Archive for Scouting

Identifying Prospects

Request:

1) What traits or skills do MLB teams scout for, and what do they expect players to develop over time?
2) What traits/skills do teams avoid? How do they estimate injury risk, and do they do this well? Can they?
3) What pitches generate more injuries? It seems that pitchers who throw a curveball more often get injured more (think Ben Sheets, Chris Carpenter, Stephen Strasburg). Is this really the case, and if so, is it worth the risk?

I don’t know exactly what teams look for in players beyond the five tools, tall pitchers, and possibly the “good face.” Kevin Kerrane wrote a marvelous book on scouting in the 1980s Dollar Sign on the Muscle, which follows the lives of several scouts and discusses the characteristics they look for. While there is some agreement over what makes a baseball player good, different scouts and organizations have their own philosophies as to what characteristics mark future success.

I can’t comment on how to predict success based on personal observations (a technique one of my professors referred to as “ocular least squares”), but I have looked for makers for success in minor-league performance statistics. I report my results and explain my methods for predicting success in the Chapter 8 of Hot Stove Economics. I even put a dollar value on prospects using these characteristics.

The difficulty with picking out major-leaguers before they’re ripe is that while most future big-league players excel in the minors, many bad players do as well. Looking beyond the slash stats reveals some common characteristics of big-league players, and some of the stats I found useful for predicting major-league success aren’t necessarily stats that I find to be the most useful stats for evaluating players once they make it. For example, I rarely look at the batting averages and strikeout rates of major-league hitters, but I find that high batting averages and low strikeout rates are important predictors of major-league success. You can succeed in the big leagues with a low average and striking out a lot, but even players who struggle in these areas typically handled the bat much better in the minors. Also important are a player’s walk rate and isolated power. If you have patience and can hit the ball hard, you’re more likely to succeed in the majors that players who lack these skills. And you can’t look at minor-league performances without also accounting for age. A twenty-year-old who’s treading water in Triple-A may have more promise than some of the older guys having success at the level.

Another interesting finding was that the stats below High-A ball have no predictive power. At this level, predicting success requires personal observations of trained scouts.

As for how players skills develop, I’ve done some work looking at how major-league players improve and decline over their careers. For hitters, batting average and power peak in the mid-to-late-20s, but these skills see minimal improvement and decline. The ability to walk improves into the early-30s, but the age-range of peak performance is less than it is for batting average. Pitcher strikeout ability is at its greatest almost as soon as pitchers enter the league, but this ability doesn’t diminish as fast as other skills. Like hitters, pitchers improve in walking into their early-30s. This is likely the result of acquired knowledge that allows older players to succeed, even as their physical athletic skills are deteriorating.

As for identifying injuries, that’s something that is not well-understood outside of baseball. I would hope that teams are conducting their own internal analyses of injuries, but most of that knowledge is kept private. Baseball injury data is just starting to become available where we can look at factors that influence injuries. The research being done in sports medicine journals is good and is still developing. What I have found interesting is that the medical community seems to have a better grasp on youth injuries than it does on adult injuries. For example, I’ve got a study on my desk that looks at factors that impact elbow injuries among youth pitchers—arm fatigue and mechanics seem to matter, but curve balls don’t. Play tracking systems like Pitchf/x, and motion analysis technology like Dartfish should help us better predict and prevent injuries for all players.

Age and Long-Term Success: Correlation and Causation

I found this anecdote from Derrick Goold at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to be curious.

What age is too aged to be a prospect?

There is no real answer.

The St. Louis Cardinals, as described by farm director Jeff Luhnow, have studied how high-end players — the top-notch, elite, standout prospects — reach the majors in their early 20s, and how they excel because of that. Colby Rasmus, who was 22 for most of this last season (his rookie season), fits that model. That trend, Luhnow has said before, is part of the reason why the organization adopted a more aggressive promotion approach a few seasons ago, and why young players Eduardo Sanchez, Richard Castillo, Daryl Jones and a few others were pushed up a level. Even some of the Cardinals’ international signings have been hastened into a short-season club to see how well they adjust a more demanding level.

So, the Cardinals have noticed that elite players tend to reach the majors in their early twenties; thus, they are promoting prospects quickly in order to increase their chances of becoming elite players? I cannot believe that Jeff Luhnow actually believes this, at least not for the reason listed above. Of course, better players hit the majors at an age younger than most players. This is because their inherent talent allows them to be good enough to play at the major-league level earlier in their development than most other players. Simply moving a player along to the next level doesn’t make him better; in fact, I suspect it stunts growth when players struggle after being promoted too early.

I have nothing against promoting players who are ready to move up to the next level—and I hope that the Cardinals believe that promotions should only occur after meeting predetermined benchmarks—but I think it is highly unlikely that moving up causes a player to be better.

Looking at the performances of the prospects mentioned above, I don’t see much evidence of success from pushing prospects.

Eduardo Sanchez was promoted to double-A after blowing away high-A for only 25 innings. While this may seem quick, he did follow up on a nice 2008 season in low-A ball, so the promotion is not a total shock.

After playing in the Venezuela Summer League at 17, Richard Castillo started at high-A in 2008. But after 16 innings of decent, but not fantastic play—it’s hard to tell in so few innings—he was sent to low-A to finish out the season. He spent all of 2009 in high-A, pitching decent but not spectacular ball.

Daryl Jones was promoted to high-A in 2008 after a good season in low-A. He played well in high-A for the remainder of the year. He repeated high-A in 2009, and his performance wasn’t so hot.

And then there is Colby Rasmus, who followed up poor showing in triple-A with a stinker of a rookie season.

The fact that elite players hit the majors sooner than other players doesn’t mean their quick ascensions caused this. Ryan Howard and Wade Boggs were not worse for being held back. After watching the Braves push Kyle Davies and Jeff Francoeur, I believe it is best to wait too long. These guys are professional athletes who must have big egos to succeed. When things don’t go well, development may be damaged by taking short-cuts. I could be wrong. I can’t prove that Davies and Francoeur would be much better players if they had been held back any more than I can prove that Boggs and Howard excelled because they stayed in the minors longer. But, what damage does it do to let these guys play their way to the next level?

So, in answer to the question “What age is too aged to be a prospect?” It depends. The younger the player for his level, and the better the performance, the more likely it is that he will succeed. Bumping a player up to make him better is not a strategy that I advocate.

Puerto Rican Prospects and Incentives

I don’t know much about the actual development of Puerto Rican prospects, but assuming the story told is correct, Brian Joura provides a nice example of how weakening of property rights hurts investment.

In 1990, Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was added to the MLB amateur draft, meaning that players from the island were subject to the same signing rules and terms of draft eligibility as players in the U.S. and Canada. While players from countries outside the MLB amateur draft could be signed as soon as they reached the age of 16, those subject to the MLB amateur draft had to wait until they finished high school.

The result:

In the 17 years since being included in the draft, only four players from Puerto Rico have approached the level of success achieved by the players from the 1982-88 period. Only Carlos Beltran, Jorge Posada, Javy Vazquez and Jose Vidro have emerged from what previously was a booming market of star players from Puerto Rico.

What happened here?

In a word – money. When teams had to compete to sign the best talent in an open marketplace, they had to spend money, both in signing bonuses and in promoting their brand. Teams would spend money on facilities in these countries, hoping players would develop allegiances to an organization. It’s no coincidence that three of the 13 players listed above (Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Sierra) signed with the Texas Rangers. Teams added locally-based scouts to their payroll to help identify talented players at an early age so they could get the jump on other teams.

But with the addition of Puerto Rico to the annual amateur draft, a team no longer had incentive to invest money in developing relationships in Puerto Rico because a player they spent money on could be drafted by any of the other teams in MLB. So money that might have gone to Puerto Rico now went elsewhere. Like Venezuela, which has sent Bobby Abreu, Edgardo Alfonzo, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Ramon Hernandez, Richard Hidalgo, Victor Martinez, Melvin Mora, Magglio Ordonez and Johan Santana, among others, to the majors since 1990. The Astros have been very active in Venezuela, signing Abreu, Guillen, Hidalgo and Santana from the above list.

Now that there is less benefit to finding and signing a hidden gem in Puerto Rico, teams have little reason to stay. Also, informal local “agents” who scout and develop prospects in return for a cut of future player earnings have less incentive to find at groom pre-16 talent. The draft reduced signing bonuses, and agents may have then decided spend time doing things other than finding baseball talent.

Braves Pitching

Here are two groups of players who pitched for the Braves this season.

John Smoltz
Chuck James
Kyle Davies
Jo-Jo Reyes
Jose Ascanio
Macay McBride
Anthony Lerew
Joey Devine
Blaine Boyer
Kevin Barry

Tim Hudson
Buddy Carlyle
Lance Cormier
Mark Redman
Bob Wickman
Peter Moylan
Tyler Yates
Rafael Soriano
Oscar Villarreal
Chad Paronto
Ron Mahay
Manny Acosta
Mike Gonzalez
Wilfredo Ledezma
Jeff Bennett
Octavio Dotel
Steve Colyer
Royce Ring


The former group includes Braves farm products, the latter group are pitchers whom the Braves brought in from elsewhere. Yes, I know that Smoltz spent some time in the Tigers organization, and some of the non-Braves group have put in short stints in the minors with the Braves, but I want to keep this simple. The lists reveal an unsettling trend for Braves fans: most of the decent pitching is coming from the outside. And the bad news continues as any potential help is too far down in the organization to count on.

I’ve heard a good bit of grumbling among Braves fans about Roger McDowell, but I’m not sure there is much to complain about. The Braves are tied for fourth in the NL ERA and the pitching staff has an ERA+ of 105. As ugly as some of the Braves pitching has been with the fourth and fifth starter spots, the team has survived. Yes, it would be nice if some of the younger products had performed better, but looking at this pattern, I’m not so sure it’s McDowell’s fault. With the sea of ill-will that followed Leo Mazzone out of town, we heard similar complaints about his inability to work with young pitchers. But, now I wonder if the problem has more to do with deficiencies in instruction or scouting of pitchers.

I believe Roger received a big vote of confidence when Davies was traded. If the front office considered McDowell the problem, I don’t think they would have moved Kyle. The Braves need young and cheap starters more than old and expensive relievers. The Braves gave up on Davies, not their pitching coach. I will not be surprised if some minor league pitching instructors move on after the season.

What Happened to Andy Marte?

Two years ago, the Braves traded away the number-one-rated prospect in baseball Andy Marte. At the time, the Braves had bounced him up and down from Atlanta to Richmond for a year. Yes, prospects are prospects, but he looked ready to hit the majors full time after he was shipped to Boston and then Cleveland during the 2005-2006 offseason.

In Richmond (2005), Marte posted a .275/.372/.506 line at the age of 21. This followed a .269/.364/.525 season in Double-A Greenville. When I take a quick look at a prospect, I look at two things: walk rate and power. He had walk rate of 12.9% and isolated-power of .256 in Greenville; 13.9% and .231 in Richmond. Basically, I thought he was a lock to be a major league regular if not something special. Now, he’s not too old to give up on, but he has definitely fallen off the right track.

Since the Braves swapped him for Edgar Renteria, Marte has spent most of his time in Triple-A Buffalo. Coming into this season, I thought his 2006 was just a bad year (.261/.321/.451), but his 2007 is looking even worse (.245/.282/.439). In particular, he’s lost his ability to walk and hit for power. In 2006, his walk rate and isolated-power dropped to 8.7% and .190. In 2007, he’s at 5.3% and .194.

There have been many top prospects who just couldn’t cut it in the majors, but I cannot remember seeing someone so primed for stardom stall out in his third season in Triple-A. I wish I had the answer as to why.

My First Scouting Lesson

Last night, I received my first lesson in scouting from an unlikely source: Keith Law of ESPN’s Scouts, Inc. I say unlikely, because Keith is generally regarded to be a stat-head. But, from the lesson I got, Keith didn’t seem to be doing much different than the scouts surrounding us.

When I arrived at the game, I saw the stands were full, which is not surprising for a Georgia high school baseball game. As I waited for the half-inning to pass before I found Keith, I saw two guys behind home plate pointing radar guns. I thought, “a few scouts are here to see this kid.” But, after he proceeded to walk the bases loaded, I realized he must not be the main target.

At the break, I located Keith and sat down. I soon found out that there were way more scouts than I had thought—they filled the stands behind the plate. The fans were sitting down the first and third base lines. As the opposing pitcher took the mound, I saw two-dozen radar guns go up, including Keith’s. “This is the kid everyone is here to see,” Keith informed me. The pitch, the mitt pops, the guns go down and tilt up so they can be read—89, 90, and 91 are on the guns I can see—then everyone starts scratching away in their notebooks.

Also, all of the scouts had stop-watches around their wrists to time the stretch and measure the speed of the batter from home to first. Note to prospects: even if you hit into an obvious out, run as hard as you can to first so that you can be timed. If you’ve never seen a gathering like this before, it’s a pretty cool experience.

Keith explained to me what he looks for in prospects and discussed a few minor prospects on the field—I won’t repeat his opinions here. Then we went over to the Mellow Mushroom for some pizza. We talked baseball, sabermetric gossip, jobs, family, and other odds and ends—we’re both 33-year-old libertarians who like Harry Potter.

If was a fun experience, and I have to say that Keith is a great guy. I want to thank him for inviting me to tag along. :-) If you ever spot him at a game, I’m sure he’d be willing to chat with you if you approached him. I look forward to seeing his body of work grow at Scouts, Inc.

Oakland Athletics Internship Opportunity

I often get e-mails from readers who are interested in working in an MLB front office. Well, here’s your chance to break in. Farhan Zaidi, an economist who works in the Oakland A’s front office e-mails me this exciting opportunity.

We just posted an internship listing on our website for someone to help us during draft season (April to June). I think it’s an excellent opportunity. I’m emailing a few bloggers and site administrators about the listing, hoping they can put it in a quick plug for it and encourage people to apply. The link and full listing are below. Any mention you could make of it on your site would be helpful.

http://oakland.athletics.mlb.com/mlb/help/jobs.jsp?c_id=oak#job_05

Baseball Operations Intern: 1 position
April – June
The Baseball Operations department is seeking an intern for the Spring 2007 season. The Intern will report to the Assistant General Manager and Baseball Operations Analyst. Primary duties will include but are not limited to the following:

– Assisting with data collection and analysis projects
– Research and report on all potential player personnel decisions, including Amateur Draft
– Game-charting and report generation from game-charting programs
– Prepare staff for organizational meetings
– Complete specialized projects as assigned

Requirements:
– Qualified applicants must be motivated, well organized, detail-oriented, and be able to work independently and on a deadline.

– Candidates must be proficient in all Microsoft Office programs (especially Excel).
– Proficiency in statistical packages, such as Stata, SAS, and SPSS is a plus.
– Knowledge of scripting languages (Perl, Python) for screen-scraping programming is a major plus.
– Background in math and statistics is preferred.
– Candidates must be within commutable distance of our offices in Oakland for the duration of the internship.

Interested applicants should send a cover letter and resume to Intern Coordinator, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland CA 94621, or via fax 510-563-2397, or email baseballjob@oaklandathletics.com* by March 1, 2007. Please clearly detail your technical and programming skills in your resume. No phone calls, please.

I think “excellent opportunity” is an understatement. Even if this job isn’t a good fit for you now, please take a close look at the qualifications: Excel, Stata, SAS, SPSS, Perl, Python, math, and statistics. That should speak volumes about what you need to get a leg up on the competition if you want to work in MLB.

Pondering Jeff Francoeur

I’ve been wanting to post some these thoughts for some time, even before the season started. But, I kept putting it off, thinking that The Natural would prove me wrong. And I was hopeful that the kid had something to teach me. I’ve hinted at my thoughts on Francoeur publicly, and discussed them more in private, but I guess I should go ahead an put my thoughts in a single post. Jeff Francoeur’s 2005 was a fluke. And it was flukey for more than one reason. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a very good baseball player one day, but his current performance in 2006 should have been expected. I don’t care how much “make-up” you have, if you can’t lay off bad pitches you’re not going to excel as a hitter.

First off, his PrOPS for 2005 ( .270 /.311 /.506 /.816) are much lower than his actual line (.300/.336/.549/.884). That is an over-performance of 68 OPS points, about 8%. He was a bit hit lucky.

Second, I believe the evidence indicates that part of Francoeur’s fast start was the result of poor scouting. In Mississippi, Francoeur posted a line of .275/.322/.487/.809 against double-A pitching. The funny thing is that his performance in the minors was slightly worse than is PrOPS numbers in the majors. Less capable minor league pitchers knew something that major league pitchers didn’t, or the Braves had Jeff on some bizarre hitting program. The way Jeff tailed way off over the rest of the 2005 season is consistent with major leaguers getting good scouting reports on the guy.

This leads to another interesting question: why did it take so long for major league teams to figure him out? There were certainly scouts watching him in double-A, why didn’t they pass along what the minor league pitchers were doing? My guess is that Francoeur’s jump surprised everyone, and that scouts were not scouting him like advance scouts typically do. Instead, they focused on his raw ability and promise. Scouts saw his poor plate discipline and just reported, “he’s not ready yet, fire it in there.” And well, that was very bad advice. And because Francoeur is blessed with amazing power, when he got pitches he could hit he hit them along way. He didn’t fluke his way to 14 home runs, you have to be gifted to hit home runs. But I think with good advance scouting reports he would not have been nearly as successful—maybe half of those homers go away. In fact, one thing teams may have learned from this experience is that unexpectedly pulling up kids from the minors can yield benefits, because other teams lack the information to get these guys out. Instead of contenders looking to get Joe Randa through a waiver-wire deal for the playoff push, maybe teams should pick up a talented prospect whom no one expected to see.

And why is it that minor league pitchers figured him out? Well, look at the incentives for the pitchers in double-A versus those in the majors. If a double-A pitcher wants to move up, he has to get outs. The best way to do that is to prepare for the guys you’re going to face, especially the best players on the team. These pitchers saw he liked to swing at everything—a friend of mine who watched him in high school said this was no secret then—and they stayed away from the zone without fearing the free pass. But for major league pitchers, Francoeur was just another rookie. Why worry about him when you’ve got to face the Jones boys? And that’s when Frenchy’s window for success opened.

The problem is that now that the window has closed, what are the Braves to do? He’s nearing the 100 PA mark, without having walked even once. And he’s leading the league in swinging at first pitches, so his pledge to work on plate discipline is not going so well. Also, he’s only had five extra-base hits, so he’s not hitting for power when he does hit the ball. This isn’t a bad-luck, small-sample-size slump. There is a real problem.

So, what should the Braves do? Some people think he should be sent down. I don’t think you can do that now. He’s been in the big leagues too long. If he goes to Richmond, all he’ll be thinking about is how to get back. I think the mental fatigue would be too much. The Braves are just going to have to gut this one out, and let him learn on the job. But, it is time to stop pretending he’s already an All-Star. Moving him down in the batting order might reduce some of the pressure, and he could split some time with Diaz and (gulp) Jordan. He’s still an excellent defender and baserunner, too. There are plenty of players in the league who are no worse. Most of them don’t get to play as much, though.

The Great Debate Continues

Rich Lederer moderates a discussion at the Baseball Analysts between three sabermetric consultants: Tom Tango (Tangotiger), Mitchel Lichtman (MGL), and Eric Van. This discuss many things of interest, including unionizing sabermetric consultants.

Baseball Analysts: Mid-Season 75

Bryan Smith reviews the his top-75 prospects at mid-season ( 1-30, 31-75). Here’s a sample on Jeff Francoeur.

19. Jeff Francoeur: Atlanta Braves (OF)- 21
AA (SOU): .275/.322/.487, 21/76, 13 SB in 335

Now in the Majors, Francoeur homered in his first game against the Cubs. He has a bunch of flaws as a player — both contact and selectivity — but makes up for it in raw talent. Still, you have to wonder how long we’ll be justifying walk rates with that comment. The Braves are huge believers in Francoeur, and have all-but-decided that he, Kelly Johnson and Andruw will make up the 2006 outfield. Expect Jeff to have the, by far, worst numbers of the group.

He also reports on Marte, McCann, and Saltalamacchia.