Scouting The Showcases

Image credit: Grayson Rodriguez (Photo by Cliff Welch)

With the summer showcase circuit in the rear-view mirror, major league teams now have a wealth of information on the 2019 high school draft class and are currently in the process of separating players into tiers and preparing for the fall season. 

While the game doesn’t change at the summer showcases, the scouting process does have a few noticeable differences from the spring. Area scouts from across the country, national crosscheckers and scouting directors all—for the most part—are at the same fields and events, watching the same players at the same time. 

The summer showcase circuit is the first step in a year-long process that culminates in final draft boards each June. 

“I think a lot of people (unfamiliar with the process) say, ‘The draft’s over, let’s shut it down for the summer,’” a National League scouting coordinator said. “The summer may be more important.”

Baseball America caught up with three different evaluators at various levels of the scouting hierarchy to discuss the benefits, pitfalls and differences of scouting the showcase circuit, as compared to the more traditional evaluation process that occurs during the spring high school season.

All Hail History

“I think the biggest benefit for us,” the NL coordinator said, “is building history and seeing these guys a ton and seeing them at the beginning of the summer versus the end of the summer.”

History was brought up as a benefit of the showcase circuit by each source, but more important than just logging more at-bats is the quality of the at-bats that evaluators are watching. Hitters from weaker regions of the country are able to showcase their offensive ability against the premium arms of the draft class, often facing premium velocity for the first and only time in front of scouts. 

“More likely in high school, they are facing kids who won’t even get to (junior college) baseball,” said an NL area scout. 

During the spring, teams are pressed for time because national evaluators will have to determine which players get seen on a daily basis from March through June. With the top players in the country coming to the same events at showcases—Under Armour All-America Game, East Coast Pro, Area Code Games and the Perfect Game All-American Classic—that’s not an issue.

“During the spring, you only have so much time,” the coordinator said, “so a lot of our guys—especially crosscheckers, regional guys, national guys—are getting one, maybe two looks at these players from whenever they start in March to the draft. So in order to make really good decisions, you need to have history with these players. See how they handle the wood bat. See how they do against velocity and pitching.”

The crosschecker referenced outfielder Garrett Whitley, whom the Rays selected 13th overall in 2015.

“Three years ago, he’s playing in upstate New York, facing 84 (mph) in his high school. You can go and see the tools, but you need to see him face the best competition all year long.”

A New Perspective

“I’m glad that my organization lets me go out and see all the players from all over the country,” said the area scout. “It’s a big plus for me. I get to see what’s going on.”

Another benefit of the showcase season has nothing at all to do with the reps of the players, but the reps of the area scouts themselves. Many clubs will use the showcase circuit as an evaluation tool for their own scouts, because many different people within the scouting department will turn in reports of the same players based on the same looks. 

Perhaps more importantly, the area scouts are able to get out of their own regional mindset for a few weeks. They can watch their area’s top players compete against the top players from around the country to get a better sense of how individual players stack up from a national perspective.

“If you don’t have pro coverage, I think you have to go and see all the other high school kids in the country,” the area scout said. “Because you need a scale and you need to take your eyes off of your bubble. I hate to say it, but sometimes we get too emotional and too attached, and we think just because this kid is in my area that he’s my guy.”

The Peril Of Pitchers

Scouts must exercise caution when evaluating pitchers at showcases such as Perfect Game National.

“They can come in and throw 94-95 (mph), and you’re saying it’s a 60 fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale),” the NL coordinator said. “You watch him in his high school season and he’s 91-92 and everyone asks, ‘What happened?’”

What happened is the game changes more for pitchers than it does for hitters in the showcase circuit. The Under Armour and Perfect Game All-America games are perfect examples of this. Each pitcher in both games gets an inning or two to show what they can do. In almost every case, they air out their fastballs with no regard for stamina.

“He might throw enough strikes,” the NL cross­checker said, “but then you show up in the spring and you don’t like his arm action and he doesn’t command the ball.”

The Area Code Games and East Coast Pro are a bit better, with pitchers throwing up to three or four innings. However, scouts don’t get to see how pitchers turn over a lineup with secondary offerings and can’t reliably know whether a pitcher’s velocity from a given day is the range where he sits or where he peaks. For this reason, scouts try to put more emphasis on ease of operation and physical projectability.

“The one thing I look at in a pitcher is what’s going on in the back,” the area scout said. “I’m trying to see if his delivery is loose, free and easy. Does he have a clean arm circle in the back? Is there some good length to it that projects with velocity? Or does he have a short compact action where he comes up and grabs the ball off his pocket?” 

The coordinator summed up what scouts look for in pitchers: “You’re looking for bodies, projection and the way (his arm) works.”

A pitcher who meets those qualifications could be poised for a breakout the following spring. Texas high school righthander Grayson Rodriguez was that guy for the 2018 draft, when the Orioles took him 11th overall.

“(Rodriguez) was 88-92 (mph),” said the coordinator, referring to the 2017 showcase circuit, “and then all of the sudden this spring he’s throwing 97. So just have those guys in the back of your mind, because the summer gives you a chance to be more aggressive than you are in the spring. You’re more willing to just flip reports in on guys who have bodies, actions, tools . . . just so you have something.”

Hang With The Hitters 

“Jo Adell was a gigantic swing-and-miss kid in the summertime,” the area scout said. “It was insane.”

If teams scouted based on whiffs and results alone, Adell almost assuredly would not have been the No. 10 overall pick by the Angels in 2017. Fortunately for the outfielder, he overflowed with high-end tools, and teams seem willing to give hitters the benefit of the doubt for small-sample summer performances.

Adell has hit so well as a pro that he reached Double-A this summer.

“Since (Adell) made a good jump when he got in a good system, it made me last year not turn my back on (Mississippi high school outfielder) Joe Gray,” the area scout said. “He’s a plus athlete all around, just like Adell, but I kept Joe Gray alive on my pref list. It wasn’t my area, but I kept him alive because once he gets into a good system, it may work.”

The Brewers selected Gray in the second round this year.

Since not all hitters see premium stuff all year, scouts are more willing to give them a pass on their results—especially when coupled with pitchers airing it out over short stints. If the tools, athleticism and the quality of contact are all there, then poor results likely won’t sink a hitter’s stock.

“If a guy can take consistently good swings and make consistently good contact against good pitchers (that’s important),” the crosschecker said. “Because it’s easier to see a (pitcher) two or three times. Sometimes, we don’t give hitters enough credit in that event for, ‘Hey, this guy can square some balls up.’”

One-Eyed Scouting

Perhaps the biggest difference in scouting summer showcases versus spring games is the scope of the process. During the summer, teams can afford—and in many instances should prefer—to evaluate the class broadly and save in-depth looks for the spring. 

“One of the best lines I’ve heard is from a former scouting director,” the crosschecker said. “He said, ‘You scout in the summer with one eye and you scout in the spring with two.’ 

“What he means by that is you’re identifying guys and putting down what they have a chance to be, but you’re staying fluid for guys to improve. 

“You’re really focusing on: Do they profile? Do they have the equipment for the position? Do they separate themselves? Then you go in the spring and now you might start noticing some things in the swing and other things that you didn’t because you were watching the whole field. I don’t think you should get too nitpicky in the summer.”

Don Pries, who used to run the MLB Scouting Bureau, always used the phrase “is a follow” and encouraged scouts to stay open-minded.

“A lot of kids go back in the winter and improve, assess what they are going to do and change their bodies—some for the better, some for the worse,” the crosschecker said. “What he meant was: just a follow report. The draft is 9-11 months away, so we’re not asking you to make a decision. 

“Just put players in categories. A scout should always be separating players, putting them in different categories. But don’t lock in and think you can walk in the ballpark in the spring and have the (full) report written.”

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