An unpleasant, rainy “getaway day” game isn’t picturesque baseball weather, but the cold, wet conditions meant that Nationals Park was largely empty. The game sounds from a Phillies vs. Nationals daytime tilt reverberated around the stadium. The quality of play was big-league caliber, though the atmosphere was not.
Counterintuitively, sometimes the best place to improve one’s evaluations of players at the minor league or amateur level is to watch major league games through a scouting lens. After all, that’s the level that evaluators are projecting players to, even if they’re scouting those players at a lower-rung of the game. It can be easy, at times, to think that there’s not a huge gap between the majors and the upper minors, and in terms of routine plays being made and pace of play, perhaps that’s true. From a tools standpoint, however, I always walk out of a big league stadium focused on the tangible difference between the big leagues and everywhere else.
Evaluating lots of high-minors baseball gives insight to how gifted players who carve out sustained big-league roles really are. Double-A and Triple-A baseball players deserve tons of respect—especially the veterans or organizational mainstays—as they’ve had both the talent and fortitude to ascend to a level of baseball more significant than almost anywhere else. With all due respect to those guys, the game I saw on a rainy Thursday afternoon in Washington last week wasn’t the same game you’ll see at a Triple-A park. It isn’t even particularly close.
At the major-league level, tools that would draw above-average to plus grades are abundant, if not the norm. Players are noticeably larger and more athletic than anywhere else in the baseball world. Fastballs are faster, breaking balls are sharper. Even the most routine of fly balls can tower above the field, demonstrating the type of raw power a scout would note standing out on a low-minors field. The right-handed college reliever whose fastball scrapes the upper 90s, backed up by secondary pitches inconsistent in their break or control, still draws a gaggle of amateur scouts every time he throws. That same type of pitcher permeates the back-ends of high-minors bullpens, just hoping to hold down a spot as a low-leverage reliever at the big-league level. The best-athlete-your-town-has-ever-seen outfielder with size, speed, and power quickly becomes a bench player at this level on account of his approach’s consistency (or lack thereof), another nameless cup-of-coffee player in the annals of big-league history. The major leagues are a humbling level, one where fringy tools don’t always make enough of a dent, and tools alone can’t salvage limitations of things like control, approach, and the general smaller, mental aspects of the game.
To their credit, the Phillies have strung together a fair start to the season, especially for what they’re working with. I don’t mean to rip on the Phillies—a team undeniably rebuilding—so much as I use them as an example of a likely bottom-five finisher this year, and the opportunity to understand the placement of player’s tool set that provides. A subtle scouting takeaway from watching a team like the Philadelphia is observing the toolsets of the players who make up their complementary contributors. Every team has bench players, middle relievers, and back-of-the-rotation starters, but not all of those player types are created equal. For a team like the Phillies, for instance, what constitutes as the last handful of arms out of their ‘pen might be closing games in the high-minors in an organization with a deeper big-league roster. The utility infielder here might be a Triple-A regular elsewhere; the starters in the middle infield for the big club could be the utility infielders themselves on a more competitive roster, and so on. Insofar as roster construction goes, some player roles are downgraded a notch relative to those “first division” teams at the top of the standings, and that’s actually fairly intuitive: bottom-feeding teams don’t win as many games because bottom-feeding teams don’t have as deep a talent pool to fill roles on their team with.
While one isn’t watching players likely to pepper the top of any leaderboards by honing in on smaller pieces of losing teams, doing so affords a good opportunity to understand what true “up-and-down” players look like. Identifying these types of players allows pro scouts to contribute tons of value to their organizations on a routine basis—a unique aspect of scouting the minor leagues for a team is that the best prospects one sees are rarely actually available. It’s great when you get to catch a blue-chip prospect, but what can separate one evaluator from another is properly identifying which players will be able to profile at the highest level, even as a role player.
Taking in a major-league game provides a valuable reset in regards to the incredibly high standards that are required to play at that level. It’s a reminder that even though someone might standout at the minor-league level, it’s not a given that their particular array of tools is going to function in the majors. It’s also a good way to recalibrate on what types of flaws can be overcome by a player to get to the majors and stay there, and to dig in to how that player did it. Taking those resets, reminders, and recalibrations back to the minors is a valuable experience, and drives home the point that professional scouts continually contribute value at the margins, not just by finding the Next Big Thing.
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