It’s no different in the sports world, of course. A rumour floated around this past summer that JP Ricciardi had told a scout that if the scout chose to go to a high school game, JP wouldn’t pay his way. It was a graphic illustration of the lengths to which Ricciardi was prepared to go to enforce his strict all-college, no-high-school players rule. Very illuminating -- and completely false. It didn't happen.
Like all successful rumours, this one played off people’s expectations (and more than a few people’s political agendas) to the effect that the Blue Jays had shut down their scouting operations everywhere but collegiate America. But as Jon lalonde, the Blue Jays’ Director of Scouting, told Batter’s Box in a recent interview, the organization still ranges widely to find the best prospects; they just do it more intelligently, is all.
The Jays are well aware of the growing talent pool in this country. “Obviously, we are seeing the impact some Canadian players are making on the game, with the likes of Eric Gagne and Rich Harden becoming such impact players.” There was also some intriguing talent on display in the short-lived Canadian Baseball League, he agrees, noting that Kevin Briand is very well connected with the personnel from that circuit. “Baseball in Canada has gotten better and better, and the Blue Jays will continue to actively seek out the best our country has to offer.”
The same goes for the Caribbean and Central/South America. “We still have a very strong presence in Latin America,” Jon says, crediting the good work of Latin American Operations Director Tony Arias. He points out such excellent prospects as:
- Francisco Rosario (the highly touted right-hander is recovering from Tommy John surgery),
- Edward Rodriguez (a 2002 free-agent signing, the right-hander was the MVP of Pringamosa in the Dominican Summer League)
- Robinzon Diaz (the best of three intriguing catching prospects tore up the Appalaichan League with Pulaski) and
- Guillermo Quiroz (the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting catcher, circa July 2005).
“Of course, finances have changed the way that area is scouted,” Jon points out. “Those players are free agents, and as such can sign with any club. Often times, the bonuses required to sign players from Latin America can become quite high. This is where we have to be careful: unlike some high-revenue clubs, we can’t afford to make those million-dollar mistakes.” Hello, Jose Contreras. “Not to say we won't ever sign high-priced Latin players,” he adds. “We just have to be very judicious in doing so.
“As much as we think scouting and development is the cornerstone of the organization, we don't have the kind of money that some clubs are spending,” Jon continues, "Our budget is lower, but it's been more than enough to get our players signed the last couple of years, even if we don't have all the bells and whistles some teams do.”
Simply put, finances are a major factor in how the Blue Jays approach scouting these days, just as it is when considering major-league payroll. The Jays aren’t high rollers; they have to use their limited resources wisely. That means paying closer attention to players with shorter development curves and lower risks -- and that means college players.
“Research shows us that the college player is more likely to [reach] the major leagues, and will reach the major leagues more quickly than the high school player and the international player,” observes Jon. But he wants to make it clear that the club has not written off high schoolers. “We still scout all of the major showcases, and we realize that a number of high school players turn out to be outstanding big leaguers. We just have to be judicious as to where we spend our money, to try and get the best return for our investment.”
So just what is the organization’s scouting philosophy? What do Blue Jays scouts go looking for when they hit the road? Jon lists the following criteria:
1. Position Players
Jay scouts begin by identifying whether a player shows the requisite tendencies in their offensive skills sets -- and just as at the big-league level, that starts with controlling the strike zone. “We try to identify which players are best able to work the count, to foul off tough pitches, to make the pitcher get into deep counts and be willing to take a walk,” he says.
“Of course, once you work the count in your favour, we also want a player that can do something positive, so we look at the ability make consistent contact and to drive the ball.” Power -- home-run power, that is -- is more difficult to project, because it usually develops as a young man matures. Nonetheless, says Jon, “there are little things you key on, such as strength, bat speed, bat path through the strike zone, and a lack of fear.”
And contrary to the occasional snarky comment from outsiders, the club does want good athletes. “An athletic player will generally be a better defender,” Jon explains. “He should be better able to make the physical adjustments required as the level of competition increases.”
“With pitchers, our primary criteria is the ability to command the baseball,” Jon emphasizes. “Arm strength is certainly a factor -- a player who throws hard has an inherent advantage -- but the ability to consistently throw strikes, and quality strikes, is a key for us.” Command is relatively teachable, of course: a young pitcher’s control can certainly improve with professional instruction and repetition. But Jon points out: “If an amateur player has shown an inability to command the baseball, it’s often an uphill battle to rectify it.”
Yes, the Blue Jays do look at the brain as much as the brawn, the person as much as the athlete. “We highly value character and intelligence,” says Jon. “It’s often been said that baseball is a thinking man's game. Often, the gains required for an amateur player to become a quality big-leaguer are not physical, but mental. The inability to learn -- the lack of desire to learn -- these are factors that will certainly impede a young man's progress in this game. We want to bring quality people into this organization who also happen to be quality baseball players.”
So how do you tell which young ballplayers are the smart good guys? “Really, it's the area scout who gives you the best idea about makeup, or what makes a player tick,” says Jon. “A national cross-checker or myself, we're going to go in there and watch them for a day, so we can evaluate the ability, but we might not get a chance to speak to the young man.
“So this is why the area scout is so important -- he's your interviewer, he meets the player. He's going to have an opinion about his ability, obviously; but he's also going to offer an opinion about whether the young man has got what it takes mentally and emotionally, in addition to the physical aspects, to become a major league player.
“We don't send in a psychologist or anything,” he adds. “We want our guys to be all-encompassing. Some scouts may be more comfortable evaluating pitchers than position players, but we ask ours to evaluate everybody.”
Hold on a second. Aren’t these the Toronto Blue Jays, sabrmetric darlings of the north? Aren’t they using spreadsheets and computer models to choose the next generation of ballplayers? Scratch another myth, cherished by some -- though it’s true that the Jays do make more use of numbers than other organizations.
“We use statistics as a tool, just like we use a stopwatch, or a radar gun, or a scout's evaluation,” Jon maintains. “Statistics are just another tool to help us get the best ‘holistic’ picture of a player. We also incorporate face-to-face meetings with a player, to get a feel for his makeup and his intangibles -- is he a smart kid, a tough kid, a leader?
“We probably use statistics more than a lot of clubs,” he agrees, “and in traditional scouting circles, that's sometimes frowned upon. I think it goes back to the finances of the game. We can't afford to make mistakes, so we like to look at players who have been successful in school, successful in their summer leagues. I don't think we have to apologize to anybody for using that information. All clubs use it to some extent; we just put a little more weight into it.”
The other undeniable fact is that the player pool has become simply immense. “There's so many schools out there -- junior colleges, Division II, NAIA, Division III -- that a lot of times, a school that doesn't have a great baseball program will have a player jump up and have a huge year. So we'll alert the scout, and ask what he knows about the kid. He might not go right out to see him, but he'll call his coach, and depending on what he finds out, may follow up. Some teams use bird dogs exclusively,” he says, “but we use statistics as another way to ‘bird dog’ players.”
But don’t be fooled: no player is taken by the Blue Jays sight unseen. “In terms of the draft, which is my major focus, we see everybody,” Jon says. “If we draft a player, it's because we've seen him, not just based on statistics.”
So when will Jon and his staff begin planning for next June’s draft? “We've already started,” he says. “It starts in the summertime, with some of the showcases you go to for the better high school players. We follow all the colleges and the summer leagues -- the Cape Cod League is the most prestigious, but there are others scattered throughout the country.”
Although the club is aware of the strengths and weaknesses in its farm system, this isn’t a Rotisserie league. “You really can't draft for need,” notes Jon. “At the major-league level, you might say ‘Okay, we need pitching.’ But to scout that way would really put you at a disadvantage. We just try to go out and see all the best players, starting the summer before. It gets very busy in the fall, when some of the bigger schools run their fall programs, and it really kicks off about the end of January.”
Almost every heavy hitter is the organization is involved in the draft at some point:
- J.P. Ricciardi: “J.P. will see the very elite players, the first-round possibilities; with his hectic schedule, that might be ten or twelve players, as we get down to crunch time for that decision.”
- Tony LaCava: “Tony is going to see our top 150 players or thereabouts, as will Chris Buckley. They're kind of our special assignment, elite scouts.”
- Dick Scott: “He's not really involved per se until we get to draft day and we start to take a look at our organizational needs, to stock our short-season clubs.”
- The national cross-checkers: “Tom Clark, who we just hired, and Mike Mangan will probably see about 250 players each.”
- Keith Law: “Keith is constantly providing us with information; ‘his’ players jumped off the board at me. He takes the raw statistical data and really breaks it down, looking at things like park factors and strength of schedule. He really helps us cut through some of the clutter, and provides us with hands-on, useful information that we use to help direct our scouts.”
- Jon himself: “I’ll see probably the top 75 to 100 players on our draft board and offer my opinion as to where I think they should go. My role, along with Andrew Tinnish, is to try to be the traffic cop, direct everyone according to priorities and try to coordinate their efforts.”
So what happens on Draft Day? How did last year’s draft shake down? What did the club think of Aaron Hill and Vito Chiaravalotti before their big debuts? Tomorrow’s final installment of our interview with Jon lalonde will provide the answers.