The Challenge of Being a Modern-Day Scout

Earlier today, I published a post examining the major-league success of players who were never considered top-100 prospects. It’s a favorite subject of mine, and among the most delightful things about the current Cleveland Indians is that they’re being led in no small part by both Jose Ramirez and Corey Kluber, who came up as relative nobodies. No one’s surprised when a top prospect becomes a top player. When a top player emerges after having been off the radar, though — every one of those guys has a story. Why, here’s a story from today, about Whit Merrifield. Merrifield was nothing, until he was something. Now he’s a part of the Royals’ present and future.

In running the analysis for the post linked above, I didn’t spot any meaningful trends. The number of good players who were unranked prospects has remained fairly steady. The amount of WAR coming from players who were unranked prospects has also remained fairly steady. Through that lens, it doesn’t seem like much is going on. Nothing, that is, that’s out of the ordinary. Yet, under the surface, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think I’m saying anything original, here, but these are tough times to be a minor-league scout. Anyone can evaluate a prospect, but it’s perhaps never been harder to evaluate well.

Scouting, for eons, has been about tools. Players with more and better tools are superior to players without them, and that’s how one attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not as if tools have gotten any less obvious. If anything, they can be observed with greater precision and accuracy than in the past. We’re more likely to know, now, exactly how hard a guy hits the ball, or throws it. More information is being recorded, and it can help to inform the scouting reports.

At issue is what we might consider the major-league threshold. Where is a tool good enough? Who has the proper blend of tools to cut it in the bigs, and who’s likely to come up short? Changes at the major-league level are blurring all the lines. The way evaluation used to be done is no longer quite so applicable.

As pitchers are concerned, I don’t think anything has changed too much. It’s still pretty obvious in the minors who has good stuff, and who has the potential to throw even harder. It’s not obvious at all who might learn a new pitch that changes everything, or who might figure out pinpoint command. Pitchers have never been easy, because they can change practically overnight. That remains at least as true as ever, and maybe the only real change we’re approaching is the murkier line between a starter and a reliever. Players, forever, have been evaluated on their potential to be effective over 100-odd pitches. The starters of the future won’t throw so much; more relievers of the future will go multiple innings. We’re going to see more pitchers like Chad Green, so that’s just something to file away.

It’s the position players who I think are becoming more confounding in particular. They’ve long been judged on the five tools, which are: hitting for average, hitting for power, running, arm, and defense. Some of those are about the same as ever. A fast player is a fast player is a fast player, and nothing has changed too much about the utility of speed. But, think about fielding and power. Think about what’s been taking place in the majors.

The importance of individual defensive ability has been reduced. It has definitely not been reduced all the way to zero, and there are still valuable defenders and less valuable defenders. In the outfield, in particular, it’s still important to be able to cover as much ground as possible. But we’re within a couple of overlapping eras. One, this is the era of shifting, or, more generally, the era of strategic, data-based defensive positioning. Players are put where the ball is likely to go, and I can’t imagine that’s ever going to go back to how it was before. Range, therefore, is less important, because individual defenders have more support in higher-probability areas. A spectacular shortstop can still make more plays than a mediocre shortstop, but the gap has narrowed. There is simply less available space.

Two, this is the era of strikeouts. A game is complete after 27 outs. As more of those are made at the plate, fewer of those are made in the field. So there’s also just reduced demand on the defense. That means there are fewer opportunities, and so there are fewer chances for a good defender to separate himself from a worse one.

An additional minor factor has to do with the changing approaches of hitters. Again, this has more to do with infielders, but hitters are trying to generate more and more lift, meaning their ground balls are getting weaker. If grounders are getting easier to handle, that’s just one more variable attempting to level the playing field, so to speak.

That’s what’s happening with defense. Power, I probably don’t even need to tell you about. Home runs are up. Way up. They’re up in part because of the ball, and they’re up in part because of other changes. Merrifield has hit 17 homers. Scooter Gennett has hit 24. Jose Ramirez has hit 26. Francisco Lindor has hit 30. Back in 2015, Kiley McDaniel rated Lindor’s power as a 40, on the 20-80 scale. Nobody thought this would happen, but it is inarguably happening.

There are more home runs being hit, and there are way more home runs being hit by players who weren’t supposed to hit many home runs. Plain and simple, it’s easier to leave the yard than it used to be, and so more players are trying to do it. What’s interesting is that, while homers are up, they’re mostly just up at the major-league level.

Here’s a table of the above information, comparing 2017 to the entirety of the 2008 – 2017 decade.

Home Runs on Contact
Level 2017 2008 – 2017 Difference
MLB 4.8% 3.8% 1.1%
AAA 3.5% 3.2% 0.3%
AA 3.0% 2.7% 0.2%
A+ 2.7% 2.6% 0.1%
A 2.6% 2.3% 0.3%
A- 1.9% 1.8% 0.1%

These days, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s going to have enough power. From 2012 to 2015, Freddy Galvis hit 20 homers. Since the start of last year, he’s hit 31. His teammate Cesar Hernandez has hit 14, whereas, as a professional before that, he’d hit a total of 16 since 2007. It’s hardly news to anyone that there are more dingers than there used to be, but it’s important to understand how that’s kind of messed things up, evaluation-wise. The major-league threshold has moved to the left. And players who might not benefit so much from trying to hit for power in the minors might find the major-league environment more suitable. Fly balls up there get a greater reward. You just have to make contact. Contact isn’t everything, but bat-to-ball skills presently seem to be suggestive of the ability to develop ball-to-wall skills.

In short, non-power hitters are coming up and hitting for power. Power hitters are also coming up and hitting for their own power, so it’s not like everything is upside-down, but now it’s tremendously difficult to separate the guys with major-league skills from the guys without them. One guy’s middling power might be just good enough to give him the edge over this other guy with similarly middling power. Major-league power is no longer conspicuous. You don’t need to be able to hit the ball to a light fixture; you just need to find the first row.

The importance of defensive ability has been reduced. That’s probably irreversible, and that reduces the overall prospect spread. It’s also now harder than ever to tell who might hit for enough power in the majors to survive. That further reduces the overall prospect spread. That’s not necessarily irreversible. Maybe major-league homers will fall back down. Or maybe minor-league homers will move to catch up. Right now, a big part of the problem is the difference between the majors and the highest levels of the minors. It’s just a different game. You can watch a player in the minors as much as you’d like, but the challenge is no longer just imagining him at a higher level. It’s imagining him at a higher level, where the game-play is different. You can forgive the evaluators for missing Whit Merrifield. These are weird and unusual times.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Joe Joemember
6 years ago

Thanks! On the home run in the minors versus majors, I’m guessing that scouts/teams will need to figure out which guys are great at getting good contact more frequently and which of these guys be taught to add loft. Barrels per batted ball, Z Contact, and plate discipline stats or more complicated versions of those metrics may be able to find guys that will likely make good contact in the majors. Without Gallo power, it seems like these stats will be needed to try to find the a way of identifying guys with less raw power that may have a ton of game power in a contact-depressed environment.