Putting A Spin On Traditional Reports
I wanted to put a twist on the traditional scouting reports you can now find all over the internet. I've seen well over 75% of my top 150 players, so I'll provide video of each of them, grade their tools/pitches, give the pertinent biographical info, but also give you the multi-year perspective of what their talent tells us. In talking to lots of data types around the game about what scouts are missing most in the pre-draft evaluations, I keep hearing that the recency bias in draft rooms is maddening. "Forget that Brandon Finnegan has had three plus pitches and good command for two years, his shoulder was tender two weeks ago, move him down 10 spots!" Maybe that reactionary response is instructive in some circumstances of the momentum arrow changing directions right before the draft, but it's incredibly unlikely that fate is lining things up for you that neatly.
One instructive example: the Orioles #5 overall pick in 2009, husky NorCal prep RHP Matt Hobgood threw 88-92 for over a year, then 90-94 in the middle of the season, then 94-98 for the weeks before the draft, then was 88-92 or injured the rest of his career. Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor and Mike Leake were the next three picks and Shelby Miller would've signed for near slot. This pre-draft mirage (positive or negative) happens much more often than a new level of performance or slight stiffness leading to a major injury happening as you're entering the draft room. So, along with the standard scouting report stuff, I've expanded the reports for the top players in the draft to address the multi-year history that we now can have (thanks to showcase baseball) even on high school players, then denote a specific section to view the player in light of the 30,000 foot view of their career's trajectory.
Things To Keep In Mind
Something to know when looking at the biographical data is the importance of age, as popularized by Rany Jazayerli in two articles back in 2011. Nearly every team in baseball discusses age in their draft room now, when it previously would only be brought up occasionally in even the most stats-inclined draft rooms before the article. The average age for high school players is about 18.1 or 18.2, while for college players it's right around 21.0.
A useful concept I've been using for doing my rankings this year is, instead of projecting what a player could be at maturity (age 25 or so), projecting what I think he'll be like in 2-3 years. It's industry practice to grade tools for what they'll be at maturity, but having such a long time horizon often leads to discussions getting sidetracked by "well, yeah, technically he may never get to AA, maybe the #1 overall pick never gets out of A-Ball, maybe everyone gets hurt in rookie ball and quits" rather than focusing on things that could reasonably happen in a medium time frame. With scouts doing pro coverage of minor league teams every summer, they're very aware of what works and what they like in A-Ball and AA prospects, while they often don't scout the big leagues at all, so this frame of reference is much more relatable to their knowledge base, as well.
This helped me in the recent shuffle in the top 10 of my rankings. I realized that I think Aaron Nola could be a #4 starter next April while Tyler Kolek has at least a 50/50 chance of his elbow blowing out and isn't as advanced as most top 10 pick prep arms of recent years. That 2-3 year horizon made it clear that Nola was more valuable to me, while looking at "peak" performance in peak years made Kolek's size and velocity seem impossible for Nola to match in the long-term. I could continue working out why I shuffled the players like I did, but it basically came from looking at them slightly differently that I was trained to and talking to more scouts to fill in holes on things I didn't get to see this spring. Hopefully the reports give you the information to understand the rankings and also maybe tweak them to make your own.
The 20-80 Scale
Another thing to note is that the 20-80 scouting grades for each player are presented as present/future, with only the only exception being the hit grade. Since every amateur hitter is a present 20 hitter in the big leagues, I (along with many MLB organizations) use a peer grade for the present hit tool. What that means is you grade the player's hitting performance (not the tools) against his peers (similarly talented players of similar age against similar competition).
The use of this is 1) to think of players in terms of production and not just raw ability, as a means to be more accurate for 2) projecting players to be good big league hitters due to big league hitting tools (bat speed, mechanics, strength, etc) along with approach and results. One of the MLB organizations that was first to use this system said the scout couldn't give a future hit grade over 10 points above the present peer grade, as a way to keep a scout from projecting a hitter essentially learning how to hit after signing for a large bonus. This, along with years of history on prep players thanks to showcase baseball, is why studies have shown that teams are getting better at drafting the best players in the highest slots of the draft over time.
Some other things to know so you can fully understand the reports, include the 20-80 scale. I assume regular readers of the site are well-versed in this but the casual draft reader that wants to know who his team drafted may not, so here's a quick rundown in chart form:
This table shows the kind of player inferred by various 20-80 grades (used in 5 point increments) as Future Values (FV) to sum up a player's potential (i.e a 55 FV hitter is "above average regular"), along with the term that is used on the 20-80 scale for specific tool grades (i.e. 60 raw power is called "plus"). The WAR value means that, for example, a player with a FV of 70 is expected to have a peak WAR at maturity of 5.0 WAR. It also leaves out some numbers to be concise in some places (75, 65 are little used and obvious by their surroundings) and because they aren't used in other places (20, 25, 30, 35 aren't used for prospect ranking purposes and aren't often used for grading tools for prospects, either). Since 50 is the most common grade when dealing with prospects, I and other scouts will often use solid-average (52.5) and fringe-average or fringy (47.5) to further sort out many tools that would otherwise be tough to separate.
6'1/175, L/R, 18.61 on Draft Day
Hit: 55/55, Power: 45/50, Run: 50/50+, Field: 50/55, Throw: 60/60
Scouting Report: Gordon is the son of former All-Star closer Tom "Flash" Gordon and the brother of Dodgers IF Dee Gordon. In his sophomore year at Olympia, two of his teammates (Padres RHP Walker Weickel and Reds RF Jesse Winker) went in the first round and scouts noticed the young leadoff hitter had elite ability. He's notorious around Florida for showing up at nearly every event year-round, hitting and pitching almost every time, along with playing at one of the best programs in a talent-rich Orlando area. That all adds up to three years of close watching by scouts almost year-round and that, along with bloodlines and his two-way ability, is what gives scouts (and me) the confidence to put a guy with late 1st round tools in the top 5 picks.
Gordon quit pitching this spring to focus on hitting/fielding (family friend Barry Larkin came in to help Nick with the glove), but he's a legit prospect on the mound if shortstop doesn't work out. He sits 90-92 most times out, but has run it up to 95 mph at times with an above average curveball, though his delivery has some effort. Gordon's meal ticket is at shortstop because, despite at best 55 speed, he gets himself into position very effectively, has smooth actions and his plus arm strength allows him to make the throw from the hole. He projects as an average defensive shortstop but most players with his raw defensive tools can't stick at the position long-term; showing both Nick's makeup to put in the work and also the advantage his father's status allows him.
At the plate, you can see from the above videos (the top is from the summer/fall before his senior year, the bottom one from this spring) he's put on some weight and is stronger. You can project 15-18 homers at maturity, though Gordon's broad shoulders and the newness of his power means he could get a little bigger (and possibly move off short) or never full integrate the raw pop into his game. The power could range from 10 to 20 homers, but the selling point here is the bat. Gordon has above average bat speed with emerging strength and, from an early age, has had the feel to drive the ball to the opposite field against good pitching. His swing can get a little uphill at times, but he has above average bat control that allows him to barrel up more than his raw tools would suggest.
Take A Step Back: Elite talent has great bloodlines, has stood out on national stage for three years, keeps improving, has MLB-level training and great makeup to get the most out of his tools. In a down year for top-end talent and with a dearth of domestic shortstops, this guy gives you some confidence and upside.
Projected Role: Above Average Regular, 55-60 FV
5. Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU
6'1/195, R/R, 21.00 on Draft Day
Fastball: 60/60, Curveball: 55/60, Changeup: 55/60, Command: 50/55
Scouting Report: Nola was a relatively small righty in high school with a near sidearm slot that threw 85-88 mph with good feel and a good changeup. His velo jumped on campus, as he sat 91-94 as a sophomore (top video above), and also threw that hard this spring (bottom video), running it up to 95 or 96 mph every time out this spring with above average life created by his low slot. As a way to explain how good his command has been for the last two years in the cutthroat SEC, Nola had a 122-18 K-BB ratio in 126 IP last year and it was 127-26 in 109 IP this year, as the Friday starter for one of the best teams in the SEC both years.
Nola's 78-80 mph curveball is a 55 or 60 on the 20-80 scale almost every time he throws it, addressing one of the concerns with pitchers that have a low 3/4 slot, that they get around their curveball and it becomes a lazy spinning one-plane pitch. The other concern with a low-slot pitcher is opposite-handed hitters but Nola has a plus changeup to keep them at bay and isn't afraid to come in with his fastball to help the pitch play up even more. If a pitcher with this stuff, command and resume threw from the conventional high 3/4 slot, he might go #1 overall this year, but as I just mentioned, Nola can answer all the concerns that come with his slot.
There aren't many of medium-framed pitchers with the low slot succeeding in a big league rotation as the recent examples (Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Zambrano and Justin Masterson) are all 6'5 or 6'6. Nola's stats and that he's thrown so much in college (but skipped the summer to manage innings) with no arm soreness at all points to the fact that he's an athletic freak (and apparently double-jointed) that makes a living beating expectations. That I can only name three guys that have recently done what scouts think Nola could do in the big leagues tells us we're already dealing with an outlier. You could argue he belong as high as 2nd or 3rd on this list, but he's still a pitcher, so he could breakdown tomorrow and many teams will have him lower than this because if you pick an outlier and he fails, you're more likely to get fired. Maybe we should stop poking holes in this and recognize what's here?
Take A Step Back: Arm slot and size are the only concerns, but changeup, command and bulk of outstanding performance make you focus less on negatives and more on the fact that he keeps beating expectations and very well could be in the middle of a rotation for the next 10 years, starting next April.
Projected Role: #3 Starter, 60 FV
6. Tyler Kolek, RHP, Shepherd HS (TX), TCU commit
6'5/270, R/R, 18.47 on Draft Day
Fastball: 70/75, Slider: 50/60, Changeup: 40/50, Command: 40/50
Scouting Report: Kolek jumped on the national scene after hitting 100 mph at the Area Code Games regional workout in Texas just after last year's draft. He then showed up at most of the major events over the summer, where his velocity ranged from 93-99 in early innings, but sometimes would dip to the low 90's in longer outings. His sharp low-80's curveball would flash plus but was often just average to above, while he only very sparingly threw a nascent changeup. Kolek's command was fine, but he was much more of a thrower than pitcher and had only recently become a full-time baseball player, so scouts cut some the immense talent some slack.
Kolek was in a situation this spring to superficially impress scouts, but not really improve as his competition was awful in a small town outside of Houston, and he struck out over half of the players he faced. He never had to use his changeup and his breaking ball got even less consistent, only occasionally flashing plus while he fiddled with throwing both a curveball and a (slightly superior) slider, a recipe for disaster for many previous draft prospects. He regularly hit 100 and got even bigger this year, hitting 270 pounds (but not getting fat, just big), which allowed him to hold his velocity regularly in the 93-97 mph range deep into games.
Kolek is the hardest throwing pitcher in the history of the draft and, especially with the recent rise in Tommy John surgeries and the crossfire elements to Kolek's delivery, there's a broad belief that he will blow out his elbow at some point in the next few years. Combining that with the lack of polish and progress this spring and suddenly the allure of an Texas-bred offensive tackle that bales hay and throws 100 mph is muted when you realize how much longer and with how much more risk it will take Kolek to reach his ceiling.
Take A Step Back: We've got a rare combination of size and arm speed with flashes the breaking ball to make it all play as a frontline starter, but there's lots of risk and time to wait between now and then.
Projected Role: #3 starter, 60 FV
Some Thoughts On The Black Swan/Freak Theory
I've mentioned this theory on the podcast a few times and it struck a chord with listeners, but I never got around to fully writing it out, mainly since I'd like to have more hard data to blow it out with, rather than opinions and anecdotes. The basic idea is that elite talents (roughly top 12-15 overall draft prospects or 60 FV prospects) who are very unusual (small and/or with unusual deliveries for pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman) tend to continue to beat expectations as pros. The support for the theory comes from Nassim Taleb's excellent book The Black Swan and takes Taleb's theory that he applies largely to financial markets, to baseball players. To drastically condense my theory adapted from his larger theory, if a player is evaluated as elite but has had to overcome a systematic bias to get there (like height for pitchers) and is regularly beating expectations throughout his career, it's proof of better genetics for this activity, meaning he'll continue to beat expectation and, for pitchers, that usually means he'd get hurt less than scouts would suggest.
Again, I'm drastically simplifying the theory and skipping all the logic that brought me to it, but I wanted to address how this applies to this year's draft class as two big examples are reports in this group, Kolek and Nola. Nola has never been hurt, is small for a pitcher, throws from a weird slot, but has elite stuff, elite command, elite performance and basically no comparables; the epitome of the theory.
Kolek is basically as big as you can be at this age, or as big as any elite pitcher has ever been and throws as hard as is possible at his age. He doesn't have a lot of polish or experience in baseball. Since he hasn't racked up the innings to give me any confidence he may be that below-average injury rate type guy, the fact that he does something in his delivery (crossfire) that's been demonstrated to be generally negative and he's generally similar to many previous prep prospects (big and throws hard but without much else), Kolek is a weaker candidate.
Given how the draft is set up, teams are encouraged to find the best value rather than the best player, so if I'm picking 3rd or lower, I would seriously consider Nola for a below-slot deal. Aiken is the best prospect to me (and generally to the industry), though I understand if you're wary about prep pitchers no matter how advanced they are. Rodon is a freak theory candidate as he's never been seriously hurt, and throw a plus-plus slider at 87-90 when his fastball is 90-92, but he's had some bumps and bruises over the last few years that make me a bit wary of him as a theory candidate as well--candidates are usually excellent athletes. Since Rodon is more conventional with his slot, has a similarly long track record and is left-handed with no arm injuries, I give him the edge over Nola for the reason I'll cover below--he hasn't failed yet.
Nola is a freak is every sense of the word and perfectly fits into what I'm trying to get at with this theory--the perpetually underrated prospect that shouldn't be underrated if you look a little closer. There just happened to be a book out when I was thinking about this that covered this general topic in another field. If Nola's elbow pops tomorrow, he's still a freak, just like Dylan Bundy was, too. The thing with Kolek is that the day his elbow pops (and I'm betting that day is coming), he becomes an much more ordinary prospect for me. He hasn't any arm problems, so I'm treating Kolek as the less polished but more conventional version of Nola, with perhaps a higher ceiling, but the risk and distance from maturity is the reason I give Nola the edge. There are some other players with outlier type qualities, but Rodon, Kolek and Nola are the only guys that the theory may apply to this year. It was always an easier fit for pitchers to qualify, as hitters are reactionary and have to be more similar so they can all excel against different types of pitchers, and I think the best application is in trying to find guys that are less likely to get hurt than a scouting observation might suggest.
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