Defense: The Hardest Baseball Tool To Scout
In the South Atlantic League, Rockies gold glove third baseman Nolan Arenado was discussed as a player destined for first base due to a poor defensive baseball tool. At the time, stating the 19-year old would be a defensive asset was tantamount to credibility suicide. Arenado worked to transform his body and develop better footwork at the hot corner. It worked. Same can be said for Evan Gattis of the Braves, Red Sox Xander Bogaerts, Wilmer Flores of the Mets and other prospects expected to slide down the defensive spectrum.
Late last week, Jim Bowden published a piece discussing Yankees prospect packages worthy of a top flight starter for the playoff push. Having seen the lion’s share of them in Charleston, the group is overrated on the whole. On Twitter, I mentioned a Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams and Luis Severino package as a strong starting point. It was immediately met with resistance from @CJWittJr, a member of the Baseball Prospectus prospect team.
To his credit, we both saw similar weaknesses in Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez. For Williams, his level of maturity was brought into question. For Sanchez, it was the potential for him to move off the catcher position to first base, torpedoing his prospect value. It was like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where my own scouting reports were used against me. Ultimately, the difference in opinion was a result of his hard line stance when evaluating defense as a baseball tool.
Doing this for six years has resulted in many swings-and-misses to learn from. Like any other endeavor, one grows more from those than scouting grand slams. When Gattis and Jesus Montero catch Major League games with a poor defensive baseball tool, it’s impossible to dismiss most any catching prospect with 100% certainty — especially a player like Sanchez who is capable of hitting 20-plus home runs annually.
In Major League baseball, only six catchers accomplished the feat in 2013. Overall, offense and defense combine to form a sliding scale. In Gattis’ case, the Braves can deal with so-so defense in exchange for plus offensive production from the position. Sanchez has similar strengths and weaknesses. In fact, the Yankees prospect can spend an additional three years honing his defensive skills in Double-A and be the same age Gattis was when scouting him in the South Atlantic League.
Admittedly a recovering tools whore, this line of thinking was difficult to adopt. Was it even possible to be down on a prospect, yet accept him as a future Major Leaguer and a solid performer to boot? To be a good evaluator, the answer has to be yes, or one is left at the mercy of individual bias.
Equally important is the understanding make up is a major part of the equation as it pertains to defensive projection. A player’s character and work ethic are not easy traits to qualify in a short look. Evaluators assess body language, pre-game effort and overall hustle and work it into the projection. When defensive ability is more of a “gym rat” baseball tool than any other, an understanding of how hard the player will work to improve is key. And this doesn’t even take maturity into consideration.
Experience Changes How Each Baseball Tool Is Evaluated
Back in 2008, my belief was a college playing career, brief time working in baseball and high school coaching experience would make scouting easy. Broad generalizations and definitive statements were acceptable because I didn’t understand how to temper my words, yet still be direct about a player’s future.
Today, having evaluated hundreds of minor league games and speaking with professional scouts has forced a complete change in approach. In becoming a more conservative, prospects who were easy to write off four years ago due to a poor baseball tool or two require more patience now. It’s most evident on defense when weak defensive players in the lower minors not only reach the Major Leagues, but thrive.
3 Jun 2014 / Mike Newman /
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