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June 2, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Speed, Makeup, and the Power of Words

by Jason Parks

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This article is a hodgepodge, a collection of sediments left at the bottom of the wine glass (or coffee cup, if you so desire). I’ll jump from the on-the-field identification and evaluation of the speed tool, discuss my definition of makeup and how it influences the developmental process, and I’ll put a bow on the baby with a brief criticism of those that misuse scouting terminology. It’s a pastiche of subordinate thoughts, but I would be remiss to let them float in the ether. Potpourri Prospectus!

The Need for Speed
Speed is the preferred tool of the baseball pest: a player that uses a specific physical attribute to affect the chemistry of the on-field action. Speed can propel a player into professional baseball, and can disguise the overall effectiveness of that player while in the throes of the developmental process. Speed is not required for major-league success, but that isn’t to say speed is detrimental to a skill set; obviously, speed is a tool that is beneficial to possess. But speed is a secondary tool, a catalytic tool, and the evaluation of that tool, while tangible and painless to scout, often clouds the painting of the prospect in question. Speed is a tool with psychotropic properties.

When scouting speed, a tangible measure of the tool is collected by timing the journey a hitter takes from the batter’s box to the bag at first. Upon contact with the ball, the watch is plunged and the time starts as the batter starts his transformation from hitter to runner, making his way down the line in an effort to avoid termination. The second plunge occurs when the foot of said runner makes initial contact with the base at first, leaving the scout with a time (in seconds) of the action.

The context of the action is very important, as you want to get an accurate representation of the executed speed. Ground balls with double-play implications create my preferred environment, but any ball that encourages “hustle” should do the trick. Caveat: Jailbreak bunts (that is, bunts that occur when the batter is already breaking for first base), make for exaggerated times and therefore are not good representations of the baseline speed being displayed. Here’s the scouting chart for speed based on times to first base:

Speed (Left/Right)

Grade

3.9 (L)/ 4.0 (R)

80; elite; bacon

4.0 (L)/ 4.1 (R)

70; well above average; plus-plus

4.1 (L)/ 4.2 (R)

60; above average; plus

4.2 (L)/ 4.3 (R)

50; average

4.3 (L)/ 4.4 (R)

40; below average

4.4 (L)/ 4.5 (R)

30; well below average

4.5 (L)/ 4.6 (R)

20; poor; tofu

*Fun fact about speed and the 20/80 scouting scale: The average major leaguer does not possess what the chart identifies as average speed. Based on the chart, the average major leaguer (50) can reach first base in 4.3 seconds from the right side. Based on my observations, this is grossly inaccurate. The scale, as it pertains to speed, is flawed. Moving on.

Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. You don’t really need to use a stopwatch to recognize speed. I enjoy the process, and I love timing actions on the field, but it’s arbitrary when trying to evaluate the speed tool. Is the player fast? Yes? OK, make a determination of how fast “fast” is by comparing that player to other players on the field. Times to first base can help give you context, but speed is speed, and you don’t have to be a scout to understand the difference between fast and “Seriously? That guy can’t be that fast?” fast.

One final note on speed: As I said, it’s a catalytic tool, one that will can enhance your defensive ability (range, recovery) and expand your presence as an offensive weapon. But a player can lack what scouts identify as “speed” and still possess the necessary athleticism (coordination, quickness, agility) to achieve at the highest professional level. Speed is like the random nudity in a Paul Verhoeven movie. It’s not really necessary, as the movie/player can perform at a high level without the involvement, but its existence makes the product more appealing, even if the specific function doesn’t have much application in the overall equation. As is the case, some scouts/prognosticators turn into teenaged boys watching Porky’s when evaluating speed, which is provocative in the moment, but the reality and significance always fade. I like speed, just like I enjoy random nudity, but if it’s not there, it’s not the end of the world.

Makeup Issues: When is it an Issue?
Much is made of makeup and how it can influence the developmental process. I believe makeup, as I define it, is the hidden hand of the process, pushing or pulling a player to the heights suggested by his physical tools. Definitions will vary, as any emotional component will be heavily flavored with subjectivity, but I define makeup as the personal responsibility a player accepts as it pertains to his ability to translate his physical actions into on-the-field production. Great. But what does that mean?

Basically, I don’t care if a player is a sinner or a saint. I don’t care if an adolescent male displays the emotional maturity of an adolescent male, as long as the adolescent behavior doesn’t affect the business on the field. It’s foolish to assume that underdeveloped humans can transition to a professional environment without displaying the behavior of an underdeveloped human. I’m not expecting flash-boiled maturity, and from a moral perspective, I don’t care what floats your boat as long as your waves don’t affect the buoyancy of others. But I do want to see a player take ownership of his trajectory.

In my eyes, this ownership comes in different forms, and as I said, it’s subjective, but I’m encouraged when a player appears to give a crap. Not a refined statement, so please forgive the 20-grade sophistication, but that’s what it really comes down to, right? We want to see people with physical traits that we (fans/regular humans) can only image possessing, to recognize and appreciate the discrepancy between those that watch and those that play, and to give a crap about the opportunity.

I could spend the rest of this article going over the evaluation of makeup and what it means to the developmental process, but the truth is, what I think doesn’t matter. What you think matters. If you see a connection between a player that gets behind the wheel of a car while over the legal blood-alcohol limit and a player that won’t live up to his on-the-field potential as a result of such an indiscretion, that’s your scene and I respect that. If you see makeup as a character issue, something that needs to exist both on and off the field, I understand that point of view, and I’m sure there are numerous teams in baseball that share that opinion. For me, it’s pretty simple: I want to see the work ethic that will aid in the adjustment process and the perceived mental strength to overcome failure.

Failure, or more specifically, the ability to fail and then to recover, can open a window to a player’s makeup. Baseball is a game of adjustment; it’s intrinsically a game of failure. I would wager a guess that most prospects in the low minors were among the best in their amateur peer groups before signing a professional contract. As a result, I would also assume that their baseball career (to this point) featured more athletic highs than lows.

Once thrown into the professional soup, players often receive their first personal introduction to failure, and it can destroy an athlete’s emotional psyche. Once failure occurs, it’s important to note how the player responds. If the failure is specific to one event, or tied to one deficiency in their skill set, how does the player attack the problem? How does the player carry himself after a professional disappointment shines a light on his inadequacies? You don’t have to be in the clubhouse to witness the adjustment process, as the end result of the process will be on display on the field.

Adjustment does not occur without effort. A player has to make a conscious effort to put in the wrench work to make the necessary adjustments and find success. The ability to make adjustments and to rebound and respond to failure is as mental as it is physical. Again, this goes to my point of taking responsibility for your on-the-field trajectory.

When it comes to makeup and how I define and evaluate the quality, I just want to see the desire to make the most of the physical tools. Off-field character issues often find a way to influence the on-field effort, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, so you have to look at each case individually. I do not care if you are of questionable moral fiber, but I do care if you don’t care. Does that make any sense? I think it does. I want it to make sense. Anyway, makeup is the vehicle that can take the tools beyond their physical range, but it can also suppress that range if the necessary work ethic isn’t present. It’s a big part of the developmental process, but the weight assigned to the abstract component is up for debate.

A Few Words About Words
Scouting is about looking at a player and setting the parameters for what is possible in the future based on what is presently available in the present. These observations are usually documented or expressed in “scout speak,” which is a language preferred by grown men who get a kick out of speaking in code in the same way kids get a kick out of protecting the sanctity of a fort.

As is often the case when you find yourself in the atmosphere of the scout section, the parlance is so thick it requires a Drogan’s Decoder Wheel to translate. Seriously. It’s like listening to Wall Street people discuss Wall Street things, only, you know, interesting and soulful. I’m kidding.

The problem with “scout speak,” specifically, the appropriation of the lingo by the mainstream without comprehension of its true meaning, is you get a world where the lines blur between an educated reality and a misinformed fantasy. This is a minor pet peeve, but with prospects growing in popularity, and more beat writers and conventional media types dipping their toes into the minor-league waters, the need for coherence is paramount.

Here’s my point: Because most fans aren’t able to watch their favorite team’s prospects in person, the sketch they receive of a player is drawn by hands other than their own. As a result, their expectations are gifted to them, and the means of transport for those expectations are the words used to describe the attributes and projections of that player. When you suggest a tool is “plus,” rather than possessing “plus-potential,” it changes the reality of the present and the expectations for the future. A plus distinction implies the tool or skill in question would rate as above-average at the major-league level. This is important. Aside from speed and arm, how many low-level minor leaguers really own tools that would rate as above average at the major-league level? Do they own plus projections? Yes. Do they own present tools that would rate as above average at the major-league level? Not as many you as would think.

Again, just a pet peeve, but I wanted to make mention of it, regardless of how insignificant it might appear. Over the last year, I’ve seen the word “plus” applied liberally, and warranted or not, it often made me second-guess the validity of the claim. It depends on the source, of course, but as “scout speak” grows in fashion, we will no doubt have to scrutinize the information being delivered, as the specifics might be lost in translation.

And Finally…
As we head into the twilight of this neurotic dissertation, I find myself on an emotional fence, straddling the polar floors of elation (I completed the series!) and despair (I completed the series! Now what?).

Before joining Baseball Prospectus, I didn’t know the sound of my own voice; in my mind, I sounded like a muddled version of Nicholson Baker reinventing Patrick Bateman while listening to Bill Hicks converse with the cast of “Diff’rent Strokes.” I was both conceited and insecure, scared to write for a living, yet confident that I would eventually find my footing in the unfamiliar world. I’m not sure that I’ve found the desired comfort in my station, but the 15,000 steps I’ve taken so far in this series have helped me undress some of the characteristics of my identity.

 I love scouting. I love talking about scouting. I love talking about the process of talking about scouting. I find application for the scouting scale in my everyday life, assigning grades to everything from the mundanity of daily procedure, to the chill held by alcohol, to the attractiveness of people in my universe. I use my stopwatch to time not only the play on the field, but the time (in seconds) it takes to navigate the path to my neighborhood coffee dealer, to hear a human voice while calling for customer service, for a “Law and Order: SVU” detective to cross an ethical boundary while interrogating a suspect. Generations in the future, my bloodline will enter the world with a stopwatch naturally formed in the right hand. It’s my life. I hope I was able to sell some of this passion with my words. It was a challenge.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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