Searching for Tools in the Snow: Scouting Philadelphia Area High Schoolers

On Sunday I was on the road by 7am, heading south on the turnpike from the Lehigh Valley. While I was over to pick up my fiancé (I was going to drop her off in the city to see friends) I ran into her little sister who was up early, GameBoy in hand, the unmistakable Pokemon soundtrack blaring from its tiny speakers. She was desperately trying to get deep into the Safari Zone (before her time in there ran out) where the chances of her stumbling upon rare Pokemon dramatically increased.

That day, I spent about eight hours taking diligent notes in a freezing cold fieldhouse at the Under Armour National Baseball Tryouts at Swarthmore College. The frigid, finger numbing temperatures of the gym were actually a welcome respite from the harsh baseball winter we in Pennsylvania are forced to endure. On a day when the sort of talent I’m used to looking at was scarce nay, non-existent, there was plenty to learn about what it means to play and work in baseball in the Philadelphia area. It’s an undertaking of tedium and patience certainly worth sharing.

First, I need to explain what the Under Armour Baseball Factory is all about.  The Baseball Factory provides a stage on which young baseball players can display their skill set. Players attend the workout and are put through your standard pro style gauntlet; a sixty yard dash, throwing velocity measurements, defensive drills and work in the cage. During all of this, the young men are evaluated and may ultimately be invited onto the Under Armour National Team roster, where they’d receive the most exposure. If not, they can also pay for an online video package that they can send to college coaches in hopes of being noticed.

The fact that this is mostly a pay to play program creates a sub-optimal evaluation environment. Economically disadvantaged youth is less likely to participate in such a program (you can pay $99 just to work out or $499 for the video package and webpage which looks like THIS  ) which limits the talent pool. Sadly, the athletes that can’t afford to pay for the video package are also the kids who most need the scholarship money one can acquire from impressing college coaches with such a tryout, especially when baseball money is incredibly scarce because the sport generates no revenue for most schools. Of the approximately 60 athletes I had a look at on Sunday, only two were black.

But the socioeconomic hurdles inherent in amateur baseball are far too intricate and labyrinthial for me to sort through on my own. I can, however, scout the hell out of some local high schoolers for you.

Let me first remind you that talent here is scarce. Of all the kids I saw, maybe one will have his name called on a future draft day. I do not envy those whose task it is to scout our section of the country. Our weather conditions limit baseball development which means there’s less talent to see. Less talent means teams see no reason to spend money pumping a dry well which means they keep scouting staffs small in our region. Most northeast area scouts cover four or five states. It’s an insane schedule. The weather also shortens our amateur calendars, which means area scouts need to cover those five states in the country’s shortest time span. This limits the number of looks a scout can get at a kid which leaves them less confident about a player’s abilities than they would be if they had seen them multiple times. Are you starting to see why Mike Trout didn’t go until the latter half of the first round?

Let’s talk about some of the kids. My favorite was lean, tall, right handed pitcher Russell Rhoads from Episcopal Academy in Brookhaven. Just a junior, Rhoads sat 82-83mph with the fastball and touched 85mph on Baseball Prospectus writer Hudson Belinsky’s gun. Rhoads has the frame to add strength and weight and maybe some velocity. He’s quite athletic and has impressive command for his age, not only of his fastball but of his secondary offerings as well. Both his upper 60s curveball and mid-70s changeup show promise and advanced refinement for someone so young. This is someone to watch for sure and someone I might seek out for another look in the future.

The other arm I liked quite a bit was attached to the shoulder of RHP Ben Deaver. Deaver made the drive up from Towson Maryland to show off what was, for my money, the best secondary pitch of the workout in an explosive 12-6 curveball. Deaver sat in the low 80s with his fastball, touched 83mph. He too has some physical projection left but not as much as Rhoads. A senior, Deaver is committed to Rider University.

The other two players that caught my eye did so with their legs. Both players ran sixty yard dashes below seven seconds in a workout where speed was scarce. The fastest of the day was run by William Tennant High School (Warminster, PA) shortstop Brett Kozlowski. Kozlowski needs refinement in skill areas but the speed tool is a loud one. Some mechanical adjustments could be made to squeeze more out of his arm and defense as a whole.

The better all around player, for me, was Methacton High School shortstop (Audobon, PA), Kyle Lowery who is the son of Phillies associate area scout, Ed Lowery. Lowery ran well but showed impressive defensive polish and the best bat speed of the workout. There were also several interesting young catchers who had average-ish MLB pop times as well.

I hope these kids (and really all of the kids at the workout) can parlay this experience into some college money for themselves to lighten the burden of whatever college loans they may or may not incur. I’ll likely head to at least one more event of this ilk during the winter to see what else is out there. For now, I’ll just continue to admire the mileage scouts put on their odometers in search of rare baseball talent in our area the same way I admire my future little sister-in-law’s pursuit of Kangaskhan is a sea of Nidoran.

 

(Huge thanks to Will Bach at Baseball Factory for letting Hudson and I invade the facility and to Hudson for giving me someone to talk to for hours about baseball, hours that otherwise would have been spent listening to old UP & In episodes on my phone while I scouted)

Crash Bag, Vol. 35: Let’s Throw Jeff Loria Into Sagittarius A*

NO TIME FOR INTROS. TO THE QUESTIONS:

@GoogTheGoog: “I just got a big fancy iPod. I also drive a car for ten hours at a time for my job. Please recommend podcasts for me.”

It wasn’t 10 hours (jesus christ exactly what are you doing anyway), but there was about a half of a year period from 2011-2012 when I was living in Philadelphia and working in Washington, D.C. I tried to limit myself to making the trip twice a week, departing Monday morning and returning Friday evening, but it’s still a bastard of a drive, mostly owing to the inscrutable tangle of traffic-choked roads surrounding D.C., and whatever the hell is going on in Delaware at any given time (miles and miles of construction work, and the heady odors of what I assume is some kind of industrial solvent). Eventually I grew accustomed enough that it seemed shorter, and I had valuable intelligence on which exit had the best Wawa (exit 74 northbound, Joppatowne/MD-152), and how long a driver can admire the view from the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge before they’re endangering the lives of everyone around them (no more than 3 seconds). I also listened to a lot of podcasts. Here is an incomplete list, in no particular order, of those that took the edge off of Hell Commute:

  • Dinner Party Download: An hour-long show of cultural snippets, formatted and structured like a dinner party. Segments include “Cocktails,” in which some notable event this-week-in-history is covered, and a bartender commemorates it with an original cocktail recipe, “Guest List,” wherein a director or actor or writer or musician of note makes a themed list, “Main Course,” a food segment, and “Etiquette,” where some celebrity or other answers listener-submitted etiquette questions. This episode will give you a good sampling (segment breakdown included at the link)
  • 99% Invisible: Fascinating podcast about the intersection of design and our everyday lives. Roman Mars has a knack for untangling the design concepts behind everyday stuff that we would rarely consider from that perspective. For example, take this episode about the problems with US currency design.
  • Radiolab: You’ve probably heard about this one. Usually a three-part, hour-long take on a science-y topic, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Abumrad also engineers the final product, making great use of music and sound editing to draw you into the story. Highly addictive if you can get past Krulwich’s occasionally insufferable sentimentality and question-begging. One of my favorite episodes is Musical Language, but one of my all-time favorite individual segments from any podcast is this from the episode “Diagnosis.” Seriously, give that a listen, starting at 10:20.
  • WireTap: CBC show with humorous sketches and the like. Impenetrable deadpan from host Jonathan Goldstein. Check out The Reverse Life for a taste (you might have to go to iTunes for this one).
  • This American Life: I feel like I don’t need to say much about this one. It’s the Ty Cobb of podcasts, except, as far as I know, Ira Glass isn’t a virulent racist. Check out their episodes on the bank collapses and the housing crisis for a better layman’s understanding than you could hope to achieve most anywhere else. Bonus fantastic investigation of the financial crisis in 2008: Inside Job.
  • Getting Blanked: In my opinion the best baseball podcast. Manageable length, very relaxed discourse, covers everything you might want to know, and, during the season, is available on a daily basis.

@sixerfan1220: “rad goggles dog or rad goggles cat?”

REAL GOGGLES DOG

@tholzerman: “What do you think Ben Revere has to do to a) become a 4+ WAR player on a regular basis and b) avoid Chickie’s and Pete’s forever?”

In the practical sense, in order to become a 4+ win player, Ben Revere has to become a player other than Ben Revere. In the theoretical sense, it’s a little more complicated. Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ WAR flavors disagree on Revere’s 2012 to the tune of about one win, with the former pegging him at 2.4 WAR and the latter 3.4. Just for completeness, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP logs a 1.1.

These aren’t necessarily so disparate as they appear; Fangraphs awarded more wins above replacement to the league as a whole than Baseball Reference did, and Baseball Prospectus awarded fewer. Handily, Bryan Grosnick has devised a methodology to place these three WAR sources on a level playing field, so that they can then be averaged together into what he calls WARi, or WAR Index. Applying this to Revere, his adjusted rWAR, fWAR, and WARP values are 2.4, 2.9, and 1.4 respectively; his WARi is therefore 2.2.

In the best estimation, then, Revere needs to add about 2 wins, or 20 runs above replacement, to meet your goal. Where these would come from is not readily apparent. As the presumptive full time CF next season, he does get some help in the positional adjustment department, since all flavors penalized him for playing more than twice as many innings in right field last season (708.1) as he did in center (309.0). Let’s call it a five run swing for him. 15 runs to go. Since his defensive prowess is fairly established, and he was near the top of the league in Fangraphs’ defensive runs above replacement last year, his bat is the natural place to look.

Revere is essentially the April 2012 Phillies in one player — singles first, and little to no hope for extra bases or a free pass. People are quick to point to his youth, but I don’t see the upside in these departments. As power goes, he’s abysmal, with a .044 ISO in the first 1064 plate appearances of his career. This number is the absolute worst among all qualified hitters from 2010-2012, with Juan Pierre in second at .049 (I’ll leave you to draw comparisons). Sure, Revere is young, but he’s not a 20, 21, or 22 year old kid who is just starting to fill out a large frame. He’s 5’9″, 170 lbs., and those numbers aren’t likely to change that much. Neither is his ISO.

His walk rate is also miserable, 5.4% for his career, ranking him 204th out of 230 qualified hitters from 2010-2012. It’s somewhat more plausible that this could improve with age — Revere could simply become more selective. But there is no reason why pitchers need to give him anything to be picky about. Imagine you’re a pitcher staring down Revere, knowing that the worst case scenario, if you really mess up, is probably a line drive single to the outfield. Actually, it’s more likely to be a grounder; those accounted for 67% of Revere’s balls in play last season. Why would you pitch around him? Why wouldn’t you attack the strike zone, knowing Revere’s capacity for doing damage is severely limited? Clearly this does not bode well for his walk rate’s potential improvement.

If anything, the remaining value will have to come from that by which Revere lives and dies — the single. Revere’s career BABIP is .308, and last season it was .325. That seems high, but for a speedy left-hander with good contact skills, I think we can assume his true BABIP skill rests around .320. The highest single-season BABIP for a qualified post-integration hitter is Rod Carew‘s insane .408 in 1977. That seems ambitious. Let’s assume Revere has a ton of good fortune and posts a .385 BABIP, putting him in more plausible company as far as single seasons go. Applying this to his 553 plate appearances in 2012 generates 27 more hits: 24 singles, 2 doubles, and a triple, going by his real-life ratios. This boosts his triple slash to .346/.382/.415. In FanGraphs terms, it raises his wOBA to .378 (from .300), and gives him an extra 38 or so weighted runs created, which should get him over the 4 win mark by all of the measures. That’s just an extremely improbable season, even for a guy like Revere.

But we might be missing the point. Revere doesn’t have to be a 4 win player. Revere can be, say, a 2.5 win player, much further within the realm of possibility, and be just fine as an everyday starter, presuming the Phillies get a lot of above average production from other positions in the field. And it’s that last presumption that could be a serious issue in 2013.

Wait, this is supposed to be a funny column, isn’t it? Shit.

@SoMuchForPathos: “When was the last time you went on the Internet and did not become filled with a mindbending case of the angries?”

I don’t understand how I developed this reputation. Seriously. Very strange. People who only know me via this blog or Twitter would be surprised to find out I very rarely get truly angry. It’s just fun to yell at umpires and Ruben Amaro and Congress and Piers Morgan. It’s fun to seek out utter shitheads on Twitter and scream profanities at them. And to remind Josh Lueke that he’s a piece of garbage on a regular basis. So I do. But there are indeed things on the internet that do not make me ornery. FOR EXAMPLE:

@magoplasma: “how would you explain your sister in a haiku? Various other questions about your sister.”

Maggie is the shit / Manny Machado, really / you get the idea

@JakePavorsky: “You and Baumann are locked in a room. The only way to get out is to kill the other. Who wins?”

You’ve left out a ton of relevant information here. Size of the room? Available weapons? Ambient conditions? As it is, you’ve left me to imagine a plain, empty room, with hand-to-hand combat the only available option. That being the case, though to my knowledge neither of us have formal training, I’d have to give the edge to Baumann, since I’m older and fat and in gritty action movies where the protagonist is taking every possible measure in a desperate bid for survival, I wonder why they didn’t give up and die like twenty minutes ago. Being generally civilized folk though, I think we’d instead elect to sit around and wait the thing out, to see if some other solution presents itself before we both starve to death. In that scenario, Baumann would almost certainly win by exploding my head with his terrible opinions about Star Trek and the designated hitter. SPEAKING OF WHICH:

@notkerouac: “If the DH is brought to the National League, what large animal should we feed Bud Selig too?”

HAHA IDIOTS. You’ve put Crashbag in the hands of a DH apologist. No, not a DH apologist. A DH advocate. Because pitchers batting is the most worthless thing on the planet, and if you don’t want to watch old dudes hit dingers instead, you’re deluded. If we were to feed Bud Selig to a large animal for anything (and it should be a tiger or other big cat, incidentally; I fear that a bear would finish the job too quickly), it should be the second wildcard, a true abomination unto baseball that is actually worthy of the effort that Baumann instead spends on griping about AL at-bats because they’re too interesting. Honestly, I’m convinced the anti-DH sentiment comes from two loathsome sources: a stubborn attachment to tradition and the fetishization of the ball in play. The perils of the former need no further demonstration than Murray Chass’s Hall of Fame ballot. Seriously, read that, DH-o-phobes. That is you. As for the latter, to hell with defense. Give me all of the true outcomes. Go start some other baseball league and watch your pitchers leg out boring ground balls.

@threwouttime: “what gave/gives better chance for Halladay to win: 2010 Phillies or 2013 Blue Jays?”

It’s interesting that you chose the 2010 Phillies, because my immediate impulse is that, of all of the successful Phillies teams, including 2008, the 2011 squad offered the best chance at a championship. But I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you assume that the most talented team has the best chance of winning the World Series, then I think my answer stands. But, as we know, the playoffs are basically a small sample roll of the dice for even the best baseball teams, and all you can do is make marginal improvements to your odds. So if you give the 2010 Phillies credit for having managed to advance further than the 2011 team, they’re the ones with which to make the comparison. The problem then becomes that we have no earthly idea whether the 2013 Jays will make the playoffs, and, if they do, how far they would advance.

Dan Szymborski wrote in mid-December, following their acquisition of R.A. Dickey, that his ZiPS projection system saw the Jays as a 93 win team. If you conservatively estimate Halladay to be a 4 win pitcher, pushing the roughly replacement level Ricky Romero out of the rotation, they could win 96 or 97. It’s hard to win that many and miss the postseason. So if we assume the Jays are good enough to get in the door, their chances are just as good as those of the Phillies at the outset of the 2010 postseason. For that matter, if they finish with 102 wins, they could just as easily be bounced out by an inferior team, as the 2011 Phillies were. With a gun to my head, after pleading with you to put it down, I would probably lean towards the 2010 Phillies as the surer bet, but only because I have the benefit of hindsight, and the 2013 Jays have yet to play a game. What’s really sad is that you didn’t think to ask this question with the 2013 Phillies.

@kgeich67: “Three way steel cage match between Utley, Papelbon, and Lee. Who wins/How does it play out?”

There is absolutely no way Lee does not win this. I imagine Papelbon will bring the bluster, trying to rope a passive Utley into his “HOLD ME BACK, BRO, HOLD ME BACK” saber-rattling, but Lee will just take him apart with calm, redneck efficiency. Papelbon evidently can put on a sleeper hold, but there’s just no way you can convince me that Cliff Lee hasn’t wrestled a crocodile, or hunted a wild hog bare-handed. Utley will stand by, watch Papelbon get put down, and draw a walk in a 9 pitch plate appearance.

@fgmsalvia: “what’s the point anyway?”

I’m assuming, mostly since your name includes “salvia,” that this is a question about the larger purpose of the universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s take on this is pretty great:

The upshot being, if the universe does have some purpose, it’s either incredibly subtle or the universe is extraordinarily bad at fulfilling it. If you consider the things that the universe is good at doing — being enormous and vacuous, and increasing entropy — there’s a decent argument to be made that its purpose is to impersonate Joe West.

@pivnert: “ZiPS projections show ben revere hitting his 1st HR. what does he trade to the person that catches it? old twins stuff?”

If Revere hits one, and only one, home run next season, he should first of all give Dan Szymborski his game-worn jersey, for being the only person that believed he could do it. To whomever caught it, in my book, he owes only a signed ball or bat. The whole Chris Coghlan thing soured me on holding milestone balls hostage. If he was feeling extra generous, he could take the fan out to Chickie & Pete’s for some kind of garbage looking meat miasma on a roll.

@SoMuchForPathos: “Are people who think one can trade for (The Mighty) Giancarlo Stanton a member of the same species as you or me?”

People who think that the Marlins might trade Stanton at all are indeed the same species as you and I; they are only human. It’s only human to imagine, after watching Jeff Loria build a tacky multimillion dollar aquarium on the public dime and unload nearly all of the worthwhile talent he acquired within the same calendar year, that he might punch Miami in the balls once more by dealing Stanton. It’s only human to imagine he would be just that much of a shit heap. But Loria is merely penurious and evil, not brainless. After all, the package the Marlins got back in the Jays deal was not, strictly speaking, a bad return, it was just a lurch toward yet another inexpensive, non-competitive big league team. Loria would not dream of letting Stanton slip from his claws until he at least is arbitration eligible, which happens in 2014. People warn us not to attribute to malice what can just as easily be attributed to stupidity, but, to my mind, Jeff Loria is Exhibit A in the case for reversing that adage.

Arright, that’s all I got. It wasn’t as funny or verbose as you’re used to, but I didn’t mention a certain Red Sox prospect even once.