Scouting 101: Dan Kantrovitz

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, one that has many theories and important lessons. In our second installment of Scouting 101, we talked with St. Louis Cardinals' Director of College Scouting Dan Kantrovitz to get his insights. When scouting a prospect for the draft, what is the most important to keep in mind when judging his abilities?

Dan Kantrovitz: I always try to put the player in context. In college baseball today, there are performance baselines mapped to a player's age, position, strength of competition and even influence of the park or stadium. Before going into see a player, I always make sure that I understand the player's past performance as a function of the contextual variable and then how he compares to his peers in college baseball.

Clearly, this task is more of an art than a science and requires an understanding of how to describe past performance, statistically speaking, as well as an appreciation for how variable it can be. When it comes time to make a tool evaluation and projection of the player, I try to be aware of other variables such as the weather, the player's physical and mental health and the specific game situations he is playing in. I think these contextual effects, as well as some we have not discussed, are the most important things to keep in mind when evaluating a player's abilities. What makes scouting college players unique to scouting high school players?

Dan Kantrovitz: My job, along with our college specialists, is to identify every top college player in the country and then communicate an accurate evaluation of those players to our management and ownership. As far as being more inclined toward college picks, that is not really my call. But, as a scouting department, I am pretty sure we are going to select whoever has the greatest chance of adding value to our organization in the future. If that player happens to be a high school player, that is absolutely fine with me.

I am not sure whether high school players are more or less easier to scout than college players, but we are confident that there are different methods better suited to each market. Performance histories (stats) and scheduling efficiencies are unique to scouting college players and if an entire operation, such are our College Scouting, is geared for this, we believe it is possible to achieve more scale and output than would have been possible otherwise.

There are many different and valid viewpoints on the High School vs. College debate and we probably don't have time to go into all of them, but a few important issues to keep in mind concern age, level of maturation and room for improvement. In my opinion, there should be more room for improvement in the average high school player due to his age and maturity. But because a high school player is typically farther away from his peak, both in terms of time and ability, it also can be more difficult to project his future.

Personally, I don't believe you can say one or the other (the college or the high school player) is always the better pick. It depends on who the alternative is, your tolerance for risk and the preferred or expected timeframe for wanting your selections to reach the major leagues. And we have not even mentioned budgetary concerns. Projection is an intangible that must be hard to gauge. What are some ways that you can spot a projectable player and who are some players that you can remember that were drafted more so on projectability than anything else?

Dan Kantrovitz: Yes, projecting amateur baseball talent is extremely difficult. With that said, I do believe scouting is a skill-set, probably the most important in our industry. In my opinion, being able to project talent comes from a combination of astute observation, relevant experience (scouting, playing or coaching) and an understanding of how to integrate all of the information (tool evaluations, performance track records, age, future position, etc.). When looking at a high school player, what would you say is the hardest tool to scout and why?

Dan Kantrovitz: When looking at any baseball player (high school or college), I think the hardest thing to judge (sorry, this is not necessarily a tool) is what position or positions the player will be capable of playing at the next level.

When parents of little leaguers approach me for guidance, one of the things I always recommend getting their kid experience at as many positions as possible. In some ways, deciding on a position is one of the most important decisions a baseball player makes. Even at the high school level, too often, I see not only the best hitters but also the best athletes stuck playing first base.

Something that both the traditionalists as well as the statisticians agree on is that it takes the most defensive skill to play shortstop and catcher. The data supports this because, as one would expect, the least amount of offense comes from those positions in the Major Leagues. And, if for example, I am watching a college left fielder who may have had experience behind the plate (as a catcher) earlier in his career, I ask the question if, with the right instruction, might he be able to play catcher again in professional baseball. My point is that, without trying to get too crazy, I believe it is important to consider the most valuable position a prospect would be capable of playing at the next level, which unfortunately, is not always his current position. It's easy to fall in love with pure tools and athleticism. How hard is it to tell the difference between an athlete with baseball skills and a guy with tools that may never be able to turn it into on field success?

Dan Kantrovitz: I think this falls into the category with your question on projection. To be able to discern whose tools will translate into actual baseball success is obviously extremely difficult. Unless a scout is reasonably certain, for one reason or another, this would probably be a riskier pick. Aluminum bats create a big challenge. What's the best way to tell if a player can be successful in switching to wood bats? What do you look for in his swing?

Dan Kantrovitz: The best way to tell if a player will be able to make the transition from aluminum to wood is to see him hit with wood. I would be hard-pressed to make an investment recommendation on a player who I have not seen hit with wood. Even for high school players, most of the high money guys will at least workout or practice with wood bats if not play with them in showcases. Similarly, in college baseball, there is so much opportunity for observation in the summer leagues (most of which use wood bats) that we usually are able to see how well he can swing a wood bat before we draft him. Compare makeup to pure skills. How much does makeup play into your evaluation of a player?

Dan Kantrovitz: In my opinion, makeup is huge. Unfortunately, inconsistent definitions and unreliable measurement tools make it difficult to quantify the results. And, those seeking empirical evidence are often left unsatisfied with anecdotal tales of a player's makeup. Even so, I believe that there are some players that have a better chance of fulfilling, or living up to, their projection if they have the motivation to improve. From a personal standpoint, I certainly was not drafted because I was a toolsy player; I was an overachiever with a tremendous motivation to improve. When I am scouting, I look for that same hunger in other players because unlike me, if they possess even the slightest hint of major tools to work with, they have a much better chance of living up to their projection! A plus-plus tool is rare. How often do you see it among amateur players and does one plus-plus tool make an elite prospect?

Dan Kantrovitz: A plus-plus, I am assuming you mean something like a 70 or 80 on the traditional scouting scale, like you said, is rare. The most agreement, and hence the most prevalent plus-plus tools in amateur baseball are those that can be measured like velocities and running times. In the most recent draft, there were a few guys with that kind of speed (Drew Stubbs and Emmanuel Burriss) as well as velocity (Jeff Samardzija's fastball was clocked as high as 99 this past Spring) and by definition, they had a plus-plus tool on the 20-80 scale. It is rare to see those kind of grades for the non-measured tools, but, they do pop-up every now and then. For example, Drew Stubbs also had plus-plus range in college (I have not seen him recently).

To your second question, I do not believe that one plus-plus tool always makes for an elite prospect. For one, it depends on the tool. There are plenty of, what would be considered, plus-plus runners who could not make contact with a major league fastball to save their life, and for me, would not be an elite prospect. Granted, it would be tough to walk away from an amateur pitcher that was capable of throwing high 90's on a consistent basis, but to be considered an elite prospect, I would also look for how consistent the velocity is, his command, other pitches, etc. A phrase used a lot is that "if a player can hit, he can hit". When you see an amateur player with mechanical flaws but he manages to still be an effective hitter, does that still apply?

Dan Kantrovitz: It sounds like this is a performance vs. tools question. In my opinion, if a player is an effective hitter, he possesses, at least on some level, hitting tools. What else is enabling him to hit? I find it hard to believe that a hitter can be effective over a prolonged period of time without having a tool. I believe it is my job, as a scout to, 1.) to determine if this hitter has been successful (perhaps through past performance analysis) 2.) identify what tool(s) is enabling him to be successful and 3.) evaluate how resilient this tool will be in pro baseball. If a hitter has demonstrated a sustained level of success and there is no evidence to say that the mechanics in question will hold this player back at the next level, I would be very careful not to label it a flaw. What are the characteristics of an elite draft prospect?

Dan Kantrovitz: Well, I think it is important to keep in mind that the top 15 picks in the first round have roughly a 90% chance of making the big leagues, the next 15 picks have roughly an 80% chance and after the 3rd round, the average chance drops to slim very quickly. Then, if I am calibrated on a national level, I can start to compare and rank the players and the round association becomes a matter of where he is on the list, not vice versa. However, because the talent pool is obviously not the same every year and because scouts don't all have the same opinions, there are still undervalued and overvalued players, and without getting into the slotting system, there is still some room for game theory. In an amateur pitcher, what typically takes priority in a scout's mind, stuff or command? Which players can you remember with the most impressive pure stuff?

Dan Kantrovitz: I cannot speak for all scouts, but for me, I would recommend a pitcher with two plus pitches and questionable command over a pitcher with plus command and questionable stuff. But, in less extreme situations, it is not that black and white. Pitchability, competitiveness and athleticism are important attributes for me and often times, I have more confidence in those guys than I do a flamethrower who can't find the plate. However, command is a super-informative trait at the college level and, unlike some other characteristics, can usually be evaluated independent, or without too much influence, from the pitcher's defense and opposing hitters. Players tend to get draft-itis leading up to the big event. How hard is it for you to look past a lack of performance and see a player's skills?

Dan Kantrovitz: To be honest, I have not seen much data that substantiates players getting draft-itis. It is difficult to look past both negative and positive single-game performances but it is a scouts job to do so. On draft day, there are obviously hundreds of players your team would like draft and dozens that you'd like to select early. What types of things become determining factors when choosing between a number of players that you have written in your reports?

Dan Kantrovitz: Based on our last two drafts (I can't speak beyond those), the draft board can change based on a multitude of events, but we come to an agreement on the player's skill and potential before the actual draft day. I can remember guys moving up and down based on last-minute intelligence such as medical updates or signability issues, but once the draft board is set up, the only thing that determines who we select is the availability of the next player on our list.

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