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November 9, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

The Notebook and the Lessons Learned

by Jason Parks

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The baseball season is long and girthy, filled with raw stumbles, elegant strides, and euphoric climaxes. Fall baseball sputters on, at least for a few more weeks, and winter ball spans into the winter months, but the meat of the games that “count” have already been counted. Now we are left waiting with semi-idle hands for news of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp.

During the 2011 season, I spent an aggregate of nine full weeks on the road watching baseball, mostly at assorted team complexes in Arizona (spring training, extended spring training, Arizona rookie league, fall instructional league), but also taking short hops to the less-than-capacity stadiums strewn about the East Coast landscape. In those nine weeks, I filled 21 notebooks (80 sheets per pad) mostly with legitimate [read: usable] notes, but some of the pages contain spray charts, casual doodles, and the occasional sunstroke-induced rant. We live in the modern age, where modern devices allow for easy and organized access to information, yet my notebooks exist on their own, free from artificial reproduction or systemic organization. To an outside eye, my ramblings on the Ampad’s fine-quality weight paper, which are micro perforated for neat sheet removal, medium-ruled, flop-top, gold fiber, finest selection notebooks, read like the scribbles from the unbalanced antagonist from the movie Se7en, every line on every page tasked with holding my ink. I use a silver- and black-bodied Zebra Lunar pen, with a medium roll and a smear factor that plays nicely with my writing pad. The pen allows for a meticulous approach, with a fine enough point to easily maneuver within the ruled lines, yet thick enough to pack a punch when spray charts and pitch location boxes are needed.

I love my notebooks and keep them close to my person during my travels, fearing that the scouting dissertations contained within could be lost if I should happen to lose focus and leave the Brooklyn Industries travel satchel that houses the text at the fields or at a local watering hole. I’ve been encouraged to transplant my notes to digital form, where modern technology would grant me access on multiple platforms whenever I desire the file. Theoretically speaking, this makes sense; who doesn’t enjoy clean, accessible information available on the technological medium of your choosing? Apparently I don’t.

When I flip the pages of my writing pad, I get to re-live the experience of the note-taking. Sometimes I recall a detail or a feeling that I might have initially failed to document. Flipping through the memories of my experiences brings back the smell of the field, the energy and excitement triggered by my eyes, transported to my hands, and then onto the slightly off-yellow dye of the page. They are more than notes. They are photographs of my memory. From the manic scribbles that occur when a play is made or an observation is only partially ingested, to the more methodical pitching charts, to the casual description of a player’s physical characteristics, to what I might be craving for lunch, to what the scout in my vicinity is wearing and why I find it to be aesthetically regrettable. The books themselves are my mind on a page. They have a heartbeat.

Throughout the long season, I return to the information in these books like a religious fundamentalist reads the Bible on the subway train. I read them for reassurance and for intellectual layering. It’s the lifeblood of my chosen profession, granting me access to these memories whenever I need them. Each of the 21 notebooks is labeled on its cover by date range, starting back in late February and ending in late fall, so it’s not difficult to locate specific experiences and dissections of the player or team in question.

When tasked with writing about a prospect or a team full of prospects, the first step is to isolate all of my relevant material. At this point, one would again think that calling up a Word document that housed all relevant scouting information on the player would save time and simplify the process. But the hunt for the information in the books keeps me in the context from which that information was extracted. It’s one thing to know that the prospect in question ran multiple 4.3 clocks down to first base or that he had three singles and three doubles in a three-game set in early June. The notebooks are a time machine back to that series in June, giving me the required scouting information on the prospect and the proper context to judge the information from. In that given series, the fields were feeling the effects of a recent rain, and as a result the lines were soft and the footing out of the box was sluggish; in fact, sporadic precipitation left its fingerprint on the notebook itself, as the pages for this series were partially stained with the residue from the rain. The prospect in question routinely clocked 4.3s from the right side, which is around average and would be graded accordingly. However, the speed was clearly depressed (somewhat) by the conditions in the running path, making the average grade I placed on his wheels inaccurate.

For the same prospect, I suggested that the bat speed was impressive; it seemed legit (it should be noted that recognizing quality bat speed is difficult). Because of the results at the plate during the series, I assumed the prospect could swing the bat because of the undeniable production and, as I mentioned, the seemingly impressive bat speed. I went forward with this take and, when looking back, expected to have the notes to back up this claim. Wrong.

When looking back at the notes, I stumbled upon several pitch charts from the opposing team. After a more focused dissection of those notes, I discovered that not a single pitcher that weekend touched what I would label as plus fastball velocity; the average fastball worked in the 86-90 range, with a few bursts of velocity touching as high as 92. As I continued to read the charts, I also noticed the extremely heavy fastball usage; starters used the pitch almost 80 percent of the time, including first-pitch fastballs (from a starter) to every hitter during the course of the series. Because I was scouting a single prospect—not focused on the opposition—I missed this (obvious) skill deficiency. I again failed to apply these details when attempting to judge the prospect’s skills.

Looking back at the on-field production I mentioned—three singles and three doubles—I again turned to the all-knowing bosom of the notebook. I started to piece together how those six hits looked to me at the time versus how they appear to me now, with context pushing the isolated performance I originally championed into a new reality. The performance doesn’t look nearly as impressive now. Because it’s difficult to scout both sides of the ball at the same time, at least given my current skills, I tend to take as many notes as possible while maintaining a focus on the legitimate prospects. But the pitch charts made it clear that the bat speed I was excited about was enhanced by fringe-average fastball velocity to hitters that were anticipating fastballs early in the count. They were hitting meatballs. I was too focused on the product of the swing than the swing itself. Fail (2.0).

The notes next to the hitter’s name read: “Hitter has fast hands, as they seem to enter the zone before the pitch leaves the fingers; turns on everything; could foul a ball thrown behind him; really like the bat speed and hands.” I should have noted that the pitcher was hovering around 86-87 mph and unable to spin a consistent breaker, so the arsenal was very loose in the zone. I documented what the pitcher was doing, but the on-field production proved too easy to ignore. Watching a prospect rip a double into the gap is difficult to criticize in that vacuum. But the quick hands might have appeared quick because the hitter anticipated a fringy fastball to start the sequence and accelerated the trigger to cheat into the zone. I didn’t pick up the cheat; I recognized the quick hands and denoted their efficiency and speed. A second looks shows that the hitter should be championed for putting wood to ball in game action, but given the level, performance, and tell of his adversary, allowing the hitter too much credit (as I initially did) turned out to be inaccurate scouting. Results can be misleading, especially at the lower levels.

Scouting is often subjective and, on top of that, often inaccurate. I’m guilty of this on a regular basis, and I intend to continue down that path until the likelihood of being right dwarfs the likelihood of being wrong. That takes time. Lots of time. I like watching players in person and I like writing in my little notebooks; surprisingly, I also like going back and finding out that the story I might have sold wasn’t the whole story. The notebooks keep me motivated to improve, with a focus on taking more detailed notes, logging more eyewitness accounts, and less reliance on the eyes of others.

There will be times that I will no doubt choose to trust the thoughts of those within the industry, as their experience is superior to my own and their opinions should be received with the appropriate weight. But that’s a service to you, the reader, and not me, the evaluator: I can’t improve until I stand in the firing line and attach my name to the opinions I offer on the players I see. I’m not afraid of being wrong, but I am afraid of being a voice box for someone else’s thoughts. At times, this is my only course of action; I can’t see every player, and even if I could, I can’t see every environment and I can’t contextualize every situation. I have very good friends in the industry, ranging from bloggers with boots on the ground to scouts to front-office personnel, so I can get an opinion on a player if I need one. My point is that I would rather give you my opinion of a player, whether or not that happens to paint me as a prophet or a putz.

Going forward with my reports for the 2012 season, I plan on clearly indicating whether the opinions I’m propagating originated from my eyes and my notebooks, or if they were acquired by other means, or if they were an amalgam of both worlds. But as much I want to provide you, the reader, with the most thorough account of who and what a player is and who and what a player can become, I don’t want to deliver the thoughts I bought at the scouting store. This can be limiting, and it can lead to a wide variance of thought and general credibility, especially if I’m standing out on a ledge with a player who tickles my fancy and that player turns out to lack the ability to tickle. However, I’m prepared to face those challenges and the subsequent failures. My long-term goal is to become a valuable scout, an evaluator major-league teams would gladly let into their otherwise impenetrable fort, but I can’t get there unless I stand behind my own thoughts, whether such propel my name upward or sink me where I stand. Assuming the latter, at least I’ll sink with my trusty 5”x 8” writing pads with their fine quality-weight paper, micro perforated for neat sheet removal, with a medium rule and 80 sheets per pad. Those notebooks should allow for a quick and informative descent.    

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

Related Content:  Out Of My League,  The Who,  Writing

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