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June 19, 2001
John Sickels is my favorite baseball writer. He writes a regular column for ESPN.com, pens the annual STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook, and produces an outstanding semi-weekly e-mail newsletter focusing on the minor leagues.
Sickels's newsletter, launched this season, is insightful, entertaining, and packed with interesting and relevant information. It's a great read for all baseball fans. If you play in any perpetual fantasy baseball league, subscribing to Sickels's newsletter is a mandatory investment. It's inexpensive, and well worth it. You can sign up right now through PayPal or by sending John a check. Get all the information at http://hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.
Baseball Prospectus: First off, let's talk about the way clubs traditionally look at the minor leagues. Do different clubs have different goals for their minor-league systems? Every organization wants to win at the major-league level, but there seems to be a difference in philosophy about the role of the minor leagues in accomplishing that goal. What differences have you seen in various organizations?
John Sickels: There's a perception that you may be buying into here. Teams like the Yankees and the Dodgers have this image of using their farm system as a place to develop talent to trade to other teams, so they can pick up established veterans. When you actually take a look at the roster of the Yankees, you see players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, all of whom are homegrown. The Yankees do have a tendency to hype some of their prospects who they don't think are going to be great, and then trading them. You may be seeing that right now with Alfonso Soriano, who probably isn't going to be as good a player as D'Angelo Jimenez will be.
BP: In your writing, you talk a lot about the five tools and the seven skills. What are the five tools, what are the seven skills, and how do you use each to evaluate a minor-league player?
JS: The five tools are hitting for average, hitting for power, running, arm strength, and fielding. Scouts traditionally use these metrics, and have for some time. The seven skills that I use are strike-zone judgment, hitting for power, hitting for average, offensive speed, defensive range, defensive reliability, and throwing utility.
There are some similarities between the five tools and the seven skills, but I've broken them down a bit further, based on what's really important in terms of actually playing baseball. Speed is great to have, but the ability to actually convert a few doubles to triples--because you have the speed along with the knowledge and instincts to take advantage of it--is even better.
I deliberately use the word "skill" instead of "tool." When evaluating a prospect, it's easy to get enamored with a player who looks graceful doing something, and this is usually the toolsy guy. I want to focus on what the player's actually doing that will directly help a team win ballgames.
BP: What organizations are best at developing successful major-league pitchers and hitters? What do they do differently than everyone else?
JS: Well, everyone always says that the Braves develop good pitching. I think the key thing the Braves have been able to do is take high-school pitchers and turn them into good prospects at a better rate than most organizations. How they do this is a good question; several teams have copied Atlanta's throwing program and teaching methods, but without the same level of success.
The Yankees also have an underrated minor-league pitching program, and the White Sox have a big collection of young arms. They all have somewhat different approaches. The Braves and Sox seem to concentrate on raw ability, projectability, and athleticism on the mound, while the Yanks seem more interested in polished college types. The Cubs are also making progress in building a strong pitching staff.
For hitters, of course I love the work the A's done in emphasizing plate discipline as the key factor in developing a hitting approach. The Yankees, Cubs, and Rangers also do that, although perhaps not quite to the same extent. In contrast to their mound success, the Braves look more at raw tools with their hitters, and it hasn't worked well recently. You'll also see that teams like the Pirates and Devil Rays, who focus almost entirely on tools rather than skills, have a strong tendency to suck eggs.
BP: What is the most common feedback you get on your work?
JS: The most common comment I received in the past was that people wanted to see more of it. That's why I started the newsletter, to give myself another outlet. I'm not quite as statistically-oriented as some analysts, since too much math makes my eyes hurt. But both the stathead community and more traditional fans seem to enjoy what I do. It's accessible, and I try to popularize and explain ideas so that everyone can understand them.
I think I get this from my background as a low-level college instructor. You try and explain the causes of World War I in dry language to a bunch of college freshmen, and they'll tune you out. But if you start off the lesson with "World War I started because the Great Powers of Europe got involved in a giant pissing contest," they'll listen to the details.
Other common comments include, "you sure were wrong about Prospect X!" "what makes you think you know more than Tom Kelly?," and "why haven't you answered the 17 questions I sent you about the 2004 amateur draft class?"
Seriously, though, the whole thing has been a great experience, and the vast majority of fans are supportive, even if they disagree about something in particular.
BP: I'm loathe to actually mention some of these names, because I was hoping to pick them up in a couple of supplemental drafts I have coming, and I'm tipping my hand, but here goes....
Here are some players that have really had some tremendous success this year. For each one, what's your feeling on their development? Is it a one-year fluke, or has something clicked, and a new level of performance been established?
Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus.