MLB draft: The scouts' eyeball test
Sometimes, a prospect's ability to hit, pitch, run and throw has to take a backseat
As I discovered in my futile attempt to answer Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow's question about the lack of redheads in baseball, the discussion can lead down multiple side roads filled with dead ends, generational biases, old wives' tales and debates about the merits of "high-waisted" pitchers and "thin-ankled" outfielders.
Many time-worn scouting theories have been relegated to the scrap heap over the years because they're an impediment to finding talent. But they still exist in baseball lore -- or wherever scouts congregate with some free time on their hands.
I interviewed seven veteran talent evaluators for my story, and they provided valuable insight into the tools that scouts look for when assessing amateur talent before the draft. Naturally, every team wants pitchers with velocity and command; hitters with quick wrists, bat speed and plate discipline; and that rare shortstop with range, soft hands and a "hose" for an arm. But variations from the norm can easily infiltrate a scout's subconscious or put a crimp in a player's efforts to make a positive impression.
"There's comfort in familiarity," Luhnow says. "If you're familiar with a certain profile of a player, you feel more comfortable making a recommendation and going out on a limb because he looks and feels like a lot of players who've been successful. Anytime you venture into territory that's not as populated, you're taking a little bit more of a gamble. And if you're wrong, people might look back and say, 'You should have known.' That makes it more difficult to be bold in those situations."
So it isn't just red hair. There are other perceived shortcomings that might give scouts pause when considering a prospect.
A weak grip
Baseball talent evaluators have multiple reasons for wanting to shake a prospect's hands during the draft process.
First, it's a social indicator. If a player averts his eyes or offers a weak handshake, it might be a sign that he's unassertive, lacks confidence or will have difficulty relating to his teammates. Or maybe he's just shy, in which case the handshake might not provide a whole lot of insight.
More importantly, a strong handshake can have serious on-field ramifications for both hitters and pitchers. Bob Zuk, a renowned scout who worked for 10 clubs over 46 years, used to carry around a pair of hand grips that he would ask prospective signees to squeeze. He called it the "Zuk-o-meter." Over the years, Zuk signed Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Darrell Evans and Gary Carter, among others, so he apparently knew what he was doing.
Similarly, old-school talent evaluators adhere to the theory that the stronger a pitcher's hands, the more adept he'll be at manipulating the baseball.
"I was always told that you have to have a firm handshake if you're a pitcher," Cubs scout Tim Wilken says. "But two of the weakest handshakes I've ever seen were from Oil Can Boyd and Jimmy Key. They both had soft hands, but they controlled the baseball pretty good."
Small hands, short fingers and thick wrists
Scouts love pitchers with long arms and long fingers because they can control the baseball longer and generate more rotations with the fastball and their breaking stuff. Pedro Martinez stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 170 pounds but was renowned for his long arms and long, slender fingers. So was Sandy Koufax, who used his big hands to his advantage as a college hoopster with the University of Cincinnati and a future Hall of Famer with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The big-hands club also includes former Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who, at 6-foot-8 and 222 pounds, was one of the most-feared pitchers in the game before a stroke ended his career at age 30.
"J.R. Richard has the most enormous hands I've ever seen in my life," Luhnow says. "If you ever try to shake his hand, you better watch out, because there's a good chance he's really gonna make it hurt. For J.R. Richard, throwing a baseball is the equivalent of me throwing a golf ball."
Paul Snyder, one of the most-acclaimed scouting directors in baseball history, put his faith in all types in his lengthy tenure with the Atlanta Braves. Steve Avery, Atlanta's first-round pick in 1988, was long on the "wow" factor. He stood 6-foot-4, 185 pounds and had the extended wingspan and supple wrists that were so prized by talent evaluators.
Jason Marquis, in contrast, did not fit the profile. He was relatively short and stocky, with smaller hands and fingers that give scouts pause. When the Braves chose Marquis 35th overall in the 1996 draft, Snyder was second-guessed by one of his nonbaseball superiors.
"That's the only time I really got my fanny chewed," Snyder says. "Even some people in our draft room went away shaking their heads. Jason Marquis didn't have the long, slender fingers and the skinny wrists and all that, but he could pitch."
Snyder's instincts served him well. Of the 35 first-round and supplemental picks in the '96 draft, the only five still collecting a big league paycheck are Mark Kotsay, Eric Chavez, R.A. Dickey, Jake Westbrook and, yes, Marquis. Although Marquis has made only one All-Star team in his career, he has 118 career victories -- or 22 more than Steve Avery.
Talent evaluators are partial to hitters and pitchers with sloped shoulders, which are believed to allow greater flexibility and freedom of movement. Square shoulders, in contrast, are considered the kiss of death.
Red Sox special assistant Eddie Bane cites Claudell Washington, an outfielder who played 17 seasons with the Braves, Yankees and five other clubs, as one player who bucked the stereotype.
"Usually, a guy with square shoulders is not a terrific athlete," Bane says. "Claudell Washington looked like he had a coat hanger upside down in his shirt when he was in uniform. He had a 24-inch waist and shoulders that went out to the moon. But he could play."
A lack (or surplus) of height
Randy Johnson and Chris Young notwithstanding, scouts tend to get a little nervous when pitchers are tall enough to crash the offensive boards. The consensus is that taller pitchers have a harder time maintaining a consistent release point or dealing with back injuries and other physical maladies. (See: Loek Van Mil, a 7-foot-1 Dutchman, and Ryan Anderson, aka "The Little Unit" and the "Space Needle.")
Some scouts and organizations have a long-standing bias against righty pitchers who stand 6-feet and less, under the theory that they'll break down relatively quickly or can't create enough of an angle to make life difficult on hitters. Dan Jennings, assistant GM of the Miami Marlins, has a rule of thumb that he won't submit an undersized righty for consideration unless he merits a "60" on the 20-80 scouts scale in at least one category.
The anti-short right-hander bias persists in some circles even though Greg Maddux, Martinez, Tim Hudson, Tom Gordon, Jake Peavy, David Cone, Roy Oswalt, Tim Lincecum and a few others have helped shoot a hole in it through the years.
Those rules don't apply to left-handers, who come from a different planet. Any fraternity with room for Johnson, Bill Lee, Billy Wagner, Jamie Moyer and former Reds reliever Danny Herrera (who pitched at 5-foot-6) has an open-door policy. Lefties seem to be able to extend their careers by changing arm slots or adding a new pitch, and that helps explain why Moyer and Jesse Orosco pitched so long they had to be carbon-dated.
"A lefty pitcher who can get it all the way to home plate in the air is a prospect," Bane says.
Jennings seconds that observation.
"The only rule for lefties," he says, "is there are no rules."
Rickey Henderson is generally regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter in history. He was also the rare player to throw with his left hand and hit from the right side. Among the other members of that club: Cleon Jones, Doug Ault, Cody Ross, Mark Carreon and Ryan Ludwick.
Bane says right-handed hitters who are left-handed throwers are referred to as "bass-ackward guys" in the scouting community. Like redheads, they're looked at askance -- not because there's some inherent baseball reason they can't succeed but more because they're such an oddity.
"When I was with Cleveland, I drafted Luis Medina, who's now a scout with Kansas City," Bane says. "He had a bucket full of tools. Luis wasn't a good player, but it wasn't because he was bass-ackwards. He wasn't a good player because he couldn't hit a curveball. That should be a scout's axiom: 'Don't draft a guy who can't hit a curveball.'"
Octavio Dotel has pitched for 13 teams over 15 seasons and ranks 59th in MLB history with 758 appearances. His nickname is "El Pato" (Spanish for "The Duck") because his feet splay out in a "V" when he walks.
In a perfect world, an athlete's toes point straight ahead or slightly inward, so duck feet are generally regarded as a red flag.
"You don't like to see a shortstop or middle-infield prospect who walks like a duck," Bane says. "That goes to athletic ability. It's a speed thing."
But there are exceptions to every rule. Bane was still working with the Angels in 2007 when the team signed Jean Segura as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic. The Angels have since traded Segura to Milwaukee, where he has emerged as a budding star.
"He had some duck in him when he walked," Bane says. "But he didn't when he ran, for whatever reason."
A "spongecake" physique
Chris Pittaro, a former big league second baseman-turned-special assistant to Oakland GM Billy Beane, has heard numerous old-time scouts express a similar sentiment about players with blocky or doughy physiques.
"I've heard a lot of scouts say, 'Fat guys can usually hit,'" Pittaro says. "I thought about it and I was like, 'I guess that makes sense.' If a guy isn't athletic and he can't run fast or play defense, there must by a reason why he's in the lineup. Usually, it's because he swings the bat fairly well."
Hack Wilson was listed at 5-foot-6, 190 pounds. Tony Gwynn won eight batting titles despite a body that was not exactly carved out of stone. John Kruk posted a career .300 batting average while popularizing the phrase, "I ain't an athlete, lady. I'm a baseball player." And Prince Fielder proved wrong all the skeptics who worried about his body type when former Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik picked him seventh overall in the 2002 draft. A $214 million contract and 269 career home runs are testaments to Fielder's staying power.
Even the best, most-accomplished scouting directors can fall victim to a preconceived notion of what a player is supposed to look like. Paul Snyder, for example, admits to shying away from a big left-handed pitcher in the 1998 draft because of concerns about his weight.
"Our area scouts in California beat my head against a wall trying to sell this kid to me," Snyder says. "But I could see him getting to the big leagues and teams would bunt him all over the ballpark. I thought, 'Once he starts making any kind of money, he's going to eat himself right out of the baseball.'"
With the benefit of hindsight, Snyder would like a do-over. CC Sabathia has gone on to have a heck of a career.
The Not-so-Good Face
Enlightened scouts believe that any talent evaluator who clings to long-held biases and discounts a player from consideration because of some age-old industry bromide is making a huge mistake. Talent is hard enough to find without constructing artificial barriers to entry.
"If you're a scout and you go to the ballpark and automatically eliminate a segment of the people you're going to watch, it's tough to find players," Red Sox scouting consultant Gary Hughes, who's been in the business 48 years, says. "Don't tell me, 'This kid isn't going to be a great player because he has red hair.' If you see with your eyes the ability you're looking for and it's exceptional ability, don't look for a zit on the left cheek of the Mona Lisa."
Nevertheless, the romanticism of scouting and the never-ending quest for the perfect player help perpetuate certain myths. Since the invention of the stopwatch, scouts have gathered behind home plate in search of players with the "Good Face." As Michael Lewis explains in "Moneyball," some scouts "still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man's face not only his character but his future in pro ball."
Think about Bryce Harper squinting through the eye black as he launches another fastball into the seats, or Joey Votto grinding out another at-bat with square-jawed determination, or Mike Trout beaming after he reaches over the wall to steal a home run, or Ken Griffey Jr. flashing an 80 smile on the 20-80 scale. Conversely, scouts tend to shy away from players with "weak chins" and the infamous "deer in the headlights" look. There's a long-held notion that a mousy-looking player has been so beaten down by an inability to get dates in high school that he might lack the self-esteem to succeed in pro ball.
In the scouting community, the concept of the Good Face even extends to family members.
"Here's one for your story," Hughes says, laughing. "Players with good-looking mothers are always going to get an extra look."
MORE MLB HEADLINES
- Schilling: Tobacco led to my mouth cancer
- Rays' Myers activated from lengthy DL stay
- Phils' Burnett hints at retirement after season
- CarGo might miss start of spring training