This article was written by Ben Jedlovec
This article was published in the Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and Their Profession
As a baseball operations intern for the Houston Astros during the summer of 2007, one of my primary responsibilities was to assist with the amateur draft. The importance of the draft cannot be overstated. A series of strong drafts can eventually produce a world championship, while a few weak drafts can doom a team to mediocrity or worse for years. Major-league teams spend more time, personnel, and money on the amateur draft than on any other event of the entire season. Many team employees will be retroactively judged based solely on the outcome of these two days. For many amateur-draft hopefuls, their entire futures will be decided over the course of 36 hours.
In the 2007 Astros scouting operation, the country was divided into two regions, East and West. Some scouts covered several states while others shared one, depending on the usual level of talent produced in the area. Florida, California, and Texas saw more coverage than the Dakotas, for example. Each region had its own set of supervisors and a cross-checker. The two regional cross-checkers worked directly under the national cross-checker. He reported to the coordinator of amateur scouting, who reported to the scouting director, who reported to the assistant GMs and the general manager.
For the majority of draft-eligible players, a local scout saw him play and “liked” him well enough to submit a scouting report on him. If the submitted report drew the interest of one of the cross-checkers, one or more would make a trip to scout the player. If the player was really special, the coordinator of amateur scouting or even the scouting director himself might make a trip to watch him play. Anywhere from one to six scouts might watch the top prospects before draft day.
The first month-long stretch of draft preparation meetings began in mid-May. The first week was devoted to all draft-eligible players from the Western half of the country. The Western scouts, supervisors, cross-checkers, and head scouting personnel met in what was known as the War Room, which was stocked (by baseball ops interns) every morning with soda, water, chips, pretzels, candy, chocolate, and any other kind of snack food you can imagine. The scouts stayed a block away, at the Inn at the Ballpark, and each morning around 8:15 they headed to the fifth floor of Union Station to settle in for four hours of meetings, a quick lunch break, and then another four hours of evaluating the best amateur talent in the country. They looked somewhat conspicuous in the office; in the midst of a building full of suit-and-tie employees, the scouts marched in dressed in their customary Hawaiian T-shirts with a day’s supply of chewing tobacco in the front pocket.
Players were evaluated from several perspectives. First, the local scout summarized the player’s scouting report, listing his position, school, age, and physical characteristics. Then he pointed out the player’s most attractive tools or characteristics. Each scout who saw him prepared an extensive report on the player.
Hitters were evaluated based on the five basic tools, but were also graded on more specific abilities, such as raw power, power frequency, attitude, instincts, and coordination. Each pitcher was graded on each pitch currently in his arsenal, velocity, movement, and control. The scouts dissected each player’s hitting and pitching mechanics, discerning which flaws are hindrances, which are correctable, and which would cause problems against tougher competition. Radar gun readings for each pitch and running times were listed. The scouts were asked to grade the player’s current ability and also to project his potential ceiling as a player.
Scouts also commented on a player’s background, makeup, and signability, which would play a huge role later in the process. A somewhat all-inclusive ranking, the Overall Future Potential (OFP) number, was calculated from the grades and was used as a guideline for assembling a preference list for the several hundred players who would be discussed.
Once the local scout had his say, any other scouts who saw the player chimed in with their thoughts. Oftentimes, the scouts disagreed on everything from which position the hitter would play at the major-league level to the chance that a pitcher would hold up under a starter’s workload. Sometimes one scout might see the player hit two home runs while another saw him strike out four times in one game. Most often, the player’s true ability level was somewhere in between, and it was up to the collective wisdom of the scouts to figure that out.
In addition to the verbal descriptions, scouts browsed the Major League Scouting Bureau’s reports, medical reports, statistics, and psychological tests on each player. Teams also had sent potential draftees general questionnaires to gather medical and background information on the players. (It was the interns’ job to assemble several three-inch binders of all of this information and sort it alphabetically for hundreds of players.)
Each player’s name was printed on a magnet that was then placed on whiteboards that covered the walls of the War Room. Players were sorted into one of many categories, with the most preferred players going in Group A, and the least preferred in Groups E and F. There were also groups for players with unresolved medical issues that went in a group labeled “Medicals”, and one group labeled “Unsignables” for the players asking for signing bonuses far greater that what the team was willing to offer.
The issue of a player’s makeup was treated almost exactly as Michael Lewis described in Moneyball. A player did not need “off the charts” makeup to make the cut, but the name of a player with character issues or legal problems might be tossed in the trash with the empty candy wrappers and pretzel bags. Numerous players had stories about brawls or bar fights attached to their names. Occasionally, a scout would stick up for one of “his” players when another scout questioned the kid’s makeup or ability, and the player might keep his spot on the board, at least for a while.
One by one, players were discussed and temporarily assigned to one of the groups. By the end of the week the scouts were growing tired of each other and might start confusing the hundreds of players with each other. After the entire body of players from the Western US was assigned to groups on the board, it was time to bring in the Eastern scouts and repeat the entire process with a few hundred new names. The new set of scouts, supervisors, and cross-checkers sat in the same chairs and repeated the same conversations the Western scouts had just concluded, but with different names in their places. Cross-checkers and scouting directors have an amazing ability to keep all of these players separate and somehow maintain their sanity.
After the Eastern scouts finished a similar week of deliberation and headed back home, the cross-checkers and head scouting personnel met to re-evaluate and re-sort into one comprehensive draft list the top 600 or so draft prospects from across the nation. Players from both sides of the country were discussed one more time and assigned a spot on the draft board. They were helped in evaluating some of the players’ mechanics by video compiled by the Major League Scouting Bureau of more than 100 of the top prospects. Several of the minor-league roving instructors were present and provided more thorough analysis of the footage. Special assistants to the general manager, such as Nolan Ryan and Jeff Bagwell, also stopped by to offer their input. The general manager and assistant GMs were present but let the scouts run the show.
The Monday before the draft, the team held a workout for 30 potential draftees. Most of the players were from the Houston area or were players the scouts wanted to get one more look at before the draft. The workout allowed the scouts to interact with the players and scout them firsthand using wooden bats in a major-league ballpark. The position players took fly balls and groundballs to show their arm strength, accuracy, and fielding mechanics, while pitchers threw in the bullpen and off the mound. The hitters took a few rounds of batting practice on the field, then headed to the cages behind the clubhouse for a few more swings. The scouts could see for themselves if a player had the physicality to play every day in the majors, or if he had fully recovered from a recent injury that may have affected a scout’s previous evaluation. After the workout, the scouts reassembled to discuss what they saw from the prospects and re-evaluate the draft board.
After going back through all the players and sorting through every piece of information, adding all the last-minute health and signability updates, the team was finally ready for draft day.
When Draft Day 1 arrived, reorganizing the draft board was complete. The GM, assistant GMs, scouting directors, coordinator of amateur scouting, cross-checkers, and a few supervisors gathered in the War Room to see how it all played out. The scouts were on their phones trying to gauge what players would fall to the Astros and what players were increasing their bonus demands at the last minute.
Because of free-agent signings of Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, the Astros did not have a pick until the third round. They had three players targeted for the third-round pick, but so many things could change after the first few rounds that it was almost pointless to speculate. For a team with what Baseball America considered one of the weaker farm systems in the league, there was a lot of pressure on the front office to have a strong draft.
With the draft being televised for the first time, all eyes were glued to the TV to watch how the first round played out. Even though the Astros didn’t have a first-round pick, the team sent “delegates” to the draft in Orlando at Major League Baseball’s request. Those in Houston saw them on TV; they were pretending to be busy and make important phone calls when the camera was on them for appearance’s sake. In reality, they had no clue which players were currently being discussed in the War Room back in Houston.
Tampa Bay selected David Price with the first pick, and the two-day marathon began. We watched with amusement as Rick Porcello fell to the Tigers late in the first round. (Editor’s note: Porcello was thought to be asking for too high a price to go early in the first round, Detroit ended up paying him way over slot.)
As one of the scouts said, “You can have a really good draft just by spending a couple million more dollars.”
The first round moved slowly, but the scouts occupied the time commenting on each pick. The scouts checked back with their sources to monitor the latest rumors just like any baseball fan keeping up with the draft. As the first round moved along, our Group A took big hits, and a few players from Group B and even one from Group C had come off the board. We wanted some talented players to be there for us when our picks came up, but we also wanted to be able to sign them. The room collectively started rooting for other teams to select the guys we considered unsignable.
After the first round, the draft went to a 30-way conference call. Each team made its selection through an electronic system online, and then announced its pick through the conference call.
Through the supplemental first round and second round, names kept coming off the board. While Houston’s draft rankings were created entirely by Astros scouts, it was clear that the list closely resembled other teams’ boards. The majority of Group A players were taken before the Group B players started disappearing, and soon the Astros were left with a handful of Group B’s and most of Group C. The room started counting the number of picks left until ours, and we began to eye the names we thought might be left when our turn finally arrived. The scouts are working the phones, trying to get an up-to-the-second gauge of which players would still be there when Houston’s pick arrived at number 111.
Finally, our pick arrived, and one of “our guys” was still there: Derek Dietrich, a shortstop from an Ohio high school who made the trip to Houston for our pre-draft workout earlier in the week. He stood out at the workout, driving balls across the field and flashing some impressive wood-bat power.
Clearly, he made an impression on the scouts, enough to convince them he was a worthy third-round selection of the Astros. The scouting director and coordinator of amateur scouting made the final decision while others present provided input or were simply along for the ride. The local scout responsible for recommending Dietrich received congratulations from everyone in the room, and he picked up his cell phone as he stepped out of the room to call the newest Astros draft pick and relay the good news to the Astros’ first selection.
Having landed their third-round selection, the room breathed a collective sigh of relief. The pressure was off, and the atmosphere became much more relaxed. The mindset changed from panicking to scheming as the scouts started looking at who they could nab next. At this stage, the draft pace had picked up considerably since the first round, but it still took quite a while to complete each round. With the fourth- and fifth-round picks, the Astros took high-school pitcher Brett Eibner and Lamar University outfielder Collin DeLome. It was a special day for the Houston-area Astros scout who recommended both players.
For a scout, having one of your players selected, especially this early in the draft, is a reward for a year’s worth of hard work. The rest of the player’s career is more or less beyond the scout’s control, but when the player’s name is announced through the conference call in front of the other 29 teams, an undeniable bond is formed between scout and player. The scout was responsible for getting the player drafted, and the player will hopefully return the favor by moving through the minor-league system quickly and contributing at the major-league level, reflecting well on the scout who recommended him.
In a way, a scout’s career is forever linked to the player’s. The scout will follow the player’s career more closely than anyone except the player himself, hoping that one day his former draft prospect will make it to “The Show.” Even if the player is traded or the scout moves on to another organization, the two will often keep in touch well after the contract is signed and the signing bonus is cashed.
With five rounds down and 45 to go, MLB called it a day. Teams took the evening to evaluate, regroup, and set their sights on the next day’s target players. The scouts got back to their phones to see if their player’s signability had changed after a nerve-wracking Day 1.
Day 2 moves much more quickly. It was clear that by the fifth round, the teams’ draft boards overlapped a lot less directly, so teams could plan their selections several picks in advance. Several rounds into Day 2, we began planning three or four rounds ahead. As each selection was being read into the speakerphone, one of the scouts called the player to congratulate him and welcome him to the organization.
After a few rounds into Day 2, the “best available player” mindset became “who else is interesting?” which turned into “what positions do we need to fill for our short-season and rookie ball rosters?” We took a shot at a couple of high-school guys who might change their mind and turn pro, but most of the late picks were college juniors and seniors who we were sure would sign for slot money.
With the new August 15 signing deadline, the draft-and-follow process has been all but eliminated. Teams have less of a need to draft 50 rounds worth of players, so teams start dropping out in the late 30s/early 40s. We were done after round 44.
The baseball operations staff had an evening to recover before it had to start signing the new draftees. Short-season leagues and rookie ball were to begin in a few days, and the organization needed to have a roster together before then. Meanwhile, the scouts headed out in search of next year’s top amateur prospects, and the 12-month process began again.
BEN JEDLOVEC worked as a baseball operations intern for the Houston Astros in the summer of 2007 and graduated from Rice University the following year. Now a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Ben works with John Dewan, Bill James, and the BIS team on a variety of publications and projects. His contributions can be found in The Fielding Bible books and on ESPN.com.