In November 2014, we ran an interview with Mike Elias, who was then Houston’s director of amateur scouting. Two-plus years later, he has a new title and more responsibilities. The 34-year-old Yale University product now has the title of Assistant General Manager, Scouting and Player Development.
Elias addressed several subjects in the earlier interview, but very little of the conversation was about pitching. This time around, we talked exclusively about pitching. The scouting process — including injury-risk assessments and offspeed deliveries — was the primary focus, but we also delved heavily into last year’s first-round pick. With the 17th selection of the 2016 draft, the Astros took 6-foot-7 right-hander Forrest Whitley out of a San Antonio, Texas high school.
Elias on how scouting pitchers has, and hasn’t, changed: “It has definitely evolved, but it is still, and I believe it always will be, most reliant on the opinions of the scouts who have seen the players in person, and know the players personally. Our scouts still spend much of their time getting a good seat behind home plate and evaluating the pitcher’s stuff, command, and delivery. They look for future improvement in those areas. Another big part of what they do is learn about the player off the field, through conversations with coaches and acquaintances, and getting to know the player himself.
“The thing that changed is the amount of information outside of the scouting report we receive. That extends from the player’s performance stats — that’s if he’s a college kid — to video analysis of his delivery. Every team does that, although every team does it a little differently. And a lot of radar technology has become available over the last few years. It has spread from just being in major-league parks to trickling down through the minor leagues and even into most college environments. Even high-school fields, throughout the major tournaments with Perfect Game.
“The important thing to remember is that pitchers are going to change over time. It’s the opinion of the scouts, and their insights, that are going to drive the conversations on how much these pitchers are going to change, and how and why they’re going to be able to get better. That’s a function of the player — his work ethic, his wants and goals — and the philosophies and qualities of your minor-league staff.”
On the relationship between scouting and player development: “An important part of this, in regard to our scouting, is the alignment with what our pitching coaches teach. We want to make sure we’re not drafting a pitcher whose delivery, or method of attack, is going to be anathema to our internal philosophy. We try to acquire guys that are going to seamlessly enter our program and be good fits for what our coaches like to do, extending all the way up to the major leagues.
“I would never say we won’t draft somebody for one particular reason, but our philosophies are something we take into account when we’re making draft-room decisions. There is always a place where you’ll take Player A over Player B. But if you’re looking for a reason to rank a Player B over Player A, you might say, ‘Hey, this guy is a better fit for us because of the way we do things.’ And there are things. If we think a pitcher has a particularly risky delivery, we might pass on him in favor of another guy. We’re not always right about that, but we feel we have enough information where we’re playing the odds.
“The most important thing is the people within your organization who mold your philosophies and carry them out. It’s our player-development staff. Our pitching coach in Houston, Brent Strom, and Doug White, our pitching coordinator, are going to set the tone for the type of instruction that goes on.
“Our scouting department learns from those guys. Our scouting department also teaches those guys quite a bit. We have a lot of give and take between the two departments. All of our scouts, internationally and domestically on the pro side, know quite a bit about pitching. It’s the people that are making the decisions, and putting their hands on the players once they get into the system, that really makes a difference. It’s still a people-driven endeavor, even in this day and age.”
On incorporating spin rate into assessments: “We have ways of looking at it, and our scouts know how to interpret that information, as well. It’s another tool for our scouts and our decision makers. It’s almost an extension of the introduction of the radar gun. Some 40 years ago, it may have seemed unnatural to take that information when it seemed like your eyes weren’t lacking in the ability to assess the quality of a fastball. Now we take it for granted that we’re using that information. We’re heading down that road with some of the more advanced radar technology, and some of the aspects of pitch quality that it can convey to us.
“It’s something our scouting and front-office personnel have become fluent in. I don’t think anyone has it totally figured out, and there are probably different interpretations team to team, but it will continue to be a big part of the game.”
On a pitcher’s size, particularly his height: “In almost all forms of athletics, size matters. Horse racing is an exception, but in most athletic competitions, bigger, stronger participants tend to have an advantage. I don’t think baseball is exempt from that. But one of the great things about baseball is that size matters less than other major American sports, like football and basketball. I think that’s one of the reasons baseball resonates for everybody — you can play as a kid, and the MVP can be a Jose Altuve or a Dustin Pedroia. He could also be 6-foot-5.
“So size matters, but it definitely doesn’t preclude you from being great. Maybe the bigger, stronger guys will be able to do things little easier, but that doesn’t prevent the smaller guys from doing what needs to be done. They just have to go about things in a different way.
“Being very tall can be a legitimate concern, especially when you’re dealing with someone who is still growing. If your limbs are long — your extremities are long — it’s naturally going to be a little harder to coordinate yourself. This is something most kids grow out of as they gain strength and more experience.”
On 6-foot-7 Forrest Whitley: “What’s different about Forrest, and most pitchers of that size who go early in the draft, is that he seems to be past that phase. He’s got a very coordinated delivery that fits our view of what quality deliveries look like. They don’t come in the same shape or size, but he checks a lot of the boxes we look for.
“When you see a kid that long and lean be as coordinated, and able to repeat his delivery as well as he was, at the age of 18… that’s a big reason we took him with our first pick. We were really impressed with how he coordinates himself when he’s going down the mound. And he goes down the mound pretty aggressively.
“In high school, he was hitting 97-98 pretty steadily. He sits more in that 92-94 range, which is plenty, but seeing flashes of that extra velocity tells you the amount of arm strength that’s in there.”
On assessing pitchability in amateurs: “That can be tough at the high-school level, because of the competition. Sometimes the hitters are so much worse than the pitcher that he might be able to rely on just one or two pitches. He can just blow them away and not worry so much about location. That’s a little less of a problem nowadays, though, because we usually get to see the best high-school pitchers on the showcase circuit. They’re facing the best hitters in the country, so it’s more of an apples-to-apples comparison. You can see weaknesses in a pitcher’s command, or see a repertoire exposed, a little more easily.
“One of the things that attracted us to Forrest is that, for an 18-year-old high-school righty, he was advanced in this regard. He’s got a number of pitches, he understands how he throws them, and he does a pretty good job of throwing strikes. That’s not to say — not by any stretch — that he’s ready for a high level of play in professional baseball. But relative to your normal, hard-throwing high-school pitcher who was drafted high, he’s more polished than average.”
On Whitley’s repertoire: “He has both [a two-seam and four-seam fastball]. He’s able to work up in the zone with his four-seamer and run the ball off the plate with his two-seamer. He has two distinct breaking balls — a slider and a curveball — and a changeup that, while not a finished product, is more polished than what you typically find with a high-school power pitcher.
“I think you’d get some debate on which of his breaking pitches are better — they’re both pretty good — but he does have a very good curveball. He throws it hard — it’s above 80 mph — and it’s got a real nice, tall, 12-to-6, or 11-to-5, shape when it’s right. If you’re an old-school pitching guy, you always like seeing a curveball first. There’s nothing like a great big curveball. For Forrest, it’s one of his calling cards.”
On the Astros and curveballs: “I think every club likes curveballs. It’s something you’ve see a lot from a lot of good starting pitchers throughout history. It’s certainly not mandatory, but if you’ve got one, it’s a heck of a weapon. We’ve been very fortunate the last couple of years to have some good curveball pitchers up and down the rotation. Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers… Lance McCullers’s is vicious. Really, everyone in our rotation has a good one.
“Brent Strom is a believer in that pitch. But I don’t think there are a lot of pitching coaches around right now that wouldn’t like to have good curveballs on their staff. Universally, it’s been a weapon ever since pitchers began throwing them.”
On recognizing a feel for a changeup in amateur pitchers: “I think different scouting departments would have different philosophies about that. I don’t think there is a magic-bullet answer. It depends on the pitcher, and that’s where a scout’s skills come in. He looks at the kid’s arm action, his delivery, and maybe how his other pitches work. The scout will make an assessment of how much we can safely bet that the kid’s changeup is going to come, if he doesn’t already have it.
“It’s an important pitch — you love to see it if it’s there — but there are many great pitchers that didn’t have a very good changeup when they were a young age. It’s not something you usually need, or spend much time developing, when you’re in high school. But that’s something else that’s started to change. These kids are becoming more sophisticated at that age than they were in years past.”
On drafting high-school pitchers, and injury risk: “I think it’s safer than it used to be — or at least teams feel they’re not beholden to random chance quite as much. Every team has a mechanical philosophy they believe in, and other ways of evaluating pitchers that makes them feel they can be a little better than average when it comes to drafting pitching. If you talk to each team, every one would feel that way, albeit with a slightly different take on it. That’s great. We’re all trying to have more success than the next guy, while doing things our own way.
“Pitching is still more risky than hitting because of the inherent injury factor that exists. You’re throwing over and over with that arm, and you’re throwing harder with that arm. Unless something changes medically, or technology-wise, it’s always going to be an occupational hazard to draft pitchers. But again, I do feel that we’ve reduced some of that risk, across the industry. We’re able to take so much video of these guys, and we have more information to go on.
“It always pertains to the context of a guy’s delivery as a whole — how his body works. There are always going to be components that we can’t see, genetically, physically, but when we take a pitcher high in the draft, it’s pretty safe to assume that we like what he does.
“As you get lower into the draft, players tend to have more flaws. There are going to be times where you’re maybe a little worried about aspects of a pitcher’s delivery, but he’s the best talent on your board, so you’re going to take him. But again, with a pitcher like Whitley — someone we’re taking in the first round — we’re going to like what we see. There aren’t going to be any major cause for alarm. But pitching is pitching. You never know.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.