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.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Black and Montana Major Leaguers by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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