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Scouts Exercise Caution When Adjusting Grades

Scouting is oftentimes a balancing act between conviction and malleability, between the desire to get it right the first time and the willingness to accept and adjust to the changes a player goes through as he develops. What a scout sees in Class A might not be what he sees in Triple-A, and he must be able to change his report accordingly.

If we accept those facts, then the questions become: How does a scout discern the difference between an upgraded performance and truly upgraded tools and, ultimately, profile? And how much time has to pass to accept that something has changed from the initial look?

“The easy answer is: No time at all,” one scout said. “If you see him the first time and he’s a 50 and you see him the next time and he’s a 60, you’re telling your boss he’s a 60.”

But what has to change to upgrade the profile? What are the signs that a scout has to see to become convinced that a player’s future is something greater than what he saw the first time out? That can be tricky.

Take one scout’s looks at righthander Michael Kopech in 2015, in his first taste of full-season ball. In three starts for low Class A Greenville from April to June he saw a pitcher who gave him three markedly different looks. Development was happening, and it was altering his report.

“I saw Michael Kopech pitch three times, and each time he was a different guy. First time I saw him in Hagerstown and it was early May, and he sucked,” former pro scout Ryan Isaac said. “The stuff was good, but it was all over the place. If you’re going to walk away from that, you’re a (bad) scout. You’re just not doing your job. You’re not listening to what the (radar) gun is telling you.”

A few weeks later, things had changed. It was clear the Red Sox had seen something with their young flamethrower that needed refinement and had taken steps to address the issues in the meantime.

“Second start he was stretch-only, so, without talking to anyone in the Red Sox organization, I can say they’re simplifying things for him. His delivery was way out of control, and I put that in my first report,” Isaac said. “That allowed me to project a little. They’ve got to get this guy on-line. He’s athletic enough to do it. His arm is plenty live. He just needs to work on his direction to the plate.”

By the time Isaac saw Kopech the third time, the pitcher had been allowed to pitch from the windup again. The athleticism and dynamic repertoire that had contributed to his lofty prospect status were there all three times, but he also showed the aptitude and ability to make changes without sacrificing any of his natural gifts. That, in Isaac’s eyes, was reason enough to see an even brighter future for Kopech than he’d initially projected.

“What encouraged me after the second start was there was a change. There was a developmental adjustment made. He was no longer in the windup, because the Red Sox recognized that this guy is not capable of throwing consistent strikes with his current delivery,” Isaac said. “Whatever the plan was, it involved taking him out of his delivery and getting him out of the stretch, stretch only, to simplify getting the ball to the dish.

“Looking back on it now, he improved so much from April to June at 19 or 20. I don’t think most guys do that. He might have been the easiest one that I saw multiple times and was able to change my opinion, whether for a higher or lower grade.”

While a scout must be willing to change his grade based on developmental changes like the ones Kopech went through, that element of conviction must remain as well. Their experience, knowledge and talent got them hired in the first place, so there need to be times when they can separate a player’s ups and downs and go with their first instinct.

Talented players will have bad seasons, and non-prospects will put up big numbers. A good scout will have enough intuition to sift through the noise go with their guts.

“When I saw Eric Gagne in high school and when I saw Gavin Floyd in high school, I was locked in that those guys were going to be exactly what my report would be and I was lucky because Floyd went through a tidal wave of going backward,” longtime White Sox scout John Tumminia said. “Every time I went to see Floyd, he never pitched in the minor leagues the way I saw him as I projected in high school, but I kept putting good reports on him because I had a gut feeling that it was in there and it was just a matter of time with the right situation, the right person, the right environment, then it would come out.”

Floyd’s minor league career and early tastes of the major leagues were inconsistent. He blitzed the low minors over his first couple of seasons, then made his big league debut in 2004 before a return trip to Triple-A and a ugly stretch with the Phillies in 2005.

Still, Tumminia stayed on him. He had seen Floyd shine before, and he knew it could be unlocked again. The talent didn’t just disappear.

“When (the White Sox) made that trade to get him, not too many of our guys who saw him in the minor leagues were way, way high on him,” Tumminia said, “but I was high on him and it took (general manager) Kenny Williams to see him in the Arizona Fall League really good. That’s when he decided he was going to pull the trigger and try to get Gavin Floyd.”

The White Sox acquired Floyd and Gio Gonzalez in 2006 for Freddy Garcia, and Floyd was a part of the rotation for the next seven seasons.

Nowadays, scouts have even more tools in their bag to help them make decisions. Radar guns, stopwatches and intuition have been supplemented with analytics, TrackMan and high-end video footage. In some corners of the game, these tools have pushed scouts aside. In other organizations, they’re used as an enhancement rather than a replacement.

Tumminia was part of the brain trust that helped the White Sox pull the trigger on two huge trades at the 2016 Winter Meetings that kickstarted the organization’s teardown and overhaul. Part of that effort included a deal that sent outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals for a package of three righthanders—Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez.

Throughout his minor league career, Lopez had earned a reputation as a fireballer with two potentially above-average offspeed pitches. Because the Nationals were part of his coverage for years, Tumminia had long been impressed by Lopez. But it took a deeper look for him to become certain that he was a player the White Sox should acquire in a deal that could potentially shape the team’s fortunes.

Trevor Rogers (John Fisher Getty)

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“I watched him for five years in the minor leagues, and it took the TrackMan to push me over the edge, to pull the trigger and to like him and to recommend him. He was always in between his breaking ball,” Tumminia said. “Some guys would say it’s a power curveball, some said it was a slider, some said it was a backup slider, but the TrackMan was able to clear a lot of that up for me on the breaking ball.”

There’s also an element of time in play. For the especially raw prospects, the window to get in on the ground floor before other organizations see something in the player is sometimes very small. If the tools are there early, a scout has to be able to project quickly, accurately and confidently based on a sample that might be small and have come against a wide variety of competition.

These are the players organizations pick as wild cards to tack on to the end of trades. That’s part of how Fernando Tatis Jr. became a Padre, Francis Martes became an Astro and Freddy Peralta became a Brewer. Scouts saw them when they were raw, bet on the tools and pushed for them to be included in trades.

“If you wait, you end up missing him. If you wait the extra time to see if the player will get to his grade, chances are the team that owns him already or the industry has waited and now everybody knows who he is,” the first scout said. “It’s your job to get the player before the industry knows who he is.”

Ultimately, the best scouts work with the confidence in their own ability as well as the sense to override themselves when necessary. Or, as one scout put it: “Paint the picture and dream. Project, paint the picture and dream.”

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