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Learning to judge talent
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02/13/2003 4:46 pm ET 
Learning to judge talent

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- Today was our first official day in the classroom, and it led off with introductions of the instructors and students. The experience of the scout instructors here is impressive to say the least, with two scouts having more than 40 years of experience, and several others having at least 20. It's important to remember how much years of experience is valuable to a scout -- remember they're grading players and comparing them against others they have seen, so the more they've evaluated over the years and seen develop -- or perhaps not develop as projected -- the more effective that scout can be.

  Scout School Archive
Day 1: Intro to Scout School
Day 2: So you wanna be a scout
Day 3: Evaluating arm action
Day 4: A closer look at pitching
Day 5: Really liking a player
Day 6: A game of adjustments
Day 7: Refining our reports
Day 8: Reviewing the report
Day 9: One more trip
Day 10: Graduation Day
Scout school recap

I'm in a group led by Rick Arnold, who works for the Major League Scouting Bureau as a pro scout in Southern California. He works the Major Leagues during Spring Training, minor leagues during the regular season and the Dominican Republic and Panama in the winter leagues. Previously he has worked for the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. He has been in the Dominican scouting two weeks prior to scout school starting, so he's familiar with the country's regions and atmosphere.

There are three other students in my group: Alex from Montreal, a former player and coach with the Canadian National team, who is an Angels scout recently assigned to scout in the Dominican; Jose, who scouts for the Cubs here in his native Dominican Republic; and Ron from the Netherlands, who is sponsored by Major League Baseball to be here as MLB tries to expand the game in Europe and start scouting players particularly in that region. (Did you know The Netherlands and Italy field Europe's top two baseball teams? In fact, The Netherlands beat Cuba in these past summer Olympics). I guess we kind of make up a United Nations sort of group, as I'm from the U.S., originally from Washington state, but recently relocating from my home in New York City to Southern California.

Most of the other students -- there are six groups of four -- all have scouting and playing backgrounds. This puts me at a slight disadvantage since I have neither, so I lean forward in my chair, clear some space to write and prepare to take notes on everything.

During today's first session on what scouting is, Don Pries, the former director of the MLSB and former player development director of the Orioles, reminds us that we're here to learn to "paint a better picture of the player you want your team to sign." A scout does this through writing succinct scouting reports based on what he sees on the field.

Ah ... writing scouting reports. We've all heard of them, but what do they consist of? Generally there are five categories on which a player is judged:

  • Hitting ability
  • Hitting with power
  • Running speed
  • Arm strength
  • Fielding

A number between two and eight is then assigned based on the following:

  • 2 - Poor
  • 3 -- Well below average
  • 4 -- Below average
  • 5 -- Average
  • 6 -- Above average
  • 7 -- Well above average
  • 8 -- Outstanding

After watching a player, a number is assigned to each category (also called "tools," which is where the term "five-tool player" comes from), and they're totaled and multiplied by two, giving the player an "Overall Future Potential" number, or OFP #.

Since this is our first day of class, heck, our first hour actually, we're going to dissect each category one at a time. We begin with learning to judge arm strength.

Jim Walton, who has more than 46 years of baseball experience, leads this session and shows us proper arm action and identifies the different delivery angles - overhand, high 3/4, 3/4 delivery, low 3/4, side-arm and submarine.

Proper arm action: From the start of separation or taking the throwing hand out of the glove with the thumb down while in the pivot position,

  • the uninterrupted range of motion of hand, elbow and shoulder extending in a backward arc behind the body
  • starting forward in an elliptical motion with a smooth or fluid flow with no impeding flop, hook (hooking the ball behind the back before unleashing throw), wrap (twisting the wrist over before throwing) or jerk
  • transmitting energy and force through hand and arm with full extension to the ball while in the physical act of throwing

    If a scout sees a flaw in arm action, such as a hook or a player "short-arming" the ball (not extending through the entire backward arc), it doesn't necessarily mean the player doesn't have a strong arm, it just raises a flag that perhaps that player could develop problems with his shoulder or elbow. But it's definitely something that should go in the report.

    After soaking this in Jim tells us we're headed to the Marlins facility today to watch them take infield and play a two-inning scrimmage for us. "We want to see some live arms today," he says as we get ready to board the bus.

    Live arms. We've heard that term in baseball circles, but what does it mean? According to Mr. Walton:

    "Apparent effortless physical action by pitchers and position players when throwing, generating arm speed that causes the ball to jump or accelerate out of the pitcher's hand imparting above average velocity or better. In some cases, it also refers to movement on the pitch. With position players, it relates to velocity and carry on the ball while in flight."

    Our second assignment at the ballpark is to evaluate body types of the center fielder, shortstop and catcher. In filling out a scouting report, there's more to it than evaluating the tools - most scouting reports include sections for physical descriptions, mechanical distinctives, injuries, abilities, weaknesses and a summation. It goes back to what Mr. Pries said at the beginning of the day - it's about "painting a picture" of the player you're evaluating - and that can't be done without properly identifying the body type.

    After driving through acres and acres of tall green sugar cane fields we come to the Marlins facility, which is open today especially for us students, as the Dominican Summer League players usually don't play on Sundays. To this we thank each of them and the Marlins organization for generously displaying their talents for us. The sweetest touch perhaps was the team having white plastic chairs set up for us in three rows right behind home plate by the time we arrived. They were ready to put on a show.

    All of the players were dressed in white pants - some with their black socks high -- and the Marlins trademark teal jerseys. They play catch for several minutes before starting infield practice. We each stay in our small group with our instructor and break out our notepads to start our search for live arms.

    Since the players are taking infield, throwing batted balls from their positions to home plate, we look at each arm. Right away we score points for noticing the left-handed center fielder was short-arming the ball, and the other one was hooking it. Woo-hoo! We have stuff to write down already! But then when you're writing, you're not watching and you miss another kid's throw. Oops. Thirteen seconds into our first evaluation and I'm already playing catch-up.

    With the help from Arnold and the rest of my group we move through each position on the field watching throw after throw. To be honest, it was probably the fastest 15-20 minutes of my life. I have watched infield practice a lot throughout my time, but never with so many things to make notes of all at once. Standing near third base behind the chain-link fence we're closest to the third basemen whom we all discovered were joys to watch. Our group had one rated a bit higher than the other because of what Arnold called his "loose, beautiful arm action. After the first couple of throws we had him at a "5" but raised him to a "6" after seeing him throw some more.

    Another thing we all liked, even through there isn't a category for it, was his evident love of the game. He was constantly talking to his teammates, chattering instruction or encouragement and was ready to play every ball. Fun to watch.

    Now if you scan back to the chart above, you see that a "5" is "average." Remember, that's Major League average, meaning an average throw for a regular Major League player, not average for the level they're playing at now. For a kid who may be just 17 or 18, such as this one, rating him a "6" or above Major League average was really something special.

    In fact, when we got back to the classroom, Pries, whom you'll remember has more than 57(!) years of experience, was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. He was practically bursting as he addressed the students, exclaiming, "We saw a '6' today!" For comparison, Montreal's Vlad Guerrero is considered an "8," while Arnold says Ichiro would be a "7," but I wouldn't disagree with anyone making him an "8."

    The other thing we did at the field was evaluate body type. This is where experience playing, coaching or scouting becomes valuable, as it's helpful to think of Major Leaguers with similar body types. Does he have long arms and legs like Vlad Guerrero? Is he more soft, but with a larger frame like Livan Hernandez? Is he physically mature like Albert Pujols, or does he still have some growing to do like Alfonso Soriano?

    We look at the center fielder and try to make an evaluation of him from 300 feet away. How tall is he? Are those legs really muscular or more fat? Then Arnold lets us in on a little scouting tip - let's move closer to the on-deck circle so we can get a better look when he comes up to bat. Things to look for include facial hair - if he hasn't started growing any, you can tell he's not physically mature yet and still has some growing to do. If he's around 16 and has some big feet, chances are he'll be getting taller. Does he have big hands? That's usually always a good thing. You can also better evaluate his height. Realize that teams and media guides don't always list the accurate height - you can get a better sense standing near a player yourself.

    Seeing him up close changed almost everything. We were able to see his sloped shoulders on his medium frame and realize he has an athletic body. His legs were thick ... solid, and we agree he'll likely have a chance to get bigger and stronger. His hands were HUGE, too. After seeing him up close we're all asked how our opinions changed, and I'm the only one to say I think he's older now than when I saw him at 300 feet away.

    After a few seconds of silence Arnold politely tells me that's not necessarily how he evaluated the player. OH NO, I FAILED BODY TYPES 101.

    Later when we get back to the classroom I'm asked for my reasoning, so I explain that up close he looked so much bigger than what I thought I saw in the field, so I assumed he had to be older than what I originally thought. Whew. I think I made my point ... but this is where I think experience comes in handy.

    Next, Walton leads a session on the meaning behind the rating system (2-8). Each instructor today was able to assign each arm a number after a matter of throws ("that's a '5,' that one's a '4'"), and as spooky as it sounds, all of the scouts were, for the most part, in agreement on each player we saw.

    You know how the Oscars come around and everyone rates their favorite dress that someone wore? Or maybe even rates the best movie? You can have a group of five or 20 people and each will have a different opinion. In scouting, I've learned the evaluations and ratings vary a little, but not that much. "You may be off by one point sometimes, but you're never off by two," said Arnold.

    Tomorrow: We learn more about using the formula for judgement, completing free agent reports, and evaluating pitching as we visit the facility of the Colorado Rockies.

    Christine Destefano is executive producer of

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