Scouting 101: Deric Ladnier

Year round, scouts from each organization are looking for players that will one day contribute at the big league level. But, scouting is also a highly inexact science. now presents the first installment of Scouting 101, which will present the lessons and views of prominent figures in the scouting world, starting with Royals' scouting director, Deric Ladnier.

In recent years, the Kansas City Royals have had their fair share of high draft picks as a result of their struggles at the big league level. By no means, however, does that make things an easier on their scouting department. They've worked harder than ever to bring impact prospects into a struggling organization.

Much of that can be attributed to a man who has spent several years in the scouting world, dating backs to his days with the Braves - Deric Ladnier. Very few scouting directors are respected to the degree that Ladnier is, so it stands to reason that he would be able to provide such priceless knowledge with regard to the field of scouting.

Lesson 1 - A General Look at Judging a Prospect

To this point, not one scout or anyone else for that matter has found an error proof method of judging the abilities of an amateur prospect. Like the game of baseball itself, scouting is a "game of failure." There still seems to be a general feeling, however, that there is a basic formula one follows when making an evaluation on a young ballplayer.

"Obviously the physical tools and skills are what you keep in mind. That's what gets a guy into the classification of a first round pick, a second round pick. And, on the other side of the tools and skills is the personal makeup of the individual. What type of person is he. Does he have the type of internal drive to be the Major Leaguer that we're projecting him to be." - Deric Ladnier

If there's anything we can take from that lesson, it's that tools are what put a player into the elite player conversation, but what makes a successful prospect is makeup, intestinal fortitude, and that drive to be the absolute best. This is perhaps what is sometimes missing when fans, scouts, and coaches alike are left scratching their head when ever the most purely talented player crash and burn in the minor leagues.

Lesson 2 - Makeup is Key

Using Ladnier's last point as a bridge, the next topic he would focus on with us is a player's makeup. He would point out that, in so many words, tools are wasted or at least not reached to their fullest potential if a player lacks a strong mental makeup.

"To me personally, makeup is huge because this is a game of failure. If a guy doesn't have strong makeup to get through the bumps and bruises of development then he's never going to reach his maximum potential. Is that good enough with the ability that he's got? In some cases, yes. But he still may never be the guy we thought he was going to be because of his work ethic or off the field habits. That happens a lot. It's difficult as a scouting director to know that person as well as you should know that person so you have rely on your area scouts and supervisors to know beyond any reasonable doubt that this kid is a good kid and he's got good upbringing and is going to work hard. And, also you want to know if he's got a strong desire to succeed. It shows up quickly if a guy has bad makeup. They may cover their spots up for a while but the first time they go into a slump they're not going to respond very well." - Deric Ladnier

Unlike the five tangible tools, there is no one way to measure the sixth tool that we like to call makeup, and instead it takes an extra effort on the part of the scouting staff. Too many players have come and gone as result of questionable makeup and desire, but scouts not only be blamed for that, but also given credit for finding players with fringe skills and exceptional makeup. The scout who signed Cardinals shortstop, David Eckstein would be an ideal example, as he was able to overlook no more than average tools.

Lesson 3 - It's All About Projection

More often than not, the player you draft is not the player you get if or when he reaches his maximum potential. That is especially the case when the player was drafted out of high school. The term that a scout lives and dies by is projection, which is defined by what a player has the potential to be if he maximizes his talent. For example, a tall, lanky pitcher is very projectable. Royals' scouting director, Deric Ladnier is a great believer in player projectability.

"Projection is difficult to gauge. The college ranks make it a little bit easier because you have three years for the most part of maturing as a person and physically maturing. So, the projection becomes a little bit more limited at that point in time. More so for pitchers because most of those guys are pretty much what they're going to be other than harnessing their deliveries and how to pitch. The high school guys, the higher guys have no stuff. Probably after working on command and physical and mental maturity. The guys that go a little bit lower in the draft, they may not have the breaking ball yet or they may not have the changeup yet. So there is more of a projection on that. The running tool can be tough too. The only guys that I've seen get faster are the Latin players. I've seen guys jump two grades in running speed. I think a lot of it just has to do with the nutrition that they're accustomed to and the physical strength. When we got Furcal when I was with the Braves, he got faster. He wasn't as fast when we signed him as he was when he came over to the states." - Deric Ladnier

The bottom line is what good is a player who shows solid production, but has no room for any improvement after high school or college. That is where projection comes into play. Two pitchers with 90 MPH fastballs and identical mechanics and off-speed pitches may seem to be the same, but if one is 5-foot-11 and the other is 6-foot-4 the latter of the two is the far more desirable prospect. Taller pitchers simply have more room to add strength to their frames while the shorter ones may have already hit the peak of their performance. There are also several occurrences in which players drafted almost entirely on projection rather than their "now" talent.

"Guys that were total projection, there's been a lot of them. Well, I tell you what, a kid that we drafted and followed, Luis Coto was a big projection guy out of high school. And, he ended up being a high bonus guy because he was converted from shortstop to pitching. He was touching 90-92 MPH at the end of the year and he really hadn't pitched that much. Then his fastball jumped up to about 97. And a lot of that was just getting on the mound and throwing, plus getting the arm action and learning what pitching was all about. Erik Cordier was another guy with a lot of projection. He was a guy who would touch 93 in high school and show flashes of a breaking ball. And last year before he injured himself he was touching 98 MPH. So he jumped 4-5 MPH right there. Most of those times its those tall, lanky guys that have the projection. You know, the kid on the White Sox, [Brandon] McCarthy, he was at 87-88 MPH in high school. You can really look at the body type. If the guy is six foot and he's pretty much developed rarely does he jump in velocity that much. Usually it's those 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 guys. We've got a guy that we got in a trade this year, Daniel Cortes and he was another guy with a big projection. He pitches at 88-89; he'll touch 92-93. And, if you asked me this question next year, I would almost guarantee you just based on physical maturity that he's at 93-94. He's got what you look for. He's got great arm action, he's athletic, and he's going to develop physically. The one thing that I've always been taught, and it pretty much holds true, is if there's a guy whether he's right-handed or left-handed and he doesn't have velocity but he can really spin a breaking ball, he has a much greater chance of generating velocity because of the arm speed needed to create the rotation on the breaking ball." - Deric Ladnier

The draft is all about finding players who can one day contribute at the big league level, so scouts constantly face the dilemma of finding players who don't just have "fringy" tools that play well at the amateur level, but tools that will be able to produce results at the next level. Using pitchers as an example, Ladnier was able to elaborate on that point.

"You're looking for the tools. If he's a pitchability guy with no projection then what is he? I mean, how many Greg Maddux types are there out there? You're looking for tools, looking for the breaking ball and the velocity. If he's wild and he can't throw a strike, that's different. You and me could sit here and talk all day about guys with great arms but can't throw a strike. That's a major issue too. Another thing you look for is mechanics. Does he have correctable flaws? A lot of these guys don't throw strikes. There's also guys who have bad arm action but have great velocity, and that is a cause for concern when it comes to injuries. And if he does harness his command is he going to have to sacrifice stuff? You can go to a lot of colleges and see guys that command the strike zone but they might have 45 stuff across the board. If he's got average-above average stuff with 45 stuff then what is he? Is he a middle guy; is he a fifth starter? You don't get better by drafting those guys high in the draft. There's risk involved for the higher upside guys, but they are the guys that if they harness it then they can make a difference for your organization." - Deric Ladnier

Lesson 4 - Tools vs. Production

Players are drafted every year based on tools, and in some organizations, it is becoming more common for players to be drafting based on production, statistics, or forms of sabermetric evaluation. Year after year, scouts are either burned or made to look like geniuses based on their evaluations of "toolsy" players. These players can either turn out to be the next Alex Rodriguez, and just as easily turn out to be the next in a long line of five tools busts. Here in lies the challenge. How does a scout decide which athletic, toolsy player can be productive at the next level and which are only athletes that no skills that are playable in professional baseball?

"That's the million dollar question. We're all intrigued, myself included, by the athletic player, the guy who can do things that other players can't do. For me, it stills comes down to hitting. That's the hardest thing to teach somebody to do. If you have an athlete that is aggressive and can do things, and if he swings and misses a lot at the plate, that's a big red flag for me. He may look great in the batter's box and have exceptional bat speed but if he can't make consistent contact then what's going to allow him to make consistent contact, unless there is a complete breakdown in his hitting mechanics. You know, a lot of times the hardest thing for these guys to adjust to is the breaking ball and learning how to stay back. They can do more things than other players can and they have a higher ceiling because of their athletic ability. But, like you said, many times we are intrigued with the athlete but many times they don't make the adjustments. A guy we took last year who was a phenomenal athlete was Derrick Robinson. But the thing that he could do was make contact. He's going to be one fine hitter when it's all said and done and he's got all of the other intangibles to go with it, you know, work ethic, character and things like that. He's a real baseball player even though he played football. You've heard the stories that a guy is a football player playing baseball. He's on the football field because he's more athletic than everyone else. I can think back to the Cedric Bensons and all those type guys. We've seen them a million times. For whatever reason, it doesn't work out and they end up back on the football field. I've drafted them, and I've made mistakes with them, along with every other scouting director in baseball. If he does make it, you look like a hero. You look great then. But, the probability of it is probably less."

It is the million dollar question indeed. Deciding which player's tools will be playable at the next level is arguably the most difficult job for a scout. Athletes bring quite a bit to the table, but how much will they produce becomes the ultimate issue. Much of their success hinges on Lesson 5 - The Hitting Tool.

Lesson 5 - The Hitting Tool

"Hitting is always the most difficult thing to scout I'd say. Is a guy going to hit? Why do you believe he's going to hit? I see guys that are aggressive and one thing, as crazy as this may sound, if a guy is aggressive you don't want to see him swing and miss a lot. If he's aggressive and swings at balls out of the strike zone but still makes hard contact you can work with that guy a lot more because he's got very good hand-eye coordination. If a guy has great bat speed but rarely makes contact then there's some issues there. The guy that rarely swings and misses is the guy that you say 'wow, this guy's got a chance to hit.' You take guys who show they can hit because you think you can make some adjustments. One big thing you look for is head movement. See how far his head is traveling in his swing. There's a lot of things you can still do with their lower half. And, honestly, you have to trust your player development staff to be able to teach because that's all part of the process. There's not very many big league players that are playing in the amateur ranks. If a guy can hit and he's always hit you can't walk away from that guy because who's to say he won't continue to hit. But, if he's got mechanical problems you better address them because soon or later there's going to be pitchers who can change speeds that are going to expose those flaws. They have to fail before we can teach them because they've always hit. That's when they come running to see what they need to do."

It likely would be accurate to say that there will never be one way to predict a player's ability to hit as a pro or eventually as a major leaguer. Hitting can be, by far, the most enigmatic tool and one that is likely the most coveted. It is also the tool that can far outweigh other sub par or merely average tools. However, if evaluating the hitting tool weren't complicated enough, aluminum bats at the amateur level only further complicated things for scouts.

"Working them out with wood. It's the truth. I've seen guys and worked out guys, even thinking back to my area scout days where I'd take guys that I thought had good swings and were athletic. When I put a wooden bat in their hands, it's like they were swinging a wet newspaper. They just couldn't hit with it. The aluminum had just slowed their bat speed down so significantly that where they just had no chance. Then, there's guys that when you work them out with a wooden bat they swing it better than the aluminum too. To me, and this is my own personal philosophy, we never draft a guy that we feel is a hitter if we haven't seen him swing a wooden bat. I think that's smart. You see great hitting attributes but you don't know until you see them with wood. That's why the Cape is so heavily scouted. If you're taking a guy high in the draft and you've never seen him swing a wooden bat I think you are running a huge risk." - Deric Ladnier

Lesson 6 - Recognizing Elite Tools

They don't show up very often, and when they do they really catch the eyes of the scouting world. But, does one plus-plus tool make an elite prospect? The answer is not always yes, but in some cases it is certainly the makings of one.

"It really depends on what that plus-plus tool is. A guy with plus-plus power, there's just not a lot of them out there so you're intrigued with the power and you're hoping that you can teach him how to hit. The plus-plus runner is different. That doesn't make him a top prospect, but you're just hope him you can teach that guy to hit. You're never going to walk away from a plus-plus tool. The guy is a shortstop, and he's got decent hands and a plus-plus arm and is athletic, you're wondering if you can teach him to hit. But, you're also thinking if we could get this guy on the mound he could really be something. You don't see a lot of plus-plus tools. When you do they stick out like a sore thumb. A guy that can throw, a guy that can run, a guy that's got plus-plus raw power with a combination of other tools, that makes him a potential high round pick. When you see them you know it. Power seems to get everyone up higher in the draft, but there's just not a lot of it, not the type of power we're looking for."

Ladnier made an extra effort to recognize that one plus-plus tool does not make a top prospect, depending on what that tool is. What this can teach us is that even a four tool player is not likely to go very far if he doesn't have the ever important hitting tool and a common mistake is to overrate a player based on non-offensive tools. Power and hitting will always be at a premium, but each draft class will have several players who are scouted and selected based on the assumption that they can be taught to hit at the professional level.

"Guys that go high in the draft, say the first ten picks, there's usually a pretty good separation there. That separation is usually in their physical tools and ability to play the game. When you start getting into the mid-first round, 20th pick and into the sandwich and 2nd round picks, a lot of them are very similar. At that point, beauty is in the high of the beholder. You just try to take the guys that you feel could be the best fit for your organization. The year we picked Billy Butler, there was a lot of things that he couldn't do. But what he could do is really hit and he had plus power. If everyone knew that he was going to hit like this he would have done a lot better in the draft. Our scouts had already targeted him from the Joplin tournament the year before, saying he was one of the best hitters in the country. You're willing to look past the other things that he can't do because of his offensive production. Guys that slide in the draft are usually guys that haven't established themselves as premium hitters. For example, if a guy is a premium shortstop, but you don't think he's going to hit then he's not a high pick for you. You may take him in the 2nd or 3rd round depending on the situation. But, if he has all the tools to be a premium shortstop and also shows that he can hit then he's going to be one of the first five picks in the country. We may look at him and not think he's going to hit and make him a 3rd rounder. But, another team might look at him and believe he's going to hit and that's what could make him into a first rounder."

Lesson 7 - Good Scouting

Now that we've been on enlightened on all of the things a scout looks for in a player and some of what it takes to find the next big league ballplayer, the question becomes how do scouts and scouting directors use that information to their advantage? As Royals' scouting director, Deric Ladnier explains to us, it is all about knowing the players and a good mix of opinions.

"Number one, you want to take the best player. That just comes down to relying on your evaluators to evaluate the players correctly and then you have to have a scouting director that listens to everybody and says this is the way we're going to go. The last couple years have been good for us because we've had high picks and gotten good players but it's also difficult because there's not a consensus. You've got guys like Alex Gordon, Andrew Miller, and Luke Hochevar. Then there's Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun out there also. There's only one time that I can remember that there was a consensus in the entire room and that was on Billy Butler. But somebody has to make a decision and that's the scouting director. We took a guy this year in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech, Blake Wood, who did not have a good year. To me there were a lot of factors. We had reports on him coming out of the Cape and during his sophomore year and I think he was 11-0 as a sophomore. He pitched exceptionally well in the Cape, but he got shin splints this year and couldn't condition so that affected him a great deal. The way I looked at it with him was here's a guy we thought was a late first rounder based on his past. I don't think it was draft-itis, maybe it was but I don't know. But, he's throwing 94-95 MPH for us now. A lot of this comes down to having a history with the player. Gil Meche had a miserable senior year too. He got mono and he got hit in the head with a line drive and I had seen him the summer before in Joplin and he looked great. Seattle ended up picking him with one of the last picks in the 1st round and that's just a great job of scouting by them."

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