When Scouting Shortstops Gets Too Subjective

When I’m making the calls for the Evaluating the Prospects series, I start picking up trends across multiple lists.  Some of it is simple, expected things—trends in types of players I or the industry tend to underrate or overrate—but there can be more specific things that keep coming up.  I wrote earlier about the trend of top hitting prospects flopping the big leagues after appearing bored at Triple-A along with a general plea of ignorance in any scouting projections, but now there’s now another constant I keep hearing on almost every list.

It’s become part of common internet prospect lingo to ask/comment on whether a prospect that plays shortstop in the minors can “stick at the position.” What this means is if he can project to be average to slightly below, or in other words, good enough to send out there on an everyday basis, assuming his bat is enough in combination with his defense to be one of the top 30 shortstops in the big leagues.

This seems like a simple enough question, but there’s a persistent blind spot in the industry of underrating the defensive ability in short looks (a showcase, infield practice or just a handful of games) of shortstops with solid fundamentals, but without flashy actions.

Some of this comes from a team talking about their own prospect, trying to change the consensus that their own prospect can, in fact, stick at shortstop in the big leagues. I can say from working in three front offices that over 95% of the time, the team that has a prospect also has the #1 highest value of him out of all 30 teams. There’s a number of understandable reasons for this effect, but it only accounts for a small part of the overall trend.

I hear it often and in the all three talent markets: the draft, July 2nd and now on organizational prospect lists. The player getting underrated is a shortstop with anywhere from 45 to 55 speed on the 20-80 scale, that has fringy to average pure range for the position and the minimum amount arm strength (55) for the position. So many times, this player doesn’t seem in early looks like he could stick, but now a scout, a plurality of scouts or a whole organization later come to realize that he can.

You probably have a mental image of these two sorts of players. There’s the flashy (almost always Latin) shortstop with quick hands, plus speed and the actions that, after one ground ball, look like a big league shortstop.  This guy could be Elvis Andrus, Rey Ordonez, Andrelton Simmons or any other number of players you may be thinking of right now.  Then there’s the other guy, either with a third base looking frame and/or speed (Jhonny Peralta, Juan Uribe, Jordy Mercer) or just a guy with unspectacular tools (Jed Lowrie, the recently-traded Franklin Barreto or 2015 draft prospects Alex Bregman of LSU and Brendan Rodgers, from an Orlando-area high school).

You can see there’s a subtle amount of racial influence here in most cases, but what I’m realizing is that the answer to “is he a shortstop?” is a snap reaction that’s answering a different question. The answer is often addressing “does he look like Rey Ordonez?” rather than “can he be fringy to average defensively with enough bat to be one of the 30 starting shortstops?” question, which is the one being asked by the scouting report. It usually isn’t until the high minors or big leagues that the default answer by scouts is to the more important question.

I find myself (and other scouts echo my sentiment) that when you go to a showcase and see 40 kids you’ve never seen before run out to shortstop and each take a half dozen grounders that I write in my notes after you see some Jed Lowrie type tools “2B fit” or “3B fit” next to his name.  Then, this same player plays in games the rest of the evaluation period until signing/draft day and you start seeing instincts, positioning and the intangibles of defense and you slowly start thinking this kid might be able to stick.

This happens in various forms at every level of baseball, but there’s little accountability for when scouts or writers get it wrong, because the shortstop was called a future non-shortstop at every level until he proved it in the big leagues for multiple years. It didn’t matter if you were wrong, because everyone was wrong, because they were answering the wrong question.

The more accurate way to think about shortstop defensive evaluations is in three buckets: definite yes, maybe and definite no. Some scouts may already think of it this way, but odds are only the flashy guys go in the first bucket and some of them don’t show the consistency to deserve that standing. Plenty of second bucket guys are getting tossed in the third bucket way too quickly, before they claw their way to where they belonged in the first place.

Barreto and Rodgers (the front-runner for the #1 overall pick in June) are both interesting cases to watch going forward, but the best case study may be two current college players. There’s another 2015 draft shortstop prospect I haven’t mentioned yet — University of Florida product Richie Martin. He is the flashier type of shortstop and has plus speed: he immediately passes the eye test and every scout you talk to says he should be at least an average defensive shortstop.

When you drill down or talk to a scout who is really paying attention, you’ll hear it pointed out that Martin makes a number of mental errors and lapses in focus to where he’s clearly behind Bregman as a defender currently. Bregman is a smaller guy that is a tick slower, doesn’t have flashy actions and has been projected as a pro second baseman or catcher his whole amateur career for these reasons.

That said, Bregman makes every play and to make up for his merely okay range, he charges almost every ball hit to him and has sure hands, making nearly every play. Martin has always had a light bat and was almost benched as a sophomore, but had a breakout offensive summer on the Cape, so now he’s seen as a complete prospect that likely goes in the top 50 picks.  Some scouts are a little wary of the short track record of offensive success and the inconsistency on defense, so it’ll be interesting to track the scouting consensus and actual results for these two SEC shortstops.

While this is just one case study and it could go either way, I’ll be paying closer attention to scouts’ and other publications’ pronouncements, along with my own, about who can stick at short and who cannot.  This is also yet another reason why, for next year’s prospect rankings, I’ll be going through this year’s rankings and pointing out where I was wrong.  Here’s to hoping it won’t be longer than the actual list.





Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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Zach

Josh Morgan–Type B–in a Rangers org with tons of MIF. Thoughts.