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06/09/09 5:13 PM ET
New tech helps clubs spot talent in Draft
Video, stats, info sharing supplement traditional scouting
By Tom Singer and Lisa Winston / MLB.com
For Major League armies of scouts and player-development executives prospecting for mother lodes of talent, the landscape for evaluating players has shifted seismically in the last 15 years. Video editing becomes a keyhole into the future. Information travels at warp speed. Communication has gone digital and cyber. Then, of course, there are sabermetrics. But have all the refinements in the process made it more reliable -- or merely more interesting? A look into the time capsule -- the First-Year Player Drafts of 1994-95 and 2004-05 -- suggests that while the percentage of first-rounders who make it to the big leagues is roughly the same at just under 70 percent, it appears that clubs have been better able to zero in on the elite talent. The number of "impact" first-rounders has jumped from eight in 1994-95 to 12 in 2004-05, with at least four others on the cusp of joining that group. Of the 28 first-round picks in 1994, 21 made it to the big leagues, among them a core of impact players including Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek, taken back-to-back-to-back with picks 12-14. In 1995, the big-league "graduation" rate declined 75 to 64 percent (18 of 28), while the high-end remained lofty (Roy Halladay, Kerry Wood, Todd Helton, Matt Morris, Geoff Jenkins). All told, 39 of 56 (69.6%) of first-round picks from the 1994-95 drafts made it to the big leagues. By comparison, 41 of 60 (68.3%) first-rounders from a decade later (2004-05) have made it to the Majors, roughly the same hit percentage. But thanks largely to the unbelievable '05 Draft, the number of "impact" players jumped significantly. Of the 30 first-rounders in the 2004 Draft, 19 have appeared in the Major Leagues. They include three who can be called impact players: Pitchers Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver and shortstop Stephen Drew. The 2005 Draft -- which could now be subtitled "Sudden Impact" -- included Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Jay Bruce, Troy Tulowitzki, Alex Gordon and Clay Buchholz, with three Marlins (Sean West, Chris Volstad and Cameron Maybin) and Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus just now beginning to make their mark. Given the relatively small sample size of comparing a pair of drafts 10 years apart, it is wise to remember that talent pools change from year-to-year and that the 2005 Draft will likely go down as one of the most talent-laden drafts of all time. But it certainly seems as if teams are swinging and missing far less on the elite prospects, and that they are getting to the big leagues quickly. Already, three first-rounders -- White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham (No. 8 overall) and relievers Ryan Perry of Detroit (No. 21) and Daniel Schlereth of Arizona (No. 26) -- from last year's Draft have made it to the Majors this season. "Scientific data ... I can say we have not done that, and we probably should go back and look," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, addressing the question of how quickly these kids are making it to the big leagues. "But anecdotally, it sure seems that way. ... I don't know if it's an advent of the Futures Game, the Arizona Fall League, the year-round baseball and travel ball that kids are playing before we get them ... but a lot of kids are making contributions at very early ages. So I think anecdotally, yes, kids are coming up more quickly than in the past. "I just think when you get fantastic facilities at the Minor League levels, you have awesome college programs, you have the year-round baseball that so many of these kids are playing now, I think that these kids are better equipped to come up quickly now and it's kind of expected now, because of the kind of investment that clubs are putting into players, such numbers that they want a return on that investment now maybe more quickly than they did before. There was a time when a player could season, he could marinate in the Minor Leagues but now there's a desire to have them come up a lot sooner." And it certainly helps that the clubs know these players before they even select them better than they ever have before. "There are virtually no players that we don't see," Solomon said. "If they're draft-eligible, we see them all. In fact, we're seeing them even before they reach that level. Our scouting bureau and the scouting staffs on a lot of Major League teams are so extensive and they do so much scouting and they can now look at tendencies that make it so that it's not as much of a crapshoot as it used to be. "I mean, the crystal ball theory -- people used to always think we were crystal-balling out here -- but these scouts have really taken it to another level. And their ability to take talented kids who will have success at the Major Leagues is much more attuned and sophisticated now, and I think they've done a fantastic job." The reason it has gotten better? While scouting is still scouting, the tools and information with which the scouts can scout has improved, dramatically. "The basic foundation for evaluating players hasn't changed," said Frank Marcos, director of the Major League Scouting Bureau. "We're still evaluating the tools, the mechanics, the skills they need to show to be considered prospects. "Technology has changed, allowing us to be quicker with information-sharing among others," Marcos added. "Video has just gone through the ceiling as far as opportunities to help evaluate the players. But there are still the basic things that won't change." Marcos alluded to those basics -- "The arm action, the delivery, how he swings the bat, how he throws the ball." -- now supplemented by other, newer tools. Mickey White, a Marlins scout, called one such neo-instrument, sabermetrics, "another facet of evaluation." "I think everything is important," White said. "Am I going to make a decision based completely on sabermetrics? Probably not, but I would not cast that out and say it doesn't mean anything, because it does. "But there are people who are very good sabermetricians that have no people skills and there are scouts who have no sabremetric skills. As an organization, it's difficult to go 100 percent either way." When you get into the evolution of scouting and projections, and their roles in shortening the odds, you're talking Billy Beane and "Moneyball." The Oakland general manager has led the sabermetrics colony. So how have the A's themselves drafted since 1998, Beane's first year at the controls? Of their 15 first-round picks, seven have made the big leagues (46.6%) - well below the league average - although he has had considerably more success in the sandwich round, with seven of those 10 picks making it to The Show. But here's the Beane irony, considering much of the focus on his methodology falls on on-base percentage: His biggest successes have been pitchers, a parade of Mark Mulder (1998), Barry Zito (1999), Jeremy Bonderman (2001) and Huston Street (2004). The A's have also drafted well in position players -- Mark Teahen and Nick Swisher, both in 2002 -- just not as well. In many cases, the new technologies probably serve as a support system for the in-the-trenches scouts. With hard facts or concrete images, sabermetrics or video can confirm the bird dog's perception. As San Diego Padres scout Van Smith said, ""You just can't go on a gut feel, you have to have something to back that up." Increasingly, part of that "something" are statistics and their analysis. Not long ago, they were totally ignored within the evaluation process (a sibling of the philosophy of overlooking Minor League numbers when making promotions). "I'm not saying (involving stats is) a bad thing or a good thing," Marcos said. "It's part of the evaluation though. So you have skill evaluators and you have statistical analysis and you put the two together and you hope you have a better picture of what that player can do." Ways of projecting ceilings for future performance -- the very essence of the scouting gig -- haven't changed, except for the curve being somewhat shortened because of the physical maturity of today's prospects. "The players' physical makeup has changed," Marcos said. "They're bigger, stronger and faster. High school players are physically stronger today than they were in years past because of better weight training, better diets, and they take care of themselves better." An interesting aspect of high-tech tools refining baseball scouting and drafting: The foot soldiers and officers on this front are, for the most part, older gentlemen, not of the cyber generation. But, said the Marlins' Mickey White, there is no conflict: "It's not a battle. It's a combined picture, a mosaic, of all bits of information that are important. But you need to know when it's time to shut the information off and know you have enough to make a decision."