Baseball Scout School, Part 4: A Little Less White Space on This Previously Blank Scouting Slate
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.
According to a fellow Scout School student who works for the Arizona Fall League, roughly 40 percent of AFL players never make the majors. Considering the quality of the AFL player pool — 36 of this year’s MLB All-Stars were at one time in the AFL — that’s a surprisingly big bust rate. If, as I reported in Part 3, a player’s goal is to trick scouts into liking him for as long as he can, then AFL players are among the most convincing con artists. The majority have made it to their early twenties, and to Double-A or Triple-A, without playing themselves out of prospecthood. But even among the cream of the minor league crop, the attrition rate is high.
That was an important point to remember for fledgling scouts exposed to top prospects for the first time, especially when the report-writing process took a twist. Up until our final trip to the ballpark, we wrote up players as if they were amateurs, even if they had already played pro ball. But after spending close to two weeks improving our evaluation skills, we spent our last full day at Scout School treating the players like professionals.
There are significant differences between the amateur and pro approaches — not just methodologically, but also philosophically. Most high school and college players aren’t even minor league material, so to save time, an amateur scout writes up only players he likes. As a result, amateur reports are intended to answer the question, “Why do you like him?” They might mention what a player can’t do, or at least what he doesn’t do currently, but the idea is to accentuate the positive. “Sell the player without inventing him,” as my instructor described it.
Pro scouts file reports on every player they see. And since every player in professional baseball was drafted and/or signed by someone who believed he had at least a remote chance to make the majors, the point of pro reporting is not to identify those who could conceivably succeed but to weed out the ones who won’t. In other words, after weeks of looking for the best in every prospect, it was time to stop pulling our punches.
For most of Scout School, every student was assigned the same two players to critique, which made it easier to discuss our opinions both before and after we put them on paper. On the final day, we had to choose a pitcher, a catcher, and a corner infielder/outfielder. And instead of two full player reports, we were responsible for four.
“This is the most difficult scouting you’ll ever have to do,” lead instructor Mike Larson said. An amateur scout can often focus on one or two players and tune out everyone else. And a pro scout usually gets to sit in on a series and watch one team for four or five days, which is long enough to get a good feel for most players. We would have to take notes on everyone in uniform. And instead of a full series, we would have six innings. This was Scout School Super Aggro Crag.
I picked one of the starters, 20-year-old Giants right-hander Kyle Crick, for the first of my pitcher reports, then waited to select the second until I saw a reliever I liked. That turned out to be Royals righty Angel Baez, a 22-year-old who, like Crick, topped out in High-A this season. For my catcher, I went with another Giant from Double-A Richmond, 23-year-old Andrew Susac. And to fill the corner requirement, I chose a player with a body unlike anyone else’s in baseball: 26-year-old Astros first baseman Japhet Amador.
First I studied each pitcher and position player from behind home, trying to pick up pitch types and movement and setup and approach at the plate. “Guys who can hit want to hit,” we were told, and that’s something a scout is supposed to be able to see. Any sign of fear or frequent flinching is a red flag. Of course, the signs of offensive success aren’t all attitudinal, as we observed when we ran into rehabbing Rockies star Carlos Gonzalez in Instructs. In addition to displaying some big league swagger that set him apart, Gonzalez was beaten by a breaking ball and still managed to stay back long enough to get the bat on the ball. “The eyes are the separator,” our instructors intoned.
After surveying the scene from the scouts’ section, I walked down the third-base line to watch Crick and Baez from their open side — in layman’s terms, from the front — where I could see how their arms worked. And at the appropriate times, I took multiple trips down the first-base line to give Susac and Amador the same open-side scrutiny and to get a better perspective on Susac’s receiving.
The result was this fully filled-out pro reports page:
The pro reports are much more compact than the amateur forms on which we were weaned. There’s no space next to the grades for supplementary information, so the summation is the only place to describe what you saw. Instead of an OFP, there’s a present and future OAE, or “Overall Evaluation.” Like the OFP, the OAE is based on the 2-to-8 scouting scale, but there’s no formal calculation involved; the number just has to fit the role you envision the player filling in the future. A 5 pitcher, for instance, is a “regular #3, #4 or #5 starter, solid setup or closer.” A 5 position player is a “regular everyday type, solid contributor.”
The pro reports required us to say which level a player would be best suited for the following season, as well as to project the highest level he’d attain. We also had to indicate our level of interest in each player, choosing from a few options: “DEF,” indicating definite interest and at least a 5 OAE; “MLD,” indicating mild interest and an OAE of 4 or 5; or “NO,” reserved for players without major league potential.
Crick’s was the most difficult report to write. His fastball sat 96-98, higher than what any other prospect we’d seen had even touched, and it had a little life to it. That’s an 8 pitch, and Crick had some secondary stuff to go with it. Oh, and he was under 21, with a big, durable body. So far, it sounds like I’m describing a future ace. But Crick had a weakness: He wasn’t able to find the strike zone, walking three in the first. While he improved in his second inning of work, his mechanics suggested someone who would struggle to repeat his release point (which his stats confirm has been a problem in the past). An 8 fastball pushes a pitcher pretty high up the scale, but to put a future 7 on him, I’d have had to believe he could be an “impact type #1 or #2 starter or closer, frequent all-star.” I won’t be shocked if Crick becomes that kind of player, but I saw him as more of a 6: a “quality #2 or #3 starter, setup or closer, occasional all-star.”
Baez was easier. Like Crick, his fastball was a weapon, though it wasn’t quite as potent as the Giants prospect’s explosive pitch. Baez, too, had some feel for off-speed stuff, but his delivery was somewhat wild, the sort we’re used to seeing from a setup guy whose intensity works well in short bursts. While Baez has started almost exclusively in the minors, he’s probably bound for the bullpen.
Susac’s receiving and blocking skills didn’t impress me — in six innings, he let five balls get by him, and he didn’t appear to be in any great rush to retrieve them. But I did like his swing, projecting plus power with playable bat-to-ball ability, which would put him above par at the plate for the position. (Hot scouting-report-writing tip: For reasons that aren’t fully clear, fringe-average tools are “playable” for position players and “usable” for pitchers.) In retrospect, my future tool grades and OAE for Susac weren’t completely compatible. A 4 OAE says he’ll be a backup, but 4 hit plus 6 power says he’ll start and play like Jarrod Saltalamacchia. I should have gone lower on the tool grades or higher on the OAE.
Amador was the worst of the four, but also the one at whom I couldn’t stop staring. At 6-foot-4, with no waist whatsoever, he’s the most massive player I’ve ever seen. The pictures (including the Getty shot from 2012 that tops this file) are mind-boggling, but they don’t do him justice; he’s bigger than that, or was when I saw him. Amusingly, both Baseball-Reference and the AFL roster listed him at 215 pounds; when I relayed that info to a scouting exec, he replied (in all seriousness) that someone must have thought 315 was a typo. (As it turns out, 215 was his weight when he was first signed; he now says he’s 305. I’ve since had the record corrected.) The statistics are also larger than life: In 449 plate appearances for the Diablos Rojos of the Mexican League last season, Amador batted .368/.419/.693 with 36 homers, which convinced the Astros to let him try to hit here.
Based on my brief look, I’m not optimistic. Amador started at first base, but as a fielder he’s a farce; one ground ball went under his glove because he was too big to bend down. As a DH, he’d really have to hit, and I’m not convinced that he can. He has good hands and plus power, but his bat looks too slow for the big leagues. In light of his lack of bat speed and secondary skills, I gave him a Triple-A ceiling; that doesn’t mean we won’t see him in the majors at some point next season, since Houston has been home to a lot of players with Triple-A ceilings lately. I’ll say this, though: I really hope I’m wrong.
With those four reports filed, the scouting portion of Scout School concluded. After sitting through a few final seminars the next day, we took part in a closing ceremony of sorts. In the same room where we’d stood to introduce ourselves to the staff and our fellow scouting neophytes 12 days earlier, we stood again to recognize our instructors for passing on some of their skills.
And then, one by one, we got that paper:
It’s an impressive-looking document — embossed laurel wreath and all — but it’s also the equivalent of a “Participant” trophy. All it signifies is that I wasn’t expelled. The actual evaluation was sent to my sponsoring team (and to me) several days later. I’m relieved to report that I passed.
During Scout School’s awkward introduction phase, I announced that I considered myself a blank slate where scouting was concerned. In part, I was probably trying to lower expectations or warn my still-unassigned instructor what to expect. But I wasn’t overselling my ignorance.
Today, the slate is still mostly empty, but there’s a little less white space. Scout School reinforced my fear of the “Inverted W.” It drew my attention to the distinction between an out pitch and a “go-to” pitch. (The latter is one a pitcher thinks is an out pitch, but isn’t.) It taught me how pro scouts find out who’s hurting. (They ask the broadcasters; post-HIPAA, the trainers won’t talk.) And it filled my head with tricks of the trade that I might never need, like why it makes sense to use an extra-fine-point pen to fit more information onto reports, and how a four-color pen can help make note-taking more manageable. (“I know you didn’t come here to learn what pen to use,” Larson said, after telling us anyway.) I’ve learned some small percentage of all there is to know about scouting.
Some of my classmates will soon become scouts. In their interviews, they’ll be asked what they look for in pitchers and position players, and they’ll have to demonstrate that they can spot those qualities via video. They may be assigned to an area far from home where they don’t know the players or programs, and they’ll have to catch up quickly, forging a relationship with the nearest Bureau scout, reaching out to coaches and other potential contacts, and joining local scouting associations. They’ll have to prepare stacks of paperwork to disseminate information that can’t be gleaned from the field. A scout can be fired just as fast for not knowing about a player’s medical problem as he can for over- or underestimating that player’s skills. (Ironically, after they’re hired, professional performance evaluators in many organizations are subject to surprisingly little evaluation themselves. But that’s a topic for another time.)
It will take years before they feel completely comfortable writing reports. And depending on their area, they may be on the road almost all the time: One Scout School instructor mentioned that he spent 261 nights in hotels last year. (Predictably, the profession has a high divorce rate.) They might lose their jobs, or fail to land ones they want, because they aren’t friends with the right front-office executives.
And most importantly, they’ll have to get used to making mistakes.
According to Larson, 90 percent of prospects fail to reach their OFPs. Most often, he says, it’s because of intangibles. It’s much more common for a player’s makeup to prevent him from making the majors than for it to propel him there. My guess is that assessing makeup will become an increasingly important part of scouts’ responsibilities as PITCHf/x, biomechanical analysis, and other applications of motion-tracking tech permeate the lower levels of the minors and bleed into amateur ball. Watching a player work and collecting character references isn’t something a computer can do, although refinements in psychological testing — not a new concept in baseball, but an increasingly popular one — may eventually offer an automated alternative. (Psychometrics could be the next frontier for sabermetrics.) For those reasons, I’m not sure I’d encourage my grandson to go into scouting; it hasn’t happened yet, but in the long run, technology may make teams less reliant on organic eyes. For now, though, baseball can’t function without them.
“I’ve ruined the game for a lot of you,” Larson said as we prepared to leave. With our brains programmed to grade pitches and classify swing planes, he suggested, watching baseball won’t be the relaxing, leisure-time activity it once was. (Even when he’s watching on TV, Larson has his stopwatch in hand.)
I went to Scout School because I was bothered by how much I was missing. If what I learned there makes me miss less, I’ll be glad the game isn’t the same.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about Scout School. Unfortunately, if your question is “Can I go to Scout School?” the answer is, “Not unless you can persuade a team to sponsor you.”
Special thanks to Frank Marcos, senior director of the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, for not insisting that what happens in Scout School stays in Scout School. Thanks also to MLBSB scout Chris Heidt, my patient instructor, and to Mike Larson, lead instructor, as well as to the rest of the MLBSB staff who make the Scout Development Program possible. May you all find major league players today.