Baseball Scout School, Part 2: Rating Beers, Falling in Love With a Cub, and Imagining Another A-Rod
Ben Lindbergh, editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, is learning how to be a baseball scout. He is enrolled in MLB’s Scout Development Program, where he is getting an education in how to trust his eyes as much as he trusts the numbers. You can read his first dispatch, here.
One thing became clear after the first few days at Scout School: I’m seriously spoiled. As someone who pays close attention to the majors, I feel entitled to top-tier tools. Miguel Cabrera is my benchmark for offensive excellence. Andrelton Simmons is the archetype of a good glove guy. Great young pitching? Sure, I’ve seen some: Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez.
That’s not the way scouting works. Even pro scouts — let alone amateur scouts, who consider themselves lucky if they go to a game and spot a single viable player — can go weeks without seeing someone who even hints at that type of potential. Let’s put it this way: Mike Trout has four tools better than any I’ve seen on display in Arizona, and it’s not particularly close. The talent at every major league ballpark — yes, even Minute Maid — is (if you’ll pardon the pun) incredibly concentrated. In the real world, quality skills are scarce.
At Scout School, we’ve learned this the hard way: by going to Instructs and amateur games, day after day, until we know what normal is.
Consider my expectations adjusted. The Phoenix area consists largely of strip malls and sports complexes, and you can’t drive for five minutes without seeing a sign for a stadium. For a week, our caravan has crisscrossed the region, making stops at Peoria, Papago, Goodyear, Salt River, and Grand Canyon University. And about 10 minutes into our first game, I stopped expecting to discover the next superstar. Which isn’t to say I stopped hoping to. The scout’s morning mantra is “Today is the day I am going to find a major league player.”
The daily routine is usually the same: start out with a seminar on subjects ranging from the proper dress code for scouts (blue jeans are strongly discouraged) to the ideal approach to report-writing. Take the bus to the ballpark and form a circle around someone who calls out the lineups. Watch the game, trying to take notes on each hitter’s stance and stride, and each pitcher’s windup and arm angle, while clocking catchers’ throws to second, and runners’ times to first. Try to ignore the fact that the more you try to take in, the more you miss, while the instructors somehow see everything. (The Bureau’s best advice is the same as your Little League coach’s: “Follow the ball.”) Reboard the bus, get back to “the big room,” and watch video from the game you just saw, then write reports on two players. Meet in small groups with instructors to discuss what those reports might have missed. Assess how badly you’re sunburned, go to bed, and do it all over again.
Over our first few days at the fields, we filed reports on several players whose ceilings put them at the back of a major league bench or bullpen. There was the fringy catcher who might make for an acceptable emergency option; the scrappy middle infielder who could grow up to be the next utility player you wouldn’t want to see at the plate; the starters, with more pitchability than pure stuff, who could compete for the back of a rotation if everything breaks right and nothing breaks. As a group, we dispensed a lot of overall grades in the low- to mid-40s on the 20-80 scale. Those aren’t non-prospect numbers — 40 is the grade the Bureau gives organizational guys, a nice name for the warm bodies who serve as foils for more promising players — but they belong to below-average backups who might make the majors but won’t leave much of a mark.
Focusing on that much mediocrity made me long to see someone flash a plus tool (a 60 or above). I’d learned what I was looking for; now I wanted to get a glimpse. And I got that when we went to Papago and watched Gioskar Amaya, a 20-year-old second baseman in the Cubs’ system.
Because Scout School is operated by an MLB entity, teams are accommodating when we come to their parks, holding infield practice right before game time. In infield — which is really just field, since outfielders take part too — coaches spray balls toward players at each position, giving us a chance to study their glove actions and arms. After each throw, instructors and students alike quietly give their grades: fives for the average arms, threes and fours for the weak ones. One noodle-armed left fielder lobbed a ball toward the infield just as a coach directed the cutoff man to throw to first base, yelling “Three three three!” “That guy must be a scout,” my instructor said.
Our assignment in Papago was to write up a throwback third baseman with no batting gloves and a uniform that was torn after his first plate appearance. The third baseman wasn’t bad, but Amaya stood out. In infield, he showed off a decent arm for second with an incredibly quick transfer, redirecting feeds from the shortstop in an eyeblink and finishing with a Jose Iglesias–like flip from his shoetops. In the game, the clinic continued with two diving plays in the field, but Amaya also impressed us with his appearance at the plate — even before he homered.
I left the park with my first true prospect crush, the kind that’s based not on stats but on something I saw in person. We’d seen some prospects before Amaya — Cleveland’s Clint Frazier, the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, made a quick cameo at the end of one game — but this was our first extended look at upper-level athleticism.
When I returned to the hotel, I looked up Amaya’s stats, which would’ve been my first move before Scout School. And based on those stats, I never would have pegged him as a player of interest. In 117 games and 500-plus plate appearances for Kane County, Chicago’s Class A affiliate, Amaya batted .252/.329/.369. He hit only five homers, and he made 22 errors at second. Those don’t sound like a prospect’s stats.
The disconnect could tell us one of two things, both of which are important lessons to learn. It could be that Amaya’s stats are misleading: Maybe the talent is real and he’s about to break out. But it’s also possible that we happened to see him have the game of his life, or that his tools don’t play against tougher competition.
So which is it? I asked a couple pro scouting execs if I was right to fall for Amaya. “You did well,” said one, who sees him as a future everyday player. “Awesome,” said the other, upon hearing how I felt. “Me too.”
Of course, they both could be wrong. I came to Scout School to see what I was missing when I looked at the stats. Maybe Amaya is the answer, or maybe he’s a mirage. Either way, he’s the perfect example of why so many conversations at Scout School end with “we’ll know in five years.”
For a romantic profession, scouting requires a surprising amount of paperwork (medical history forms, biographical information, expenses, and so on). And for a profession that’s widely believed to go by gut feel, it involves a lot of math. On Monday, I explained OFP, or Overall Future Potential — the one number that sums up what a scout thinks a player can be. For a hitter, OFP is the sum of the five tool grades times two. (A hitter with average grades in each category would end up with an overall 50.) For a pitcher, you take the sum of the tool grades of his pitches, add a zero, and divide by the number of pitches he throws.
But there’s more flexibility and nuance to that number than I initially realized. Ostensibly, OFP proceeds from the tool grades: A scout decides how he wants to rate each aspect of a player’s ability, then runs the components through the OFP formula to arrive at a total that tells the world what the player will be.
But that’s not really the way it works. A veteran scout learns to finesse OFP until it sends a certain message. The typical Scout School student walks away from a game agonizing over what he’s going to give a pitcher’s fastball or a hitter’s power, seeing the parts of a prospect instead of the whole. It’s not until he puts a number next to everything and runs through the math that he knows what type of player a prospect with those parts could turn into.
An experienced scout, on the other hand, decides what the player will be before he leaves the ballpark, then massages the grades until they compute to an OFP he’s comfortable with. If the number comes out too high, he might lower a grade here or there to correct it. Someone reading the report might skip over the individual ratings, but OFP can’t be ignored: It’s the two digits that tell you whether the scout sees a star, a starter, a bench guy, an emergency option, or minor league material.
The 20-to-80 scale is second nature to scouts — after a few days in Scout School, students started using it to rate beers at the bar — but if you were to design an efficient system from scratch in the 21st century, you probably wouldn’t end up with what we have now. OFPs are imprecise, and they leave a lot of room for interpretation. For one thing, every tool is weighted equally, despite the fact that some (hitting ability) are unquestionably more important than others (running speed). As a result, there’s a little leeway: An OFP can be adjusted by up to 10 points as a scout sees fit, either because the scout sees something intangible in the player that suggests he’ll succeed or because the “basic,” unadjusted OFP dinged him too hard. A catcher who hits and can handle the defensive duties is a stud, so there’s no point in killing him because he can’t run — that’s par for the position. Some teams have worked around this with weighted OFP formulas.
After OFP, the written summation at the end of the report is the first section a scouting director’s eyes will be drawn to. The summation has to answer four questions:
Who is the player?
Why do you like him?
What can/can’t he do?
What role will he play?
It’s best to keep the summation concise, since whoever reads it will be pressed for time. But if you can answer those questions correctly, you’re well on your way to a passing grade in Scout School.
Scouting is a lot like fishing. You know what you’re looking for, but you never know where it will be. There’s some skill involved, but also constant uncertainty and a bunch of black swans. The best you can do is keep casting your line and hope to get a big bite. And if you do everything right, you might still go home empty-handed, which is why scouts, too, love to talk about the ones that got away. But despite the frustrations, there’s no shortage of aspiring scouts. That line about the worst day fishing being better than the best day at the office works just as well if you swap out the boat for a ballpark.
I haven’t come close to mastering scouting — and I won’t, not even if I become the Bluto of Scout School — but being here has changed the way I watch baseball. After seeing prospects struggle with off-speed stuff, I have a healthier respect for the postseason performances of Joaquin Benoit and Fernando Rodney, the rare relievers with 80 changeups. Now when I watch big leaguers, I can compare their actions to those of a small but growing sample of players I’ve seen who lack the same skills. Which reminds me: Man, major leaguers are good (this doesn’t mean I’ll stop joking about Jeff Francoeur).
Our first week at Scout School — the low-pressure learning period in which reports aren’t sent to students’ sponsoring teams — ended with a trip back in major league time. “Actions don’t change,” we were told on our first day in the program, and almost a week later, the Bureau provided proof, in the form of grainy videos of Bo Jackson, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez as amateur players.
Watching Jackson play baseball in a skintight uniform is still illegal in some states on Sundays, especially in a room full of scouts. Scouting starts before the players take the field, or even put on their uniforms; the purely superficial part of the process is called scouting “off the bus,” since a scout who shows up at a high school or college game to see a team’s one prospect will often be able to pick out that prospect as soon as he sees him. A scout could’ve picked out Bo before he got on the bus.
Jackson never really knew how to hit breaking balls, but when he got ahold of anything, it went a long way. That much was evident in the video. But the resemblance of each amateur to his older self was even more uncanny in the other clips. A teenage Ramirez had the same menacing stance, the same lightning-quick uncoiling at the plate, the same cocky bat flip. Teenage Jeter stood the same way in the infield and used the same inside-out swing. Teenage Rodriguez had the same effortless power and ability to glide over the infield despite a big body. In light of what A-Rod’s up to today, it was impossible to watch that video without wondering whether, if given the chance, he’d go back to Westminster Christian and do it all differently. The talent, he was born with; the lawsuits, he brought on himself.
Some prospects might get a bit bigger. Most get stronger. Many get hurt, and a few accumulate controversies wherever they go. Those outcomes aren’t always easy to project. But somewhere out there, the next Jeter and A-Rod are already in uniform, looking a heck of a lot like they will when their images are everywhere. And no matter what corner of the country they come from, a scout will see them — and if the OFP is on target, what lies ahead for them — first.
The second week of Scout School is when assignments start to count. Check back on Friday for another update.