A Lesson in Perspective at the NHSI

One of the most-asked questions on the Up and In Podcast may have been “How can I get into Baseball?” Kevin and Jason did their best to not crush people’s dreams, but they also served a hearty dose of reality. The “Do you like shitting in McDonald’s?” conversation has become a thing of folklore amongst prospect followers and baseball outsiders. Scouts are grinders, and they sacrifice a lot to put themselves in that position. I firmly believe (for many of us) putting in the time to learn and grind is our only legitimate avenue into the game. Sure, there are other ways in: Former players become scouts. Ivy league grads land R&D jobs. Relatives of prominent front office executives snag entry-level roles. That is not to disparage any of these groups, but what about the rest of us? You’ve got to be refulgent and exhibit exemplary #want to have a glimmer of a chance.

A perhaps underrated aspect of evaluation (and the learning process as a scout) is establishing perspective. As a scout, what good does it do to only see players at one level? If you only scout AA/AAA games, you will only see polished players on the verge of the big leagues. Conversely, if you only scout high school players, your viewings will be largely confined to raw, projectable kids.

There are benefits for pro scouts to see amateurs and for amateur scouts to see pros. Amateur scouts who see pro talent will be reminded of what the kids they are scouting need to become to have a chance at the highest level. The amateur scout should be thinking, what reasonable path does said player have to make a major league roster? Seeing pro talent helps set a mental baseline as to what will be required at higher levels.

Pro scouts who see amateur talent will get a look at, for lack of a better term, young bodies that they may see a few years later in pro ball. I imagine it is immensely instructive (unintentional alliteration) to see a toolsy, raw kid at age 18, then see him again at 22. How did this player’s body evolve? What 18-year-old tools translated to 22-year-old baseball skills? OR what tools did NOT translate?

My scouting interests lie primarily in the low minors, where there is a mix of high school draftees, college draftees and international signees. There is still room for projection here, but many guys are not as far away from the majors as you may think. I view it as the Goldilocks Zone between the high minors and amateur ball. Amateur evaluation is a new interest of mine. Frankly, I could not tell you much beyond round one of the 2017 draftees. This January I began to see D1 college scrimmages and realized what I was missing out on. Gaining perspective became a motivation, prompting me to delve further into the amateur ranks.

Introduce the NHSI or the National High School Invitational. It is a 16 team tournament for some of the most talented high school teams in the country. This year 13 of Baseball America’s top 200 draft prospects partook, including possible round one draftees Matthew Liberatore, Nolan Gorman, and Brice Turang. I spent a few hours before the tournament researching college commitments to figure out which players warranted the most attention. This event was a f****** whirlwind. It was a delightful deluge of baseball talent, including as many as four simultaneous games. It was hard to not feel like you were missing out on something.

Nolan Gorman NHSI 2018

In addition to seeing great amateur talent, this tournament was a learning experience. Gaining perspective is a huge part in my professional development as an aspiring scout. On the third day of the tournament the eventual champion, Orange Lutheran, sent Christian Rodriguez to the mound. A 6’6″ 185 lb right-hander, his stuff and projectability were equally impressive. The sophomore threw an easy 88-90 and touched 91. It was patently obvious this is a guy to watch out for. There is room for good weight, maybe to the tune of 30 pounds. Later in the day I bumped into MLB.COM reporter/analyst Mike Rosenbaum. We got to talking Rodriguez, and Mike mentioned he threw mid-80s last year as a freshman.

A lightbulb clicked. Had I been doing this all wrong? When scouting the minors, I would essentially write off anyone throwing below 90. (There could be extenuating circumstances, of course.) This is not to say I had been automatically writing off anyone throwing below 90 at the NHSI, but it made me reconsider the lens through which I viewed the underclassmen. At the amateur level context takes on greater importance. The difference between a 15-year-old and 18-year-old is massive; I would argue it is larger than the difference between 18 and 22. A underclassman throwing low-mid 80s still has a chance to make it. There is so much room for physical growth between 15 and 18, something that I had not fully wrapped my mind around or appreciated. Lesson learned.

The last day of the tournament, Calvary Christian threw Andrew Painter, a 6’4″ 195 lb righty and 2021 grad. He sat 81-83 with a curve in the 61-64 range. There’s a decent shot I would have taken little notice of him a few days earlier, but the conversation with Rosenbaum had altered my thought process. Even at 81-83, this kid has a chance. One, He’s not even 15! B, the body is still growing. Is there room for more on his frame? F*** ya, there is. You would have to be crazy to write him off…..or possibly you just aren’t appropriately weighing context.

As the tournament concluded, I was left reflecting on what was an elucidating event. I found it eye-opening and thought-provoking. But oddly, the feeling that dominated all others was impatience. I want to see how things shake out. Who will Christian Rodriguez and Andrew Painter be in five years? In seven years? How will their bodies grow? How will their skills on the field evolve? The tournament was like watching an episode of LOST. It provided three answers and eight more questions, but I won’t complain. It was great to catch a glimpse of tomorrow, today.

Griffin Conine’s MLB Swing Comps

This spring has been a busy one. My first day of live baseball was 1/26. Since then, I have seen 11 D1 college programs and attended 17 baseball events, including scrimmages, games and showcases. This isn’t meant to be braggadocious. It’s intended to underscore the fact I have seen a fair amount of D1 players YTD, and there have been a number of excellent hitters among them. These “kids” are possible top 5 round MLB draft picks: Jimmy Herron, Johnny Aiello, Carlos Cortes. They are very good players, but none of them were on par with Duke’s Griffin Conine.

For lack of a better idiom, he’s “A dude off the bus” as coined by the Up and In Podcast. You might be asking yourself, what the h*** does that even mean? It’s a guy who catches your attention almost immediately due to his physique. Conine’s massive pecs bulge out of his shirt. He simply LOOKS LIKE an athlete and passes the eye test. He’s an incredibly strong kid and has clearly put in serious work in the weight room. Conine hits the ball with authority, much harder than any of his D1 contemporaries I have seen.

Although his strength is impressive, it is not Conine’s defining characteristic as a baseball player. Scouts and teams alike should be wondering how he was able to slug .546 last year in one of the best D1 conferences, while maintaining a strikeout rate of 16.72%.  It’s also worth noting, he walked in 15.24% of his plate appearances, otherwise expressed as a 41 to 45 BB:K ratio. I try to avoid scouting the stat line, but these numbers say a lot. Considering his power output, he rarely strikes out, makes pitchers come into the zone and punishes them when they do. The stats are sexy, but the (multi-) million dollar question is, “How will this production translate to pro ball?” In an attempt to answer it, let’s examine his hitting mechanics by comparing them to active major league players.

This was an arduous process. Step one: open the Fangraphs 2017 Leaderboard. Step two: search for open-faced swing for given player on YouTube. Step three: compare swing to Conine’s swing. Step four: repeat 100 times. That’s right, folks. I looked at a hundred major league swings and compared each of them to Griffin Conine’s swing. Two players’ swings stood out as having similar characteristics: Jay Bruce and Corey Seager.

As a companion piece, I highly recommend reading Ryan Parker’s (Twitter: @RA_Parker) Baseball Prospectus article, RP BP Article, in which he explains hitting mechanics and breaks swings into components. Parker defines and elaborates on each phase, which I will touch on below.

The Stance:

Jay Bruce had the most similar base stance to Griffin Conine. Both start with their hands hands high, back elbow parallel to the ground, and legs fairly wide apart. Both bend their back knee, although Conine’s bend is more pronounced. Another difference is Bruce’s front foot is bent back slightly facing home.

Gather/Load:

At the gather phase hitters rock back for momentum before coming forward to attack the ball. Both guys shift their weight to their back leg and start to lower their hands. Conine’s shift is very slight. He barely moves back at all. Interestingly, Bruce raises his elbow as he dips his hands. I think this adds length to his swing but also results in an uppercut path that generates significant power. Bruce also has a larger leg kick than Conine, whose lower body is quieter and more controlled.

Approach:

After the gather, hitters move their weight forward as their hands move into a ready position. There seem to be more similarities between Corey Seager and Griffin Conine after the gather phase. Conine’s lower body movements closely mirror Seager. They are very subtle. Both rock back slightly to their back foot before they come forward in a controlled manner. Conine starts his hands high and Seager starts his hands low, but they both slowly shift their elbows to a point where they are level with their shoulders. Bruce, on the other, hand maintains a high elbow even as he begins the approach.

Slot, Then Foot Strike:

As noted in Ryan Parker’s article, “the slot” is characterized by the back elbow being more or less level with the back shoulder. Slotting refers to a hitter’s hands. It’s the moment before a hitter’s hands begin to move forward toward the mound and into the hitting zone. By the slot position, Conine is very similar to Seager. Both are approaching foot strike and their hands are similarly positioned. The only real difference is the right/bottom arm. Seager’s is parallel to the ground and Conine’s is “angled up”. This would result in more of an uppercut for Conine, which may be the only remaining similarity I can see to Jay Bruce.

In Parker’s article, he also mentions the importance of the slot’s timing and relative to foot strike. Conine slots well before his foot strike. His center of mass stays back. This enables him to utilize his full body as he brings the bat forward through the hitting zone. It may explain how he is able to generate big power out of a relatively “quiet swing”. His power looks to be generated by upper body strength more than his lower body, which is especially quiet.

Barrel Enters Zone:

Not sure what to say here. These look like carbon copies, no?

Contact:

I have a couple of observations here. First, Corey Seager rolls over his front foot after contact. I am not sure what purpose this serves, but I noticed Carlos Gonzalez does the same thing. Second, Seager’s lower body looks to be more involved than Conine’s.

In summation, I see a swing that incorporates aspects of Jay Bruce and Corey Seager. Conine’s stance and high hands through the slot position result in an uppercut swing that should generate power. The way he keeps his weight back through hand slot also suggests he’ll be able to hit for power. At the same time, the ease of his lower body movements result in a smooth, repeatable swing. I believe his upper body strength coupled with the fluidity of his lower body will allow him to hit for power while maintaining consistent contact. This is a unique swing with a controlled violence that reminds me of few other players.

The photos/video of Jay Bruce and Corey Seager were trimmed from YouTube videos. The Bruce video was courtesy of Walt Hilsenbeck. You can find him on Twitter @HilsFilms. His YouTube account has an immense amount of baseball content too. Check it out here! Walt Hilsenbeck YouTube. The Seager video was from rkyosh007. Please check out his YouTube account too. rkyosh007 YouTube

2/11/18 – Prep Baseball Report NC Showcase

It was a sterile, odd atmosphere for a baseball event, feeling equal parts athletic competition and science experiment. Maybe I found it strange because this was the first high school showcase event I had ever attended, and I had no frame of reference from which to compare it. The showcase was held at the Diamond Xtreme Training Facility in Kernersville, NC about 20 minutes west of Greensboro. It’s a 30,000 square foot building, which is large enough to house a full-sized infield and some batting cages.

The benefits of this sort of event are obvious; it provides access to many of the best area players under one roof. In my estimation, the PBR team did a great job hosting the event. Scouts were provided with packets that detailed player heights, weights, schools, and left open space for notes. As players began various drills, PBR announced their names. It was efficient and easy to follow. To my surprise, they will even provide scouts with data packages via email that will include velocities for pitchers, 30-yard dash times for position players, pop times for catchers, etc.

While useful, this is still only a showcase, and it has its limitations. For example, on the catcher pop time drill there were no breaking balls thrown. There was no pressure of a runner getting a good jump. Clearly, it would be a different situation in-game. In fairness to PBR, they did the drill in two phases. In the first phase, pitches were thrown directly to the catcher. In the second phase, balls were thrown “in the dirt”. The catcher had to block them, then throw to second. Still, this drill lacked a lot of nuance that an in-game throw to second necessitates. Now that you have a feel for what we were working with, let’s move on to player notes.

Devin Bartley of Southeast Gilford was in the 1.95-2.02 second range with his pop times. His throws were accurate and on a line. Trent Harris of Crossroads Flex had a very quick release and a pop as low as 1.86 seconds, but the accuracy of his throws were less consistent than Bartley’s.

The pitchers threw around 20 pitches each. The first half were from the windup and the second half  were from the stretch. Their full array of offerings were used. Most of the kids were high 80s with their fastballs. A few touched 90. The breaking balls were of varying quality and a few displayed nascent feel for their changeups. Logan Whitaker of Ledford was the pitcher I liked best. At 6’5” 175 lbs, I think his frame is projectable, and I think he had the best feel among the pitchers present, especially with his changeup. It was an easy delivery with little effort. Chris Villaman also of Ledford touched 90 with his fastball. It was a crossfire ¾ delivery, which resulted in natural cut to his glove side. His curveball was good at times and stayed up at others. Ryan Chasse of Middle Creek had some head whack. The delivery did not look polished, but maybe counter-intuitively, that made me like him because I am curious to see how he performs if it is refined. His arm is fast and he gets good rotational velocity.

There were some impressive outfield arms in the building. CJ Conrad of Apex touched 95. Sam Zayicek of Lake Norman touched 93. Trent Harris touched 94. Keep in mind these were all with a crow hop. Xaiver Bussey of Garner had the best 30-yard dash time at 3.7 seconds on my watch. Jaylen Guy of Southeast Gilford and CJ Conrad were not far behind at 3.76 and 3.85, respectively.

In my opinion, Jaylen Guy was the owner of the best BP of the day. He was hitting the most consistent line drive contact. It’s a smooth, balanced swing. I think Tyler Tuthill of Pro 5 Academy had the most power. He was capable of easy loft. It’s worth noting all or almost all of his contact was pull-side. Trent Harris did a decent job at using “both fields”.

Take this event for what it’s worth. There were some intriguing tools on display, but let’s not get too carried away. At the very least, it was a fine way for scouts to spend their Sunday when nothing else of value was going on.

2/2, 2/3, 2/6 Duke Preseason Scrimmages

There were two Duke pitchers who stood out to me, and I think both are capable of throwing harder than they did in my viewings. The first was Graeme Stinson, a massive 6’5″ 250 lb lefty. He went one inning so take this with a grain of salt. The fastball sat 92 and touched 94. His secondary offering was a low-80s curveball that flashed plus. It was inconsistent both in terms of its sharpness and location, but there were a couple of solid 60s in there. Looking at his body and delivery, I couldn’t help but believe he is capable of more velocity. Currently, the velo is more the product of raw strength than mechanics, although that is not to say his mechanics are poor. Stinson’s balance is plus. Specifically, his head is very stable relative to center of mass throughout the delivery. I am optimistic he can add to his fastball velocity because I think there is some room for improvement with his torque. At present, he does not utilize much hip to shoulder separation. I want to see more of Stinson especially after reading he also employs a changeup. There is day one Rule 4 MLB Draft potential here.

The other pitcher who caught my eye was Adam Laskey. Another lefty, he sat 90-91 with a filthy, high-70s breaking ball. I have seen it labeled a slider or curve in various places. It looked more like a curve to me. Whatever the f*** it is, it’s nasty. It featured sharp, tight spin and late two-plane movement. It’s one of the handful of best pitches I have seen this spring and probably already a major league 60. I’d be willing to commit a few minor misdemeanors to get a look at its spin rate data. Mechanically, Laskey gets plus extension, which should result an a positive perceived to actual velocity differential and allow his stuff to play up. His momentum also stands out as a plus attribute. I don’t see any glaring weaknesses in the delivery; it’s very smooth and kinetically efficient.

Among position players there were a handful of standouts.

Jimmy Herron displayed excellent bat control. He used all fields in BP and in games, and his bat finds barrels at a high rate. I think his approach is contact-oriented, but he is  strong enough to run into some homers. One criticism is his propensity to expand the zone and chase well-located breaking balls down and away, which happened a few times in my looks. Herron is a plus runner. I had him 3.6 home to first on a perfectly-placed bunt in Friday’s scrimmage. This shouldn’t be measured on the same scale as a swinging home to first time, but it’s fast regardless. There weren’t enough balls hit his way to get a feel for him defensively.

Zack Kone has the best hands on the team, and it’s evident on both sides of the ball. At shortstop, his infield actions are smooth and his release is wicked fast. At first glance, I think the arm and range are average. According to goduke.com, he made 20 errors last year for what it’s worth. At the plate Kone has a short, quick stroke. The bat speed is plus, and I think he’s going to be really tough to strike out. At times, the swing becomes too linear and this threatens to temper his power output. More concerningly, he appears gets too much weight on his front foot before his hands enter the hitting zone. The result is a mostly wrist/hand powered swing, which fails to utilize the full kinetic chain. On the basepaths, I think his speed plays up because he has a good feel for stealing.

Steve Mann has the best bat speed on the team. Better than Herron. Better than Kone. Better than Conine. Last Friday Duke did BP, and I took video. After arriving home I looked at the open-faced swings for every player. It became very evident that Mann has a special tool at his disposal. I am not sure how it will translate on the field, but it is a preternatural gift he’s been blessed with.  His swing plane has been a bit flat in my in-game looks, but there are times in BP when he elevates, and I think to myself, “HELL yes. There it is.” On the basepaths, I got a couple of underwhelming run times, but I think he’s ultimately an average runner. After consulting with Google, I found him on Baseball America’s 2016 Fall Top 100 High School players list. BA 2016 Fall Top 100 HS. He’s a player I want to monitor closely. Mann is a strong kid at 6’0″ 195lbs. I see hefty offensive potential here.

Chris Proctor is an athletic catcher with a lithe frame. His left-handed swing is aesthetically pleasing and balanced. He hit more ground balls in-game than I expected based off of his BP in which he achieved better loft. I am uncertain if this is small sample size variance or whether his swing flattens in-game. The approach at the plate is pretty aggressive; this kid likes to swing. Proctor’s home to first run times of 4.11-4.19 have him bordering on plus territory for a left-handed hitter. His receiving skills and athleticism are plus. The arm strength might be below average, but I only have one pop for him at 2.26. In my estimation more data is needed.

Griffin Conine is alright. Just kidding. I am saving him for a separate post in which I will break down his hitting mechanics and attempt to compare him to a current major leaguer.

 

1/26, 1/27 ACC Practice Reviews

On January 18th I arrived in Greensboro, NC with my sights set and calendar circled for 2/16/18. I was overcome with a bizarre hodgepodge of emotions. Excitement. Relief. Apprehension. After over a year of meticulous planning and big moves on the chess board that is my life, I had finally made it. Setting foot on North Carolina soil was symbolic. It meant opening a new chapter in my life. Years of confused depression and futile, wheel-spinning effort in an unfulfilling, meaningless career had come to an end. It took me 30 years, but I had finally found clairvoyance for what may be the most important question: what do you want to do with your life?

Back to the matter at hand! February 16th was in my sights because it is college baseball’s opening day. Upon arrival here in NC, I started following team-run Twitter accounts for UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, Wake Forest, Duke and UNC Wilmington. I was planning to use my first few weeks to explore the area but learned some teams have preseason scrimmages that are open to the public. Needless to say, I leapt at the opportunity to see some of the best college talent in the nation.

Saturday afternoon I caught UNC’s intrasquad scrimmage. Campus was abuzz with activity as I walked over to Bryson Field. I arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled start time, which was not early enough. There was already a contingent of scouts behind home plate occupying seats with the best views. I found an open seat amongst them and got to work. Pregame the team was working on fielding drills. A coach hit balls to the outfielders who fired them back into the catcher. (Good opportunity for OF arm evals) The 2018 roster was unavailable online so I did my best with the 2017 roster. #11 and #40 had the best arms. Their throws carried on a line with very little arc. Eventually I got their names. #11 is Cody Roberts and #40 is Angel Zarate.

Once the scrimmage started, my attention shifted to the mound. Austin Bergner, a draft-eligible sophomore and possible 2018 first round pick, was the starting pitcher. Bergner has the prototypical pitcher body, listed at 6’4″ 199 lbs. He sat 88-92 and touched 94 with a plus changeup and a curve that flashed average. The low 80s changeup was his best pitch on this day. Its depth was moderate, but I was very impressed with Bergner’s feel for the pitch. He was able to command it to both sides of the plate and use it in any count. Bergner’s curve was sharp at times and at other times it became too slurvy and hung up. His command for this pitch waivered. Mechanically, his delivery looks easy. His balance and posture enable him to repeat consistently. You can read more about balance and posture as defined by Doug Thorburn (Twitter:@doug_thorburn) in these Baseball Prospectus articles – Pitcher Mechanics 1 Pitcher Mechanics 2. Specifically, I am looking at Bergner’s head relative to his center of mass, which is very stable and easy throughout the delivery. Overall, it’s not difficult to see why scouts love this guy. I think his frame can handle a starter’s workload at the highest level, and it’s not hard to envision an arsenal with three average or better pitches.

Tyler Baum’s encore to Austin Bergner did not disappoint. Baum, listed at 6’1″ 171 lbs, was less physically imposing than Bergner, but his stuff was equally impressive. His fastball rested low 90s, touching 93, and Baum was able to maintain velo from the stretch. His high 70s curve snapped with impressive 10-4 break. It was his best pitch. The second time through the order a potentially plus change emerged. Baum only threw two or three of them, but their late movement and depth stood out to me. I am unsure why the pitch was not used more often but speculate it’s due to his lack of confidence in it. Again referencing Doug’s pitching mechanics articles, momentum and torque are the attributes that stand out for Baum. He drifts backs toward second as he approaches maximum leg lift to maintain momentum and propel himself home. With regards to torque, I see quality hip to shoulder separation, which aids his rotational velocity. Also draft-eligible in 2018, the team that drafts Baum will likely be aiming to use him as a starter, but if all else fails his stuff in short bursts should be extremely effective in the pen.


Friday evening I attended NC State’s scrimmage. Juxtaposed to UNC, the atmosphere was pretty quiet and laid back. There were no scouts in attendance (unless you count me – HA!), and there were a handful of family members and classmates in the stands. I was able to arrive early enough to catch BP, which was great.

One observation from BP was Brad Debo’s swing yielded pretty consistent, easy loft. My first impression is he’s a player who will be able to generate power without selling out for it. The bat path combined with his physique should allow for this. Defensively, he moved well for his size (6’1″ 210 lb). He displayed surprising agility and good feet. Debo made a few blocks of varying difficulty in the dirt. I do not put much credence in college statistics but noticed he made zero errors the entire 2017 season according to gopack.com. Definitely a good sign. Debo made two throws in this scrimmage. The first was on a Terrell Tatum stolen base, which was thrown into CF. It’s worth noting, however, the ball passed second base in 1.75 seconds, which would be a 70 grade pop time. The second throw was a 2.01 pop on a line to gun the runner out. Unfortunately, I missed this one with my camera. I thought his framing was good overall, and his movements behind the plate were fluid. There were a couple of instances when he stabbed at the ball with his glove instead of shifting his whole body in front of it. I want to see more of Debo at the plate, but my first impression was good. I think he has a well-rounded skill set and will contribute value on both sides of the ball.

(2/6/18 Edit – After talking to a few people, I think my description of Debo’s defense reads too positive. I still believe he has potential to be an average defensive catcher, and the bat would need to carry his profile.)

The Wolfpack have a couple of freshman who I think will make contributions to their roster in Nick Swiney and Terrell Tatum. The former, a 6’3″ 170 lb left-handed pitcher, touched 90 and sat 86-88. His frame should inspire hope he can add more velocity to his fastball going forward. It looks capable of supporting more weight. His breaking ball, a curveball in the mid 70s, displayed sharp two-plane movement. Swiney’s confidence in the pitch was evident as he wasn’t afraid to use it early in counts. He could also locate it in the zone for a called strike or below the zone deliberately as a chase pitch. It’s his best offering. Mechanically, his momentum and torque are assets and his arm is very quick. The open face shots from the video show some head whack at foot strike, which can often result in command issues. It’s something to keep an eye on.

The latter, a 6′ 160 lb outfielder, showed an interesting collection of tools. I first took notice of his BP in which he was the owner of more raw power than I would have anticipated based on his size. I am dying to get a run time on Tatum who may have 80 grade speed. There is a video floating around online that asserts a 3.75 home to first time, which would be an easy 80. His approach at the plate is very methodical. I am unsure if it’s patient or passive at this juncture. It’s worth noting he laid off a few borderline, two-strike balls in this scrimmage, suggesting he has a good idea of the zone. If I remember correctly, he only swung twice on this day so it’s hard to make any sweeping conclusions on his swing. Defensively, expect him to cover a lot of ground. He made one throw that was not too great either in terms of arm strength or accuracy, although it’s perhaps unfair to make this judgement on a single throw. There are some interesting tools here and getting more looks of Tatum is on my to-do list.

All and all, I was just happy to have live baseball as an option this early in the year. Day 1 and 2 were a lot of fun. I plan on catching as many practices as possible between now and 2/16. There are two more weekends. Assuming it will be an option every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that would mean six more practices, weather and team-availability permitting. Fingers crossed.