Rico Brogna has traded in his first baseman’s mitt for a radar gun and a clipboard. Now in his second year as a professional scout in the Diamondbacks organization, the former Met and Phillie slugger recently completed an assignment in which he followed and filed scouting reports on the World Series-bound Colorado Rockies. David talked to Brogna about what an advance scout looks for, the relationship between eyeball-scouting and statistical analysis, and why the Rockies are winning.
David Laurila: What were your primary responsibilities this season?
Rico Brogna: I was a basic pro scout, working throughout our system and covering teams in Double-A, Triple-A, and the big leagues. Overall, I followed just short of 30 teams over the course of the season, many of them in the Northeast. A lot of what I did at the minor league level was to assess opposing players that we might have an interest in if they become available down the road. Once we got into September, I switched to helping out with the advance scouting, with my focus being the postseason. I was initially assigned to the Phillies, and after that I began following the Rockies.
DL: As an advance scout, what are looking for when you’re preparing reports for an upcoming series?
RB: There are a lot of things we look at. We look at what hitters are trying to do at the plate, how pitchers work specific sequences, how defenses are positioned. We’ll look at things like a team’s bunt defense rotation, and if the shortstop cheats or stays true to his position. We look at whether players are doing anything differently now compared to earlier in the season, and with the games getting more important, do things change when the dial turns up and there’s more on the line?
DL: Does statistical analysis play any role in what you’re doing?
RB: We have a program here in the organization–and I don’t think we’re unique in that regard–where we use computer analysis to break down data. For instance, if a pitcher likes to throw curveballs to left-handed hitters on 2-1 counts in the first three innings of a game, we can isolate that. However, there are things you can’t see as well on TV, or on charts, which is where the relationship between data and scouting comes in. I know some of that information already, and when I’m in the field, one of the things I’m doing is looking to see if I can confirm it. We want to make sure that we’re not buying into something that isn’t completely accurate or doesn’t tell us the whole story. We might know that a pitcher likes to throw his curve in a certain situation, but the data doesn’t always show which kind of a curve–it doesn’t show us what the shape is. Is it a get-me-over curve, or a go-to pitch? Is he just trying to throw a strike with it, or is it a snapdragon curve, a hard-turning, fast, active breaking ball? And does he have command of it right now? That’s where the human element can augment the statistical analysis that has been done.
DL: As a scout, what is your personal view of statistical analysis?
RB: Well, it’s something that I want to learn more about, because I think data is very important. When I played, I wanted to know about things like the percentage of fastballs a guy would throw on a certain count: was it 71 percent, or 48 percent? I believe in that kind of data because it’s information that can be used to your advantage. Of course, numbers only tell you so much. The data might suggest that you’re going to see a fastball, but which type of fastball? You might get a velocity measure off of video or a chart, but there are things you won’t see, too. Having played, I’ll often see little, subtle things at the ballpark that might be missed on video or in charts.
DL: What did you see from the Rockies’ pitching staff?
RB: For one thing, Jeff Francis was really fun to watch. He can really pitch. He has an advanced feel, and pitchability, and he’s composed enough to pitch backwards on fastball counts. His command is excellent. The other guys in their rotation have plus-plus stuff–they have great arms and great arm-action. They’re guys who rely primarily on aggressiveness and strikeout ability. And I was really impressed with their closer, Manny Corpas.
DL: What impressed you about Corpas?
RB: His stuff just jumps out at you. He has electricity in his arm, and he can make that electricity play. As a scout, you’ll see guys light up a radar gun and your eyebrows will raise, but then you need to step back and home in on the other factors, like his delivery and tempo. Corpas seems to know how to slow himself down into a rhythm where he can make the ball explode. Some power pitchers have a lot of effort to their delivery and rush to the plate, but he has a good flow. He has a manageable pace to his delivery.
DL: How were the Rockies pitchers working hitters?
RB: What rings true for me is how they were throwing quality pitcher’s pitches early in the count. They weren’t throwing get-it-over strikes to get ahead; they were throwing well-spotted strikes. They were also showing an ability to pitch backwards at times. One thing the Rockies did, besides making every play possible on defense, was command their pitches very well.
DL: Did you see the same approach against both Philadelphia and your Diamondbacks?
RB: Pretty much, although the Phillies’ hitters have a more aggressive approach. For instance, while the Rockies have been more situational in their at-bats, the Phillies will attack at-bats aggressively, early on. They’re more along the lines of, “Here we are; it’s a knock-down, drag-out fight, so let’s go.” They’re a team that will cripple mistakes, which will make pitchers nibble.
DL: In a nutshell, how would you describe what the Rockies are doing offensively?
RB: Right now, they’re doing everything well. They have very much a team approach, and you can see that it’s purposeful. What that tells me is that the hitting coach is very involved and the players are buying into the approach. When that happens–when that togetherness is there–you’re going to be a tough team to beat if you’re executing, and they’re doing that.
DL: How would you assess their hitting approach?
RB: What they’re primarily doing is playing smart, situational offense. There are times when they’re being aggressive, and times where they are being patient, and the situation is dictating that. With no one on base they’re making the pitcher work, trying to drive up his pitch count. We definitely saw that when we threw Brandon Webb. However, with guys in scoring position they’re being more aggressive; they’re not letting hittable pitches go by to see what a pitcher has if they have a chance to drive someone in. They’re showing conviction, and everyone seems to be on the same page with that. I could also see the mechanics of their hitters, trying to hit behind runners when the situation dictated they do that. I could see a team approach, with everyone looking selfless and in rhythm with what they wanted to do.
DL: Did you see the Coors Field park effect having any influence on their approach?
RB: My impression was that, home or on the road, it didn’t matter. And I think that’s a critical factor. Their swings didn’t change; they didn’t try to manufacture any carry and loft like you’ll see some hitters do in that kind of environment. They were beyond that, just staying with their normal strokes, trying to drive the ball with backspin.
DL: Who were the best breaking ball hitters you saw in the Colorado lineup?
RB: Matt Holiday was one, despite the fact that he craves fastballs, like most aggressive hitters. When I saw him late in the season, he was simply the best hitter in baseball. He’s aggressive, but he also goes up there with a plan and has very good plate recognition. That’s a dangerous combination, especially when you’re grooving the way he was. He’s in that Vladimir Guerrero plane where he can square up pitches that aren’t even in the zone, including breaking balls. Brad Hawpe is a good breaking ball hitter, too. Like a lot of left-handed hitters, he likes low pitches, and he can put good swings on balls breaking down. Kaz Matsui looked very good against changeups; he did a fabulous job of staying behind them, and keeping his hands back. He’s a little like Ichiro in that he kind of drags his body forward as the ball is being delivered, but his hands and his head stay centered. It’s a good weight shift, not unlike what you used to see with guys like Boggs and Brett. Their heads would move forward, but with center and balance so that they stayed in a good hitting position.
RB: Advancing those guys, and the team as a whole, we felt like we had a really good plan that we could put to use, but ultimately the credit has to go to the execution of the pitchers. And because we’re in the same division, our players already knew the Rockies pretty well. Sometimes it’s a matter of catching a guy at the right time, or catching him at the wrong time. A hitter may drive a mistake, or he may pop up the same pitch. Helton and Tulowitzki are good hitters, and we were probably fortunate that they missed a few pitches. On the other hand, Yorvit Torrealba seemed to take advantage whenever he got a pitch he could hit. That’s the way the game works sometimes, regardless of your preparation.
DL: Having followed the Rockies in their series against the Phillies, did they do anything that surprised you in the NLCS?
RB: They really didn’t. They’ve looked like pretty much the same team throughout. They were very opportunistic, and they were very well-rounded in all aspects of the game. It goes back to what I was saying about situational baseball. They were very sound, and even when they weren’t executing perfectly, they were consistent with their approach. When I look at the Rockies in each of the past two series, the one thing I can identify is that they didn’t get outside of themselves. There’s a tendency for players to get a little tight and try to do too much in an important series, but they didn’t do that. They just played to the moment, and they played well.