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New Landscape Benefits Scouting

By Alan Matthews
October 12, 2005

2005 Baseball For The Ages:
The Top Players From Ages 12-25
2005 Youth Player Of The Year: Robert Stock
Opportunity, Demands Explode For Youth Players

In the 1979 draft the Twins made an obscure outfielder from Nekoosa, Wis., named Kevin Brandt, the 11th overall pick. Little more than a year later Brandt was unceremoniously released, having compiled a career .155 average with one home run in 47 games.

Brandt, who was 18 when he was released, sold the Twins based almost exclusively on a one-day power display during a workout in Wisconsin Rapids. No other organization had him rated as highly as a first-round pick.

Brandt's story is an extreme case that in and of itself is hard to believe, but its premise serves as one of the fundamentals of evaluating amateur players today.

Differing opinions of the most accurate and reliable methods of scouting are as prevalent as the stories such as Brandt's of the once-promising prospect turned bust. But a common belief of all scouting philosophies is that the more data that can be collected, the more accurate the assessment will be.

The Twins didn't know a lot about Kevin Brandt, and they took a chance the tool he showed that afternoon in the workout would carry him to the big leagues. Today he wouldn't sniff the first round and while some organizations might take a flier on him in a later round, others would run the other way. The uncertainty typically associated with evaluating young players has led organizations to concentrate on drafting players with a more extensive track record of performance.

Until recently, that meant focusing on college players in the draft. But as illustrated in our feature on the changing landscape of amateur baseball, the culture of youth and high school baseball has changed. Players as young as 8 are assuming schedules that include as many as 70 summer league games, and high school schedules have expanded exponentially.

Coaches and scouts might not agree about the effects of the more rigorous schedule today’s youth players play, they do agree that the amount and type of baseball being played in this era make the job of judging players somewhat easier.

Scouts and college coaches have benefited greatly from the frequency with which the game is being played by younger players and especially from the advent of showcases, some of which feature hundreds of the top prep players in the country gathered in one place.

There, running speeds are measured with laser timers. Radar guns are used to clock velocities not only from the mound but from the outfield, the infield and even catchers' throws to second base. Hitters take lengthy batting practices using wood bats. Then games are played where numerous pitchers with above-average velocity and offspeed stuff face off against bigger, stronger, more skilled hitters.

All of this serves as an invaluable forum for talent evaluators.

"The reason we believe we can have as much conviction in drafting a high school player in his senior year is partly because of the alteration of the culture that has evolved now," Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff said. "It's not a secret, but we scoff at . . . the drafting of the college guy because you know more about them. That concept is silly, because I can tell you we know as much or more about many of the high school players we're evaluating than the college guy."

That conviction comes from the increasing number of opportunities afforded to colleges and major league organizations like the Twins to observe high school-age players. What makes the broad scope of exposure Marcus Lemon designed for himself this spring and summer so remarkable isn't its exhaustive nature as much as the fact that he was just one of thousands of players his age doing it. Players from across the country stand in line at the same registration tables every week. Different city. Different venue. Different event. But by in large, the same elite players—and the scouts for major league organizations--are following the same rigorous schedules.

"There are guys that, for one month straight, we might as well ride in the same car with them," Radcliff said. "We can see multiple players and multiple scouts can see certain players as many as 15 games (a month in the summer). You can combine 20 days of travel into two days. You couldn't do that 15 or 20 years ago."

As a result, organizations like the Twins believe the advantage that once came with the college-heavy draft philosophy is muted. By combining dozens of reports written by multiple scouts on a single player from everything from showcases to high school games, private workouts to wide-scale tournaments, practically every possible angle of evaluation can be covered.

The lone caveat, perhaps, is projection, which remains a significant element in all evaluation, but especially with younger players. Seeing a player more often when he’s 17 doesn’t necessarily make it easier to project what his body will look like when he’s 25.

Radcliff, among other well-respected talent evaluators, is willing to take his chances with projection, especially when other intangibles, such as makeup and the player's feel for the game--playability and pitchability--can be more accurately gauged.

"Those are sometimes the unknown sixth or seventh tools," he said. "But if we've seen this guy, or someone on our staff has seen him now (over) two years, we can give you a clue whether the guy has playability or not. Now we have a better chance to get more accurate assessments of those ingredients. Just because of the evolution of these players and the way they are growing up."

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