I’ve been very fortunate to have served as a major league baseball scout.
While I am long gone from the day-to-day role as a professional scout, I am still asked some of the questions I was asked when I worked for the Astros and Mariners.
I’m going to share some of those questions and answers with you today. Perhaps you have wondered about the same things.
Of course, baseball scouts come in all shapes and sizes. They come from all backgrounds. Basically, baseball scouts have one thing in common. In general, they all love the game of baseball. Some played professional baseball. Most played at some level. While you won’t know it from conversations, most scouts have a favorite baseball team. Often it is one different from their employer. Most of the time it is the team they grew up rooting for as a fan.
Baseball scouts work in several different assignment areas. Some are amateur scouts. They are responsible for analyzing players prior to the player signing a professional contract. They work high school and collegiate games as well as traveling tournaments and the like. Some are professional scouts. They analyze players after the player has signed a professional contract. Assignments vary for both amateur and pro scouts.
My role for both Houston and Seattle was to serve as a professional scout. I evaluated players for potential trades and free agency acquisitions. I was responsible for completing a written evaluation on every player I saw.
Maybe seeing the answers to these questions will allow you to look at different aspects when you watch a game.
While my responses may not be all-inclusive and there are nuances to each question that take greater detail, here are some answers to the most frequently questions I am asked:
Question No. 1-How do I get into scouting? How can I become a baseball scout?
Today’s scouting environment is far different from the environment in which I worked. Actually, it began to change as recently as five years ago. Scouts now have proven proficiency in statistical analysis. They can relate to every new metric used in the game and transfer their knowledge to their scouting reports. Often, scouts today are former players working to analyze pitching. That proficiency with metrics wasn’t always the case in the past.
While veteran scouts with years of experience remain, today’s younger scouts are recruited by clubs based upon their relationship with front office personnel familiar with the scout’s a) baseball acumen, b) statistical/computer proficiency and acumen and c) abilities to spot and evaluate talent from among a large universe of players. In all cases, the new scout must be computer proficient and well aware of all the technology available in the game. That has been a big difference in scouting through the years. Relationship building, as it is in every facet of life, is a major component of becoming a scout.
The former scouting environment also relied upon relationships. However, the relationships were more of friendships and trusts built between management and potential scouts over years of cultivation, either as former player or friend. In those days, scouts would be loyal to the general manager or player development staff in place. If that general manager or development person left, often the scout was terminated from his assignment. The scout often went to a new club with his former employer. Some of that still takes place, but today’s scouts are more highly recruited depending upon their skills rather than their past relationships. And yes, today’s scouts still forge relationships with their colleagues and supervisors in the scouting department. There has always been a scouting network, but the use of the networks appear to be different today.
Like in all other jobs, baseball scouts develop a track record-a resume’ of accomplishment that follows them through their career. That track record could lead to a scouting job with a complete stranger who runs a scouting department for a different team.
It is not fair to say that scouts in a previous scouting environment were not skilled. They were, and still are very skilled in evaluating baseball talent. However, the landscape has changed drastically and computer acumen and understanding of metrics and algorithms have a greater importance in today’s game. For example, today there are cameras capturing video on back fields.
Video is captured everywhere players are playing and pitchers are pitching. As a result, baseball scouts must be proficient in the new language of the game-computer science, metrics, algorithms and video. And they still must know the fundamentals of player evaluation. What is expected from a player at each position on the field?
How to become a scout? Forge a relationship with a player development officer on a club of your choice. Be certain you know every facet of interpreting and understanding statistical analysis. Be sure you know how to evaluate player performance from video. Be sure you know how to create video of player performance. And be absolutely certain you know what is expected from each position on the field.
Be honest with a front office person. Tell him you wish to intern in his department. You may be an intern without pay for several years. Can you do that? Soak in everything you are exposed to when you are an intern. Everything.
If need be, contact every minor league club in baseball and see if there is a role for you? You may spend years in minor league baseball, but you will watch and learn. There is clearly a path for young, new front office personnel and scouts. But learning in Minor League Baseball may be the most important requirement.
In short, you have to forge a relationship with someone in the player development department and learn from that person and others in the department. Be relentless in your communication with baseball organizations to land that internship.
If you have the time and resources, you should try to attend the Baseball Winter Meetings to meet club executives. They have an established system for registering candidate resumes in a job procurement and placement process. This December, the meetings will be in San Diego. When you arrive, you will find countless other men and women going through the process of finding a job in baseball. Don’t be discouraged. Be prepared to prove what you can do and what you know-especially in the area of computer technology, video technology and math.
And yes, women can be baseball scouts or work in the scouting department of a professional club. There were two women in my class in Scout School.
Question No. 2-As a scout, what are the important components of evaluating pitching? What do I look for in a pitcher?
It is a myth to think the most important aspect of a pitcher is his fastball velocity. I’ll talk about that later, but fastball velocity is not the most important aspect of pitching. Having a “live, loose arm” is what I look for. A pitcher throwing with ease, with zip on the ball, with an ability to repeat his mechanics pitch after pitch is what I look for. Velocity plays a role, but it isn’t the only factor to evaluate.
- Throwing strike one. Early in Scout School, I was taught that throwing strike one is the most important aspect of being a pitcher. It is the most important pitch in any sequence. A pitcher that can get ahead in the count is going in the right direction. Being ahead in the count means a pitcher can throw a pitch of his choice without having to be precise later in the sequence.
- Control and command are crucial. Often both of those aspects come after some time on the mound gaining experience as a professional. Not all young, inexperienced pitchers can command and/or control a baseball.
What is command? Command is the ability to locate a pitch consistently at a desired location. The key is being able to put the pitch in the same desired place repeatedly. Over and over. It is the ability to make the ball move where the pitcher wishes it to move on a consistent basis. Repetition. Consistency. Those are the words that dictate if a pitcher can “command” his pitches. Command is based upon good pitching mechanics.
What is control? Control is the ability to throw strikes and keep the ball in the strike zone consistently. When control is at its best, the pitcher can put the ball where he wishes within the strike zone or in the hitter’s area of weakness. One can say command-the ability to throw the pitch where the pitcher wants to throw it over and over-is a component of control.
- Fastball velocity is most important when one can keep or increase velocity from inning to inning. Fastball velocity is important but it isn’t everything. Major league hitters can hit fastballs. Not all major league hitters can hit fastballs inside or outside, up in the zone or down in the zone. It is incumbent upon the pitcher to find the area of the strike zone where the hitter is weakest and most vulnerable.
I become concerned when a pitcher’s velocity begins to dip in the 3rd or 4th inning. Retaining or increasing velocity as the game progresses is a great sign. Declining velocity as the game progresses is problematic. I use my radar detector to determine if a pitcher has gained or lost velocity as the game progresses. I was taught that is the best use of the radar gun. And I agree. Justin Verlander has been a master in his career for increasing velocity as the game progresses.
- Movement on pitches is the factor that keeps a hitter off-balance or it is a factor that causes a hitter to miss a pitch. It is very difficult to hit a slider, a cutter, or a curveball. Very difficult. Those are the pitches that ended each of our dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Yours and mine.
Movement causes deception. Deception is the name of the pitcher’s game. A straight 99 miles per hour fastball will end up over the fence more often than a 99 miles per hour fastball that moves and darts the closer it gets to the bat.
Changing the eye level of the hitter with movement on the ball and varying the type of pitch adds tremendous deception. Keeping the hitter off balance and changing his eye level are goals to achieve.
- Mound demeanor is the way a pitcher handles himself on the mound. If he acts like he owns the hitter, he is exuding confidence. Confidence is crucial. I evaluate mound demeanor, confidence, presence and aggressiveness as important components for success. If a pitcher “comes right after” the hitter, “attacks the hitter” if you will, he has a good chance to win the at-bat. Trevor Bauer is a pitcher with a mound demeanor that says, “Here it is…see if you can hit it. I own this mound and I own you.”
- Repertoire, or the type of pitches a pitcher can throw in any given pitch sequence (at-bat of the hitter) gives the pitcher his chances for success. The greater the repertoire, the more types of pitches a pitcher can sequence, the greater the chance for deception. Better starting pitchers have three to four pitches in their repertoire, with at least two being breaking balls. Repertoire takes on great importance from the second time through the batting over and going forward.
Relief pitchers may see a batter only once. Therefore, having only a fastball or a slider as a primary pitch can work. Deeper repertoires are not as essential. But they can’t hurt.
Question No. 3-What are the important components of evaluating hitting? What does a scout look for in a hitter?
As I indicated, most professional hitters can hit a fastball. The separation occurs on hitting a fastball in various locations or being able to hit really high velocity fastballs. Determining a hitter’s ability to hit a breaking ball when the hitter is in the lower minor leagues is difficult. Why? Players at that level rarely see breaking balls that can be thrown consistently for strikes. Maybe they see a good breaking ball or two in an evening. At the big league level, they will probably see an excellent breaking ball every at-bat.
- Bat speed, or the length of time it takes for a hitter to get his bat through the ball is one of the major components of hitting. Hitters need not be big and strong to barrel a ball over the wall. For example, Mookie Betts has outstanding bat speed. He hits with power because he gets the barrel of the bat through the ball with lightning speed and the ball flies. Slower bat speed can result in “dragging” the bat through the ball, hitting on top of the ball and pounding the ball into the ground. Loft occurs when the bottom of the ball is struck.
When he first arrived with the Diamondbacks, Justin Upton had tremendous bat speed. I would marvel at how quickly he could get the bat through the ball. Look at old video of Darryl Strawberry. He had incredible bat speed.
- Pitch recognition, or picking up the type of pitch being thrown as early as possible allows the hitter to make a better split-second decision. Swing or take the pitch? Can the hitter spot the spin of a breaking ball quickly? If he can, and if he can differentiate between a fastball or breaking ball coming his way, he is one step ahead of the game. Mike Trout recognizes pitches extremely well.
- Bat control, or being able to place the ball within the playing field-hitting the ball where the defense is weakest-is a result of bat control. Swinging at a pitch at the location it is thrown and being able to use the entire field adds quality to a hitter. A hitter that can use the entire field and not “pull” every pitch to his swing side (right-handers to left field, left-handers to right field) is valuable. That’s a product of having control of the bat. Hitters with good bat control can have more success agains the defensive infield shifts that are commonplace in today’s game. Jose Altuve has outstanding bat control. Perhaps the best bat control I have ever seen was by Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew.
- Patience and selectivity, or the ability to swing at good pitches and not hit the pitcher’s choice of pitch and/or swing at a pitch in his location gives the hitter an advantage. Some hitters disdain taking a base on balls. Some hitters are overly aggressive and swing at pitches outside the strike zone. A patient hitter, a selective hitter knows the pitch he can hit. A patient hitter, a selective hitter takes pitches he knows he can’t hit. Going deep in counts helps a team put excessive pitches on the arm of the opposing pitcher. The quicker the pitches mount, the quicker the opposition must use the bullpen. Getting to the bullpen and getting the starting pitcher out of the game is always a goal of the offense. Joey Votto is the most selective hitter I have scouted.
- Making contact, putting the bat on the ball is the only way, other than accepting a base on balls or getting hit by a pitch to get on base or advance a runner. Striking out does nothing to add to the offense. Putting the bat on the ball is a component I have always been taught to value. Today, however, it is more acceptable for a player to strike out than it has every been in the past. Putting the bat on the ball, making contact, may induce a defensive error. Getting on base and being in a position to score a run is what the game is all about. Michael Brantley is an excellent contact hitter.
- Power is one component that can’t really be taught. Like bat speed, basic power must come naturally. It can be built upon by increasing strength over time by using weights and exercises. Power is generated from strong arms, strong legs or both. Players with power are valued due to the damage they can bring at any point in the game. I look for strong forearms, strong hands, strong calves and thighs and broad shoulders if I deem the player to be a power hitter. Strong wrists, like those of Henry Aaron or Miguel Cabrera help generate tremendous power.
As indicated above, bat speed is crucial and a large component of power hitting.
In today’s game, players are prone to using uppercut swings to enhance the chance to hit home runs. Increased loft often comes at the expense of bat control. Strikeouts are pervasive in the game today as players try to improve their loft and hit more home runs. They often swing at pitches they can’t hit in the effort to hit the ball over the wall. But large contracts are rewarded to power hitters, making the uppercut swing more attractive over the course of a career. In today’s game, watch Cody Bellinger’s swing. He has a pronounced upper cut and gets loft on the ball that results in long, high home runs.
Plate coverage-being able to reach a pitch on the outside corner is not a trait every hitter possesses. Perhaps they stand too far from the plate. Perhaps they “freeze” when they see a pitch on the outside corner. But covering the entire plate means a pitcher can’t exploit the outside corner. Watch the tremendous way Freddie Freeman covers the plate.
- Making adjustments as the game progresses or as a career progresses means the hitter is changing his hitting style to meet what the pitcher is throwing. If, in fact, a hitter is being pounded with pitches on the outside corner, can he adjust his swing and get to that pitch a bit quicker? Can a hitter “lay off” breaking balls outside the strike zone? Can a hitter shorten his swing and just try to make contact if he is behind in the count? Can a hitter learn to hit breaking balls? Can the hitter keep from hitting high fastballs above his chest? If he can make adjustments, he can equalize or even better the pitcher’s agenda for him.
Question No. 4- What do I look for on defense? What is important in scouting a player’s defense?
Some players are on the team to solidify the defensive aspect of the game and prohibit runs from scoring.
The game has evolved and changed. At one point, not long ago, shortstops had to be outstanding fielders, first and foremost. Now, on most clubs, shortstops must be able to hit. Perhaps with the exception of the catcher, every player on the field has to contribute his share to the offense. The catcher’s first responsibility is to shepherd his pitcher through the game.
- Range, agility and first-step quickness are crucial at every position. Infielders have to show the ability to move to either side with agility and quickness. They have to be able to cover the entire territory to their left, to their right and in front of themselves. A player’s lack of agility and flexibility show up quickly when the player’s feet get tied, he is a step or two late getting to the ball or if he just doesn’t have the coordination to react quickly to the batted ball. Moving for the ball has to be natural and the entire body has to flow. One can’t think and then move. The movement must come naturally as the ball is struck.
- Running correct routes for outfielders is essential. Outfielders must have the range to cover the vast amount of territory to both sides, in front and behind themselves. They must find the flight of the ball immediately off the bat and take the most direct route to the ball, regardless of the ball being in the air or on the ground. They have to get to the ball in the quickest, most direct way. Good outfielders track the ball immediately and don’t misjudge the flight or trajectory of a fly ball.
- Speed in the outfield can make a difference between getting to the ball in time or watching it fly over the outfielder’s head for extra bases or fall in front of him without being caught. Speed is essential in assisting another outfielder that can’t make a play. Getting to the point of the ball quickly requires speed and solid baseball instincts to make the correct decision. Speed in the infield is more a matter of first-step quickness and moving in the right direction when the ball is struck. Byron Buxton is among the best in my opinion.
- Arm strength and accuracy come to play in all defensive positions. The strongest arms are required of the catcher, right fielder, the shortstop and the third baseman, as they make throws from the greatest distances or with the greatest need for accuracy and speed. A good throw will carry directly in a straight trajectory to the glove of the cutoff man or infielder. Not being able to make the throws required yields extra bases to the offense. Arm strength and accuracy determine the defender’s ability to hit the glove of the intended player as opposed to bouncing the ball in front or to the side of the player.
Missing a cut-off man from the outfield and/or throwing wildly away from the intended defender potentially yields an extra base or bases to the offense. Errant throws are very easily monitored and tracked by scouts. Ramon Laureano is among the player’s with the best outfield arms I have seen recently. Vlad Guerrero and Roberto Clemente stand out from the past. There are some tremendous outfield arms, just take a look in almost every game.
- Soft hands and soft gloves are subjective components that each scout looks to evaluate. I look to see if the ball “disappears” in the infielder’s glove. Now you see it, now you don’t. I look to see the ease with which the ball transfers from glove to hand before the throw. Soft hands move toward the body as the ball arrives. Does the ball almost “float” to the glove? If a ball bounces out of the glove, the player may have “cement” hands or “brick” hands-or “stone”hands that are hard and do not control the baseball within the glove. I’ll never forget watching the ball disappear into the glove of Omar Vizquel. It was a beautiful thing to see. There are plenty of great defenders like that today, but Andrelton Simmons comes to mind immediately.
Infielders have to get the ball from glove to throwing hand quickly, but not recklessly. They have to continue a flow of catching the ball, transferring the ball to the throwing hand and throwing the ball with carry and velocity on line to the first baseman. The entire process has to be “automatic” without hesitation, but clean and crisp.
Of course, footwork and agility are crucial for the second baseman-shortstop double play combination. Form and techniques differ for some middle-infielders performing the double play on both ends of the equation, from being the one tossing the ball to second base or being the one receiving the ball. The end result is what matters. Can the infielder do his job in executing the double play? The best double play combinations I have ever seen? Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker/Omar Vizquel and Robbie Alomar.
I will have one more of these frequently asked scouting related questions columns up in this space-probably next week. If you have a scouting related question, please tweet the question to me @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. I will answer it in this column.
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