The Road to the Draft

This week, one of the key events on the baseball calendar takes place: the annual Rule 4 draft. Yup, that’s what it’s technically called, but it’s better known as the amateur draft, with 1,200 high school, college and junior college players hearing their names called over the three days of proceedings. Unlike the football and basketball drafts, the baseball version takes place a bit under the radar, with all but the most hardcore fans unfamiliar with the vast majority of the draftable players.

This is understandable, as all but the rarest of exceptions among players are not seen at the major league level for a while, unlike the instant gratification of the football and basketball drafts. This isn’t to say that the events of later this week aren’t vital to the short, intermediate and long-term future of all 30 clubs. On the contrary; the draft remains the cheapest way to turn a club around, though it does take time. There is a lot of player-specific draft content around this week, so let’s take a different tack and look at the process, the people involved – the who’s, what’s and where’s surrounding the baseball draft.

While many people might be aware of the draft only during the three-day period during which it takes place, or at most throughout the spring season preceding it, the reality is that preparation for the next year’s draft begins immediately – literally, immediately – following the end of the previous one. Let’s begin this review by examining the draft calendar.

Within days after the end of last year’s draft, area scouts were responsible for submission of their first “follow list” for the 2014 draft. Time is of the essence here, for obvious and less obvious reasons. Summer wood-bat leagues begin play quickly – in the case of the Northwoods League, for example, they’re playing prior to draft day. All of them are in full swing within a week after the end of the draft, and crosscheckers and other scouts responsible for covering them need to know which players to focus upon. Another reason for such an early deadline is that the club desires an orderly transition in the territories of scouts whose contracts are not going to be renewed – some such decisions are made fairly quickly after the draft.

This initial follow list is often quite short, focusing on only the best prospects in a scout’s area. Scouts place prospects in categories, ranging from Excellent, to Good, to Average, Marginal and Fringe. There is often a further breakdown of the Average category, with the Strong and Mild Average categories also utilized by some clubs. The initial summer follow list might feature only Average and above prospects.

Depending on an area scout’s territory, summer responsibilities may vary widely. When I scouted the Northeast for the Brewers a decade ago, I had the good fortune of having the Cape Cod League within my territory. This enabled me to see some of the prospects from my area play against the best possible competition, and gave me an up-close and personal look at some of the game’s best prospects facing off against one another on a nightly basis. There were also smaller college wood-bat leagues like the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), which featured a high percentage of players from my area on the rosters, as well as a sprinkling of national prospects, including some exceptional underclassmen. Stephen Strasburg played in the NECBL following his freshman year at San Diego St., for example.

Other leagues such as the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL) and Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL) didn’t feature as much quality depth and thus didn’t require an extended scouting trip, but there were always some prospects there, and attendance at their All Star festivities was always a must.

As the summer progresses, the focus begins to shift from wood-bat college leagues to the leading summer high school showcase events. Area Codes, the Under Armour Game, the East Coast Pro Showcase, Team USA tryouts…..there is no shortage of opportunities to see the high end prep prospects. As the summer reaches its end, many scouts will hold tryout camps, some open to the public, some by invitation only. You will always find at least a prospect or two at a tryout camp, but the public relations value of holding them makes it worthwhile even in the event that you come up totally dry.

The end of the summer is also a perfect time for a scout to make his initial home visits with his very best prospects. In any business, relationships are paramount, and this is the time for the foundation to be laid. Meeting the prospect and his family in a comfortable setting during this time of year enables the scout to make a personal connection, answer the family’s questions about professional baseball – much more so than about his own club, at this stage – and present himself as a go-to resource for the family, who is in the middle of a whirlwind phase that includes a college commitment and possibly selection of an advisor.

With the summer over, it’s time to submit another, much lengthier follow list to the home office, in preparation for the fall scouting season. A scout’s fall responsibilities again vary quite a bit, depending on geography. In warm-weather areas, the games almost never end, with college scout days spanning the entire fall semester, while in the cold weather areas, the games shut down by late October or early November, freeing up time for administrative responsibilities and more home visits, moving down the scout’s follow list.

If a baseball scout is going to take a vacation, it very well might take place around the holidays in the second half of December or very early in January. Recharge those batteries while you can, because the spring is one long sprint toward the finish line. Spring is the time when a “follow list” transforms into a preference, or “pref list”. The scout is no longer just roughly projecting what category a player falls into, he is now writing detailed reports on each player he is submitting for draft consideration, and then putting those players into a preferential order within those categories.

The typical scouting report utilizes the traditional 20-80 scouting scale, grading position players in hitting ability, power potential, fielding ability, arm strength and running speed, with many clubs sprinkling in other categories as well. Each one of a pitcher’s individual pitches is graded, along with his fastball command, overall control, and “pitchability”, among other categories. Some clubs allow scouts to award a prospect an overall score independent of his individual category grades, while other systems automatically calculate an overall grade based on the individual category grades, with the scout given some latitude to make slight adjustments afterward. As the spring goes on, an area scout may submit anywhere from roughly 40 to 70 players for draft consideration from his area, submitting multiple reports on most of them, and is generally responsible for submitting an updated “pref list” every other week or so.

That’s the basic calendar for an area scout, but in addition to the area scouts, who are the other players in the draft process, and what are their respective roles?

The area scout has one of the most vital, underrated and underpaid roles in the game. To sum up the job in one word, I would select one that might surprise most of you – entrepreneur. Each club employs roughly 15 to 20 area scouts, and they are responsible for knowing what is going on prospect-wise in their respective areas. For a Northeastern scout, the prospects are more spread out, and you are generally responsible for a greater geographic expanse. I was responsible for New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and for a time, eastern Canada as an area scout. A southern California scout, on the other hand, might never have to spend a night in a hotel, their area is so physically small. Virtually every high school in that scout’s area might have a prospect, however, and the games go on all year round. Each club might give their area scout some guidance as to how to “set up” their area, but the bottom line is that it is the scout’s responsibility to have eyes and ears everywhere in their area, and not be caught napping when a prospect “pops up”.

An area scout, if he’s lucky, might have a paid part-time scout based in a key spot in his area. I had the good fortune of having part-timer Eddie Fastaia based in Brooklyn. Try being responsible for scouting the greater New York City area without a known and respected native son who knows every nook and cranny of the city. An area scout also creates a network of unpaid “associate’ scouts to serve as eyes and ears throughout his area. These scouts’ expertise and experience runs the gamut – I gave a couple of young baseball jobseekers their first crack at a baseball gig, and they have gone on to begin successful scouting careers. Veteran baseball coaches and instructors, who knew where the talent was within their home areas, were also vital components of my team. While one might think an area scout might venture a bit from their home base to add associates, I took great care to add resource very close to my home – an area scout travels a lot, and the absolute last thing that can be allowed to happen is to get beat on your own home turf.

The regional crosschecker, in the grand scheme of things, is an area scout with a larger, more talent-packed area. The crosschecker doesn’t have to make all of the home visits that an area scout does, and doesn’t have to materially concern himself with the lower end of an area scout’s follow or pref list, but he sees a ton of talented players, and is chiefly responsible for combining individual scouts’ lists into a larger one that will have direct impact on formulation of the organization’s overall draft board. The crosscheckers often help create the scouting director’s ever-evolving, fluid schedule, helping him decide which “Average” prospects to see and not see, for example. An organized, productive area scout with solid evaluation skills often graduates to a crosschecker role within a few years.

Then there’s the scouting director, who has the ultimate say on draft day, and throughout the season. They might get a bit of a late start on the summer scouting season, as recently drafted players have to be signed first. After that, however, they make a circuit of the major college wood-bat leagues and high school showcase events in the summer, and the college scout days of key prospects and programs in the fall. A scouting director’s spring travel itinerary must be seen to be believed – plans change on a dime because of weather, and quality looks at as many high-end prospects per day as possible are squeezed in, via matchups, double, and triple-ups., etc.. The scouting director constantly strives to find the balance between seeing as many prospects as possible, keeping the big picture in focus, meeting administrative responsibilities and maintaining one’s sanity. It’s a hard gig.

Behind the scenes are a bevy of vital supporting players in the club’s home office. There may be an assistant scouting director as well as other direct administrative support staff responsible for a variety of tasks, including but not limited to the required logistical interaction with the MLB office in New York that enables clubs to select each player submitted by the area scouts, as well as processing of medical, vision and psychological test information received from prospects by area scouts. Some very heavy computer support is required as well, with reports being submitted at all times of day from all parts of the country, and draft-related detail and summary information of many types often being requested by front office members.

Most clubs have a fairly significant analytical component to their draft process today. The numbers don’t mean much with respect to the high school players, but college info is quite useful, especially with the death of the aluminum bat. It is best used only as a supplement, but batted-ball data such as ground ball and popup rates for pitchers, and quality of contact info for hitters, as well as various split information, can be quite useful.

The GM, his assistants and special assistants get involved as needed as additional sets of eyes upon the best prospects. Quite often, a specific high-ranking front office member may work hand-in-hand with the scouting director, providing big-picture guidance, i.e., highlighting points of strength/weakness in a draft, managing the club’s “draft cap”, etc.., allowing the scouting director to focus on the core of his job – player evaluation.

All of the efforts of all of these individuals throughout the draft season leads to one place, the draft room, where all of the info is accumulated and aggregated, and the final decisions are made. Next time, we’ll take a look at that process, up to and including the moment the red light goes on.

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8 years ago

Well this doesn’t sound like Trouble With the Curve!