Q&A: Mike Elias, Houston Astros Director of Amateur Scouting

Scheduling Note: This week’s Sunday Notes column will appear in its usual format on Tuesday. Today we have a long conversation with Mike Elias on the subject of amateur scouting. Enjoy!


Mike Elias joined the Houston Astros in January, 2012 and became their director of amateur scouting in August, 2012. The 31-year-old former Yale University lefthander is a perfect fit for the job. Not only does he possess analytic chops, he’s handy with a radar gun and recognizes raw talent when he sees it. Elias was weened in the St. Louis Cardinals organization as an area scout.

His drafts in Houston have been controversial. The first-overall selections of Mark Appel and Brady Aiken have resulted in a barrage of slings and arrows. Countless words have been written on each – for good reason – and the debating isn’t done.

Largely lost amid the hoopla are the other players picked and the philosophies that shaped their selections. Elias isn’t at liberty to discuss Aiken, but he has a lot to say about the way the Astros – under the direction of general manager Jeff Luhnow – go about their business.


Elias on the Astros amateur scouting staff: “A lot gets made of what we do analytically, and rightfully so, because we put a lot of work into that, but we also have a very skilled scouting staff. We have a lot of baseball guys. My department, amateur scouting, is a 20-man staff with a wealth of experience. We have former big-leaguers, we have guys who had minor-league careers, we have guys who just had college careers. They all played the game at some level.

“Conor Glassey did a study a few months ago on what percentage of scouting departments played pro ball, and we were among the highest. I wasn’t surprised to read that, because it’s something that’s been targeted in our hiring process. It’s something we put a lot of value on. These are smart guys who have also played baseball. Playing is by no means a pre-requisite to scouting, but having a playing career can help speed up the learning curve.

“We like guys who have spent a lot of time in a minor-league dugout – a minor-league environment – and know the reality of professional baseball. The know the political aspects of being a minor-league player and part of an organization. They know the challenges a player faces in pro ball, as well what plays at various levels of the minor leagues. That gives them a broader perspective of the challenges of professional baseball. They also tend to have a more humble and realistic outlook on the game, knowing how the game can surprise you, and how much individual players may surprise you.

“Most importantly, they have a very deep understanding of how important makeup is. They know what their teammates were like, the ones that succeeded, the ones who over-performed and underperformed expectations. They know who overcame adversity. I like getting that perspective from scouts. It’s not a prerequisite, but usually the guys who have played a lot tend to come away with the deepest lessons.

“Understanding player mentalities and personality types, and which tend to gravitate to the top, is probably the hardest part of the equation when trying to quantify, to evaluate. I think it’s something every scouting department across baseball struggles with and tries to perfect. I’m talking about assessing makeup.”

On learning in the Cardinals organization: “I’m very fortunate to have started out in the Cardinals organization where there is a very rich scouting tradition. At the time I was there, there were a lot of guys who had been with the organization a long time and had a lot of wisdom and knowledge that had been passed down. Fred McAlister, who was the scouting director before Jeff Luhnow took over was there something like 13 years. He had a perspective that he really impressed upon the guys who worked under him.

“At the same time, we also had a lot of younger scouts who Jeff had brought in. It was a very good blend of veteran leadership and smart, young guys who had some new ideas and were willing to learn. A lot of those scouts are there today, including Dan Kantrovitz, who is the scouting director now. They were a big influence on me.

“Being an area scout is the best way to learn this job. It allows you to understand what goes into a scout’s calendar, his day-to-day cycle, and basically everything that goes into the job. It’s not just evaluating players, it’s also establishing relationships with players and their families. It’s handling agents and advisors. It’s the actual signing of the players, which includes getting them where they need to go and preparing them for professional baseball, then following them in their pro career.”

On the development process for scouts: “There’s a tendency, when you start off, to not be sure of yourself. I don’t care how much baseball you know, or how much you played, it’s going to take a year or two to learn how to be a scout. Where a player fits in the draft and where they’re probably going to go in the draft is something that takes time to learn. You might be more apt to hedge. If you have a strong feeling on a player, but other people in your department – or even outside the department – aren’t as high on the kid, you’re going to doubt yourself. You’re not going to have quite as much conviction to stick your neck out for the kid. You won’t grade him as highly as you feel he should in regard to where he should go in the draft. You learn pretty quickly to regret those decisions. Above all, you have to go with your own opinion. That’s what you were hired for. Someone believed in your baseball-evaluation abilities and they want to get your unfiltered opinion on a player.

“I remember one of the first pieces of advice I got from an older scout. He said, ‘you’ve always got to go with your own opinion and be truthful to it, because if you don’t, and it turns out you were right, the regret of that stings a lot worse than being aggressive and being wrong on a player.’ He was right about that and we ask our guys to do the same thing. Once we get all of our opinions in the draft room, we form a consensus and make a decision. A scout has to realize his opinion won’t necessarily be put into action, but it will be listened to and respected.

“For as many players where a scout says, ‘I told you so,’ there are just as many on the flip side of things. All good scouts are realistic about that. This is a very humbling business and you just hope you’re right more often than you’re wrong. Sometimes the best way to learn a lesson is the hard way. Maybe you signed a player and had a doubt about this or that aspect of their game, and later saw it verified in pro ball. Lessons like that can be very valuable.”

On the relationship between scouting and player development; “It’s very important to get your player-development staff and your scouting staff on the same page. That can really elevate your pipeline, and just your overall continuity as an organization. It sounds obvious, but it takes some work. Jeff Luhnow, with his experience accomplishing that in St. Louis, came to Houston and was able to implement a lot of the same techniques. He helped get our scouting and player-development people communicating well. That’s the first step.

“When we’re sending a player into the system, we’ve been watching the kid for a few years and have a pretty good idea of what he needs to work on. First and foremost, we want to have a relationship with player development where we’re comfortable telling them something, and they’re comfortable responding. Maybe they’ll tell us, ‘You guys might be wrong about this’ or ‘Have you thought about that?’ We have that kind of give and take and in order to accomplish it we do a lot in terms of getting our scouts and player-development people in the same room. We bring our field coordinator and some coaches into the draft every year. They come to our scouting meetings in the winter time. Our scouts spend time with them in our minor-league system, or go to instructional league.

“It’s about codifying, to some degree. It’s about establishing teaching philosophies and what we’re doing as an organization in terms of player promotion. It’s about what our priorities are in the minor leagues, the degree to which we want to balance development and having our teams be competitive. We need everybody to be on the same page and understanding what our approach is.

“For instance, we have a certain organizational philosophy as to what types of pitcher deliveries best sustain stuff and effectiveness. We apply these beliefs when we go out and scout pitchers in the draft and internationally. Now, if we didn’t have a coaching staff that was attuned to that same philosophy, or able to teach along those lines or understand what we liked about a draftee’s mechanics, it would be counter-productive. You’d be taking guys only to see them get changed immediately. But what we have in our organization is a complete alignment between the scouting department, who goes out and chooses which pitchers to acquire, and our player development staff who develops these pitchers into a major league product.

“The kids we bring in have a natural proclivity toward what they’re going to be taught once they get into our program. And we’re very fortunate that alignment extends all the way up to the big-league staff. There’s a very smooth, consistent curriculum all the way up the chain for our pitchers and it’s lead by Brent Strom and what he teaches and believes in, and Dyar Miller who is our minor-league coordinator. We get that not just from building a like-minded staff, but from allowing our scouts and coaches to spend time with one another in meetings, in the draft room, and out in the field.”

On the strength of the 2014 draft: “Going into the draft, you never know who is going to be available for your pick. But you can look at the market and see what’s abundant that year, and maybe play the odds with what you might end up with. What we saw going in was a lot of bats. We saw a lot of corner position college bats.

“If you can get an up-the-middle player, with all things being equal with the bat, you’re going to go with the more-demanding position. But those types of guys – they play up the middle and you have that type of conviction with their bats – tend to go extremely early in the draft. At some point you need to start sacrificing what you might get on the defensive side of the ball for a bat you feel better about. There were a lot of those guys we liked in that draft and we ended up with three of them.”

On third-round pick J.D. Davis and the defensive spectrum: “Regardless of which position he plays at the amateur level, we think about where a player might be able to play in the pro game – the most demanding position we could envision them playing. J.D. Davis is a good example of that. He played mostly right field at Fullerton State. He also played some first base. They had Matt Chapman, who was an elite defensive third baseman a hard guy to beat out if you’re his college teammate.

“Our scouts had seen J.D. quite a bit at third base over the years. We saw him play there on the Cape and there was a a period of time, early in the season, where he played third and Chapman played short. Later on, Chapman missed time with an ankle injury and J.D. filled in at third. We saw him there and thought, ‘hey, he can do this.’ He’s got a plus arm. He’s got pretty good hands. He’s a good baseball player.

“We sent him out at third and immediately he took very well to our instructors. Paul Runge, our field coordinator, is a former major-league shortstop. Adam Everett is a roving infield instructor for us. Tom Lawless is also an infield-defense expert. They all pounced on him right away and gave him pointers. J.D. took it and ran with it. He ended up playing a good third base all season, and kept improving during instructs. So, we’re really hopeful he can stay there. He wants to stay there.

“That’s rewarding for our scouts – all the time they put in, building history with these players. They saw them in the summer, they saw them as underclassmen, going to scrimmages where maybe they were playing out of position. It’s rewarding when their instincts are right about position changes. Derek Fisher is another guy. He played mostly left field at UVA, but we’re trying him in center field because of his raw speed.”

On competitive balance round-pick Derek Fisher: “We got Fisher 37th overall and he’s an interesting guy. He’s a younger-than-normal college hitter who was very highly scouted when he was in high school. He was kind of a first-round talent entering his senior year of high school, and he had a first-round price tag. I think the Rangers took him in the sixth round and he ended up going to UVA, which is a tough school to sign kids away from. They tend to have strong commitments. He went there and lived up to expectations. He hit and hit for power.

“He’s also a plus runner. We got him anywhere from 3.95 to 4.1 down the line at various times this year. He didn’t do a lot of base stealing in college, because they don’t do a lot of that in their program. When we sent him out in pro ball, we said, ‘use your wheels.’ We gave him a green light and he went out this summer and used his speed to steal 17 bases.

“We like the fact that he’s a big kid who can run and has a good swing with some power. He also had a track record of college performance at a big school. I think if he hadn’t broken his hand and missed six weeks during the college season, he probably wouldn’t have been available at our pick. We were pretty excited when he was there.”

On second-round pick A.J. Reed and two-way players: “Entering the spring, there were some hitting reports and some pitching reports. He had a lot of power – he’s always had a lot of power – and he was also the Friday night pitcher at the University of Kentucky. He’s lefthanded, threw in the upper 80s with an idea of what he was doing, and had some success. But he made that decision very easy for the industry, just by the sheer performance he put together as a junior. I think by the end of the first month or two of the season, as he hit home run after home run, there was probably no one who had an inclination of taking him as a pitcher.

“We like to take a step back and not over-think things. When you’ve got a guy who is leading the country in home runs, and hitting over .330 in the SEC, and putting together a Golden Spike season… that kind of speaks for itself. To do what he did in that conference says a lot.

“Our scouts liked how easy his power was. They liked his size and the way he went about playing – he played with enthusiasm whether he was hitting or pitching. He was kind of a leader on his team. There was a lot to like, so when he was available with the 42nd pick there wasn’t much question of who to take.

“A first-base-only guy places a high bar on a bat, but the fact he was able to be such a good pitcher in college speaks to his natural skills as a baseball player. It shows that he takes well to the game of baseball and can do a lot of different things. Any time you see a guy who can be a two-way player at a high level, it impresses you. Even though we weren’t looking at him as a pitcher, the fact he could do that at a competitive level fed into our confidence.”

On power and hit tools: “Power has become a harder commodity to find and that’s an example of valuable it is to have involvement from our front office regarding the draft. They’ll tell us, ‘Power is getting more expensive and more rare, so if you see it, you might need to reach up and grab it.’ A.J. has 70 raw power, which is easy to see

“Hitting is the hardest thing to grade accurately, and to predict. With A.J., the thing we like about his hit tool is that, with all the power he has, he’s not a grotesque strikeout guy. He puts the bat and the ball. He has a good feel for the zone and lays off bad pitches. He’s kind of a natural hitter. He’s not a guy that has been overly coached up as far as his mechanics, or what he does in the box. It’s something that comes relatively easy – putting the bat on the ball.”

On coordinating hitting philosophy: “We try to seek alignment between our acquisition model for hitters and how they’ll be instructed once they’re in our organization. We like to target certain hitters – not always, but when it makes sense in the draft – who display advanced pitch recognition skills as amateurs and a willingness to be disciplined in their approach. It’s not just that those guys draw more walks, but more that they tend to possess the hand-eye skills necessary to tangle with better and better stuff as they climb the ladder and then play in the big leagues. We don’t want to take a guy like Nolan Fontana, or Andrew Aplin, or Conrad Gregor – who are already so adept at working counts and waiting for their pitch – and then have something different preached to them once they set foot in our program.

“We seek a lot of involvement from our hitting coaches in the draft process; they come to our draft meetings, they look at swings for us, they educate our scouts about hitters’ approaches, and how one approach may be optimal for one type of swing or player but not another. Our main hitting guys Jeff Albert (hitting coordinator), Dan Radison, Ralph Dickinson (assistant MLB hitting coaches), and John Mallee are all on the same page with what we’re doing on the scouting side and with what’s being taught level to level in the system.

“We actually just lost John Mallee, who did an excellent job for us, and when you lose your big league hitting coach it has the potential to upset that alignment. We were very careful to replace him with someone with a similar outlook in Dave Hudgens, who has a tremendous amount of experience and will really be a huge asset not just to our big league players but to our minor league staff as well. We were fortunate to get him. And we don’t seek that alignment just for alignment’s sake, but because we feel his philosophy is the correct one for us.”

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.

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Houston Chronicle
9 years ago

But…but…this is all lies! The Astros are nerds that treat players like numbers! They’re cold and ruthless automatons that manage the club on a spreadsheet! And they eat scouts for breakfast!