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John Sickels is my favorite baseball writer. He writes a regular
column for ESPN.com, pens the annual STATS Minor League Scouting
Notebook
, and produces an outstanding semi-weekly e-mail newsletter
focusing on the minor leagues.

Sickels’s newsletter, launched this season, is insightful, entertaining, and
packed with interesting and relevant information. It’s a great read for all
baseball fans. If you play in any perpetual fantasy baseball league,
subscribing to Sickels’s newsletter is a mandatory investment. It’s
inexpensive, and well worth it. You can sign up right now
through PayPal or by sending John a check. Get all the information at

http://hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html
.

Baseball Prospectus: First off, let’s talk about the way clubs
traditionally look at the minor leagues. Do different clubs have different
goals for their minor-league systems? Every organization wants to win at the
major-league level, but there seems to be a difference in philosophy about
the role of the minor leagues in accomplishing that goal. What differences
have you seen in various organizations?

John Sickels: There’s a perception that you may be buying into here.
Teams like the Yankees and the Dodgers have this image of using their farm
system as a place to develop talent to trade to other teams, so they can
pick up established veterans. When you actually take a look at the roster of
the Yankees, you see players like Derek Jeter, Bernie
Williams
, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, all of whom
are homegrown. The Yankees do have a tendency to hype some of their
prospects who they don’t think are going to be great, and then trading them.
You may be seeing that right now with Alfonso Soriano, who probably
isn’t going to be as good a player as D’Angelo Jimenez will be.

BP: In your writing, you talk a lot about the five tools and the
seven skills. What are the five tools, what are the seven skills, and how do
you use each to evaluate a minor-league player?

JS: The five tools are hitting for average, hitting for power,
running, arm strength, and fielding. Scouts traditionally use these metrics,
and have for some time. The seven skills that I use are strike-zone
judgment, hitting for power, hitting for average, offensive speed, defensive
range, defensive reliability, and throwing utility.

There are some similarities between the five tools and the seven skills, but
I’ve broken them down a bit further, based on what’s really important in
terms of actually playing baseball. Speed is great to have, but the ability
to actually convert a few doubles to triples–because you have the speed
along with the knowledge and instincts to take advantage of it–is even
better.

I deliberately use the word "skill" instead of "tool."
When evaluating a prospect, it’s easy to get enamored with a player who
looks graceful doing something, and this is usually the toolsy guy. I want
to focus on what the player’s actually doing that will directly help a team
win ballgames.

BP: What organizations are best at developing successful major-league
pitchers and hitters? What do they do differently than everyone else?

JS: Well, everyone always says that the Braves develop good pitching.
I think the key thing the Braves have been able to do is take high-school
pitchers and turn them into good prospects at a better rate than most
organizations. How they do this is a good question; several teams have
copied Atlanta’s throwing program and teaching methods, but without the same
level of success.

The Yankees also have an underrated minor-league pitching program, and the
White Sox have a big collection of young arms. They all have somewhat
different approaches. The Braves and Sox seem to concentrate on raw ability,
projectability, and athleticism on the mound, while the Yanks seem more
interested in polished college types. The Cubs are also making progress in
building a strong pitching staff.

For hitters, of course I love the work the A’s done in emphasizing plate
discipline as the key factor in developing a hitting approach. The Yankees,
Cubs, and Rangers also do that, although perhaps not quite to the same
extent. In contrast to their mound success, the Braves look more at raw
tools with their hitters, and it hasn’t worked well recently. You’ll also
see that teams like the Pirates and Devil Rays, who focus almost entirely on
tools rather than skills, have a strong tendency to suck eggs.

BP: What is the most common feedback you get on your work?

JS: The most common comment I received in the past was that people
wanted to see more of it. That’s why I started the newsletter, to give
myself another outlet. I’m not quite as statistically-oriented as some
analysts, since too much math makes my eyes hurt. But both the stathead
community and more traditional fans seem to enjoy what I do. It’s
accessible, and I try to popularize and explain ideas so that everyone can
understand them.

I think I get this from my background as a low-level college instructor. You
try and explain the causes of World War I in dry language to a bunch of
college freshmen, and they’ll tune you out. But if you start off the lesson
with "World War I started because the Great Powers of Europe got
involved in a giant pissing contest," they’ll listen to the details.

Other common comments include, "you sure were wrong about Prospect
X!" "what makes you think you know more than Tom Kelly?," and
"why haven’t you answered the 17 questions I sent you about the 2004
amateur draft class?"

Seriously, though, the whole thing has been a great experience, and the vast
majority of fans are supportive, even if they disagree about something in
particular.

BP: I’m loathe to actually mention some of these names, because I was
hoping to pick them up in a couple of supplemental drafts I have coming, and
I’m tipping my hand, but here goes….

Here are some players that have really had some tremendous success this
year. For each one, what’s your feeling on their development? Is it a
one-year fluke, or has something clicked, and a new level of performance
been established?

  • Wayne Nix, SP, Oakland A’s (Visalia — High A)

    JS: Nix is a guy who throws hard, and his performance so far this
    year is dramatically more promising than it has been in the past. His
    strikeout rate is still high, but his walk rate has dropped from mediocre to
    very good. He might have turned a corner, but we need to see if he maintains
    his improved control when he gets a chance in Double-A.

  • Brandon Claussen, SP, New York Yankees (Norwich — Double-A)

    JS: Claussen has moved up quickly this year. He dominated high A ball
    in Tampa, and he’s holding his own in Norwich. He still has some
    consolidation to do before he’s ready to pitch in the bigs, but he’s playing
    pretty well in Norwich. He might be a September callup in 2002.

  • Kyle Denney, SP, Cleveland Indians (Kinston — High A)

    JS: It’s hard to say. Denney’s numbers are great, but that’s not
    unusual for a college pitcher in A ball. The biggest hurdle for finesse
    pitchers is when they hit Double-A, and Denney still has to face that
    challenge.

BP: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I wish we could put up
the entire conversation, but unfortunately, decorum and good sense prevent
that.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus.

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