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 and his second here.
After 10 days at Instructs, Hohokam Stadium looks like Yankee Stadium.
Throughout the first phase of Scout School, scouting was an intimate experience on baseball’s back fields, something special shared between the program’s students and instructors, the players, and the player development staff. Granted, when the Scout School group crashed those private parties, the players mostly ignored us, save for an occasional glance full of curiosity, resentment, and what was probably pity. (Those who can’t play, scout.) But at those nearly deserted facilities, separated from the field by little more than a chain-link fence, we could almost believe that the games were being played for our benefit — or at the very least, we were privileged participants in the process.
That was before the beginning of the Arizona Fall League, an annual competition between many of the minor leagues’ most promising players that runs from the second week of October through mid-November. The AFL is open to the public and attracts considerable interest in an age when many fans can rattle off the names of their team’s top 20 prospects, some of whom they might already own in their dynasty leagues. And with that increased attention comes the kind of luxuries one becomes unaccustomed to at Scout School.
Now we’re in an actual ballpark, with a PA system and grandstands with plenty of places to sit. Compared to a major league stadium, this is small-time, but now it feels almost decadent, and I worry that it’s going to make me soft. It’s a step back to what I’m accustomed to: play-by-play stats and PITCHf/x, where I can look up everything and thus don’t look at anything; if I get sloppy and forget what someone did in his second at-bat, I can check the box score later. Foul balls are brandished by fans, not chased down by bystanders and put back into play. There’s a scoreboard, although we look at it only to track the passage of time, not because we care which team is winning. We’ve been warned that the first day of AFL action is when some Scout School students start coasting, figuring they’re almost at the finish line. After seeing so much marginal talent, the thinking is that the higher-caliber prospects in the AFL should be easy to evaluate. I have to fight the urge to plop down behind home plate and let the game go by.
Printed game sheets (and, wonder of wonders, thick information packets) are passed out to us before the game, so there’s no need to do the communal lineup call. The rows around each dugout are crammed with both kinds of autograph seekers: the cute young kids who somehow aren’t in school and get excited by each signature, and the older autograph professionals in ill-fitting clothes who carry binders and bags full of autographable objects, and for whom players’ pens pay the rent.
Elsewhere in the stands, spectators sing along to the PA system’s soundtrack, chat with each other, or stare off into space. No one’s taking notes, and there isn’t a stopwatch in sight. They’re missing so much, and they don’t mind. After forcing ourselves to pay attention to each pitch at every game we’ve gone to, it feels almost like the casual fans don’t deserve to be there. At the same time, we envy their inattentiveness.
My assignment today is to write reports on a center fielder and a middle infielder, while noting a few facts about each pitcher’s mechanics and preparing to answer questions about anyone who gets into the game.
For my middle infielder, I pick a Double-A second baseman out of Minnesota’s system, Eddie Rosario. And like most members of the class, I choose Albert Almora in center.
Almora, a 19-year-old from Florida, is one of the centerpieces of the Cubs’ recent rebuilding movement under former Boston GM Theo Epstein. Selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he ranked 15th on Baseball Prospectus’s midseason list of the best prospects. Though I’ve never seen him, I know he’s supposed to be good. But I do my best to put that out of my mind, watch without preconceptions, and grade him based on this game. We’re past the hand-holding stage of Scout School, so any reports we write will be graded, factored into our final evaluations, and included in the packet that will be sent to our sponsoring teams.
It doesn’t take long for Almora to make an impression. On the first pitch of the game from Reds 2013 first-rounder Michael Lorenzen, the right-handed hitter launches a line drive over the left-field fence, then takes a leisurely trot that says he isn’t surprised. Lorenzen’s next 10 pitches are balls, as if Almora’s swing has scared him out of the strike zone. After seeing the swing, no one would blame him.
In the second inning, Almora goes up 2-0 and fouls off three pitches. With the runner going, he reaches for a pitch that’s at least shoulder level and lines it the other way, driving in two and ending up on second. In the fourth, facing another Double-A Reds righty, Jamie Walczak, he leads off with a single to left. And in the fifth, he leads off with another single, this time against a Dodgers Double-A righty, Yimi Garcia. He also makes a Web Gem–worthy diving catch on a soft liner in left-center.
After the sixth, the Scout School crew rolls back to the bus so we can write our reports before dinner. The box score says Almora made an out in the seventh, but I’m not sure I believe it.
So here’s how I write up Almora. A few things to keep in mind: First, we’re told to write up the report as if it’s a “Follow.” A Follow is a type of report filed on amateur players in the fall; the Bureau describes it as “the backbone of what we do.” The point of filing a Follow is to send the message “Pay attention to this player.” If a guy gets a good Follow, his report will be entered into a database accessible by all 30 big league clubs, which makes him a prospect. The next spring, someone from the Bureau will go back to see him, and some teams’ scouting directors will send in their own evaluators. At that point, teams can get a good idea of what he is before the draft in June.
Early in the program, I got a little overexcited about the first really promising pitcher we saw and gave a tall, athletic, left-handed starter named Brandon Bonilla (of the baseball Bonillas) a 65 OFP on a Follow. I wasn’t necessarily wrong about what he will be — Bonilla, a 19-year-old sophomore at Grand Canyon University who throws in the mid-90s and has those coveted big-league bloodlines — could turn into an early draft pick and become a top-of-the-rotation arm. But for a Follow, the grade was on the optimistic side, since we didn’t see Bonilla’s breaking ball, and a 58, for instance, would have gotten the point across just as well. As the Bureau says, “A follow is a follow is a follow.” In other words, there’s no need to pump a guy up too high, since beyond a certain number, you know someone will be going back to see him. The higher the number, the further out the scout is sticking his neck.
A couple quick asides about Follows before we get back to Almora: First, if you like a player, you should file a Follow, no matter what any other scout says. Scout School lead instructor Mike Larson recounted a time when he was tipped off to a high school shortstop by a coach in Illinois and went to watch him for a couple of days. Larson liked what he saw and decided to file a Follow, but before he did, he called the Illinois area scout and told him what he was planning to do. “He can’t play,” the other scout said, and told Larson that he’d remove the Follow the next spring if he saw it in the system. Not wanting to waste his time on a report that would be removed, Larson didn’t bother to file it. So who was that high school shortstop? Ben Zobrist, who ranked third behind Miguel Cabrera and Evan Longoria in WAR from 2009 to 2013. Oops. Every scout seems to have a story like this. Another great Larson story: When he has to take notes quickly, he’ll often make a comparison to another player’s body or playing style as a trigger that will help him recall what he saw when he was writing his report. Once, while watching a player named Romar Aguilar in Mexico, he thought he’d come up with the perfect comp. “Benji Gil body,” he wrote when he saw Aguilar from afar, referring to the former Rangers and Angels infielder. “Benji Gil swing,” he wrote after Aguilar took his first hack. “Benji Gil glove,” he added after Aguilar got a grounder. Later, he found out why the comp fit so well: “Romar Aguilar” is the name Benji Gil goes by in Mexico.
Leading up to the draft, scouts have a tendency to inflate OFPs, since they want to “get their guys.” There’s nothing more demoralizing for an area scout than to spend most of the year traveling and staying up late to write reports, only to see the draft go by without his team selecting a single player he recommended. (Often, a team will take a marginal talent toward the end of the draft just to appease an area scout; that late in the process, they might as well, since there’s little separating one prospect’s potential from another.) So in order to push a player he likes up a team’s draft board, a scout might give him a higher grade than he otherwise would, if only to keep him in the running with the players filed by a more forgiving grader from a neighboring territory. It’s understandable, but it’s still a problem, because it ruins the integrity of the already somewhat subjective scouting scale.
For the purposes of my faux-Follow report, I’m treating Almora as a college sophomore, and I’m trying not to take into account what I knew going into the game. For all I know, he had the game of his life; when you see a guy flash five tools, going 4-for-5 and excelling in the field, it’s easy to be excited, but it’s important to consider the competition and remember that the same guy is sometimes held hitless.
The report starts off with two boilerplate sections: “Stance/Hit Approach” and “Physical Description.” This is where you describe what you saw when you watched the player: “Open, upright stance,” “Tall frame, slender, athletic build,” etc. Some of this is fluff, not prescriptive, but proof that you were watching; other parts reflect well or poorly on the player.
Below those top two boxes, in the “ML Comparison” section — which is based purely on position and physical resemblance, not ability — I comp Almora to Carlos Beltran. And that gets us to the grades, on the 2-to-8 scale I described in previous installments. Asterisks indicate categories that factor into the OFP.
When I was walking out of the park, I’d already all but awarded Almora three 7s. The catch was incredible; the home run was long and had a special sound; the swing was quick and level and had produced hits on pitches in different locations, to different parts of the field. But somewhere between the bus and the big room, I decided to play it somewhat safe. A 7 hitter, by the Bureau’s guidelines, is someone who hits between .295 and .314 — that refers to true talent, so you can’t be a 7 hitter just because a bunch of bloopers happen to fall in for half a season. There aren’t many players who have a 7 hit. Almora might be one of them — I certainly wouldn’t be shocked — but I’m not comfortable giving him that grade after only one look. I haven’t seen him hit a good breaking ball or face an experienced pitcher, so 6 it is. (The Present 4 (.235-.254) is what he’d do if dropped into the big leagues today.) I went the same way with the power, since a 7 (27-34 homers) is serious.
I give Almora an average run grade because I clocked him at 4.5 on the turn to second; as a rule of thumb, you remove two-tenths of a second from a turn time to get a true time to first, and 4.3 seconds is a typical time for a right-handed hitter. I give him an average arm because I didn’t see him use it, aside from a few practice tosses between innings. Next to each grade is a space in which to justify your rating; next to my “Arm Strength” grade, I write, “Solid-average w/clean actions. Didn’t see him air it out; might be more in there.”
I stick with the 7 field, because I’m so impressed by Almora’s range and instincts. Center fielders have to cover a lot of ground, so they tend to be speedy; if anything, Almora’s running ability is subpar for the position. But he makes up for his lack of quickness in other ways. Next to “Fielding,” I write, “Gets great reads.” Next to “Range,” I write, “Covers much more ground than speed suggests. Can go get balls from gap to gap.” Next to “Baseball Instincts,” I add, “On the move almost before ball leaves bat. Makes game seem slow.” I’m coming close to repeating myself, but I want to stress that this skill sets Almora apart.
Add up the five future grades and multiply by two, and you get a “Basic OFP” of 58. That falls into the Bureau’s “Group 1” category, comprising players who would be drafted in the first two rounds, but it feels a little low. I’m allowed to bump the Basic OFP by three points without explaining why, so I give Almora an “Adjusted OFP” of 61. Why do I bump him? Because I want to go with my gut, which isn’t something someone from a sabermetric background ever expects to say. Scouting isn’t an exact science. Almora has at least three plus tools, and to the extent that it’s possible to determine these things from afar in a limited look, he looks comfortable and confident, despite being among the youngest AFL players. He’s going to be better than a regular. And if he isn’t, readers from the future, you can look back and laugh.
That takes us to the “Summation,” the place where I answer those four questions posted in Part 2. There’s not much space, so I have to get in and out in a few sentences; it’s not the place to get my Grantland on and go long. Here’s what I have:
Young, five-tool center fielder w/athletic frame. Ability to hit for average w/plus power. Special instincts make average speed play up at premium position. All-Star talent who’ll contribute on both sides of ball.
In retrospect, I should’ve said potential to hit for average with plus power — “ability” makes it sound like his hit and power tools are present pluses, which isn’t the case for many 19-year-olds not named Harper, Trout, or (maybe) Machado. Other than that, though, it captures my feel for Almora.
Judging by a show of hands the next day, most students put Almora in the 60-65 range, so I wasn’t way off. (In case you’re curious, I gave Rosario a 52.) I haven’t seen the corrected report yet, but I have heard that I didn’t bomb. I’ll take it.
Of course, any scout worth his stopwatch can see that Almora has some skills, especially on a 4-for-5 day. A good scout makes his money on players in Rounds 10-15 — the ones the Bureau turns in as 42s, or a couple ticks above “organizational guy.” Find a few average-or-better big leaguers in that bunch, and you’ll make your team millions. You just won’t see much of that money yourself.
Across the street from Hohokam Stadium, there’s a cemetery. The juxtaposition of promise and failure is almost too obvious, as if the two structures were placed side by side so that the metaphors would be easier to make. As if that wasn’t on the nose enough, our bus drives by a big fire by the side of the road on the way back to the hotel. We get it: Some of the exciting prospects we saw are going to burn out, go up in smoke, end up on the compost pile, first figuratively and later literally speaking. No need for the visual cues.
But as of today, all those players have a chance to be big leaguers, and Almora looks like a sure thing. A player’s goal, Larson says, is to trick scouts into liking him for as long as he can. If Almora is a mirage, he’s quite a convincing one.