Prospectology 101

Last month, my cousin asked for my opinion on Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton.

I began my response with a diatribe about how much I loathe one-dimensional players, especially those with nothing but speed to offer. Then, I told my cousin the one-liner that every scout told me as a prospect:

“If you can do one thing exceptionally well (like run), then you can be taught the rest in the minors.”

That quote illustrates a major reason why most scouts suck at their craft.

I’ll never forget my first private workout with a pro team. Their regional scout timed me in the 60-yard dash and we played catch, but I never was asked to hit.

After 15 minutes, the scout had seen enough from me to contact the franchise and report his findings. Then, the team stated their desire to draft me and suggested that I petition the MLB commissioner’s office for early entry as a college freshman (an application that was ultimately rejected).

Despite leaving the tryout excited about the future possibilities, there was still a feeling of disappointment because I didn’t get the chance to show off the bat speed that helped me launch baseballs 450 feet.

But, that’s talent evaluation to a large extent. Ignoring the totality of a player is what many scouts do.

Frenchie vs. Barry

The scouting industry has a dilemma that starts with talent evaluators’ fondness for position players who are just good enough to meet a few intake criteria. This problem is evident when examining the open tryouts that pro teams hold nationwide.

Scouts are constantly searching for amateur players who possess at least two MLB quality tools among the primary five of speed, throwing arm, defense, hitting ability and raw power.

I often say that if name recognition were meaningless, then Jeff “Frenchie” Francouer would dazzle at an open tryout while the pre-1998 version of Barry Bonds wouldn’t even survive the first cut.

To understand why, you must first know how MLB open tryouts are conducted. For the sake of this piece, I’ve focused solely on the outfield because it was my primary position as a player.

Scouts typically begin the tryout by timing each participant in the 60-yard dash where “good” speed is clocking a time under 7.0 seconds while players registering 6.6 seconds or below are considered “elite”.

The pre-1998 Bonds ran in the 6.6 range. But, he would’ve been greatly overshadowed in an open tryout by Frenchie’s time of 6.43 seconds.

In the next evaluation phase, scouts ask outfielders to gather in right field to evaluate their defense and throwing arm from deep territory. During this drill, scouts target players who can rifle the ball, even venturing to favor outfielders who unleash an errant throw that sails over the third baseman’s head.

This is where scouts in an open tryout would note a significant difference between Frenchie’s rifle arm and Bonds’ bouncing throws due to the distance. Bonds’ arm wasn’t a defensive liability, but scouts at open tryouts frown upon players who bounce throws. For this reason, Bonds certainly would be sent home while Frenchie (and other lesser players) stayed for batting practice and the scrimmage.

Any intake process where a journeyman can make the cut while a perennial MVP gets sent home is flawed.

The Science of Scouting the Bat

Scouting amateur pitchers is easier than projecting how amateur hitters will fare at the pro level.

Pitchers who generate swinging strikes will always raise eyebrows especially if they have good velocity, command, movement, stamina, poise, leverage, a smooth delivery, and are adept at holding base runners.

On the other hand, evaluating hitters is more complicated.

Many scouts fall for the allure of a player’s statistical production and are enticed by big numbers. But, it takes more than gaudy stats to impress me.

I understand that success against amateur pitching doesn’t necessarily carry over to the pro level.

When evaluating hitters, there are two distinct areas where my approach is very different from most scouts.

The first is mechanics.

I’m more focused on what’s happening before the hitter’s bat even meets the ball as opposed to being preoccupied with the results after they’ve made contact. I’m the professor who wants students to show their work so that I can see all the steps and exactly how they arrived at their answer.

I don’t drool over players who can hit the ball a mile when their mechanics are flawed or they’re exhibiting an awful knowledge of the strike zone.

The second area where my approach differs from most scouts is in my evaluation of the physics behind power. I’m not the scout who’ll say that a player has opposite field power just because he’s mashing the other way. I’d rather render my assessment based on angles, timing, pitch type and pitch location.

Also, many scouts equate size with power and will downgrade prospects based on weight or body frame.

I believe that torque and bat speed hold the key to a player’s power potential regardless of size. I’m the evaluator who never forgets about players like Eric Davis, Mel Ott, Willie Mays and Sadaharu Oh because they are evidence that stature isn’t an indicator of one’s ability to crush pro pitching.

Paperweight Prospects

I personally know four guys who were drafted by MLB teams, but never should’ve been. They were all selected as high school prospects, going in the 8th, 11th, 31st and 36th rounds.

It’s not that they were bad players. I just remember feeling like they lacked the tools to make it as pros regardless of how many scouts were drooling over them at the time.

Each was cut from the same mold: a high school slugger with a pronounced uppercut swing, slow bat, incredibly strong but erratic defensive arm and batting average somewhere around the .600 range.

But, combined, they slashed .203/.302/.271 with one home run in 464 at-bats of rookie ball. Needless to say, none of them went beyond single-A. They ended up being what I call “paperweight prospects,” players whose stats look good on paper, but deficiencies damn them to fulfilling a fraction of their projected potential.

Scouts often preach that talent evaluation isn’t an exact science. But my opinion has always been that some things (like a slow bat or persistent scatter arm) are telltale signs of imminent failure at the pro level.

At the amateur level, good hand-eye coordination can hide flaws that would otherwise be an Achilles heel. But, pro baseball is a sport where if you don’t hit, then you won’t stay unless you’re a Gold Glove quality fielder. For this reason, when scouting prospects, I look for any evidence that a player might develop into a paperweight prospect, especially if the player is a glaring defensive liability.

The scouting population presents an odd dichotomy. There are many scouts who only care about speed, plenty who won’t consider players unless they display elite arm strength, some who won’t even consider you if you’re not at least a certain size, and others who will ignore the flaws that any amateur prospect exhibits as long as he’s hitting home runs.

I approach scouting by considering the totality of a player along with his intangibles. My approach to talent evaluation is personified by a philosophy of the late Steve Jobs:

“You can’t look at the competition and say you’re going to do it better. You have to look at the competition and say you’re going to do it differently.”

No, this isn’t the business of computers, but prospects are just green apples — you’ve gotta know how to pick em’.

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