You will be wrong. You will be wrong a lot.
One of my favorite questions to ask scouts (after we have a bit of rapport mind you) is who they've missed on. Those are the interesting stories. You don't need to hear about how I totally thought Miguel Sano would be hitting home runs into the third deck at Target Field. That's not a good story. You don't even need to hear about how I was positive this old-for-the-level, fifth-year senior sign, organizational soldier would definitely get a few seasons of major league at-bats, maybe even help a ball club for a bit. That's a better story, but you don't really care about it.
And as my opening sentence suggests, we have far fewer of those stories anyway, so we end up getting repetitive. And that's a real bore.
As a reader of Prospectus, one of my favorite series was Jason Parks' “What Did I Miss?” Not just because I think it is important to be accountable, but because it gave insight into the puzzle of scouting. It's a good window into how we work and think as evaluators. So I'd like to bring it back.
I don't know for sure yet that I missed on Michael Conforto (hedging already), I thought he'd be a solid-average regular at his peak, and in the near-term probably an upgrade over what the Mets would be forced to run out there when Michael Cuddyer went on the DL in late July, though that was not a high bar at the time (apologies to any members of Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Eric Campbell's family reading this). In 185 plate appearances, he's hit .279/.346/.527 and played an at times spectacular left field. There's nothing in here that screams “regression," either. His walk and strikeout rates are both good. His BABIP is a completely unexceptional .301. He's shown power to all fields and goes up to the plate with a plan. He is comfortable with two strikes. He is comfortable against major league off-speed. Maybe this is all a small sample mirage, but it sure doesn't feel like one so far.
At a minimum it is at least probably safe to say that neither I nor anyone else at this publication (where Michael Conforto was not even in consideration for our midseason Top 50 list) saw this coming. So what did we miss? There are three areas to investigate here.
It's tough to put a 6 hit/6 power on a prospect, any prospect. Even the 10th-overall pick in the draft. That is a monster player at any position in our current offensive environment. Now I was pretty confident in 6 power for Conforto. He may not look like a traditional power hitter, but he has huge forearms and manages both to be short to the ball and strong enough to not need extra length to generate his plus raw. Or if you want to be less technical, you can fall back on the old scouting shibboleth: “It just sounds different off the bat.” Then the ball goes out easy to the deepest part of Binghamton's park, and you just check the box next to 60.
It's harder to see everything you need to see for 6 hit in a ten at-bat look. When I saw him in June shortly after his promotion to the Eastern League, you could see him still adjusting to Double-A arms. He was geared up in hitter's counts expecting a 1-0 or 2-1 fastball that inevitably would have followed in the Florida State or Penn Leagues. But Double-A arms will throw off-speed in hitter's counts, and they can start them in the zone. Several times in this look I saw him look bad trying to hit changeups at his ankles 400 feet. That's something that jumps out at you as an evaluator and goes into the notebook underlined in red: an adjustment that has to be made!
In every other respect, Conforto was incredibly impressive for the level. He took major-league quality at-bats. He had a good eye for off-speed when he was behind, and would foul it off when it was close. He altered his approach based on the count and game state. He was head and shoulders the best player on the field, but he swung at a few bad 2-1 off-speed pitches. That means major league off-speed would eat him a bit, right? Of course, major league arms tested him with breaking balls and changeups about a week into his call up, once he proved he could handle major league fastballs. And he did struggle with them. For about a week. He made the adjustment, and I should have seen that all the other evidence on the field pointed towards him doing just that.
How do we evaluate corner outfield defense? What does a good defensive corner outfielder in the majors look like? I refer to aesthetics here more than metrics. I think to us they probably look like center fielders in both the spectacular and the mundane. We know that Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward probably don't have enough pure closing speed to roam center field, but their jumps, routes, and highlight reels don't look all that different in form from Carlos Gomez, Kevin Kiermaier, and Juan Lagares. They could probably “play center once a week.” Or maybe they would be “fringy in center, but plus in a corner.”
Now what does an average corner outfielder look like?
I was once talking with a scout about catching. He was a minor league catcher himself and still did some instructional work. He wasn't a huge fan of pop time tyranny. He told me that all he wanted from his guys was an accurate 2.1. The logic being that the Billy Hamiltons of the world will always get theirs. And yes, even the merely good basestealers might be able to pick their spot against you or your pitcher, but you give yourself a shot at pretty much anybody else.
Conforto gives you an accurate 2.1 almost every time. He gets the ball out quickly and where it needs to be one on easy hop.
His routes in left aren't always ideal, but he is more athletic than he looks, and his first step is usually in the right direction. He is very smooth moving laterally and comfortable navigating foul ground. He looks pretty good in the spectacular too.
All of the above became fairly obvious within a few weeks of major league playing time. Or put another way, all of the above became fairly obvious to me within a few additional weeks of looks. I figured Conforto would be an average left fielder, but a lot of that amounted to “well, he didn't fall down out there.” Functionally I based my grade on one play where he looked good moving towards the foul line for a waist-high catch, and one w here he roamed into left-center on a single and made a good, but not particularly hurried throw to the third baseman to hold a runner at second who probably had no designs on taking an extra base. Every other ball hit to him in the series was a can of corn, but you have to make a call.
“Polished college bat” and “quick to the majors” are far from pejoratives, but they can color your analysis of a player. There is an implication there: “not likely to get that much better.” When you don't think there is much to project, and boy do we love wishcasting, your eye may get drawn to what a player's flaws are right now, as in my off-speed pitch example above. “Left-field only” is more of a pejorative, even if you liked his glove there. That puts a lot of pressure on the bat.
And yeah, Moneyball is over a decade old now. “We're not selling jeans here” isn't even fresh enough to be a cliché at this point. But Conforto doesn't really look like all the other big names in this breakout rookie class. Would we have been able to buy into a star projection more if he looked better in a pair of Ewok underoos? Conforto is a good athlete, but he looks like a winger on your college intramural soccer team that takes it a little too seriously, and that won't really inspire the vaguely uncomfortable purple prose that we are guilty of from time to time.
So what did we miss?
The best summary I can come up with is that we were too beholden to the tools profile with Conforto. Now that is what we are supposed to do. Evaluate the tools. Put a grade on them. Make a call. You might think the tools will play up, but it is tough to be confident in that over a long weekend, and it's impossible to be sure of it until you see it against major league competition.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now