Welcome to Scout School
By Josh Boyd
Trying to identify potential big leaguers has proven to be even more difficult. Just 10 percent of players who sign professional contracts reach the major leagues.
Even with such long odds, though, scouting is much more than a guessing game. While forms of scouting have been around since the early days of the game, it is a diligent art that has evolved in the modern era of baseball.
The ultimate goal for a scout is to discover, scout and sign a prospect who will eventually reach the major leagues. "We're looking for future big leaguers, not guys who are going to play in Oklahoma City," longtime scout Jim Walton says. "We scout tools and mechanics, not performance."
Until 1989, when the Major League Scouting Bureau decided to put on a yearly clinic to develop scouts, there was no formal training. Some scouts still begin their careers with little guidance.
"I thought it was a great idea to put together a manual and a plan to work with for the prospective scout," says Don Pries, the scouting bureau's director from 1985-98 and current coordinator of instruction for the Major League Scout Development Program.
Knowing that my chances of attending an Ivy League school were dashed before I hit my freshman year in high school, I figured my desire to attend scout school was also just a dream. Thanks to the bureau and director Frank Marcos, however, an exception was made for an associate editor/wannabe scout to participate this year. Despite sneaking in through the back door, my goal was to prove that I was worthy of the program.
It's a program that has taught the rudiments of scouting to more than 400 students, and 70 percent of the graduates continue to work in baseball. The alumni list includes area scouts, crosscheckers, supervisors, scouting directors, farm directors, Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson and White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.
"The most gratifying result of it is the alumni list and to see individuals advance in the industry," Pries says.
Marcos, Pries' successor as director of the scouting bureau, said the scouting fraternity runs deep: "When you go to ballparks after this, you will run into people who have been through this."
The class of 2001 featured many familiar names from the baseball world. Several were former players such as Brian Barber, Antonio Grissom, Danny Haas, Derek Lee, Steve Mintz and Stacey Pettis. Some already work in administrative positions and some were already scouting.
Still, not every student is a future scout, nor does every organization intend them to be one. For some, the idea of establishing the foundation of basic player-evaluation skills is vital to any front-office role.
"It has evolved from just a training program for prospective scouts to a place where individuals can broaden their base in the professional baseball industry," Pries says. "Any executive with the goal or desire to be a GM, it's in his best interest to understand the scouting profession. When front-office people gather, it's in their best interest to fully understand what is being discussed."
Royals GM Allard Baird, a former scouting supervisor and national crosschecker, agrees. "I didn't go to scout school, but I wish I had," he says. "Your judgment is as good as your scale, and your scale is as good as your judgment. Scout school quantifies it down and gives you a scale of judgment and then allows your instincts to take over."
For former players, scout school represents a new beginning, the next stage in their baseball lives. Royals center fielder Willie Wilson, who collected 2,207 hits over his 19-year career, matriculated through the two-week program just like anyone else. A 2000 grad, Wilson got a job in player development with the Diamondbacks.
Barber, the Cardinals' 1991 first-round pick; former Twins outfielder Lee and Mintz represent this year's ex-big leaguers. They are fresh off their playing days and have set their sights on a new dream.
"The last two years of my career, when I knew I would have to find another way to stay involved in the game, I started thinking about it," says Barber, who was released by the Cardinals in spring training. He met with Baird, who had scouted him at Dr. Phillips High in Orlando in the early 1990s and decided to sponsor him.
"I always told him I thought he had a good sense and feel for the game," Baird says. "I thought it was in his best interest, from an awareness standpoint, to experience (scout school)."
"I really didn't have a clue as to what we were going to do," Barber says of his expectations of the program. "The main thing is I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I wasn't real positive about riding around small towns on buses as a coach. But (at scout school) I figured out that this is what I want to do."
Lee, sponsored by the Athletics thanks to his longstanding relationship with GM Billy Beane, entered with a similar approach.
"When I was playing," Lee says, "I didn't want to think about doing anything else. Toward the end, I would start thinking along with the manager during the game to get a feel for coaching--something I am interested in still. My ultimate goal is to be a manager or a GM.
"It's a first-class program. They are teaching you the right way. I could have used another two weeks. I couldn't imagine getting a job where they said, 'Here's your stopwatch and go.' "
But that is often the case. Kevin Clouser began scouting the Northwest for the Pirates in March, the heart of the amateur scouting season, but didn't get the formal training of the development program until this fall.
"The first couple of days of class, I was thinking, 'Don't tell everyone these things,' because they were things I had to learn the hard way," says Clouser, who scouted and signed 12th-rounder Tim Brown in his first year on the job. "I wish I would have had that before I started in March. My report writing is so much clearer and more concise now."
On day one, we learn those things that previously came only with scouting experience. We learn what scouting is: Judgment, discipline, conviction, communication, organization, salesmanship and intelligent reporting. And what it isn't: "Sitting in the sun, writing numbers in little boxes."
Scouting is much, much more. Evaluating players is the basis of scouting, and with the evolution of the game and the money involved today, it has to be.
"Scouting is the grassroots of baseball," Pries says. "It is the part that is most important. We go out and decide who can play and who can't."
Over the course of the 12-day seminar, we built a foundation for making these critical decisions about players. After all, telling a scouting director, "He can play, let me tell you why," or "He can't play and here's why," gives a scout some serious clout.
"The most important person in the game is the area scout," Baird says. "He can make or break an organization with a $1 million decision."
So, where do you start?
Before we start evaluating prospects' tools, we needed our own tools for the job. Everyone got an official straw scout hat adorned with the MLB logo, though not everyone looked as cool in it as Twins representative and former minor leaguer Tim Moore. We were also equipped with scouting cards, binders and notebooks.
A cool hat and a notebook full of scouting cards do not make a scout--but at least some of us looked the part.
We set out to rate players' tools. If you read Baseball America, you know the five tools for a position player are hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing arm and speed.
First, though, we needed a standard way of looking at tools, so we had to learn the standard 2-to-8 scouting scale (some organizations prefer to use a 20-80 scale). A grade of 5 on any tool is considered major league average.
The first tool we focused on was the throwing arm. Pries and Walton broke down arm strength, arm action and delivery before the class headed out on its first scouting mission--a Giants-Padres instructional league game.
We got to the park early to watch infield. In scouting, perhaps nothing is as important as watching pregame infield practice.
"The first judgment you'll make when you walk into a park is can he throw or can't he throw," Pries says.
Walton said an average arm allows a player to make the routine play. As with all tools, you won't find many 8 arms out there, but Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki are good examples.
"Guys with good mechanics will become good players," Walton says. "Recognize athletes and what they will do down the road."
In order to judge arm strength, he told us to look for "on-line carry"--the trajectory and carry of the ball. The program's 200-page manual, filled with more than a half-century worth of scouting ideas and philosophies, adds, "Most strong-armed outfielders' throws will skip and appear to take off upon contacting the ground."
"Can the center fielder carry the mound from 280 feet with one skip to the plate?" he asks. The same throw that makes two skips would be downgraded to a four.
Carry comes from proper mechanics, strength, quickness and hand speed. Proper leverage--when the elbow is even with the shoulder--can also create the 12-to-6 rotating spin on the ball. This keeps the ball on line. The key is in the release. Players who don't execute the release tend to have their throws tail or sink. "With movement, you lose velocity and distance," Walton says.
Arm strength can be improved by proper follow-through, arm angle and positioning before the throw. The degree of improvement, though, will usually be slight.
Scouts are often accused of falling in love with athletes over players who have baseball skills, but the truth is the more athletic and flexible a player is, the more likely he is to improve.
"Muscular, short-armed athletes will usually not show plus arm strength," according to the manual.
Despite only watching the Padres and Giants take infield, our first day in the field provided us an opportunity to see the difference between a 5 or 6 arm and 3 or 4. Because scouts generally see a fielder make just a handful of throws--and may not even get the opportunity to see him throw during the game--the rule is if the player shows his arm strength once, it's there.
Fielding goes right along with throwing, and you can make a lot of judgments on this tool during infield as well. Again, scouts are hunting for players who make it look easy. "A live, active lower body, quick feet, agility, instinct, and alertness are some of the qualities that go into making a major league infielder," the manual says. As with all tools, the scout has to decide whether a fielder's poor habits are correctable.
Fielding is most important with catchers, a position where defense can carry a player to the majors. A catcher must show at least an average arm and sound receiving skills. "Some catchers who lack a power arm can still become a prospect, if they show a quick release with an accurate throw," Pries says.
Catcher is also an easy spot to ignore during the game. I found myself taking the catcher for granted at times, but you can't ignore what he does on each pitch. How his feet work and the way he receives the ball can be telling signs of how strong he is defensively.
After we returned to the classroom after each game, Pries would ask us how many balls the catcher dropped that day. Silence. "How many got by him?" he would ask. He knew most of us didn't know the exact number. He not only knew the number, but he also noticed when a catcher for the A's was breaking in a new glove in the early innings of a game, before switching between innings.
Fielding and arm strength are important, though we'd be foolish to write a player off before we see him swing the bat. "The bat is the great equalizer," Pries says.
Hitting is the most difficult judgment of all scouting categories, especially at the amateur level. Certain attributes are found in most quality hitters: strength and bat speed, full arm extension and follow-through after making contact, the head staying on the ball, a lack of fear, a short stride, and the ball jumping off the bat.
"The quality bat will make up for a lot of defensive weaknesses, but it must be quality--meaning high average, strong home run power, or both," Pries says.
Complicating matters, not all good hitters have all those attributes. "Some hitters are natural hitters. They may do some strange things, but they can and do hit," Pries says. "Don't be concerned with their uniqueness. They can just hit. Leave them alone."
We scouted several hitters with unique approaches, though not necessarily the pure hitters Pries was referring to. Everyone can spot the great players, but it is separating the fringe prospects--who can play from those who can't.
The radar gun and the stopwatch are the two most recognizable tools in the scouting industry. They have to be taken as just that--tools--though the stopwatch makes running ability the easiest of the tools to grade.
Running times are graded from when the ball hits the bat to the time the hitter touches first base. Times can be misleading, however, and are helpful only when you believe the player ran his best down the line. Otherwise, you'll have to judge him on how well he runs mechanically. A hitter's swing may restrict him from getting out of the box and down the line, but it may not mean he is a below-average runner.
While it's easy to fall in love with the hard numbers generated by these tools, the gun and the watch can't tell you everything. Speed and power are exciting, and necessary for most players to play any professional sport. But an 8 runner doesn't automatically make a prospect, and a 95 mph fastball doesn't mean a pitcher can get hitters out in the major leagues. The term "usable" applies here.
One scout-school graduate, now an area scout, explained how ludicrous it would be to grade Greg Maddux' fastball as a 4 based on velocity. "It's an 8 fastball with 8 movement and 4 velocity," he says.
A perfect example of this was a young lefthander we scouted from the Giants. Though his fastball showed above-average velocity, not everyone in the class was sold on his mechanics or pitching savvy. We were divided over his potential.
I was a believer in this high-risk, high-reward player. His arm worked well when he threw in the bullpen, as he fired nice and easy 95 mph pellets popping the catcher's mitt, and hard sliders darting through the zone.
I was ready to anoint him the next Randy Johnson, until I got back to the classroom and learned a couple of valuable lessons. One, what a pitcher does in the bullpen is separate from what he does in the game, and indeed the lefthander showed me two different sides. My excitement over him was tempered, though in my inexperienced scouting opinion, his mechanics looked correctable after seeing him work effortlessly in the pen.
Therein lies the second lesson: "Scouting is an opinion," Pries says. Nobody is wrong. "If it were an exact science, we wouldn't be here. It's a subjective business; have conviction in what you believe in." Again, my excitement over the Giants southpaw soared.
This led the class into an in-depth discussion on velocity. We all agreed speed can't be taught, so it's natural to get excited about it. Once we identify speed, as Walton explains, we have to consider other factors, because as we all know the radar gun doesn't tell the whole story.
Some scouts might rely too much on the numbers generated by the gun, though not the scouts who have gone through this program. Pries, an industry veteran of 57 years, began scouting before the use of radar guns became prevalent and always looks beyond velocity. "I looked for how many times hitters swung and missed and how many groundballs were hit," he says.
We grade pitchers on their fastball, fastball movement, curveball, control, change of pace (changeup), slider, any other pitches they have, poise, baseball instincts and aggressiveness. While all of the grades are important factors in evaluation, the scouting bureau uses four of the categories to derive the ultimate grade of Overall Future Potential.
In pitching, the grades of the fastball, curveball, slider and other pitch are used to determine OFP. For hitters, the common five tools are used. Tools are graded both on a player's present ability and his future potential in each of these categories.
What does the fastball do? Major league hitters will crush a straight fastball, regardless of velocity. What type of rotation does the ball have? A four-seam fastball rotates 12-to-six and tends to ride through the strike zone. "They appear to be straight, but they have late giddyup," Walton says.
Roger Clemens' outstanding four-seamer bores in and jams righthanded hitters. Two-seamers typically have more tail or running action, depending on the pitcher's release point. "Most will sink or tail," Walton says, citing Kevin Brown as a standard.
The next things to look for are the "crooked pitches," as Walton calls them. We have to determine what type of breaking pitch a pitcher uses, and again how usable it is.
"Curveballs do curve," he says. "The best curveball has tight rotation and has late break in strike zone--a knee-buckler."
A slider is a modified curveball. A true slider is thrown hard, with tight rotation, and should have a sharp, short bite in the zone. We don't see many of them and they're hard to identify.
Most so-called sliders are actually slurves. They break from the pitcher's hand to the glove, and are typically flat-breaking pitches that stay on one plane. "Most slurves come about because of (lack of) arm speed," Walton says.
When it comes to projecting young pitchers, arm action is everything. "The less physical stress a pitcher is in, the better chance he'll have to use his arm," he says.
To pick up arm action and delivery distinctions, we watch a pitcher from the opposite side of his throwing hand, to see balance, rhythm and where he lands, as well as the involvement of the legs in the delivery. We also look at mechanics, such as the arm arch after the pitcher separates from the glove during a windup. Pitchers who short-arm their delivery are difficult to project in terms of velocity.
One scout says the first two things to look for in evaluating a pitcher are his direction toward the plate and his head. "Look where his front foot lands related to his front shoulder," he says. "Look for a quiet head. If he's a head-jerker, that shows a lot of effort, and it will be hard to repeat his delivery enough. He has a chance to get better if his arm works well."
Evaluating tools is only part of the equation.
"Evaluation is the easy part, letting him show you what he can do," one scout explains. "The hard part is to decide if he will have the aptitude to make adjustments, and if he's smart enough to take the criticism the right way, along with his makeup and all of the other puzzle pieces that make them big leaguers."
Scouts have to be organized and have good administrative ability. Writing accurate, succinct reports is a skill that can't be overlooked. Again, this is critical if a scout wants his scouting director to seriously consider drafting a prospect he has turned in.
After setting a foundation for evaluation on the first two days of class, we attended games--from instructional league to Arizona Fall League to college to high school--every day until graduation day. Our homework included writing free-agent scouting reports on two assigned players daily. Our instructors critiqued our reports and evaluation skills every day as well.
Free-agent reports are designed to paint a picture of a prospect for a scouting director. The scouting bureau reports are broken into three main sections: personal information, grades on the 2-to-8 scale, and the text to back up the grade. A scouting director should be able to read the text summary of the report and get a complete picture of the prospect and what type of future he has.
Each day a scout should say to himself, "Today is the day I am going to find a major league player," Pries says. "You are the decision-maker. You are telling the scouting director, 'Here is a player who is going to play in the major leagues.' Your convictions must be strong."
The 12-day crash course concluded with a graduation ceremony and some encouraging words from Pries.
"They are more on their way to being a better scout," Marcos says. "They are further advanced and more prepared. The time necessary to train a scout is extensive, but this program offers a full and complete opportunity to train them in depth."
Jackson attended scout school in 1995 and was promoted from assistant director of minor league operations to the Royals assistant director of scouting and player development the day after he graduated. After a detour through the Reds organization, he has returned to the Royals as assistant GM, putting his scouting background to use.
"It builds a foundation and an appreciation for the area scout and the things they have to deal with and the diligence required for that job," Jackson says. "That's where it all starts. You're only as good as the talent you get. Player development can only do so much, and you have to identify and evaluate major league talent at an early level."
Learning from a panel of experienced, professional scouts alongside 35 other students with a passion for the national pastime was an honor. The opportunity to draw knowledge from two of the most respected men in the game, Pries and Marcos, is an experience we will all continue to build upon, whichever direction we take in the game, or in life. I can now proudly say as a member of the class of 2001, "Today is the day I am going to find a major leaguer."
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