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Scouting Players For Their Skills—Not How They Look—Builds Momentum In Age Of Analytics

Max Muncy Dodgers Kellygavingetty
(Photo by Kelly Gavin/Getty Images)

A glut of returning infielders from UC Irvine’s 2014 College World Series team forced then-freshman Keston Hiura to shift to the outfield before playing his first college game.

Hiura, a shortstop at Valencia (Calif.) High, eventually returned to the infield—but only after turning pro. The Brewers drafted him ninth overall in 2017 and developed him as a second baseman, beginning in 2018 after his throwing elbow healed.

But just as Hiura, 24, was preparing to improve his defense at second base last winter, the Brewers seized the opportunity for an upgrade by signing Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong.

That meant that Hiura, generously listed at 6 feet, would move to first base for a National League playoff contender despite having never played the position.

“It really doesn’t matter whether it’s the infield or the outfield,” said Hiura, who made 138 major league starts—all at second base or DH—prior to the 2021 season. “I love to find a way to get in the lineup. I think a lot of people realize that.”

And what has become more evident, especially in the last 10 years, is that players are no longer wedded or projected to specific positions based on their body types or the traditional tools-related profile prerequisites.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, stressed that scouts still look for physical characteristics, such as size, strength and speed.

“But with what’s happened in the last 10 to 20 years, if you hit, we find you a place to play,” Mozeliak said.

Mozeliak believes the trend gained traction circa 2009 with the Rays’ Ben Zobrist, a sound switch-hitter and natural shortstop who enhanced his value with his defensive versatility that former manager Joe Maddon and Mozeliak likened to a Swiss Army knife.

The Cardinals weren’t scared by Wong’s 5-foot-7 frame when they drafted him in the first round in 2011. They continued that trend with less risk in 2016 when they drafted 5-foot-10, switch-hitting Stanford shortstop Tommy Edman in the sixth round. Edman was employed at third base, second base and the outfield until the arrival of all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado last winter.

Edman has spent the majority of his playing time in 2021 at second base, but it may not be permanent.

With Arenado signed through 2027, the Cardinals shifted prospect third baseman Nolan Gorman, the club’s first-round pick in 2018, to second base at least on a part-time basis at Double-A Springfield.

“My point is rather than pigeonhole someone at a position and say, ‘This is your position,’ move (them) around,” Mozeliak said.

One American League scouting director didn’t believe the trend away from profiling players at each position according to their strongest tools represented a “drastic shift.” He concurred with Mozeliak’s assessment of versatility carrying a large emphasis, while adding that hitting is valued more in this era of increased velocity.

“A guy at the top (of the draft list) used to be a defensive guy, even if he batted .260,” the evaluator said. “Now teams are leaning the other way.

“Even if a defender has a 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) at shortstop, what are his offensive numbers in the minors?”

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, the second player selected in the 2013 draft, gradually quelled questions regarding whether his 6-foot-5 frame would be a deterrent to his ability to play third base. He earned the 2016 National League MVP award for the World Series champions.

Meanwhile, an emphasis on pitch-framing, accompanied by a decline in stolen bases, has shifted the pursuit of a catcher who can steal strikes over a rifle-armed thrower who could shut down a running game, like Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez did.

Tony Wolters signed with the Indians for $1.35 million as a third-round pick in 2010 as a 5-foot-10, lefthanded-hitting high school shortstop out of Vista, Calif. But Wolters’ path was blocked by Francisco Lindor, prompting a switch to catcher in 2013 that helped him build a big league career that entered its sixth season in 2021.

Wolters has earned playing time, mostly as a backup catcher, by consistently framing pitches well and converting them into strikes for his pitchers.

“A lot of mistakes are made by teams taking catchers with big arms,” an NL executive said. “Many of them can’t hit, anyway.

“Of course, you’re not going to pass up on taking a Buster Posey with the fifth pick (by the Giants in 2008). But you’re likely to get more offense out of the conversion guys.”

And the increase in defensive shifts has enabled teams to reduce the range and/or throwing demands of their most challenged infielder, while placing their trust in their best defender to protect nearly an entire side of
the infield.

The Cubs valued D.J. LeMahieu’s skills enough to draft him out of Louisiana State in the second round in 2009 as a second baseman despite his 6-foot-4 frame—once deemed to be the perfect height for a first baseman.

But LeMahieu’s defense has been excellent, as evidenced by his NL Gold Glove awards for the Rockies in 2014, 2017 and 2018. He departed for the Yankees in 2020 and has won two Silver Slugger awards in addition to expanding his defensive duties to first and third base.

Size might not matter in the Pirates organization, which features 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz.

“He has no problem with ground balls,” Pirates farm director John Baker said. “Three steps for him are five steps for other people. He’s remarkable to watch.”

Baker believes Cruz, 22, has the athletic ability to grow into a spot. That includes the outfield, where 6-foot-7 slugger Frank Howard spent a majority of his 16 seasons in the 1960s and ’70s.

Nick Madrigal Danielshirleygetty

The Shape Of Baseball Is Changing In 2021

The game is getting younger—and in some cases shorter and lighter.

But the Dodgers, one of Howard’s former teams, moved 5-foot-10 Steve Garvey from third base to first on a full-time basis in 1973 because of throwing issues. Garvey developed into a Gold Glove-caliber defender, and teams such as the Cardinals (Keith Hernandez) and Cubs (Mark Grace) sacrificed height and power at that position because they provided more contact and better defense, while ample power was supplied at other positions.

Scenarios such as smaller first basemen, such as Hiura, catchers known more for framing pitches and calling a game, and defenders who don’t possess the greatest range at demanding positions, have become more apparent in
recent years.

A consensus of executives and evaluators point to the increased presence of analytics, the search for more offense in an era of elite velocity and attempts to maximize 26-man rosters (with expanded bullpens) with more versatile position players.

“It used to be about the organization and their theories,” one AL pro scout said. “Now it’s an analytical thing. It’s more about positioning than the position player. It’s more customized.”

“It’s a reflection of this game, as a whole,” another AL pro scout said. “There was a time I never would have believed Mark Canha (of the Athletics) would look effective in center field, but his ultimate zone rating (a defensive metric displayed at FanGraphs) says he can play there.”

The decline of artificial turf surfaces, which are in use today in Tampa Bay, Texas and Toronto in the AL and Arizona and Miami in the NL, also has lessened the emphasis on defenders’ range and raw speed. The Blue Jays aren’t playing home games in the Rogers Centre this year because of the pandemic but will return there in the future.

“You don’t see a large number of guys who are 70-80 runners like you used to,” an NL executive said. “There aren’t many dual-sport guys. Sometimes you’re not getting the same athlete.”

The lack of speed is reflected by the gradual reduction of stolen base attempts, from 4,247 in 2000 to 3,112 in 2019. The rate of stolen bases attempted per nine innings in April this season was the lowest of the Expansion Era, even though the April success rate of 77.1% was the highest ever recorded in the first month of the season.

“The rule of thumb is that the bat carries a priority,” an NL crosschecker observed. “I thought in the past, the better teams had super-utility guys, like the Angels had with Chone Figgins.

“Arm strength is never that big of a priority, unless you’re David Eckstein, who played shallow until he got on that Toronto turf and got exposed.”

The Dodgers, who have won eight consecutive NL West division titles and have appeared in three of the last four World Series, winning it all in 2020, present an interesting blend.

“They have what it takes to be great,” the AL amateur scouting director said. “They still play defense, run and hit. They’re good on both halves of an inning.”

Yet, the NL executive credited the Dodgers for thinking outside the box, from transforming catcher Kenley Jansen and infielder Pedro Baez (now with Astros) into effective relievers; converting infielders like Russell Martin and Carlos Santana into catchers; and drafting two-way high school players James Loney and Alex Verdugo (now with the Red Sox) as position players, even though many scouts favored them on the mound.

And one of their latest finds was signing stout infielder Max Muncy after he was released by the Athletics in 2017 and playing him half the time at first base, where he hit 33 of his 70 homers in 2018 and 2019.

Muncy is listed at 6 feet, which was once considered short for a first baseman. But as the adage states: If a player hits, his team will find a place to play him.

“There’s a trend toward maximizing the potential,” said the executive, adding that the Dodgers moved Joe Ferguson from the outfield to catcher and Bill Russell from outfield to shortstop in the 1970s.

“I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel. You look at every angle of a ballclub. The difference is it’s more necessary now because of the changing of pitchers for virtually every batter.”

For small-market teams like the Brewers, steering away from stereotypes is the norm.

“I think we’re less strict with the thought that everything has to be a square peg in a square hole, everything has to fit perfectly,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re willing to try more things. In markets like
ours, we’re going to try more things because we have to.

“You have to be creative in how you put together your roster. You have to be creative and flexible in how you put it together and think of different solutions. And I think the way the game is now set up, it’s forced people and organizations to be as creative as they possibly can.

“Then we’ve figured how to value different things, whether it’s defense or a hitter or what is the value of a tall first baseman. I think we’ve all figured different things, and each team values different things.”

Two years before Hiura moved from second base to first, the Brewers shifted Mike Moustakas from third base to second despite playing third exclusively in each of his previous eight seasons in the big leagues. Moustakas was drafted as a shortstop and played it for his first two pro seasons.

The move was mitigated by the Brewers’ emphasis on shifts. They led the NL in 2018 with 1,462 shifts, according to Sports Information Systems, and that increased by 314 in 2019 partly due to Moustakas appearing in 40 games at second.

And now, “I realize I don’t have to range that far to my right because of Kolten,” Hiura said.

But this season, one year after signing a four-year contract with the Reds, Moustakas returned to third base—with Eugenio Suarez moving to shortstop and Jonathan India, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft, moving to second base despite playing most of his amateur and minor league career at third.

The AL pro scout, however, warned of the perils of moving players to non-traditional positions, especially with shifts and sacrificing a large portion of one side of the infield to defend.

“The game speeds up,” the scout said. “You see second basemen who can’t turn routine double plays because the third baseman is out of position.

“If you change the game, you change the player.”

Even Counsell admitted Hiura’s switch to first requires patience.

“It’s been a learning progression for him over there,” Counsell said. “I still think he’s going to be very good over there. But what we found out is that first base is one of the more challenging positions because of how different it is, how different it is than the other positions.

“And so there are a lot of different plays over there, and I think he’s making progress. There have been some hiccups along the way, but I think you move a middle infielder over to a corner of the field and you’re going to get a good defensive player in the end, and I think he’s on his way to that.”

Hiura continued to work on his defensive play at Triple-A Nashville after being optioned there on May 3, one day before minor league Opening Day. After a strong rookie season in 2019, Hiura had struggled through the past two seasons, batting .196/.284/.372 in 85 games with a 35% strikeout rate.

Maddon, who thrives on his “be comfortable uncomfortable” slogan, wasn’t afraid to start second baseman Tommy La Stella 10 times at first base during the 60-game 2020 season with the Angels, despite La Stella standing closer to 5-foot-9 than his listed 5-foot-11 height.

But La Stella didn’t commit an error in 74 chances.

“We put Tommy there to get his bat in the lineup, plain and simple,” Maddon said of La Stella, who has since returned to second base with the Giants. “He worked at it and gave it a great effort. He maybe won’t make some of the plays that an Anthony Rizzo or J.T. Snow can make, but we took it based on his bat as a first baseman or as a leadoff hitter.”

Maddon stressed there is a limit to pushing the boundaries of your defense with more offense-oriented players.

“I don’t undervalue first base defense,” Maddon said. “First base defense increases confidence in your infielders. It saves errors and runs. I love a lefthanded first baseman because of the ability to tag with that right hand and ability to cover the hole (between first and second).

“As we continue to try to re-create the game, there will be different inefficiencies. The concern is always about unintended consequences. They’ll show up at some point. But on the surface, I want a really good first baseman.

“I still want a catcher who knows what he’s doing back there, knows how to handle pitchers in spite of having an electronic strike zone. And why wouldn’t you want a strong defender on the field? It just shows up, especially on the infield. We’ll see how it plays out.

“I’ve started games with a lesser defensive player who can really hit, but my intent was to always get him out after three at-bats with a lead.”

Maddon’s preferred script worked perfectly in the 2015 NL Wild Card Game against the Pirates when he started left fielder Kyle Schwarber in right field because he had less territory to cover at spacious PNC Park.

Schwarber hit an RBI single and a two-run home run off Gerrit Cole in his first two at-bats before he was pulled for defensive purposes in the seventh inning.

The White Sox drafted first baseman Andrew Vaughn of California with the third overall pick in 2019 despite the presence of Jose Abreu, who signed a three-year, $50 million contract five months later and won AL MVP honors in the truncated 2020 season.

The White Sox projected the 6-foot, 215-pound Vaughn as a fast-track player on the basis of his blend of power and discipline, which he displayed by batting .374 with 50 home runs, 123 walks and just 75 strikeouts in three college seasons.

The original plan for Vaughn was to start 2021 in the minor leagues to make up for at-bats and defensive work lost to the coronavirus pandemic, with a midseason promotion realistic.

Vaughn received extensive work at third base last July before Yoan Moncada returned after a bout of Covid. But the script changed dramatically with one week left in spring training, when left fielder Eloy Jimenez suffered a season-threatening pectoral injury.

Vaughn, who already was competing for an Opening Day spot as a DH despite playing in just 55 minor league games, all in 2019, received a crash course in left field and had played adequate defense in limited time.

The emergence of Yermin Mercedes cut into Vaughn’s at-bats, but the White Sox are confident Vaughn will become a full-time producer in the near future.

“There’s so much emphasis on getting the bat right,” White Sox farm director Chris Getz said. “Hitting is difficult to predict. We’re getting better with more data, exit velocity and how it plays out.

“We’re reminded of the tools—throwing, running and raw power. But now you worry about the position later.”

Baker, 40, who converted from first base to catcher as a freshman at Cal before playing parts of seven seasons with the Marlins, Padres and Cubs, stressed that pitch-framing is only one of several skills he prefers that a catcher master.

“There’s still work to be done,” Baker said. “It’s not an easy position. There’s throwing, blocking, relationships and pitch-calling. There’s more bandwidth on it. I hope they don’t go away.”

Furthermore, Getz tempered some of the scrutiny attached to pitch-framing statistics. Five-time AL Gold Glove winner Salvador Perez, Getz’s former teammate with the Royals, is a net positive behind the plate despite a below-average ability to frame strikes.

At the same time, Getz was pleased with White Sox 2016 first-round pick Zack Collins, a catcher from Miami, who avoided a position change by improving his pitch-framing with a new technique.

“Pitch-framing can be deceptive,” Getz said. “The strike zone is a factor, especially if there’s more north and south movement. You’re also handling a different pitching staff year to year.”

Maddon, 67, grew up a fan of the Cardinals and loved how Lou Brock’s speed impacted the game in the 1960s and ’70s.

But Maddon has adjusted without the prototypical speedster at the top of the order, while maximizing the skills of a versatile player like Zobrist during his days in Tampa Bay and Chicago. He has overseen a converted third baseman like Willson Contreras improve his pitch-framing to complement his throwing abilities with the Cubs.

“It comes down to organizational philosophy,” said Maddon, who spent 14 seasons in player development before joining the Angels’ major league coaching staff in 1994. “We all have our own perceptions of what’s the right way to do things, and that’s great. And that’s the way the world should operate.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right way.”

—Mark Gonzales is a veteran baseball writer based in Chicago

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