Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Skill and Talent

"Baseball is ninety percent mental.  The other half is physical."
- Yogi Berra

Baseball is unlike the other "big four" sports -- football, basketball, and hockey.  Except for notable exceptions, successful players take three to five (or more) years to reach the major leagues after being drafted.  However, most never make it.  In hockey, most of the supremely talented "can't miss" prospects don't miss at all and end up in the NHL as very good players, or better.  The same occurs in the NBA and the NFL has a slightly more muddy outlook.

For many of these other athletes, things have to break wrong for them to miss their opportunities.  Injuries, addictions, legal troubles, character issues, and other obstacles separate them from reaching the pinnacle of their sport.

The more I learn about baseball, the more I'm convinced that things have to break right for anyone to reach the major leagues, even the most supremely "talented" athletes.

This past week marked the confluence of several baseball related activities for me.  First of all, I attended my first Spring Training, spending about 9 days in Dunedin, Florida, the spring home of the Blue Jays.  During this time, I had the chance to speak to some scouts and baseball writers, particularly about scouting and evaluation of talent and prospects.  Second, I've been reading Dirk Hayhurst's books, "The Bullpen Gospels" and "Out of My League" which chronicle his journey through the minor leagues and his first taste of big league life.  Third, I finally read "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis.  I had seen the movie, of course, but reading the book at this particular time really set my brain in motion.

I'm convinced that baseball hasn't changed all that much since "Moneyball" came out.  The book examines the Oakland A's of 1999-2003 (with 2002 the prime focus) and their General Manager, Billy Beane.  What Lewis reveals is that Beane, a failed über-prospect himself, had to change the paradigm of talent evaluation and acquisition in order to compete with a far smaller payroll than most of the other major league teams.  By using sophisticated systems of statistical analysis, Beane and his staff (including assistant GM Paul DePosdesta) were successful in being the first major league team to quantify the achievement of wins and find players who could contribute disproportionately to the size of their salaries.

A narrative thread in the book that comes through particularly strongly in the sections on Billy Beane's failures at the highest levels of the game and Scott Hatteberg's successes is that skill, not talent, is the defining factor in the development of major league talent.  Billy Beane, with raw power, speed, and the ability to play defense, never did much in the majors.  What did he have to show for his outsized talent?  He only compiled 315 Plate Appearances in 6 years, hitting .219/.246/.296.  Scott Hatteberg, who couldn't run, or field, and never had awesome power, managed to put it all together in a way that enabled him to not only exceed his expectations, but dominate in his own way (at least for a time).  Hatteberg played in the majors for thirteen seasons, compiling around a league average OPS (.772) in 4876 plate appearances, but owning a lifetime .361 OBP and even at the age of 37, had a career year with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007 putting up a .310/.394/.474 slash line.

What can we learn from this?  Hatteberg had enough talent but excelled at developing his skill as a hitter.*  He was not just a player who relied on his talent, but honed his abilities to control the strike zone throughout his long career.  It was his skill and his commitment to the craft of hitting (particularly the mental approach) that set him up as a major league regular for over 10 years.

Another example of this is the case of Dirk Hayhurst.  Hayhurst, a long-time minor leaguer in the Padres' system, was never a top prospect or had the physical gifts of a top prospect.  In "Out of My League," he talks about how he never lit up the radar gun and how some members of the Padres' coaching staff thought that he must have been drafted as a favour to someone.  So how did Hayhurst, a guy who played three seasons of high-A ball, end up in the majors?  Since his books are more about the experience of playing minor league ball than about minor league ball itself, the nuts and bolts are a little vague.  But it's perfectly clear that Hayhurst made adjustments in his mental approach.  He didn't suddenly develop a killer new pitch.  He didn't add 5 mph on his fastball.  He unlocked the mental skill of pitching and learned how to get batters out.  Hayhurst is another example of a "non-prospect" who could make the most of his physical gifts and rise against overwhelming odds to earn a spot in the major leagues, although he did so in the Padres system rather than with the A's.

Some of Billy Beane's innovations are in much wider use today.  Major league teams are much more aware of the value of OBP and are definitely stressing the "traditional" numbers -- batting average, RBIs, stolen bases -- less than they were before.  However, teams still draft "talent" or "tools."  The Blue Jays are a great example of this.  When Alex Anthopoulos took over as the GM, he went about reconstructing a much more traditional scouting structure that his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi (who was an assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland), had decimated.  He understood the human element in seeing and evaluating a player firsthand, rather than solely through statistics.**

In my conversations with scouts and writers, they still look at players the same way.  "He's got a great body," they say.  They love players with speed, and pitchers with tall, slim frames who throw hard or who have great "bite" to their breaking-ball.  But while they talked about players' tools, they rarely discussed the players skills.  No scouts I talked to ever discussed an amateur pitcher's ability to work a count.***  None of them talked about a batter's ability to make adjustments.  My guess is that because these skills are so much more difficult to evaluate, especially when seeing a player once or twice, they're not very apparent.

The Oakland A's of the early 2000s HAD to do what they did.  They had to find the rejects and castoffs from other teams by identifying the things that they did well that were undervalued by everyone else.  Today's Blue Jays don't need to do that.  They can afford to keep players who command larger salaries and they can afford to pay large sums of money to prospects as signing bonuses.  And while the Jays are getting some great "high-ceilinged" talent, particularly on the pitching side, they're also getting a lot of guys who seem to not be able to make the most of it on the hitting side.

The more I learn, the more I become convinced that excellence in baseball happens between the ears.  Examples abound at the major league level.  Take Jose Bautista, for example.  Has his talent level changed since bouncing around after signing with Pittsburgh in 2003?  An amateur scout with Pittsburgh at the time, Alvin Rittman told me that they always loved his "intangibles" -- intelligence, leadership, work ethic -- but never expected him to be able to hit with such power.  So how did he become such a dominant offensive force in the game?  He developed his skill which "unlocked" his talent."  A slight mechanical adjustment led to his ability to maximize what he already had.  He always had the ability to get on base -- this was evident even in his first few seasons in Pittsburgh where he consistently put up OBPs 75 to 100 points higher than his batting average.  When he unlocked his ability to destroy many of the pitches he made contact with, it forced pitchers to pitch around him, contributing to some astronomical OBPs, much along the lines of Barry Bondsian numbers.

Jose Bautista understands the skill of hitting.  There are other, very talented players who will never understand this skill.  The more I see out of Colby Rasmus, the more I feel that he's one of these players who has gotten by on talent but ultimately won't be able to put it together at the major league level.  In the minors, there are even more examples of these "toolsy" batters that the Jays scouts have loved, but haven't been able to put it together in pro-ball yet.  Matthew Dean, Dwight Smith Jr., and Jacob Anderson are all high school players that they Jays drafted in early rounds.  These guys have lots of talent, but haven't developed their hitting skills against pro competition where the talent level is much higher than in high school ball.

So what does all of this mean?  Evaluating amateur players in terms of tools is much sexier than talking about a batter's ability to control the strike zone, or a pitcher's ability to out-think the hitter.  Scouts can dream on the player's talent and imagine what he could be if everything goes right.  Unfortunately in baseball, talent only gets you so far.  The pitchers in pro ball have much higher talent levels and the batters, who are forced to react to the pitchers, must develop the skill of hitting in order to progress.  As batters mature, the pitchers can no longer get by on stuff alone and have to learn to mess up the hitter's timing and put the ball in places where the batter can't do much with it.  This spiralling arms race results in an environment in which only the players that can make adjustments to the other side make it in the major leagues.  Once players' weaknesses are discovered and exploited by the other side (remarkably quickly in today's age of internet and video study by ML teams), players who can't adjust don't last long.

So how can teams find a greater number of draftees and prospects who will develop these skills in the long run?  Well, the Oakland A's did have an idea to do it, and that was by selecting players out of college rather than looking for high school players.  The college statistics can be more helpful in finding those players who can take walks and lay off "pitcher's pitches."  Additionally, with a more consistent level of competition in college than in high school, scouts can see how players respond to a higher quality of pitching.  The drawback in this philosophy is that the general understanding is that players with higher ceilings will come more from high school than college.

In addition to having such a large minor league system to fill (compared to the other major sports), I believe that this is why baseball drafts so many players every year.  With forty rounds in which to choose players, teams can focus on "toolsy" players in the early rounds and more "fringey" guys in the later rounds.  The toolsy players have the potential to be superstars IF everything breaks just right.  With the later picks, a team can focus on guys that have demonstrated some skill, but will, most likely, not have the high ceiling of some of the toolsy, high school players.^  These players have usually developed their skills in the college system, and have a chance to really become good players because their skills will translate better into professional ball.

So, it's a toss up.  If you want a player who could become a superstar, look for a high school kid with gobs of talent.  But it's unlikely that the player will develop enough skill to succeed at the major league level.  If you want someone who is more likely to make the major leagues, look for a college player with high skill levels. But these guys may not be superstars or even major league regulars.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.  As the college and high school seasons have begun, teams send their legions of scouts to watch these players in anticipation of the June draft.  Teams will hope to find players with both the tools, and the ability to develop them into major league calibre skills.


* In "Moneyball," Hatteberg recalls that the Boston Red Sox organization tried to prevent him from developing these skills by being more aggressive at the plate.

** He said as much in an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC television.

*** They do talk about pro pitchers' "pitchability," which means how well a pitcher uses what he has and how he understands how to pitch.  Usually, they're talking about pitchers with average or below average tools to explain why they've succeeded, and it's usually used as a secondary evaluation tool.

^ The current financial rules of the draft also play into the need to draft highly touted high school players early because they demand more bonus money for teams to essentially buy them out of going to college.

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