4 August, 2005

The ins and outs of scouting the Cape League

     Daniel Bard, a pitcher for the Wareham Gatemen, looks down from the mound for the signs from the catcher. As he goes into his windup, suddenly there is a flurry of activity from the small section of bleachers behind the plate as a bevy of radar guns pop up above and from between the heads of the five dozen major league scouts on hand to evaluate potential prospects.

After the pitch, the guns disappear into the crowd only to crop up again on the next pitch.

It is common at any Cape Cod Baseball League game to see the scouts with their radar guns, but at Saturday's All-Star game the scouts were out en masse and were easy to spot.

Mac Seibert, a scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, estimates that about 80 major league scouts from just about every organization were scattered about Hyannis' McKeon Field.

At first glance scouting appears to be pretty easy. You get to go to baseball games and watch young players.

But there's a lot more to it. Ask a scout what organization he's with or some other simple questions, and a pleasant, forthcoming and even eager response is possible.

But try to engage them in conversation and you're likely to get a curt reply, "I really can't talk to you now."

On any given pitch or play a scout might be looking at five, six or seven different things.

Radar guns make the scouts visible, but are only a small part in the scouting process.

Bard pitched the first inning of the All Star game, and his fastball was clocked at 95 to 97 miles per hour, considered very good. But it is only one of the things the scouts assess.

Buzz Bowers, a scout for more than 40 years with the Los Angeles Dodgers and currently with the Boston Red Sox (13 years), says, "The pitch has got to have life; it's no good if it's straight."

"It's [the radar gun] a tool," says Russ Bove, director of scouting for the New York Mets. "As you go higher up in baseball, the guns are less important. The bottom line is can he get outs?"

Bottom line is getting the outs 

The ins and outs of scouting the Cape League

Bove cites Tom Glavine of the Mets as an example of a pitcher who throws around 85 mph, but consistently gets batters out and wins games.

John Stockstill, scouting director for the Chicago Cubs, agrees. "We try to have scouts use it not very often. It's a minor tool, a starting point."

"A pitcher has got to have the whole repertoire," says Bowers. "He's got to have a change-up and he has to have some breaking stuff."

Scouts look at a wide variety of aspects on any given pitch, from the delivery to how well the pitcher fields his position.

"From a pitcher's perspective, we look at velocity, but we also look at release time, the time it takes for the pitch to go from the mound to home plate," says Seibert.

"I look at if he throws nice and loose and easy. Or you might look at deception or what pitch mix he has," says Bove. "A starter in the majors has to have three good pitches; out of the bullpen he'd better have two."

Sometimes the scouts will look at the speed a pitcher has on his breaking stuff. Stockstill notes that Barry Zito of the Oakland A's throws "a big slow curve ball" around 67 mph, whereas Kerry Woods of the Cubs throws a curve at 80 to 85 mph.

However, again, the bottom line is getting the batter out.

Scouts also look at command, a pitcher's location.

Command is different from control, says Stockstill in that control involves throwing pitches in the strike zone.

"A lot of guys can throw strikes in the strike zone; they can throw strikes, but they can't get anybody out."

Command, on the other hand, involves throwing strikes to places where the batter can't hit it.

And this is only when scouting the pitchers.

Pre-game practice is important, too

Scouts, of course, are also looking at the hitters and fielders and have to chart a number of different things at any given time.

"We look at the pitch itself, the delivery, how the pitcher starts, arm angle, release, the pitch's speed and movement. Then we look at how the hitter reacts to the pitch and how and where he hits it. And then if the ball is hit, we look at how the defensive player reacts," says Ron Vaughn, a scout with the Oakland A's 

Siebert, on every pitch, hit the timer on his stopwatch just as the ball approached the batter. Saturday, Siebert had to quickly re-set the stopwatch after most pitches.

He was charting the batter's speed down the base path after the ball was hit. He said often he is charting the runners' speed when stealing or running the bases.

Many scouts show up to watch batting practice and infield practice and have the same concentration as during the game.

"It's almost as important as the game itself," says Bobby Nasson, a scout for only three months with the Houston Astros.

They evaluate arm strength and accuracy and how well a player moves. They want to see what kind of range an infielder has.

In batting practice they look for strength, how a player uses his hands and legs, and if he can hit as well in the game as he does in BP.

Scouts look at the intangibles, too. Nasson acknowledges that skills and talent are a priority, but he also talked about character and desire.

"Does he have good baseball instincts? Is he constantly in the game? We look at if he enjoys playing baseball," says Nasson. "We want to get to know the player. We want to see if he works hard and comes to play each game. We're looking for the right mix of tools, dedication and hard work."

Siebert says that in an All Star game, it is hard to assess how a player responds to pressure, especially with the pitchers because they only pitch one or two innings.

"The first thing we look at is competitiveness and what I call "mound presence," the pitcher's demeanor when things are not going his way," says Siebert.

Cape League is a frame of reference 

The scouts are not permitted by contract to discuss the performance of any given player, but Bard and his East All Star counterpart, Jared Hughes from the Chatham A's must have gotten some points in this area.

Bard pitched himself out of a bases loaded jam in the first inning, the only inning he pitched, while Hughes got out of a tough situation with men on second and third with one out.

Bard was voted by the scouts as the West team's Most Valuable Player.

"As you would expect, good pitching always beats good hitting. That's what we saw today," says Siebert of the East's 1-0 win over the West.

Bove says the Cape League provides a great setting to evaluate these aspects of a player's progress.

"The Cape League gives us a frame of reference. When we look at a guy again in the spring, we can see who worked on weaknesses and improved and who went backward," says Bove.

Stockstill says the Cape League is important for scouts because it gives them an opportunity to see players using wooden bats against good pitching, conditions they will face in the higher levels of baseball.

And the Cape League plays baseball in the right season.

"Baseball is played in the summer. Unlike a lot of colleges that start in January and play through the spring, here it is played in the summer on a day-to-day basis, which is how it is played at the higher levels," says Stockstill.

Because all of the players in the Cape League have exceptional talent and skills, the scouts generally evaluate all players and don't focus on one or two.

And there are always a number of players who have not yet signed with an organization and are eligible for the June draft next year.

"Most of these players will start in an A league. The question is: Will he progress? Will he develop?" says Bowers.

The scouts' business is to pick the players who will develop.

"Sometimes you're wrong, but you hope to be right more than you're wrong. The teams that are right are the teams that win," says Nasson.

By George Kostinas