BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- Now that we've got some experience evaluating arms on players, we're going to go a little deeper by examining a pitcher's delivery. The three things a scout looks for are, in order:
Arm action: Is it loose and easy, or tense, compact or short
Also in the delivery we have three things to look for:
Balance: Self-explanatory, is he off balance or not.
Hand separation: The hand should separate from the glove ideally between the belly button and chest bone, not too low.
Stride foot: It should hit the ground and land flat, slightly closed, making sure not to land on the heel, which forces the body up and locks the knee, cutting short the arm action, or landing on the toe, which can buckle the knee and slow down the arm.
Chest over knee: A pitcher should be over his front leg when he throws. And he should have some hand speed, which is that whipping action before the pitcher lets the ball go.
So that's a lot of things to look for, especially when you consider a pitcher takes about 1.3 seconds to throw the ball. Ah. Throwing the ball. That leads right into our next classroom seminar, which is about the types of pitches thrown. Here's the list:
Fastball: Four seamer: Thrown across four seams of the baseball, spins backward with 12-to-6 rotation (think of the hands of a clock for 12-to-6). Good ones "ride" through the strike zone, so scouts say they have "riding life." To describe the movement, it can be "tailing," which means it comes in on right-handed hitters, or "boring" which means it really "bores" in like a drill. Boring is the stronger word, used to describe more dramatic action in the movement. This is what you see when some guys get jammed inside and the ball hits the handle of the bat sometimes breaking it. An example of a good pitcher with a power fastball would be Roger Clemens.
Two seamer: Thrown over two seams, a good one has "sinking life," which means the movement sinks, or goes down over home plate. A good one from right-handed pitchers tails in on right-handed hitters.
Curveball: Also called a breaking ball, the curveball is thrown over the top so it rotates forward instead of backward like a fastball. The movement can be 3/4 down across the plane, meaning it curves down or "bites," or it can have "sweeping action" across the plate. Good curveballs have a tight rotation, which means it spins fast, and spinning fast is the key to a good break. If the tight rotation isn't there the curve can be "flat," which doesn't grade out as high. "Bite" is a strong word to describe break. So the more velocity and rotation a curve has, the harder it will bite. Darryl Kile and Aaron Sele have great curves.
Slider: This one I had a little trouble with, to tell you the truth. It's thrown hard and "tilts" through the strike zone. Scout Jim Walton says, "You won't see very many real sliders, they are a real gift." But you sure hear that word all the time when referring to pitches. Actually, Walton says pitchers throw more slurves, which are a cross between a slider and a curve. A slurve breaks from the pitcher's hand to the catcher. It's not a pure curve, and it's not a pure slider as it has more velocity and less rotation. If I'm not mistaken, Randy Johnson's slider is so nasty he calls it Mr. Snappy.
Splitter: Split-finger fastball tumbles and breaks down. Pitchers can break the ball either in or out based on which finger they throw it off of, but a lot throw it off both. Curt Schilling is a pitcher who throws a lot of them, and Walton says you don't see a lot of good quality splits in young pitchers.
Knuckle curve: Goes down harder than a normal curve, and is thrown harder. Mike Mussina is considered the master of this pitch.
Change-up: It's not in the official MLSB's final OFP, but we'll explain it anyway. It sinks downward and breaks in zone. It looks like a fastball, but comes slower. Most pitchers throw a circle-change, named because their index finger and thumb form a circle when they throw it. Trevor Hoffman has a change worth writing home about.
So whew! That's a lot of pitches. How can you make sure you see all of them? We get another helpful hint from the scouts: Watch a pitcher warm up with his catcher. Before he throws each pitch, he signals with his glove which pitch he is throwing next. If he holds his glove face down and sweeps it toward the catcher, here comes his fastball. If he points his glove at himself and lets his wrist fall down as the palm remains up, it will be a curve. If he moves his glove across, from side to side it will be a slider. And if he holds the palm of his glove like he's giving the catcher the "stop" sign it will be a change-up.
Before we leave for the Rockies' facility we're given stopwatches and told to time pitchers and hitters. For pitchers, scouts time his delivery to home plate. The watch starts with the pitcher's first movement from his set position and stops when it hits the catcher's glove. The average should be around 1.3 seconds. For hitters the watch is started the moment the bat makes contact with the ball (you have to anticipate the contact), and stops when the player reaches first base. Average times are 4.20 seconds for lefties and 4.3 seconds for righties. We're told the stopwatch is a very valuable tool for a scout and we should run the watch with our left hand, so we can still write with our right hands.
Right before we head out the door to catch our bus to the Rockies' facility, MLSB director Frank Marcos tells us he has some news. I assume it's about Mark McGwire's retirement and continue packing up my stuff. Then he informs us that an American Airlines jet from New York crashed on its way to the Dominican Republic. The room is silent.
It doesn't appear anyone in the room was directly affected by this tragedy, but it still hits close to every single one of us because more than 75 percent of my classmates are from the Dominican, and New York is not only my former home of four years, but the home of my place of employment, as well as the home of many friends and co-workers. One student here, an employee of the Commissioner's Office, was on that same American Airlines flight just two days earlier.
We quietly board the bus and try to think about pitching again. Our assignment today is to evaluate the Cardinals starting pitcher and the Rockies shortstop. To get a sneak peek at our right-handed starter, we utilize another scouting tip and trot over to the bullpen to watch him work up close.
We're told ahead of time that he's only pitching three innings, so we watch him for one inning at each location: Behind home plate where we see his arm action (long, but pushing), angle (low 3/4) and delivery (no windup), as well as his pitch movement (best pitch is slider with some bite, most pitches up in zone); first base where we see his open side and we check for his hand separation (too low); and at third base we look at balance, and his chest coming over his knee, which is doesn't.
Between innings Mr. Arnold chats with Cardinals coach Marty Martinez and explains the scout school is here to learn to evaluate the talent.
"Dominicans have two tools that are automatic," says Martinez, "Everyone can run and throw. But they must go beyond that. They will open your eyes with their speed, but they need to do more."
He must know what he's talking about. A one-time scout, Martinez has signed 25 players, six of whom made it to the big leagues, including a little slugger named Edgar Martinez. But Marty's a coach now, no longer among the scouting ranks. "I have no patience for that," he says, "I need to be on the field!"
Now we focus our attention on the shortstop. This one is a little tougher for me since he looks young, skinny, all arms and legs, isn't a particularly graceful runner and he didn't wow me with his throws. That's what I notice in the field so we wait for him to come up to bat. One pitch, swing, contact, but he's thrown out. So how do you evaluate that. The kid saw one pitch?! We noticed his batting stance was a little off-balance, so now what?
"One ball, that's all you get," says Mr. Arnold. "Sometimes you see a guy walk three times. That's how it is in real life."
After that I take some photos and talk to the other students to see what they've picked up on. It's always helpful to talk to others and share ideas, just like with anything. On my first day here we went to the Cardinals facility and a young boy, whom I later discovered was the batboy, looked over at me and flicked his glove to say hello. I remembered his dark brown eyes when I saw him today and we smiled. He put on some flip-up sunglasses -- which was interesting since it was overcast and raining -- and walked around laughing with the players.
He caught me looking at him a few times but came closer to the backstop where I was standing with a player. I noticed they were gesturing and then realized the boy was deaf -- they were communicating through sign language.
"He's a kid who comes from a very poor family close to our field," said Martinez, who also said the boy was mute. "He was always hanging around so let him be our batboy. It doesn't pay, but we give him some pesos every few weeks. He loves being around baseball. Loves it."
We head back to the bus so we can reconvene and discuss our findings as a group. I realize I didn't get to everything I was supposed to -- the only action my stopwatch saw was when I put it back in my bag -- but I think everything will be OK.
We each compile our scouting reports, which will consist of a physical description, arm delivery, angle and action, strengths and weaknesses. I've found the easiest thing to do is create an outline -- you know, like what your English teacher made you do before you turned in your paper in ninth grade. I write out:
And then go through my notes and put all of my comments under the pertinent category. This helps because once you "file" everything correctly, you can look for redundancies, eliminate them, and then focus on the most important things you want to call out. However, I am forced to make positive comments on the shortstop, so I find a couple of things (made good contact, aggressive) and also praise his penmanship.
After reading our reports aloud in our small group (I don't think I made more than 16 embarrassing errors), we listen to our instructor's evaluation of the player and quickly realize why he's the scout. Everything we saw today, he was able to put into words that made sense, that for the most part, we all agreed upon. After that we submitted our final scouting reports and as a large class discussed the players. Again, it's interesting to see how eerily close the scouts grade the players.
We break for dinner then return to talk about the other players we saw today. I can't believe this is actually a "class" in "school" -- sitting around discussing whose arm we liked and who we couldn't wait to see hit next. If they could have found a way to make trigonometry this much fun.
Tomorrow: We learn to write a free agent report, and then scout two new players at another facility.
Note: Thanks to everyone for sending in your e-mails. I have answered several of you personally, but am going to ask scouts to help answer some more so I can make sure you get the most accurate information and advice. In the next few days look for a Scouting FAQ to be posted that will address many of your questions.
Christine Destefano is executive producer of MLB.com.