Scout's Honor Premium Interview: Mike Arbuckle

With the success the Braves have had over the last fifteen years, many other clubs have come calling to take some of the front office talent. Mike Arbuckle is a former Braves Scout that took his knowledge learned in Atlanta to another organization. As a preview to his new book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," Bill Shanks talks with Arbuckle about his days with Atlanta and its influence on his career.

Mike Arbuckle began scouting with Phillies in 1979. He was with the Braves from 1980 through the 1992 season. Mike was a Midwest Scout from 1980-1987, then a Central Regional Crosschecker from 1988-1990, and a National Crosschecker 1991-92. Named Phillies Director of Scouting in October of 1992. Then on December 1, 2000 his role expanded to also lead the Phillies Player Development Department. In of October 2001 he was also named Assistant General Manager, Scouting and Player Development.

SHANKS: Tell me what the Braves were like when you first got here in 1980?

ARBUCKLE: I remember when I first came – our system – I think we had a lot of kids that were maybe not real athletic, somewhat bad bodied kids that we were banking on the fact that they would hit. I think that's what Billy Beane and some of this stuff is today. Because of the computer, it has allowed us to dig much more into statistical analysis on the players to determine who those guys are. But the reality is when I look at the clubs doing that today, the Toronto's, the Boston's, the Oakland's, I'm seeing a lot more bad-bodied, non-athletic, non-overall tooled players who clubs are banking on to bat. What I think we were doing that in Atlanta years before and over time and figured out it wasn't working. Because if a guy doesn't hit, and evaluating hitters is the one of the toughest, I think, parts of scouting, so if a guy doesn't hit you basically have nothing. So with the change in philosophy, and I think the change in philosophy coincided when Coxie came back as the GM. I think at about that time is when we changed that approach and started looking for more athletic, projectable type players. In most cases, those tended to be the high school player rather than the college guy.

SHANKS: Was part of that previous philosophy based on the feeling that pitchers could never be truly successful in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium?

ARBUCKLE: No question. I think that was a factor. Another factor that I think went into it was the fact that Ted Turner – if you're going to go out and sign all of these high ceiling high school guys, your budget better increase. Because the high school player with good college options cost you more money than a comparable college junior would in a given round. We were given leeway – and I wasn't privy to those conversations – but if you talk to Paul Snyder he was given the leeway from a financial standpoint that Ted Turner made the money available that if we wanted to go ahead in the tenth or twelfth round and take that high ceiling high school kid and overpay for the round, we would do that. So I think it was a combination of realizing that it was going to take more than just bats to match that park, but there had to be a change in philosophy that we're going to spend money down below to build this foundation long term. So I think those two things together helped bring about the metamorphous that occurred. The result was you ended up with a whole lot of International players the last few years they've done well with the Andruw Joneses, but that's a classic example of a young high ceiling, tooled player that when you sign him he's not nearly as polished as that college junior would be, but you look at him, a George Lombard would be another classic example. Those are the types of players. Millwood would probably have fallen in – he was taken after I left – but I would envision him as being that same type of pitcher. He probably was an overpayment for the round he was selected in as a high school kid I would guess. So you can go through and player after player they all fit the same mold of being – it may have been signability issues. Jason Schmidt we took about fifth round. Again a kid out of the Northwest – when you looked at him at the time you would see a crude, unpolished kid but you saw again going back to the philosophy of body type, arm action, and delivery and ingredients that would allow you project that yea, this guy has got a good ceiling eventually if we're patient with him. I think just about every selection since then kind of folds into that same mold – and I think Roy Clark and the guys are still doing the same thing.

SHANKS: When Cox came back from Toronto, was there an influence from what he had learned in Toronto from Pat Gillick?

ARBUCKLE: Yeah you know I think at the time I was an area scout at the time and wasn't smart enough to have a feeling cause I didn't see the big picture enough yet. As a scout in the field I was trained, I listened to what I was told, here's what we're looking for and what have you and I worked accordingly. But looking back at the thing now in hindsight and now having years being involved on the administrative end and so on, I don't think there's any question that Coxie had to have taken a look at Toronto's system and realized he was seeing all these athletic, well-bodied, tooled athletes. And I think it had to have a major influence on his thought process. When he came back he helped to move us in that direction. I've kind of taken the same approach in my years here because I was raised in that system obviously.

SHANKS: Tell me more about what you've tried to do since you took over in Phily?

ARBUCKLE: I think realistically we knew even when fans and media were getting really impatient there in the late 80's. We felt confident within the system because my last two or three years there I would tour the system and see all the players and evaluate and so on. And I think all of us within our system thought we were on the verge of being pretty good. In reality obviously we were. Basically when I left there and came here, I came into a similar situation here. We were drafting polished college players when I got here. When I came to our first spring training here in 93, my first thoughts were kinda, "Oh my God." Again, not very athletic, banking on the bat, a lot of them kind of thick bodied stocky kids with no projection physically. Any projection was going to be out, not up. So when I came in we had to re-establish a whole philosophy here of what we wanted to do. That took time because our development system was accustomed to the polished college player. So it took time to educate and re-train development guys that "no guys you've got to be more patient."

SHANKS: Did you get any resistance from Upper Management to go this route?

ARBUCKLE: No I didn't because I think they realized, Bill Giles and Lee Thomas, that what we'd been doing wasn't working well. The system was not rated to be very good at all. Lee was finding it hard to make deals because we didn't have anything people wanted.

SHANKS: What was the percentage as far as drafting college to high school?

ARBUCKLE: Oh it was probably 80/20 or 90/10 college. It was very high. Very high. And there was basically to compound it we had no Latin Program. So essentially we were with no Latin Program in place.

SHANKS: How much does it have to do with having complete confidence in your development system to carry out your philosophies?

ARBUCKLE: No question that's huge. That's huge. We simplified the situation here because I do both which Paul (Snyder) did for many years. In reality I don't think I'm speaking out of school when Hank ran the development side it was really Paul. So I think that is a very significant factor that everybody has to be on the same page and many organizations there is that natural rivalry between the two departments and I think you have to somehow eliminate it whether it's by one guy running both or having the type relationship – my relationship here when I came I was the scouting director only and Del Unser had the minor league side. Well, Del and I had the type of relationship personally that if I had an issue with the way a guy was being handled, I could always go to Del and we could talk about it. So I think somehow you have to have a relationship that is such that both of those departments work hand in hand. If you don't, then it doesn't really matter what your philosophy is for drafting and signing, you're going to have problems.

SHANKS: Tell me about Paul Snyder.

ARBUCKLE: That's the one thing that has gone unnoticed (when looking at the Braves' success). I don't know if people outside that organization truly realize how valuable Paul Snyder has been. It's part of an innate ability that he has, his personality what have you. I never saw Paul ever get mad and yell at anybody. Ever. If he got ticked off at you about something, he would just get silent for a little bit. That was one of those things that you wanted to achieve so badly because he went out of his way to protect his people and take care of his people so much that if he got silent for a minute, you knew right away "Oh shit. I got to change directions here and I will." It's really incredible to me the way that he has been able all these years to pull those two departments together. I can think back as a young naïve guy I assumed it was like that everywhere, and then the longer you work in this business and hear the horror stories, you realize it's not. But all the years that I was there the thought that scouts and development guys would disagree or be on a different page never entered my mind. Everybody functioned so well together – they were friends. I got to a point once I started crosschecking and in the summers would have a chance to go see our clubs play, I really looked forward to that because I looked forward to seeing Grady Little in Greenville or whoever. We had that type of relationship. Everybody loved working together.

SHANKS: And that was Paul?

ARBUCKLE: That was Paul. Another factor that Paul has that I think is unique in our business: Paul Snyder has zero ego. Zero. Obviously I've got to give Bobby credit too cause I think he allowed Paul – when Bobby came back – here run these departments. He let Paul pretty much have free rein to go about doing it. So I think Bobby deserves tremendous credit too. And of course when Chuck (LaMar) came in and John (Schuerholz) came in, I got to give them credit for continuing – I think the foundation was very good and was in place when John came in. And then John has just taken it and expanded upon it and he and Chuck did a good job in furthering the thing. But I think the roots of the thing were truly established by Bobby when he came back. I think Paul was the ideal man to take it and run with it and he did.

SHANKS: Did it help that when Bobby came back Ted said, "OK guys I'm outta here."

ARBUCKLE: Yea I think so. I think that was a very significant part of it. Because there was always the feeling from that point on when I was there anyway that the baseball guys are running it and making the decisions. That was a huge factor. And there was another reason that I think Paul was comfortable in putting so much confidence in his people because he knew that nearing the finish line on draft day we weren't going to get a surprise by someone walking in and saying "oh no the baseball guys think this, but I want you to take this guy." Which happens. And through experiences of hearing the horror stories that happens more places than probably one would imagine.

SHANKS: Sounds like Paul was a huge influence on you.

ARBUCKLE: No question. No question. I think there are a lot of things the way I go about doing things – whether it be the philosophy I have on the types of players to management style, dealing with my staff. I learned a tremendous amount from Paul Snyder.

SHANKS: Now that you've been in place for a good while, what would you say is your high school and college breakdown with the Phillies?

ARBUCKLE: We're probably in most years 60/40 high school. And the reason it's not higher with high school is most organizations, including us, don't have a totally unlimited budget for the draft. That forces you in the later rounds to go with some guys who are more signable. So I think that's a key factor. I still to this day prefer getting the kid at 18 if all things are equal.

SHANKS: Now what is your feeling on high school pitchers? Do you shy away from them like Billy Beane?

ARBUCKLE: Absolutely not. We've taken a lot of high school pitching. Gavin Floyd. Cole Hamels. Brett Myers is in our rotation. No we have no problem taking high school pitching.

SHANKS: You've got to have trust in your development staff to do that?

ARBUCKLE: No question. Yea, without a doubt.

SHANKS: What other organizations are in this same mold?

ARBUCKLE: I think Cincinnati is to a degree. I think you're going to see it more now with Danny O'Brien going over there. The Cubs to some degree tend to go that way, and the Cubs have gone about taking a lot of projectable Latin American kids. So I think they're of that same mold. Minnesota absolutely. Minnesota, because of their budget they haven't been able to go quite as high school oriented I think and that would be connected to budget somewhat. But the philosophy – I know Mike Radcliffe well and I know Terry Ryan well. I think the philosophy as far as scouting and development is very similar to what ours is and the Braves and so on.

SHANKS: How big was John Schuerholz coming from KC?

ARBUCKLE: Yea I think John duck-tailed nicely with what the philosophy already was with the Braves. You look at that club – the Saberhagens, the Willie Wilsons. You were seeing a club made up of mainly high ceiling, high school talent that formed the nucleus of that club when John was in Kansas City.

SHANKS: They had the first academy right?

ARBUCKLE: Yea they had taken the run at the academy to see where that would go. So that organization has always leaned toward that direction I think.

SHANKS: What is your opinion about the "Moneyball" book and Billy Beane?

ARBUCKLE: I think it's drastically overemphasized. I want to see the long term. I think if you break the Oakland club down – the third baseman Chavez was a good high school first round pick. Miguel Tejada was a good young Latin shortstop signed at 17. I think in reality if you break that club down it's not totally put together the way the media has portrayed it to be. I think the current push right now with statistics and all that – I don't think you totally discount all that. To me those statistics are of value just like the radar gun is or the stopwatch. I think it is a tool just like the psychological testing is a tool. I don't think you ignore it, but I think it's just one more as scouting director at draft time one more piece of information that you may want to factor in. I think this stuff is of more value at the professional level in pro scouting than it is amateur.

SHANKS: How much does luck enter into developing pitchers?

ARBUCKLE: You're going to have an attrition rate with pitchers no matter luck. You can do everything right but a percentage of them are going to break down. You hope that luck along with good bodies – those type of pitchers seem to break down less than. It's just going to happen.

Bill Shanks's book, Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, will be out around Opening Day. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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