We hear it every year. Whether you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Gryzzlbox or reading one of those things that has the coupons and comics in it, you will see some variation of the following sentence:
“Team X was in town to scout Player Y’s last start.”
This of course leads to widespread panic/joy among fans, wondering what their respective team is going to give up to acquire Player Y, or vice versa. Even the most innocuous report of a team scout seeing a player – and so often they were scheduled to be there, anyway – can cause entire fan bases to lose their minds, and we love it.
And of course, this got me curious. For those rare occasions where a scout is actually there for the specific goal of scouting a particular player, what are they looking for? To help answer the question, I asked a long-time National League scout (who has also operated as a crosschecker) what he looks for when he’s scouting a pitcher who could be available before the July 31 deadline.
Confirmation: “We usually have at least one, usually more, reports on a guy that we’re looking to make a move for in that year, and that’s generally what we go with. Track-record is important but we’re acquiring a guy to help us now.
“What I’m doing is making sure that report matches up with what I see. Is the curveball still plus? Is the changeup a pitch he can throw for strikes? Is there run to the fastball? That’s really the biggest thing I’m looking for – is the information that we have on the player accurate and we can feel comfortable based on multiple looks. Sometimes he looks better, and that’s great, and sometimes it’s worse and we have to have discussions. Usually though it’s inline, we just have to make sure because of how much is on the line.”
Health: “You really can’t know for sure if a pitcher is healthy, but there are signs. The obvious one is velocity, though I think you can get in trouble with just assuming that if a guy is throwing his usual 90-92 or 94-96 that everything is fine. I look for things mechanically, like if he’s finishing his pitches and taking the same stride. You also look for little things like a guy shaking his arm, but again, these are things that tend to get overrated, too. Ultimately you aren’t going to be the one who decides whether or not a guy is healthy, but, it’s still something I look at.”
Nerves: “Let’s not kid ourselves, these guys know that they are on the block, and that they are going to be watched more intensely than they ever have been watched before. Usually, they’re coming from a club that’s out of contention and hasn’t played a meaningful game for months, and they’re going to be joining a team that’s competing for a chance to go to the postseason. Obviously, that can be pretty nerve wracking for a player, particularly one that doesn’t have any postseason experience. If he’s nervous about being watched now, how are the nerves going to be when he has to pitch game six in the NLCS? When I say nervous, I mean is he nibbling, is the command way off, is he taking more time between pitches than normal, that sort of thing. Obviously the stuff matters more and you hope that your locker room can help him get settled in, but if I’m going to make a recommendation on a player, it’s sure nice to know that he’s going to be able to handle the situation, though I guess you never really do truly know.”
What I get from that is that it’s essentially a normal day at the office, with a few added components for good measure, and with the report being weighted more because of the proximity.
And speaking of proximity, another piece of the puzzle I’ve always been curious about was just how much a single start can affect a pitcher’s trade value. That curiosity was piqued even more when Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts in what very well could be his final start as a member of the Phillies. Again, rather than wonder, I decided to ask a few scouts what they thought.
AL Central Scout — “He would have to be really special, or really [poor] for me to say that a single start can make a huge difference. If you had asked me this question in the days before the technology boom, I’d say yes, but now with all the information we have and the ability to use the analytics and different numbers, it’s going to be about the body of work. There are exceptions to these rules based on all the things we talked about, but for the most part, the overall effort of the season and what we’ve seen in the past few months means a lot more than the one start.”
AL East Scout – “Very little. I think what can happen is if a guy struggles, maybe that lowers his cost slightly, and if he’s dominant then maybe that C prospect turns into a B- or B. Really though the reason we scout players all year is because it gives us a better understanding of who the player is. You hear people use the term small sample size all the time. How foolish would it be to mortgage our future based on one single outing?
NL East Scout – “Sort of. I mean you really need things to line up but if you see a guy pitch great against a good lineup, then yeah, I think that’s something you have to take into consideration. And of course, if you see a guy struggle you can’t help but think that this guy could be on our team and be doing that in games that matter. Ultimately though it’s not about that one start, it’s about what you think he can give your club over these final two months.”
That’s not exactly the most conclusive group of answers, which isn’t all that surprising. All four scouts used some variation of “body of work,” and ultimately it makes sense that that’s what it boils down to. There are exceptions to any rule though, and I cannot help but think that starts like the one Hamels made on Saturday played a major factor in what Philadelphia receives in return for his services – if they end up moving him at all.
Thank you for reading
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