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January 8, 2014
What Scouts Said About 2014's Top Cooperstown Candidates
“Scouting is hard,” exhibit no. 887: even Hall-of-Fame talent is tough to identify. The median draft position of the 14 players on my make-believe Hall of Fame ballot—excluding Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker, who were signed as amateur free agents—was 28.5. This is a cohort that includes some of the most talented players of the past few decades, including a few with strong cases in the “best ever” argument. But even though almost all of them turned out to be the best in their draft class—unless, like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, multiple members were selected in the same year—collectively, they lasted until the tail end of the first round. None of them was picked higher than sixth overall (Barry Bonds). Mike Piazza was pick no. 1,390. Some scout, somewhere, might have seen a future Cooperstown candidate in each of these players, but that wasn’t the industry consensus.
We don’t know what every scout said about every player, but we do know what some scouts said about some players, thanks to Diamond Mines, the Hall of Fame’s archive of declassified scouting reports. For each of the 14 players I mock-voted for, I looked up the earliest Diamond Mines scouting report available to see whether there was any hint of a Hall-of-Famer-to-be. “You Won’t Believe What These 14 Scouting Reports Said,” is what I would have titled this article if I were better at being click bait.
The headline on Boswell’s Tuesday Washington Post paean to Greg Maddux reads: “Greg Maddux: A Hall of Fame approach that carried an average arm to Cooperstown.” The notion that Maddux succeeded thanks purely to great command and the power of pitchability caught on late in his career, driven both by his non-power-pitcher physique and the lackluster velocity readings of his late 30s and early 40s. It’s true that Maddux threw no higher than the mid-80s in the years for which we have BIS and PITCHf/x data, and he remained a 3-4-win pitcher for much of that span. But he wasn’t always that way.
Dyer’s 1985 report on Maddux, who was then pitching for the Peoria Cubs, is a miss: he says that the future four-time Cy Young winner is too small and weak to start. However, he does give him a plus fastball to go with plus control, noting that he has a “good arm.” A Larry Monroe report on Maddux from the following year says “88 fastball tails when up and sinks when down.” To us, a 20-year-old right-hander who throws 88 sounds like a soft-tosser. But in 1986, 88 meant much more. Here’s an excerpt from the preface to Kevin Kerrane’s re-released Dollar Sign on the Muscle:
So Monroe’s 88, converted to the 2014 scale, is more like 92-93. An 1987 report says Maddux has a “strong arm with good stuff,” giving him a future 6 fastball, and an ’88 report gives him both a present and a future 6 heater, complimenting the fastball’s “very good live sinking movement.” Another report, from 1990, gives Maddux credit for a “good live FB when down—sinking action with plus velocity.” And a final one, from 1992 (the first of the Cy Young years), calls Maddux’ stuff “outstanding” and gives his fastball a 7.
None of which makes Duffy Dyer’s “not strong enough to be a starter” any less embarrassing in retrospect. But unless we’re referring specifically about the 21st-century model of Maddux, it’s time to retire the “average arm” talk. Maddux may not have been a flamethrower, but he had plenty of stuff to work with.
Here’s what Stein had to say about Bonds, who hit .299/.383/.547 in the Carolina League in 1985 after the draft that June: “A complete player—shouldn’t be moved too quickly—major league prospect.” As it turned out, Bonds was moved quite quickly: he started 1986 in Triple-A, where he hit .311/.435/.527 before making the majors in mid-May. Right off the bat, Bonds was an above-average big-league hitter (.269 TAv) in center field, which was worth 3.3 WARP in 113 games. Stein’s advice to take it slow suited his projection for Bonds as an average offensive player, but that projection was way off.
Almost as interesting as Stein’s failure to anticipate Bonds’ offensive performance is the 7 he gave his defense in center. Bonds remained in center in Pittsburgh in 1986 (where he earned +3.6 FRAA in a partial season), then slid to left in 1987, after the Pirates traded for Andy Van Slyke. Van Slyke won Gold Gloves in ’87 and ’88, so the Pirates might have made the right move, but based on Stein’s rating (and Bonds’ string of ’90s Gold Gloves in left), Bonds probably could have stayed in center a lot longer had he played for a different team.
Also of interest: Bonds’ Triple-A team was the Hawaii Islanders, a PCL affiliate of the Pirates from 1983-86. The Islanders, who played in the PCL from 1961-87, were 2,500 miles from their closest PCL opponent, and over 4,600 from Pittsburgh. Even a non-stop flight from Honolulu to Pittsburgh—which, so far as I can tell, doesn’t exist—would take 10 hours, so if a Pirate was injured at night, it would’ve been almost impossible to call up a Triple-A replacement in time to play the next day, unless the Islanders were on the road. No wonder the team changed affiliations eight times in 26 seasons.
A couple months after that report was filed, the Red Sox selected Clemens 19th overall. Of the 18 players drafted ahead of him, 12 made the majors, and five contributed positive WARP. The whole crew combined for 25.3 WARP (most of it by top pick Tim Belcher), less than a quarter of what Clemens was worth.
Yes, this is that Mike Rizzo, Nationals GM, who was a scout with the White Sox in 1988 and signed Thomas the following season. In Rizzo’s first report on Thomas, he calls him a “B” prospect with a 52 overall future potential; in his “Final Draft Recommendation,” filed later the same year, he upgrades him to “B+” with a 55 OFP. Both times, though, Rizzo, gives Thomas a 70 present power grade, with an 80 future. That’s a ballsy call on a college hitter. While writing this, I asked a scout how many players currently in the minors he’d put an 80 power on. “Off the top of my head, just [Miguel] Sano and [Joey] Gallo,” he said. “Eighty raw, at least. I don’t think I’d put 80 future game on any minor leaguer.” Maybe Rizzo was a more liberal grader, but it’s still rare to see an 80 rating on an amateur for anything other than speed.
Rizzo writes that Thomas “has as much power as anybody” and notes that his “Power + bat are very exciting,” but he grades Thomas’ future hit tool as a 50 on the first report, and a 55 on the second. Going by the grading scale on the report, that suggests that Rizzo saw him as a .270-.280 hitter, not the batting title contender and .301 lifetime hitter he became.
Diamond Mines contains four non-Rizzo reports on Thomas, three of them from 1989 and one from 1990. The one from 1990, by White Sox scout Ken Berry, gives Thomas—who slugged .581 for Double-A Birmingham that season before making the majors and slugging .529 in 240 plate appearances—a 60 power grade. The three from ’89 give Thomas a 70s or 80s in the power department, but no more than 55 on the hit tool. The most entertaining of these, filed by White Sox scout Larry Maxie, calls Thomas “one huge person” but puts a present 20/future 40 on his hit tool, saying “.250 hitter tops if that.” Think about that—this is a scout putting a .250 ceiling on a player in his own organization who would hit .330 in the majors the very next season. Scouting is so hard.
Labossiere describes Bagwell as a hard worker, average hitter, and below-average third baseman. (Bagwell would move to first in 1991, in part because Houston had Ken Caminiti at the hot corner.) He does note that Bagwell “does not impress you immediately, has to be seen a couple of times.” Maybe he had to be seen more than a couple of times: two years later, he won the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Also of note: Bagwell bulked up later in his career, and he didn’t hit for a ton of power early on, two factors that have contributed to the unsubstantiated steroid rumors surrounding him. It’s worth noting, though, that he was never a weakling. Labossiere mentions “big strong legs” and “good upper body strength,” calling Bagwell “sturdy and rugged.” A more graphic 1990 report by Angels scout Jon Niederer makes him sound even more like the Bagwell we know:
Monroe, the same Braves scout who wrote that Maddux’s fastball was 88, says that Glavine’s is “84 with good sinking life and it’s enough.” (Remember, 84 is really 88-89.) He wants to see “a little more on all 3 pitches” and “consistency on his spots,” but likes that Glavine “stays down with all stuff.” Nothing in the report screams “future Hall of Famer,” but it doesn’t rule out success.
Five years later, Monroe was much higher on Glavine, clocking his fastball at 86 and declaring that he “could win 15+ for us”—not exactly a stretch, given that he’d already gone 14-8 for Atlanta in 1989.
Piazza was baseball’s ultimate rags-to-riches story, as much as the son of a multimillionaire can be. His father, Vince, was a good friend of Tommy Lasorda, the longtime manager of the Dodgers. As the June 1988 amateur draft approached, Lasorda asked his organization to select Mike Piazza, then at a Miami junior college, merely as a feel-good favor.
So Piazza’s origin story goes (told, in this case, by Alan Schwarz in the Times). And there’s obviously some truth to it, judging by Piazza’s 62nd-round selection. But the 1986 Piazza report by the Scouting Bureau’s Brad Kohler—the only one in Diamond Mine’s database—paints a rosier picture. Kohler raves about Piazza’s strength, size and power potential, concluding, “A long way to come with overall ability but worth selection on bat & pwr.” And that was when Piazza played first base; as a catcher, of course, his bat was worth much more.
Piazza must have hurt his stock somehow after that; while Kohler’s 44.6 OFP wasn’t anything special, it’s hard to see how any one team (let alone 26) that read his report could have found 50-plus amateurs more attractive in ’88 alone. The player Kohler described would have been worth drafting without a word from Lasorda, but according to Piazza’s high school coach, Kohler was the only scout who turned in a pro report on him. In fact, Kohler is quoted saying as much in Piazza’s autobiography, Long Shot. Here’s an excerpt:
One of these years, Piazza will join it.
The earliest available Biggio report is also by our Scouting Bureau buddy Brad Kohler, filed the same year as his Piazza report. This is the closest we’ve come to something that sounds like it’s about a future Hall of Famer. “Great body control, speed, arm strength, sound fld. pot, plus bat and line drv. power,” Kohler says, also praising Biggio’s makeup, aggressiveness, and plus running ability. (How many catchers have ever received 7’s in both baserunning and running speed?)
Kohler noted only one weakness: “at times will pull back some from breaking pitch (CB)”. But he followed that up with “Feel as if he can correct this with pro. teaching and playing time.” Kohler guaranteed that Biggio would make the big leagues, giving him a 65.5 OFP. Nailed it.
Mariners scout Scott Reid wasn’t blown away by Edgar after his first full season, despite his .302/.397/.433 line. According to Reid, Martinez was a “Category 3” player, where a 1 was Ken Griffey Jr. and a 4 was a Triple-A type. Harold Reynolds was a Category 2 player (and “a front liner”), and even Tino Martinez earned a “3/2.” Of course, we shouldn’t be shocked that a Seattle scout wasn’t high on Edgar, given that he posted OPS marks of .907, .983, and .979 in Triple-A from 1987-89 but didn’t get an extended shot with the M’s until ’90. The most surprising part of the brief report is the “solid defense.” People who won’t vote for Edgar because he moved to DH can put that in their pipes and smoke it between snubs.
Mussina was just 17 when Rossi (then a Red Sox scout) saw him, but his talent was already evident. Rossi gave him a future 6 fastball, praised his “Exel make-up and desire,” and gushed, “Really like this player.” What about weaknesses? “Don’t see any,” Rossi wrote. The best part: Rossi liked him at least as much as a switch-hitting shortstop. “Two pos. player w/pot. at each,” he wrote. “Phys. tools that may come a long way. Arm strength, can run, makes hard contact (both sides). Some power—mostly line drive. Gd. fldr.” Mussina the shortstop rated a future 5 hit and 6 field.
While we’re on the subject of Mussina: my man Brad Kohler filed a report on him in 1987. And again, he didn’t hold back, giving Mussina a future 8 fastball, 7 curve, and 6 control, with a 75.5 OFP. “Front line blue chip prospect,” he concluded. Piazza, Biggio, and Mussina is a pretty small sample, but, maybe, just maybe, he was an amazing scout.
On the other hand, he might have filed positive reports on every player he saw: Clay Bellinger (who gave me my first autograph but was bad at big-league baseball) got a 55.9 OFP (worst line: “Has BB facial features”). Someone read the rest of Kohler’s 118 Diamond Mines reports and report back.
Schilling debuted with the Orioles in 1988, but his first full season didn’t come until 1992 with the Phillies. Cosmidis, a White Sox scout, liked Schilling’s attitude but wasn’t impressed by his stuff, giving him 60s in “mental toughness” and “hustle” but an overall “C.” Cosmidis granted him a future 60 fastball with “average to ab. average velocity” but thought little of his secondary offerings, citing a “flat” and “inconsistent” slider and a straight change. In Cosmidis’ mind, that made Schilling a two-pitch pitcher whose fastball would be a feast for big-league batters. (Sounds like someone who could have used a devastating splitter.) In a subsequent report later that year, though, he allowed, “Still like his potential as starter.”
Robinson was conservative with his OFP (44), but lauded Walker's "quick bat with Potential Pwr," even against older college competition. The only weaknesses noted weren't ones that stuck. "Swings at too many out of strike zone pitches," Robinson said about the future batting title winner and OBP champ, who retired with an 11.4 percent walk rate and 15.3 percent strikeout rate. Robinson also observed that Walker, a strong thrower who racked up 150 career assists in right field, "takes too long throwing ball."
We’ve finally found someone who underrated Trammell more than BBWAA voters: Royals scout Tom Ferrick. Ferrick’s assessment of Trammell’s offense: “No power. Weak bat” (with a future 2 power and 3 hit). Ferrick’s assessment of Trammell’s defense: “Has better tools for 2b.” Trammell retired with a .278 TAv and 18,270 career innings at shortstop. He made the majors the year after Ferrick filed his 43 OFP. Scouting is hard.
Other indignities from Ferrick’s report: Trammell’s surname is spelled incorrectly, and the “Physical description” section includes the sentence “Walks like a duck,” followed by the sentence “Feet point out” (in case the Kansas City brass wasn’t sure what “Walks like a duck” meant).
Ferrick is the scout who signed George Brett, which sounds good until you see the grades Ferrick gave Brett in 1971, the year he was drafted: “fairs” in almost everything. There are 498 Ferrick reports in the Diamond Mines database; if you have some time today, read them all and tell me whether he was that hard on everyone.