School's In

BA's Alan Matthews attends the Major League Scouting Bureau's "Scout School"

For the past four years, Alan Matthews has traveled across the country covering amateur baseball, specifically draft eligible high school talent, for Baseball America. This month, he enrolled in the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau's annual scout development program, which is being held in Phoenix. The two-week "scout school" features a comprehensive curriculum that includes classroom lectures, film sessions and daily trips to nearby ballparks, where students attempt to train their eye to identify and evaluate amateur and professional players. Alan will be submitting his thoughts and experiences as a student in the class.

Part III

PHOENIX--Catch phrases and clich├ęs are as much a staple of scout school as stopwatches and radar guns. Baseball men are notorious for their creative vocabulary, and the phrase director Don Pries repeats as the class heads out to the field each morning is, "Today I'm going to find a major leaguer."

Six days into the course, we were all beginning to wonder if that was ever going to be the case. Whether it was a product of fatigue from the long minor league season or the relentless Arizona heat, the class found many more examples of deficiency in a player than players that had the stuff of future stardom.

Of course, instructional league is a time when many players are focused on making mechanical improvements or tinkering with other aspects of their approaches, but even in our pursuit to identify raw tools, the past week offered much more searching than discovery. But when the bus pulled into the Angels minor league complex in Tempe one afternoon, we were about to find what we had been looking for.

Identifying pitching prospects is considered somewhat less difficult than the challenge of evaluating young hitters. After all, the pitcher has his own pedestal where he performs for all to see, perched on top of the mound, the center of attention. The game is played on his pace, and begins only when he's ready. Pitchers repeat their delivery over and over, providing scouts with their own personal playback button in their effort to critique delivery and arm action.

The class has found that one of the challenges of identifying and evaluating begins with seeing the player play. And evaluating hitters doesn't offer the repetition available when breaking down a pitcher.

During one game this week the class watched Royals minor league outfielder Chris Lubanski strike out four times, and he swung just three times during those at-bats. Sure, it doesn't take a brilliant scout to figure out when a player takes the "golden sombrero," it isn't a real good sign of things to come. But without having seen Lubanski take a full swing, you're still not sure exactly what type of hitter he is. Plenty of guys have bad days. But hastily writing them off without seeing their overall ability is ill-advised. Attending multiple games and batting practice sessions are valuable ways to get a better feel for position players, but the crash course the class is receiving doesn't lend those opportunities.

All of which makes evaluating pitching somewhat less of a conundrum. The class is encouraged to begin the process as soon as the pitcher begins loosening in the bullpen. There's an infinite amount of information that can be gathered before a pitcher ever enters a game. And once some notes are taken about his shoulders, arms and general build, it's on to his habits.

While tools are pushed by the staff as the most important indicator of a player's future, the most thorough scout goes beyond the player's tools. Work ethic and makeup are also key ingredients in scouting, as is the player's approach to preparation. Some scouts arrive to the park a couple of hours before the first pitch, just to see who shows up when, and in what manner.

An area scout in Georgia once spent 10 minutes telling me about how Cedric Hunter, a third-round pick this year by the Padres, arrived to his "job." Fully dressed in his uniform, Hunter had a reputation for speaking only briefly to those between the parking lot and the dugout, and his business-like demeanor particularly impressed this scout.

A pitcher's routine in the bullpen is another occasion to begin filling up the intangibles section of your scouting report. Does he have a plan? What does he work on first? How long does he spend pitching from the windup? What does he do when one of his pitches isn't as sharp as he'd like? Ditch it, or keeping working on it? How does he make adjustments? Where are his eyes when his pitching coach demonstrates how he'd prefer he broke his hands during his delivery?

Today the Angels are hosting the Brewers and penciled on the lineup as Los Angeles' first reliever is the name Jung.

A 17-year-old Korean, Yung-Il Jung is a stocky righthander who doesn't speak English and seems reserved and quiet in temperament. His presence is announced during the second inning, however, authoritatively, with a sound the class hasn't heard all week.

"Thhhawack! . . . Thhhawack!"

It's the sound of a catcher's mitt popping loudly as Jung gets loose for his outing. It's easy to rely on radar-gun readings to tell you how hard a pitcher throws, but it takes a keen eye--a scout's eye--to recognize the "life" the pitch has. Jung's first fastball checks in at 91 mph. Nothing special about that. It's solid-average fastball velocity for a major league pitcher, which is a good sign. But beyond the speed of Jung's ball, it's heavy.

Maybe part of why scouts have a reputation for possessing a creative vernacular is because it's important that they differentiate not only the good from the bad but also the good from the better, and the better from the best. Jung's ball seems to speed up in the last few feet before entering the hitting zone, and when it explodes into the catcher's mitt it's like an anvil meeting concrete.

Jung signed with the Angels for $1 million, and everyone in the park can see what Angels scout Charlie Kim saw in Jung when he submitted his name to scouting director Eddie Bane. Jung works two impressive innings, flashing feel for three pitches. His fastball climbs near 93 mph, breaking a bat in the process. His slider is hard, if inconsistent, and for good measure Jung flashes the makings of usable offerings in his changeup and splitter.

His mechanics aren't exquisite, but his arm works well and his sturdy frame, which looks at least 10 pounds heavier than the 6-foot-2, 180 listed on the roster, makes me believe he could develop into a workhorse starting pitcher.

When the class returns to the hotel, I can't wait to get back to the classroom to write a report on what I've just seen. "Compact, controlled delivery," I write. "Clean, quick arm. Gathers well. Feel for three pitches. Average command of heavy, live fastball. Hard, sharp slider . . . Should move quickly. Strong likelihood to achieve ceiling of No. 2 or 3 starter."

While my instructor cautions against allowing a week of disappointment amplify my excitement at the first sign of someone worth scouting, Pries and most of the other instructors agree Jung has plenty of potential. Perhaps today, we finally found a major leaguer.

Part II

Field trips in grammar school always seemed to include bag lunches and sun screen and to that end, the class' first trip to the field felt familiar. But if fifth-grade assignments were this tough, most of us would probably still be there.

The White Sox met the Brewers in an instructional league game, where the class shuffled off the bus and into the Brewers' minor league complex in Maryvale, Ariz., on a steamy September afternoon.

In instructional league, there aren't any turnstiles to spin, souvenirs to peddle or sodas to sip. Today, there's not even a scoreboard in operation. The three-week program is a no-frills operation used by player development departments to improve some of their better young prospects. The organizations that participate in instructional league use it mostly as a postseason clinic to continue the training of some of their least experienced minor leaguer players, and rosters are littered with birthdates that remind several of the students of high school sweethearts or college graduation, and underscore the youth on the field.

The class is given the name and number of two players in the starting lineup, breaks into groups of five along with an instructor and picks a spot to begin trying to scout. Javier Castillo, a thick-bodied, 23-year-old Panamanian shortstop in the Sox' system, is today's subject.

Immediately you must begin asking yourself questions about the player. The first task is to decide what type of muscle structure and frame he has. Begin with the most descriptive, specific adjectives that come to mind to draw a picture of his physical features. The Bureau's bible, a 200-page manual filled with more than 50 years of scouting ideologies, tips and philosophies, concentrates on scouting tools, not performance.

The manual reads, "It is very difficult for a major league player to be a productive, everyday performer if the player does not have at least two tools that are average or better." And tools typically come in the form of physical attributes. Big guys don't usually run well, little guys don't typically hit for power and scouts are trained to judge how a player's physical attributes will translate into physical tools now, as well we three, five or even 10 years down the road.

This is integral to the player's value. You must try to determine, not only how good he is now, but how good he could potentially become, and his body type is the most tangible indicator to pass such judgments.

Once the students have made a determination on Castillo's physical attributes, it's time to watch him play. Castillo's throwing motion, arm strength and hands appear to fit the profile of a middle infielder, and when the Sox take infield practice, he rifles throws across the diamond. But his lateral quickness isn't exceptional, and he lacks the pure actions of the shortstops we've all seen man the middle of diamonds in the major leagues. Do we write him off? Not a chance. First let's see how he hits.

Just as his strong forearms and developed upper body might have suggested, he can swing it. The group bears down on how he sets up in the batter's box. Where are his feet positioned? His hands? How does he gather, or load, his bat to begin his swing? Does he recognize curveballs as they dart to the dirt? Is he balanced when he unleashes a cut on a 2-0 fastball that comes up empty?

So much of evaluating talent comes from understanding the game. What makes today's assignment so difficult is that without understanding how the body must behave to perform certain actions on the field, you don't have much of a chance to accurately assess the player. Every student in the class has watched countless numbers of baseball games at all different levels. But now we're learning how to scout the game. We're no longer watching it.

Castillo lifts a line-drive into the right-field alley in his third at-bat. He thunders around second base and barrels into the third-base bag with a triple, plating a run . . . or was it two? No matter. Everyone in the group tucks their chin as if they've just been passed a winning lottery number and have the ticket in their hands. They scribble notes on their player evaluation forms. A few seconds later, our instructor starts firing questions.

Where were his hands when he made contact with the ball? Did the ball have carry? Loft? Where was the pitch? Was it a hanging breaking ball? How did he get out of the batter's box? Round first base? Can he run better than his frame might suggest?

Do you like him?

While the instructors drill home the importance of tools and a scouts' ability to evaluate those tools, they also ask incessantly if the student likes the player, ensuring that each of us understands that scouting is subjective. As much as you try to quantify what you're seeing with numbers, grades and phrases, the best scout isn't that much different from the best player. They must have instincts, trust those instincts and be willing to put their job on the line for them.

Part I

PHOENIX--Practically everyone has a job. And whether you serve your country or dinner, read minds or music, pour coffee or concrete, you want to be the best at what you do.

To me, scouting is baseball's pinnacle profession. Identifying and evaluating talent is the backbone of the game. Talent wins championships, and the organization that most effectively acquires talent--either through the draft, foreign and free agent signings, or trades--gives itself the best chance of winning games. Scouts do the work "in the field" as they like to say, to put their team in position to succeed on the field.

This week, 56 ambitious individuals have gathered in Phoenix to see if they have what it takes to become one of the sport's pillars. Some of them have already been hired to manage an area for one of 30 major league teams, while others work in player development or some other area of a major league front office. Regardless of their eventual roles, a major league club has invested its time and money in them, encouraging them to learn as much as possible about the art of scouting, the tool that fuels their industry.

This year's class is the largest in size in the program's 18-year history. The Major League Scouting Bureau (MLSB) and director Frank Marcos begin fielding applications for the school months, and in some cases even years in advance. And as Marcos put it, "Our clubs continue to show interest, and I just don't have what it takes to say no.' "

Marcos has tried to facilitate each request, taking into account the individual's experience and ultimate career ambition. Teams sponsor individuals that are either currently employed or those they are considering hiring. Once the course has been completed, the Bureau will rank and evaluate each student, and submit that feedback to all 30 major league teams. More than 70 percent of the 700 students who have graduated from the program have gone on to work in professional baseball, and the list of alumni is distinguished. General manager Kenny Williams (White Sox), current and former assistant GMs Oneri Fleita (Cubs), Muzzy Jackson (Royals) and John Mozeliak (Cardinals) and farm director Ricky Bennett (Astros) are just a few of the executives who gained experience and perspective by going through the program.

The background of this year's class runs the gamut. More than two-thirds of the class has some previous playing experience, with Ken Griffey Sr. being the most noteworthy former big leaguer. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Cardinals sabermetric specialist Sig Mejdal, a UC Davis graduate in mathematical modeling whose first gig out of college was in satellite communications at Lockheed Martin.

Regardless of the amount and type of baseball experience the students brought with them to scout school, one sentiment has been universally shared in the first six days of the course: Scouting is no easy business.

Don Pries, the Scouting Bureau's director from 1985-98 and current coordinator of instruction for the program, spent much of the first two days exploring the philosophical approach to scouting. He discussed the importance of discipline, conviction, organization and judgment. He has extraordinary passion for evaluating, which is evident in his delivery and carefully chosen phrases while preparing the class for its task ahead.

Pries and Marcos are assisted by 13 instructors, all of whom manage specific territories as scouts for the MLSB. The instructors took turns breaking down specific facets of evaluating players and provided the class with detailed interpretations of the five basic tools of the game, as well as baseball's nuances.

Baseball America readers are likely familiar with the five tools--hitting, hitting for power, throwing, fielding and running--and perhaps the most important prerequisite to accurately identifying and evaluating players is to comprehend each tool and recognize a player's present and perceived future ability in each area.

The class watched video of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Troy Glaus, Joe Mauer, Frank Thomas and others as amateurs, and the instructors pointed out how obvious it was these players, even as teenagers, possessed the tools that are so integral to a player's ability to reach the major leagues and prosper there.

The tools of those players were easy to identify, but as the class prepared to embark on the back fields of minor league complexes to scout instructional league games as well as high school and junior college contests, its members' acumen would be quickly tested.