The sabermetric revolution rolls along and it's a great thing for baseball. It has given us a much deeper understanding of the game and the kind of statistics/trends that lend greater chance for future success. Advanced metrics have become an indispensable part of the evaluation process.
As you all know, I'm a huge proponent of these metrics and use them quite often in my evaluation -- but the deeper I have become involved in the game and the more I talk to experienced evaluators, the more I realize that the game outside the numbers still matters -- the tools, the mental makeup -- all of it is still a big part of the evaluation process, especially early on.
We tend to look at the word toolsy and think, "Okay, here's another raw, hacktastic athlete with no baseball skills but can hit the ball 500 feet in batting practice, throw lasers, and run like a track star -- but who is going to get schooled in A ball."
And this may well be true, but one thing that really left an impression with me was a response in a previous article I did on Derek Johnson, the Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator. It was an innocuous question toward the end of our conversation. I asked what advice he has for my nephew, who wants to be a pitcher. His answer was a lot simpler than I expected.
Johnson then went on to talk about how you don't want to have him worry about skills early on. They can always teach him how to throw breaking balls, proper mechanics, throwing strikes consistently etc. For now it was important for him to develop his athleticism and find what works best for him.
And that's the thing -- you can teach skills, even later in the process, and while athleticism is largely innate, it also has to be developed from an early age.
We've seen the Cubs target these kind of pitchers in the draft the past two years -- Pierce Johnson, Paul Blackburn, Duane Underwood, Rob Zastryzny, Tyler Skulina and others are very good athletes with good arm strength. The tools are there for the Cubs staff to mold and develop.
The same thing goes for hitters and I got a related response from a veteran non-Cubs scout I spoke with recently at a Kane County game.
I asked him what the first thing he looks for in a hitter and the response was swift,
"Can he hit a fastball?"
I could have smacked myself in the head when he said that. All the skills in the world aren't going to help if you can't catch up to an average MLB fastball. We all know this intrinsically and this scout actually told me something similar last year. In fact, it came up last year when we went to see a game in Peoria and a certain statistically successful player smoked a HR over the LF fence.
"Hanging slider", said the scout. Watch and see if he can turn on a good fastball. He didn't. At least not on that day. So it then becomes a legitimate question as to whether such a player can sustain success at the upper levels.
The same scout told me that the ability to hit a good fastball is the main reason he likes Kane County hitters Gioskar Amaya and Willson Contreras despite their struggles so far this season. Amaya, however, seems to be coming around now and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him finish strong.
Again, bat speed is a result of a player's natural ability. You can take a struggling player in A ball and work with him and try to teach him Javier Baez bat speed. But it's not going to happen. You can improve it to some degree, but elite bat speed is a different story. On the other hand, you can teach a guy with good bat speed mto be a more disciplined hitter, perhaps not to the degree where he's a .400 OBP guy, but enough to draw some walks and, more importantly, work counts and get themselves in better hitting situations. We've seen the toolsy Arismendy Alcantara make that improvement. We've seen Jorge Soler show patience even after a long layoff after he defected from Cuba. And now we've seen Javier Baez become a more disciplined hitter, though he's just scratching the surface there.
Last night, many of us saw an example of perhaps the player that seems to best define the negative connotation of the word "toolsy", Junior Lake. Lake may not have the greatest approach and he's been criticized by some well-known prospect analysts -- and perhaps they are right, but I can tell you without hesitation that those evaluations are not the consensus on Lake. There are some well-respected evaluators who like what he brings to the table. You need high upside guys like Lake in your system because you can always find guys who have great baseball skills but limited upside and athleticism. The toolsy guys don't always work out, but when they do learn just enough baseball skill to take advantage of their great athleticism, you could really have something special.
So, how do you know a player can learn those skills?
Well, you don't. And that's part of the harsh realities of scouting. But what you can do is do your homework on not just the player, but the person. No matter who you ask in the Cubs organization, they'll always talk about a player's mental makeup. We've heard Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer talk about it through the media, but it permeates the thought process at every level of the organization. Perhaps nobody put it better than Cubs area scout Alex Lontayo when he agreed to give us his thoughts on Kris Bryant.
Kris is a special player and person. Very athletic, plus arm, can run for a player his size and as almost everyone knows, has incredible leverage and power in his bat. Has a solid work ethic and a quiet confidence that makes you believe he will be an impact player at the next level. He comes from a great family, which is extremely supportive, and has guided him to become the person he is. Such a high character person that you immediately become a fan after talking to him. The more I watched him and spent time with him, the more convicted I became. All the background work I did turned up the same results, people that have had the chance to really know him, absolutely believed and liked him. Positive feedback across the board both on and off the field, including the classroom, dating back to high school. I’m excited and look forward to watching his continued development and career in our organization.
So yeah, Kris Bryant has tools, but he has the mental makeup needed to give him a better than average chance of making those tools work for him on the baseball field. The same can be said of the other prospects we've talked about in this piece.
The Cubs have made prospect watching fun again and that means following their success through box scores and great sites like Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. They are great tools but, by themselves, they are not a substitute for evaluating how a player plays the game and determining whether he has what it takes to take it to the next level. Tools and mental makeup still matter when you are looking for impact players at the highest level of the game.
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