"(A box score) doesn't tell how big you are, what church you attend, what color you are, or how your father voted in the last election. It just tells what kind of baseball player you were on that particular day." –Branch Rickey
If only it were still that simple. Back when Rickey was making personnel decisions for major-league organizations, and those last three traits were actually factors in how people were judged, it was a lot easier to evaluate a ballplayer without knowing too much about him. But with phones and tablets now as essential to the scouting toolbox as a stopwatch, with three different prospect rankings appearing on players’ Baseball-Reference pages, with signing bonuses public (and publicy debated), with the conversation about some players’ draft stock now rivaling the lifespan and intrigue of a presidential primary, that’s no longer the case.
Colin Moran is not a bad baseball player. The University of North Carolina doesn’t recruit bad baseball players. Bad baseball players don’t get popped sixth overall in the major-league draft. And bad baseball players don’t hit .296 between High- and Double-A, as Moran did in 2014, his first full year among the professional ranks.
Yet to hear many evaluators talk—to hear me at certain points during this season—you might think Moran is just terrible. Throughout a season of sitting behind home plate, I saw no player inspire more head shakes, shoulder shrugs and eye rolling than Moran. "How was this guy the sixth-best amateur player in the country last year,” I heard from more than one scout. I wasn't terribly kind in my initial write-up of Moran, saying "I came away feeling very underwhelmed with the player."
In retrospect, this attitude was fundamentally incorrect. My write-up serves as a lesson in context, one that is necessary if we’re to fully understand prospects and the way we talk about them. After all, to be underwhelmed requires by definition an initial expectation level against which to fall short. When I called Moran “underwhelming,” what I really meant was that he was not as good as my preconceived notion of what he might be. I was hardly alone in this regard. But it makes it difficult to produce an unbiased evaluation.
Most scouts prefer to look at a player as though he’s performing on a blank canvas, without the context of things like draft status, age, and background. In the internet era, with all of the information we have at our disposal, that becomes virtually impossible once players get to full-season leagues.
Roger Dean Stadium, home to the Jupiter Hammerheads, for whom Moran began the year, was my home scouting park this season. As scouts would come and go on their rounds throughout the minor leagues, we would talk in the press box before games. "Doesn't look like there's much to see on this Jupiter team,” they’d say upon finding out I covered the Florida State League, “but at least I'll get my first look at the Moran kid." They knew his background. They had certain expectations before ever laying eyes on him.
So did I. Before my first look at Moran this season, I already knew about his background, about his profile as a player, and about his draft status. I couldn’t unlearn that information as the evaluation process began, and try as I might, it was difficult to find that blank canvas.
It's not hard to see the skills that generated interest in Moran when he was an amateur. His ability to put the barrel of the bat on the center of the baseball immediately pops as a plus tool, one that stands out among his minor-league competition despite his being young for his levels. That hit tool is the main reason he was drafted where he was: Many, many prospects have come and gone, fading away in spite of physical gifts that far surpass those of Moran, all because of their inability to do exactly what Moran does best—hit a baseball.
Then why is there so much disappointment surrounding Moran? Why is a guy with a plus hit tool underwhelming scouts?
The answer is twofold, partly the challenge of finding a projectable profile for a player and partly the challenge of overlooking the expectations that come with a $3.5 million signing bonus. More than one scout mentioned his bonus to me after seeing him, as in: "They gave him how much?"
While Moran can hit a baseball, power is not only expected but required for a corner infielder. Unfortunately, Moran does not drive the ball consistently or with any real authority, nor does he project to do so down the road. He’s got some size to him, but he’s not imposing, leaving him with virtually with none of the variables needed to generate power as a hitter. He has strong wrists that allow him to shoot the ball into the gaps or down the line past the outfielders, even when a pitch fools him, but that ability leads more to doubles than home runs. He simply doesn’t project to have even average over-the-fence power at the major-league level. There are plenty of prospects throughout the game who project to hit well but without power, but not many of them were selected as high as Moran.
He also lacks a patient approach at the plate, partly due to his ability to hit most of what is being thrown at him. The result is poor contact, many times on pitches he would be better served to take. Lastly, he looked incredibly uncomfortable against left-handed pitching, losing all patience at the plate and struggling with pitch recognition. Most at-bats against lefties ended with Moran swinging at the first fastball he was thrown, perhaps in fear of having to see something that moved later in the at-bat.
Without either elite on-base skills or some kind of power production, Moran will struggle to find regular at-bats at the major-league level. He’s a third baseman by definition only, and already demonstrates below-average range at just 21 years old. One scout referred to it as “the definition of fall-down range” during a game. At best, he’ll catch what he gets to, but he will be a below-average defender at the hot corner, and the move to first base will come sooner rather than later. Even at third base, his power production would be below average. At first base, it will be unacceptably low.
This isn’t a glowing scouting report. Rephrase some of it, though, and it’s strong enough to project a major leaguer: A plus hit tool, even when paired with little else, typically gets a prospect to the majors, leaving everything else to be figured out once he is there. Why then, did one scout ask me if I thought he'd even get to the majors?
Context. This scout was prepared to submit a report to his club writing Moran off as a major leaguer in any capacity, based simply on the disappointment he felt watching him. We were both susceptible to talking down a future major leaguer, misrepresenting what Moran can do, because of what he can’t do as a sixth overall pick. Draft status goes a long way, but so should hitting .300.
This is a tolerable annoyance when it affects prospect rankings. It’s a low-stakes bother when a bad report affects your fantasy team. But when scouts are letting it affect their judgment of a player, and as a result sway the decisions made by their superiors, we have a different set of issues altogether.
Perhaps the problem is with our expectations of a high draft pick. There have been 50 players selected sixth overall, with 36 of them (72 percent) making it to the majors. They are listed below, in order of career bWAR:
|1979||Cardinals||Andy Van Slyke||41.2||HS|
|2000||Devil Rays||Rocco Baldelli||10.2||HS|
|2005||Blue Jays||Ricky Romero||9.7||4Yr|
|1970||White Sox||Lee Richard||-1.3||4Yr|
Any collection of players that’s led by Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter is bound to end with unrealistic expectations, but the reality is that, of these 36 players, the mean career bWAR was 14.2 wins. Adding in the 10 drafted sixth overall who are out of the game without a MLB appearance, and 23 of the 46 had a WAR of zero or less than zero.
Which brings us back to finding a profile for a player and the issue with expectations. Where does a poor defensive player with limited power play, even if he can hit .300? The answer is either on a second-division team or in a limited role. In the case of Moran, who I believe will struggle to hit lefties, he projects best as a platoon bat or strong pinch-hitter. If he plays every day, he’ll accumulate some numbers because of his ability to but the barrel on the ball, but he’ll be a second-division regular—likely somewhere between Garrett Jones and James Loney.
Loney has a career bWAR of 12.6 wins and counting, while Jones is at 3.5 wins. That’s not the return the Marlins were hoping for when they drafted Moran, and it might not be what the Astros imagined for him when they acquired him in trade this summer, but it would put him in the upper half of no. 6 picks.
That wouldn’t be a bad profile for most minor leaguers. Projecting a player to eventually be a major leaguer, to have the one plus tool that lets him to carve out a big-league career, is a better scenario than what I assigned to most of the players I saw this year. If Moran had been a fifth round pick or, better yet, if I didn’t know a thing about him, I’d write up a report that would end with something like this: “I’m not sure where Moran will play down the road, but he features a plus hit tool and that alone should allow him to have a big-league career.” That’s a pretty positive ending to a scouting report for most players. Instead, his report plays as a splash of cold water, focusing on what he can’t do rather than what he can. It’s not fair, but it’s also part of the burden that comes with a $3.5 million signing bonus.
It’s impossible for the scouting industry to ignore this information, but it’s important to be aware of the bias it creates. There is a real danger of knowing too much about a player before evaluating him. I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed with what I saw from such a recent high draft pick, but it was important not to write him off because of my predetermined expectations. Colin Moran is still a good baseball player. It’s just a matter of pinpointing what he can do instead of harping only on what he can’t, and then figuring out how it works in a major-league setting.