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January 11, 2016

Prospectus Feature

Scouting for Converts

by Ezra Wise

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On a recent trip to Florida, I was able to momentarily escape the loving clutches of family to take in two sporting events—day three of the Perfect Game National Underclass Showcase and a local high school basketball game. Even while watching the basketball game as a casual observer, I found myself slipping into scouting mode, pondering whether any of the players on the court might have promising futures at the college level.

In particular, I noticed a player whose tools were best suited for a “3-and-D” role, but was instead forced to operate as an initiator because there was no better option to occupy the role on his team. As a result of suboptimal deployment, the player’s in-game performance suffered, as almost all of his turnovers came on ball-handling gaffes. Nonetheless, it became apparent that the player possesses desirable tools—defense, perimeter shooting, and shot blocking—that will allow him to be a valuable contributor on a smaller Division I team, assuming he’s deployed in his optimal role as a “3-and-D” guy and not forced into ball-handling and initiating duties.

When observing this player, I couldn’t help but think of some advice I received from a veteran talent evaluator. “Don’t get caught up too much with where you see guys playing,” he said. “You could be watching a Rookie-level game and the organization’s right fielder of the future is playing shortstop, the catcher is playing third, and a late-inning reliever is playing center field. Trust in the tools they show you. That’ll tell you more about future roles than where you see them playing right now.” A player’s current role gives you clues about his future role but sometimes it’s a distractor. Cutting through the noise in the interest of pinning down a player’s optimal future role is difficult, but doing so is an immensely valuable part of scouting. In what follows we’ll explore role optimization and some of the common positional transitions executed in the interest of maximizing expected value at the major-league level.

Tool Priority
Before addressing specific role-optimization mechanisms, it’s worth covering the tool priority conventions scouts use when evaluating players and the extent to which they fit or don’t fit at particular positions. The matrix shown below features positional archetypes and outlines the relative importance of each of the five tools at each of the eight non-pitching positions. Some variation of this matrix is used by all 30 clubs.

POS

1

2

3

4

5

C

Field

Throw

Hit

Power

Run

1B

Hit

Power

Field

Throw

Run

2B

Field

Hit

Run

Throw

Power

3B

Hit

Power

Field

Throw

Run

SS

Field

Throw

Run

Hit

Power

LF

Hit

Power

Run

Field

Throw

CF

Run

Field

Hit

Throw

Power

RF

Hit

Power

Run

Throw

Field

There are some disagreeable aspects of the ordering [1], but for the most part, this matrix jives with common sense. Players with the best defensive tools are steered toward up-the-middle positions, while a below-average glove is acceptable at a less defensively demanding corner position, assuming the player carries sufficient thump with the bat. Sure, it’s great if you come across a catcher like Russell Martin who runs well (in his younger days at least) but below-average or worse running ability is far from a deal-breaker if a catcher has desirable position-specific tools to offer. Arm, glove, and bat factor prominently when assigning a future catcher’s OFP and role, while any speed is an added bonus. Conversely, if a catcher’s strongest tool is speed, he likely won’t remain at the position and will instead be shifted to the outfield.

There are of course exceptions to these positional archetypes, as baseball players are capable of providing value in unique, heuristic-defying ways—bat-first shortstops and glove-first corner outfielders, for example—but it’s much easier to get behind an unconventional profile at the major-league level, once a player has established a track record of offensive and defensive production, than it is to get behind an odd duckling in the low minors or amateur ranks. The gap between the present and a major-league future (if any) for young players is so large that such a player’s OFP and future role are more likely to be built on base rate data than on whatever unique characteristics he possesses that may give him a chance to buck the trend [2]. The positional archetypes outlined on a club’s specific iteration of the tool priority matrix aren’t rigid restrictions—they’re just a guide. The further away a player is from the majors, though, the more prudent it is to follow the guide when assigning his optimal future role. In the words of another veteran talent evaluator, “Don’t be afraid of players who break the mold but remember that the mold [read “tool priority conventions”] exists for a reason.”

The “To-Catcher” Conversion
What do Bob Boone, Lance Parrish, Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, Terry Steinbach, Russell Martin, Pat Borders and Michael Barrett all have in common? You guessed it. They were all drafted as non-catchers then converted after signing. In some cases, a player is drafted with the conversion in mind. In others, player development personnel suggest or impose the conversion a few years in, once it becomes apparent that a player doesn’t really fit well any of the standing positions.

Consider this hypothetical conversion candidate—a third baseman with average hands and a plus arm but well below-average quickness and little feel for the position. He’s a well below-average runner and the bat is intriguing but not enough to realistically carry first base. Further, he has plus makeup and shows natural leadership qualities. He has the requisite tools to excel as a catcher and the conversion increases his expected value at the maior-league level. Thus, he proceeds forward in his career donning the Tools of Ignorance.

While I find the catcher conversion to be a particularly elegant role-optimization mechanism, and I don’t see it going away entirely, it’s likely that we’ll at least see its frequency diminish. Catchers are currently selected, developed and deployed based on receiving ability to a greater extent than they were even five years ago. It’s not that effective receiving can’t be taught but rather that the learning curve for a catcher is steeper than it’s ever been thanks to the added demands of the position. Because of the rep volume they’ve already received, experienced catchers necessarily have a leg up, while conversion guys have a lot of “catching up” to do (pun entirely intended) when it comes to mastering receiving.

The “From-Shortstop” Conversion
I’m likely surprising no one by suggesting the scouting community, along with the baseball world in general, has a bit of a shortstop fetish. Shortstop of course sits atop the defensive spectrum, and ability to play the position is driven by intrinsically dictated [3] characteristics such as speed, quickness, athleticism, and arm strength. This may sound fairly obvious, but if a team wants to develop a shortstop, it needs to pay up for shortstop tools since the defensive demands of the position are so daunting and the number of individuals capable of handling those demands at the major-league level is so small. This is the primary reason shortstops are highly sought after on draft day and on the international market, and why they justifiably occupy an inordinate number of spots on top prospect lists and organizational rankings. A quality shortstop isn’t just going to develop from the sea of quantity [4] the way a second baseman or a reliever might. A quality, internally developed shortstop almost always comes from an investment in premium, quality tools.

Yes, shortstop tools are expensive, but they’re also more dynamic than those possessed by amateurs and minor leaguers with non-shortstop profiles. In other words, when a club drafts a shortstop, it’s giving itself a chance to produce a shortstop while also acquiring built-in insurance of sorts. Thanks to the strength and universal applicability of shortstop tools, such a profile typically entails more plan B and alternate plan A options if it turns out the player doesn’t stick at the position. Essentially, as a shortstop’s tools develop, he’ll have numerous role-optimization mechanisms available to him while the options for other positional archetypes are not as plentiful.

Consider the following table showing games played and percentage of overall games played by major-league players who were taken as shortstops [5] in the Amateur Draft [6].

ML GAMES BY POSITION, DRAFTED AS SHORTSTOP

P

C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

DH

4279

8655

17533

90122

75305

104693

10378

10058

8741

12120

1%

3%

5%

26%

22%

31%

3%

3%

3%

4%

As we see, a player with shortstop tools has options. If his defensive tools manifest as actualized run prevention ability at the shortstop position, he’ll stick there. If he’s a step slow for shortstop but shows positive development in other areas, he becomes a third baseman. If his arm turns out to be a bit light for the left side of the infield, he becomes a second baseman. If his hands don’t develop as expected, then center field is a viable option. If the bat starts to far outpace the player’s defensive development then it might make sense to accelerate his trajectory to the majors by shifting him to a corner outfield position or first base. Because a player drafted as a shortstop typically possesses a robust, diverse collection of tools, he’ll have numerous developmental options once he grows and his tools begin to manifest as actualized skills.

Further, history plays an important role in perpetuating the appeal of acquiring shortstops through the draft and international market. Consider the following list of players drafted as shortstops that ended up playing primarily at other positions in the majors.

POS

PLAYERS

C

Jorge Posada, Mike Heath, Milt May

1B

Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, Michael Morse

2B

Willie Randolph, Jeff Kent, Bobby Grich, Bret Boone, Steve Sax, Brandon Phillips, Chase Utley

3B

Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Carney Lansford, George Brett, Joe Randa, Travis Fryman

CF

Adam Jones, Aaron Rowand, Melvin Upton Jr., Michael Bourn, Preston Wilson

C-OF

B.J. Surhoff, Gary Sheffield, Justin Upton, Ron Gant, Michael Cuddyer, Reggie Sanders, Brian Jordan

DH

Hal McRae, Paul Molitor

P

Trevor Hoffman, Dave Smith, Bret Saberhagen

This is a pretty impressive list of major-league players, which of course also makes for an easily accessible collection of comps to utilize when making sense of a shortstop’s profile. Say a player is being discussed in pre-draft meetings and a concern about his profile becomes the topic of conversation.

Draft Room Voice #1: “I like this kid’s bat, athleticism, and body but I have doubts about his hands on the infield.”
Draft Room Voice #2: “I think he has a chance to stick but you’re right that it’s hardly a given. If his hands don’t play, I see him in the outfield as a Ron Gant type.”

The statement by Draft Room Voice #2 is powerful in that he’s asserting his confidence in the dynamic nature of the player’s tool set. In other words, if some component of this player’s profile ends up not working out, there’s a well-understood, precedented Plan B to fall back on. It’s simply much easier to get behind a guy who isn’t going to immediately hit a developmental dead end if a component of his profile doesn’t work. With a shortstop, the plan Bs and even alternate plan As are plentiful, but with a second baseman, catcher, or first baseman, there aren’t nearly as many. As a result, such players thus have far steeper developmental trajectories and are thus priced accordingly on draft day and on the international market.

The “To-Reliever” Transition
The most common role-optimization mechanism is the good ‘ol “anything-to-reliever” transition—whether it’s starter-to-reliever (Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Liam Hendricks, ETC.!!!), catcher-to-reliever (Kenley Jansen), shortstop-to-reliever (Trevor Hoffman), substitute teacher-to-reliever (Steve Delabar) or bartender-to-reliever (Tom Wilhelmsen). Relievers can literally come from anywhere. We don’t need Murray Chass’s grandson to gather data from the Inner Tube in order to demonstrate the prevalence of this role-optimization convention. The “success” rate is so high for starter-to-reliever converts because relieving is necessarily easier than starting, as pitchers are able to exert maximum effort over short durations and scrap one or two of their weakest pitches. As a result, it’s very tempting to slap a “future reliever” tag on almost any borderline starting pitcher in the minors or amateur ranks.

The most prominent indicators that a pitcher is best-suited for the pen are as follows.

INDICATOR

Delivery effort

Potentially-injurious arm action

Violent recoil during arm deceleration

Head whack

Platoon issues

Slight frame

Below average fastball command

Lack of usable third pitch

Poor stamina

Poor performance as SP

While these heuristics are very helpful when assigning future roles to pitchers, it’s nonetheless prudent to really bear down on ‘tweeners—starting pitchers that have a chance of making it work in the long run despite displaying maybe one or two of the less-alarming characteristics listed above. Aggressively applying the reliever tag is appealing because you’ll necessarily be right more times than not if you do so for any starter that demonstrates vaguely reliever-esque traits. The downside is that some false positives will inevitably be lumped into the reliever bucket, thus interfering with development and potentially limiting an organization’s starting pitcher yield [7].

In a sense, there’s a conflict of interest at play here between the evaluator, who wants to give himself the best chance of being right, and the overall good of the organization, which is trying to maximize its yield of internally developed starters. Say there’s a particular player that has a 50 percent chance of accumulating 4.0 wins as a reliever over the course of his first six years of service time and a 25 percent chance of accumulating 9.0 wins as a starter over the course of those same six years. The expected value of the player as a starter is higher but the scout has a better chance of successfully predicting a major-league future if the player develops as a reliever and is eventually deployed in that role in the big leagues.

No organization wants a system full of relievers, even with the game trending in a more bullpen-centric direction. Relievers can be developed from quantity to a much greater degree than starters can, thus it makes sense, from a Player Development perspective, to hold out hope that ‘tweeners stick as starters by giving them every opportunity to truly fail before prescribing a “to-reliever” conversion.

Wrapping Up
Role optimization isn’t as much about maximizing the binary probability of a player making versus not making the major leagues as it is about maximizing expected value. It’s easy to erroneously conflate the two or place more emphasis on the former, as it’s necessarily the more conservative approach and predicting major-league futures is so difficult. As is the case with any aspect of scouting, evaluating extremes is the easy part. You don’t need to have the expertise of an Art Stewart or a Roland Hemond to show up at a ballpark and identify the very best and the very worst players on the field. It’s the fat part of the talent bell curve that’s so difficult to accurately evaluate, and that’s the area in which the best scouts separate themselves from the pack.

For example, asserting that a 30 glove / 60 arm / 60 speed minor-league shortstop is best-suited for center field is a no-brainer. It’s the 45 glove / 60 arm / 60 speed guy that’s tough to properly peg. Given all the admissible information that’s available about the player, including his offensive tools, what’s the cutoff point at which the player’s expected value as a center fielder exceeds his expected value as a shortstop? Unfortunately, it’s rarely ever crystal clear, especially when there’s a particularly large gap between a player’s present state and his anticipated window of contribution at the major-league level. As is the case with almost any incongruous or particularly vexing aspect of scouting, trusting in the process, and most importantly, following the tools players show will yield the best results.

***

[1] I’d be interested to hear what readers think about the Tool Priority Matrix. I have some proverbial bones to pick with this particular iteration. Which tools are ranked too high and which are ranked too low?

[2] While I believe in the utility of the Tool Priority Matrix, I nonetheless have a pet theory that there are a number of ML position players out there whose optimal defensive position is one to two spots higher on the defensive spectrum than the position they actually play but are prevented from playing there because they exhibit characteristics that are inconsistent with the requisite positional archetypes. For example, how many wins does Josh Donaldson the third baseman contribute relative to Josh Donaldson the shortstop? How about Nolan Arenado the shortstop or Eric Hosmer the right fielder? This is a rabbit hole worth going down but it’s likely best-saved for another article.

[3] Some would argue that these characteristics—especially arm strength—are much more manipulable than conventional wisdom suggests. Nonetheless, they’re necessarily positioned far more toward the Nature extreme of the Nature-Nurture spectrum than elements like the hit tool or skill-based mastery of a position.

[4] The “Quality out of Quantity” principle originates from Branch Rickey’s innovative mind. You can read about this concept, Rickey, and all sorts of other scouting-related insights in the iconic, Dollar Sign on the Muscle by Kevin Kerrane.

[5] While the position assigned to a player on draft day is immensely valuable data, it’s far from perfect. The drafting team gets to decide the player’s listed position but assignment conventions aren’t particularly consistent. Sometimes it’s the position he’ll initially play in pro ball. Sometimes it’s the position he played primarily as an amateur. Sometimes it’s the position the club sees him at in the long run. Sometimes it’s determined based on an informal poll of the draft room, especially for mid-to-late round fillers, and raw high schoolers who are all tools and have no clear-cut position.

[6] Prior to 1986 there were a number of additional amateur draft phases including the January Amateur, January Secondary, and June Secondary Drafts, all of which ceased in 1986. Additionally, an August Legion Draft was held up until 1966.

[7] This assumes that the scout is evaluating the talent within his own organization.

.

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

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