly say I have no idea where they even play the games here in Missoula.

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  8. Jeremiah says:

    This is awesome! Justin Black is now one of my favorite players from this year’s draft.

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  9. John says:

    I played baseball against Justin for quite a few years.. And actually surprised he was drafted at all.. I saw nothing special. Very immature as well

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  10. Sam says:

    Montana does not have baseball in its high schools, but does have a vibrant American Legion program throughout the state. Billings, which is an old and strong baseball community, has one of the best Am. Leg. programs in the country, supporting two AA teams (the Royals and Scarlets) and two A teams (the Blue Jays and Cardinals). The AA teams travel around the country to several tournaments and also host several tourneys. Billings, alone, lists 41 Am. Leg. players who have gone on to play in major league organizations. Justin Black played for the Billings Scarlets and we wish him well with the Atlanta Braves!

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  11. Klae says:

    If your not from Montana and don’t know how baseball works here. 1) you can’t just try out for the mustangs(pioneer league) they are affiliated with the reds. It’s all kids who have been drafted. 2) The high schools actually do have baseball in the schools but the American legion is stronger so kids try out for that instead of the school. Baseball can’t be as big here as it can be in other states due to the location of the state. There are plenty of good baseball players coming out of Montana. Take 2 years ago as an example the Big sky little league took 2nd in the united states at the LLWS. So if your not from here and dont understand how it goes here don’t write and article!

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    • Beav says:

      I played Legion Ball, and coached some ball in Montana. If there is a school that has baseball you’ll have to let me know.

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