Scout's Eye: Pitching

Scout thinks Nags is a starter (Photo: Max Waugh)

It's a cool August evening in the Midwest League and a Cleveland Indians' scout sits down and gathers his rosters and jots down some pre-game notes before a game between the Fort Wayne Wizards of the San Diego Padres organization, and the Lansing Lugnuts. The game was in Lansing, the Toronto Blue Jays Class A affiliate.

The scout has been to the 10-year-old Oldsmobile Park only a few times since taking over the Midwest territory, but is excited to get the second half of the 2005 season under way and is quick to recall the keys of his visit to the lower levels of the minors.

"I went to see three players, two pitchers," said the 11-year scout. "Ramos, Cesar, with Fort Wayne and the two Lansing relievers."

Why?

"We passed on a few of these guys in the draft and in free agency (NDFA) and would like to see if we made the right choices," said the scout, a former minor league player in his own right. "It's kind of like hindsight scouting, a check-up."

What are you looking for, exactly?

Same as usual. With a pitcher at this level, lacking the experience of a 23 or 24-year-old arm in Triple-A, mechanics, projectability and mental approach are at the top of the list. But the radar gun will be the focal point for his reports on Ramos.

"I remember reporting very favorably in our decision to take John Drennen," he said. "Ramos went two picks later at 35, but we really like what John did as a young kid at that level.

"Ramos looks like he's going to be solid, but we needed some more offense in the system after piling up the quality arms the past few years. With Miller (Adam) and Sowers (Jeremy), we're pretty deep in that area. Taking a college pitcher would have added depth, but feel we got equal value in an area in which we needed help – hitting in the lower half of the system."

What does a scout typically look for in a minor league pitcher?

"I look for projectable stuff, first," the scout said without hesitation. "If he has the stuff than his other tools are relevant. If he throws 80-84 and is without a plus breaking ball or a change of speed, not much else matters. Those are the guys we'd try and trade for and they are the arms that we promote."

How important are mechanics in a kid that's 18, 19, 20 years old?

"Usually it separates the mid-tier types from the talents that could really make an impact. If a 6-4, 220-pound southpaw is down here in Low A ball throwing 87 or 88 at the age of 18 or 19, his mechanics are his tell. If they are sound and conducive to avoiding injury and adding to his fastball, he's going to get a lot of high grades."

"If the same kid is all over the map with his arm slotting and overall delivery, he's definitely going to show that in his walk rates. Many times, unless he's a top round pick with a load of money in his pocket, clubs will try them as relievers after a few years. Not a lot of patience. I know I don't have any. Why waste time?"

What alerts you that a young pro pitcher is legit?

"Numbers are first. But they aren't everything. If you looked at what the Big Unit did in the minors and ignored them because he always had the control thing, you'd have missed out on a great pitcher. You have to see the entire piece of work.

"If a kid was walking the world but showing a plus No. 1 and some quality off-speed stuff, he'll still get positive reviews and will project pretty well. But you do want to see some improvement from year to year. Sometime during his second full season is where we like to see the mark move a bit."

How does that differ from the way a high school pitcher is scouted?

"It's a little bit different because the best high school arms will always have the numbers," said the scout, who served as an amateur eye for the Kansas City Royals and the Pittsburgh Pirates through the mid-90s. "I always went in blind to the numbers that were already put up. I needed to see if the pitcher had what it takes and I used what I saw more than anything else.

"I really focused on size and durability. If he could go six or seven in high school and get to 85, 90 pitches and had the prototypical size, he'd have a pretty good chance to do that in the pro game. But his stuff was also in question. They have to have stuff, even if it's just a fastball at that point A one-pitch pitcher has to have the capability of a plus fastball. We don't want to teach kids to throw breaking balls from scratch."

When is it time for a club to give up on a pitching prospect?

"I don't know if it's ever time. I think club's need to be patient with pitchers. They are a higher risk to spend time on the disabled list, as you know, and because they are treated with kid gloves with smaller inning totals, you really have to give them their proper development time."

"I'd want to see a top talent get 300 or more minor league innings and possibly half that in the majors before trying something else."

At what point does it make sense to change the pitcher's future role, as in from starter to reliever?

"If his performance says reliever, than you probably want to do that right away. If we had a successful starter, though, I think the only thing that would convince me that he should be moved into the bullpen would be injury."

How much have you seen the M's right-hander, Clint Nageotte and what do you think of him as a starter/reliever?

"I spent all of 2003 and 2004 on the west coast and saw him quite a bit. He was really good in San Antonio with that slider. As a starter, I think he's fine. I was of the understanding that he was only moved due to injury."

JAC: "Nageotte was told that it was the best way for him to help at the next level, not because it was his best chance to be successful."

"If his injury wasn't that bad, I'd use him in the role that he can cover the most innings. I saw him in Arizona, he was among the top few arms there and he was starting. They must have a better reason, because his stuff is certainly good enough. I'd let him work as a starter until it was clear he couldn't do it. If you give up on guys like that, they turn into John Patterson or Jake Westbrook and come back to haunt you. Pitching is too critical to be impatient with."

Summarize what you look for in a pitcher at each level – High School first.

"I always look at size and durability first and foremost. At 17 and 18, these kids will fill out and naturally add velocity so his radar readings aren't as important. I've seen some hit 92 or 93 in high school and reach Double-A, throwing 90 or less – because their mechanics and durability didn't allow for a consistent, natural maturity an they end up fighting really hard to maintain velocity.

"And I have seen guys who were hitting 83 or 84 in high school but had the smooth delivery and the size to handle the necessary work to add to their fastballs. Some ended up being 90+ fastball types. One was Rafael Betancourt, who throws pretty hard these days."

How about college pitchers?

"Usually I want to see a college pitcher dominate, but not just on the scoreboard. I want to see his stuff talk to me. I want to see him make adjustments that the high school kid can't. He's 21, 22 and he's ready for that. If he does that and has the pitches, I'm going to favor him over the one who doesn't show that leadership and maturity. Even if he throws 95+."

Start in the pros with a pitcher in A ball, whether it be at the short-season, intermediate or advanced levels.

"Some of these are kids right out of high school so what we are scouting many times is their progress since being drafted and signed. Stagnant progress is a red flag, and again, during the second full season. That's a key point to most organizations, barring injury.

"For the college pitchers in A ball, usually high-A like the Cal League, I just want to see their stuff hold up. I want to see it translate from level to level, college to pro, Midwest League to California League. And just like during the college season, I want to see him make adjustments like a mature pitcher. Command is always something you want to see at that point, because of the pitcher's age and experience."

"The difference between a pitcher that is two or more year from the majors and one that is on the brink of being major-league ready is their command and mental toughness. When he gets in trouble, how does he handle it?"

How about that MLB-ready pitcher? How do you scout that pitcher?

"Usually at this point you are scouting your own, trying to make the decision about when he's ready for the next level. In July, a lot of trade scenarios come about so there is a lot of scouting a trade-partner's guys.

"If I am watching my own player, evaluating whether he may be ready for the next level, I'm looking for three things;

"His ability to get deeper into games than the average starter in that league. It would depend on the level. In this case, the AA and AAA levels, that guy needs to consistently go six and seven, even eight innings per start.

"Is he in control out there? And I mean that in every sense of the word. Is he throwing strikes? Is he in command of his emotions? Is he getting max effect from more than one pitch? If he is, and he's already being considered for promotion, he's probably going to get it, sooner or later.

"Is he displaying any glaring weakness in his delivery and arm motion? You don't to send a pitcher up a level if you can foresee anything that would prevent him from being successful. That's probably the most critical part of my report in this scenario. What are his chances of being successful at the next level?"

Overall, in what order would you weight an experienced minor league pitcher's attributes?

"I'd start with stuff, because at that level you are talking about what he can do next. Does his stuff appear to be major-league quality? I want to be shown that a pitcher knows how to get outs with his stuff, No. 1.

"Next is probably the mental aspect. All pitchers get into jams. But it's how they work during those situations that can ultimately decide whether a pitcher has the ability to use his stuff to his advantage. It's no use having plus stuff if you don't know how to use it.

"I also think I favor the pitcher who is physically more sound. I am one that does get a little bit scared off by the undersized pitcher. But more importantly, the undersized pitcher without a track record of a full workload. If he has that, I'll gladly ignore the fact that he's only 6-1 and 190. but I'd rather go with a 6-5, 225-pounder.

"Overall, I think the single most important attribute for a pitcher, other than his health, is his ability to learn. A lot of pitchers throw hard but can't do anything with it. But you can take a kid with average stuff across the board when you draft him and he can learn how to improve his command, maximize his fastball (velocity) and sharpen his breaking stuff, all the while learning to fight his way out of a big time jam.

"You tell me up there in Seattle. Who has better natural stuff, Gil Meche or someone like Westbrook or ? Does anyone NOT have better overall stuff than Moyer? Greg Maddux's stuff wasn't that great in the minors. He taught himself how to move the ball in and out and how to get a slow cut from his fastball.

"Glavine (Tom) was the same way. Neither guy threw more than 90-92 at their peaks and they won multiple Cy Young Awards. These are just a few examples. The pitcher has to have the ability to think about pitching and sometimes even teach himself how to compete. The student with two teachers will learn more than those with just one.

"The second teacher is the pitcher himself."
The Eye

Best pitcher you ever saw that never made it in the majors: "I'd say either Ryan Anderson of the Mariners up there - he was throwing 98 at 19 years old with a slider that had plus potential. That alone made him a possible ace - or Rick Ankiel. Ankiel had some polish, but lost it and is now a decent hitter."

Best teenage pitcher you have ever seen: "It's Hernandez. He was better than Gooden at the same age. Gooden piled up the strikeouts, and that produced more hype at the time. Ankiel and Anderson were special talents as teenagers, too. But Hernandez showed every aspect and graded highly in all of them in his first year in the states at 17. I'd sign him to a 20-year deal right now, just so nobody else could get their hands on him."

Toughest type of pitcher to scout?: "The injured one."

Do you have a favorite non-Indians' pitcher? Someone who stood out to you this past year more than others?: Jeff Niemann with the Devil Rays. At 6-9 and 260 pounds and the stuff he has, he's as close to a can't-miss as there is left in the minors. If he's anything less than a 10-year starter with No. 2 production, I'll be shocked."

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