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January 8, 2014

Overthinking It

What Scouts Said About 2014's Top Cooperstown Candidates

by Ben Lindbergh

“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.

Greg Maddux
Link to report
Year: 1985
Scout: Duffy Dyer
Player age: 19
Highest praise: “Good arm”
Least prescient line: “Not strong enough to be a starter”

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:

In 1981, when I was watching games with baseball scouts, most of the men using radar relied on a brand called the RA-Gun, which registered the speed of the ball as it crossed home plate, and thus an "86 fastball" was said to be the major-league average. Today almost all scouts use some variant of the JUGS Gun, which registers the speed of the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher's hand, and the difference is an added 4 to 5 miles per hour.

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.

Barry Bonds
Link to report
Year: 1985
Scout: Herb Stein
Player age: 20
Highest praise: “A complete player”
Least prescient line: 5 hit/5 power

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.

Roger Clemens
Link to report
Year: 1983
Scout: Gordon Lakey
Player age: 20
Highest praise: “Ideal body for a pitcher”
Least prescient line: “would consider as 2nd or 3rd round draft”


Lakey, an Astros scout, liked Clemens, just not nearly as much as he should have. He praises his mature frame and says he can become a power pitcher, forecasting above-average velocity with good command. But he doesn’t like his breaking balls, putting a present 2(!) on his curve (“just rolls without any snap”) and a present 3 on his slider (“too big at times”). Lakey admits that the breaking stuff “can be helped,” but evidently doesn’t believe that it’s projectable enough to merit a first-round selection.

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.

Frank Thomas
Link to report
Year: 1988
Scout: Mike Rizzo
Player age: 20
Highest praise: “Top bat around”
Least prescient line: “Bat speed has capabilities of being avg. hitter”

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.

Jeff Bagwell
Link to report
Year: 1989
Scout: Donald Labossiere
Player age: 21
Highest praise: “He can hit for ave. and with power”
Least prescient line: “Should be taken between the 7-10 rounds next year”


Labossiere, a Padres scout, has some nice things to say about Bagwell, reporting that Bagwell’s college coach told him that “despite being the best player on his team, he had the best work habits.” He also says that Bagwell “will be the best everyday prospect in New England next year,” though that reads more like a burn on New England than big praise for Bagwell. Although Labossiere says Bagwell’s bat alone will get him drafted, and in a second 1989 report compliments his contact skills, quick, compact, swing, and ability to hit the curveball, he gives him future 50s for power and hitting ability both times. He also warns that Bagwell “wears CONTACTS” (he later got LASIK).

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:

Compact, very muscular build. Big, thick shoulders and upper body. Stocky lower half—heavily muscled legs and butt.

Tom Glavine
Link to report
Year: 1985
Scout: Larry Monroe
Player age: 19
Highest praise: “he will pitch in the big leagues”
Least prescient line: “But whether he will really help a club depends on improvement of stuff and consistency overall”

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.

Tim Raines
Link to report
Year: 1988
Scout: Steve Vrablik
Player age: 28
Highest praise: “Above avg hitting ability with above avg. power”
Least prescient line: Rating relative to Andres Galarraga


The earliest Raines report in the Diamond Mines database comes from 1988, his 10th season in the majors. Vrablik, a Mariners scout, gave Raines a positive review at the plate and added, “Excellent running speed & a very good base stealer,” but he gave Raines an overall “Good,” the same assessment he handed Hubie Brooks and Tim Wallach. Andres Galarraga, however—whom Vrablik praised as a “premium player”—earned an “Excellent.” It’s true that by ’88, Raines’ best years were behind him—he wouldn’t add any black ink or All-Star appearances after that. But he was still better than Galarraga over the next several seasons, as a teenaged Jonah Keri would have told Vrablik if only he’d asked.

Mike Piazza
Link to report
Year: 1986
Scout: Brad Kohler
Player age: 18
Highest praise: “Pot above avg long ball pop”
Least prescient line: “Contact lacking”

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:

He was out there for anybody who wanted him. And nobody did. It surprised me, because he had power and you could see he was going to be a bigger kid. I have a copy of that report in my den, framed. The original’s in Cooperstown.

One of these years, Piazza will join it.

Craig Biggio
Link to report
Year: 1986
Scout: Brad Kohler
Player age: 20
Highest praise: “Def. ML”
Least prescient line: None

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.

Edgar Martinez
Link to report
Year: 1990
Scout: Scott Reid
Player age: 27
Highest praise: “Good contact bat”
Least prescient line: “Solid defense”

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.

Mike Mussina
Link to report
Year: 1985
Scout: Phil Rossi
Player age: 17
Highest praise: “Will come into ‘top’ draftable type”
Least prescient line: None

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.

Curt Schilling
Link to report
Year: 1989
Scout: Alex Cosmidis
Player age: 23
Highest praise: “Aggressive style”
Least prescient line: “Too many pitches high in hitting zone”

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.”

Larry Walker
Link to report
Year: 1984
Scout: Jim Robinson
Player age: 17
Highest praise: "Exel all around athlete"
Least prescient line: "No injuries"

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."

Alan Trammell
Link to report
Year: 1976
Scout: Tom Ferrick
Player age: 18
Highest praise: “Hands are good,” I guess
Least prescient line: “Has better tools for 2B. His bat potential keeps him in fringe category.”

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.

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

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Cooperstown,  Scouting,  Scouts

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

tannerg

Looooooooooooooooooooooved this.

Jan 08, 2014 07:08 AM
rating: 19
 
bhalpern

I wonder if the inability of the scouts to project Thomas' ability to hit for high average was related to his extremely advanced plate discipline. In 793 PAs in 89/90 he drew 154 walks. Could that would have been interpreted as a huge lack of aggressiveness that would 'hurt' him at the major league level?

Jan 08, 2014 08:03 AM
rating: 4
 
bhalpern

Ken Berry listed one of his strengths as "strike zone". So maybe not. On Maxie's scouting report: "Looks like Pancho Herrera ex Philly 50's." http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/herrepa01.shtml






Jan 08, 2014 08:11 AM
rating: 1
 
therealn0d

I found this very interesting and entertaining. It also gave me an idea...I think it would be every bit as interesting, albeit much more work, to explore the "misses" where the scouts vastly overrated a player. Of course there would need to be leniency for players that didn't pan out due to unforeseeable circumstances.

Jan 08, 2014 08:16 AM
rating: 1
 
therealn0d

Because Ray Lankford is my favorite player ever and Mike Rizzo would've been my choice for the Diamondbacks GM position, I found two reports Rizzo filed on Lankford in 1990.

Strong points:"Good looking athlete with all the tools. Hits w/ quick bat and some pop. Runs well and is a plus CF"
Weak points:"Needs some work in CF to become plus CF. Also needs to be more selective at the plate"
Summation:"Young player w/ above ave tools across the board. Will be an impact player. Will arrive in ML soon"

His summation from a report filed about a month later:
"Great young talent that can hit, power, run, and field. Will be a good one"

Jan 08, 2014 08:30 AM
rating: -1
 
therealn0d

Tom Ferrick has a report on Lankford as well, from '93. 6 hit, 6 power, 7 run, 6 field. "front line CF"..."Allstar type."
Also in the report are Greg Jeffries, who he rates average across the board, Jose Oquendo, who he calls "not an everyday player, good glove, defense and sb, no power, contact type" and Tom Pagnozzi who gets good marks for defense.

I think most of that was obvious by the time this report was filed.

Jan 08, 2014 08:55 AM
rating: -1
 
willtravel

As a Cubs fan of advanced years, I had the opportunity to see Maddux pitch as a rookie. If I remember right, the year was 1986, and something like four of the five Cubs starters went down with injuries (Trout, Eckersley, Sutcliffe, Sanderson?). Maybe it was three, but anyways we were treated to the premature debuts of Greg Maddux and Jaime Moyers. What I remember about Maddux gibes with your entry about him. He threw pretty hard. Back then if you were told a pitcher hit a radar reading of 90-91, it was considered very impressive. And I believe I did read reports of Maddux hitting 90 on the gun. Anyway, living a few blocks from the park, I attended one of his handful of starts at Wrigley that year. As usual, I sat in the bleachers, so saw him work from behind. I was impressed with him in a couple of ways. First off, the first time through the order was pretty much three up, three down. There was a lot of movement on his pitches, and his fastball could freeze batters. he must have been changing speeds on it. Around the fourth inning they got to him. And in the fifth or sixth, he was knocked out of the game. But during those first three innings, I remember saying to my buddy that maybe the Cubs had something. By the sixth, I was like, "Okay, he's not quite ready, but there's promise." The other thing that impressed me was a couple plays he made. Very nimble and quick. Very good fielder.

Jan 08, 2014 09:05 AM
rating: 7
 
therealn0d

A Cubs posts right below my Cards post.

Newman!

Jan 10, 2014 09:02 AM
rating: 0
 
TGT969

This is the kind of article that makes a BP subscription worth it! Great job guys.

Jan 09, 2014 08:22 AM
rating: 2
 
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