Phillies Prospect Conversation: Keith Law (ESPN)
Keith Law and I have interacted with each other a total of three times. Once was during my first trip to the Arizona Fall League in 2010. Nervous and paranoid, I held a door open for him as we entered Scottsdale Stadium via the front office, where scouts can pass through before a game to see batting practice and infield work. I wasn’t nervous that Keith Law was behind me as much as I was nervous about being caught in a place where I had absolutely no business being. It’s amazing what you can get away with at a ballpark when you wear a face of feigned confidence, tuck in an ugly polo shirt and carry one of those very adult looking, over-the-shoulder bags.
Not long after that, Keith and I got into a spirited, but short, “Audrey Hepburn vs. Grace Kelly” debate on Twitter. We chose to argue with words instead of just sending pictures back and forth to one another so we both lost that one as far as I’m concerned. Our most recent encounter is our discussion concerning the Phillies farm system which you’ll find below.
I don’t need to tell you about Keith’s experience or credentials. His voice’s rationality is only exceeded by its influence on modern baseball discourse. Make a list of who you associate with baseball statistics and a separate list of who you associate with prospects and scouting. Keith’s name will be the first you see on both lists. He broke Rob Parker. I encourage all of you to head over and grab an ESPN Insider link account now, even if it’s for Keith’s work alone. We emailed back and forth about the Phillies system for almost two weeks and exchanged about forty total correspondences.
Eric: How do you want to do it, email or phone?
Keith: Email. I’m on the move too much these days for the phone.
(Keith sorts things out with ESPN’s PR department)
Eric: The first thing I want to discuss is your process for the compilation of your lists. Not just the Top 100, but your team top tens (Eric’s note: I’m not going to post Keith’s Phillies top 10 here since it’s ESPN Insider only. I’m don’t want to do that to Keith or piss off the mothership. You’ll live.) I don’t think people realize how exhaustive and exhausting the process is for entire organizations, let alone one person, when it’s done right.
Keith: It’s an ongoing process, one that seems discrete to readers with the offseason top 100 and two in-season updates, but that in reality never stops. I’m always talking to scouts and trying to work in trips to see players over the course of the year, loading up of course during spring training and Fall League. You can’t stop gathering information at any point because the flow is so quick that if you stopped for a few weeks you’d never catch up. When it comes to turning information into rankings, I always begin with my own evaluations and work down from there. I’m happy to adjust my rankings or even my published opinions when people in the industry I trust (from scouts up to to GMs) offer differing views, but starting from what I know and what I believe is, I think, part of the value I can offer readers.
Eric: Does that differ from the stuff you do for the draft?
Keith: Only in the obvious way, since I’m doing team top 10s and reports and thus talk to team sources about the players they already have. In the draft, that aspect doesn’t exist.
Eric: I frequently hear from scouts that jobs in baseball keep them away from their wives and children. How strenuous was your front office work schedule in Toronto and how do you balance your life now that your job is different but you still like to see players in person as often as you can?
Keith: I don’t have to go into an office every day or even semi-regularly now, so nearly all of my travel is seeing players. I’m out about half as many nights as a cross-checker would be each year, although living in Arizona has kept that number down artificially. When I’m home, I usually drop my daughter off at school in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. I would miss that terribly if I returned to a team.
Eric: Before we get into the Phils system I want to get your thoughts on the front office and the general decision making that’s gone on since Pat Gillick stepped down. I realize there’s a lot that GMs do that outsiders can’t see or begin to appreciate, but this is becoming worrisome. What are your thoughts?
Keith: In general, I think the front office’s decisions have been below average – some good, but more that ended up hurting the team somehow. I still can’t quite fathom their pride in their refusal to use any kind of analytics in their decision-making. When your competitors are operating 12-man analytics departments, why would you brag about how you don’t have one at all?
Eric: Do you think that stems from one source, be it ownership or Amaro himself? Or do you think there’s a thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through the whole organization? (Eric’s note: I’ve only ever talked to one scout that I thought was a complete dolt, and he proudly wore it on his sleeve. I asked him who he scouted for. His answer? The Phillies. That’s why I asked Keith this question.)
Keith: I couldn’t begin to answer that question.
Eric: Alrighty. Let’s get into the system. We all know by now that the Phillies have athlete-heavy drafts and that they rarely go over slot in early rounds. What do you think about this approach (Eric’s note: For the record, I mostly like how they do it.)? Do you think that trying to teach baseball skills to tools-heavy athletes who have no idea how to play the game is a fool’s errand? I’m not saying tools are bad, it just seems like for every Matt Kemp or even athletic pitchers like Casey Kelly, there are a dozen Greg Golsons. Can we teach raw athletes how to play baseball at a rate that justifies acquiring them?
Keith: I don’t have a huge issue with their drafting strategy, although I personally wouldn’t burn high picks on players as raw as Golson or Anthony Hewitt. You have to have a development organization that can do something with these guys to turn them into baseball players, and over the last 5-6 years Philly has not been able to do so.
Eric: Let’s talk about the back end of your top 10. You’ve got Larry Greene and Kenny Giles there. Is that an indictment on the system or do you think those guys are impact players? It’s not often you’re high on a reliever or first base only profile. Do you think Greene can be an everyday player?
Keith: It’s a weak system, definitely. Greene could be an impact guy (Eric’s note: This was a mild surprise for me to hear), but I don’t rate him highly yet because it’s taken a lot of progress (between conditioning, fielding drills, and work on his at bats) just to get to the point where he is today. Giles is a pure reliever who could surface in the majors this year (Eric’s note: Quite bold) – I don’t think there’s a ton of difference between him and the Bruce Rondons of the prospect world, even though Rondon gets more hype. For me, though, you’re hoping one of these guys gets to 2 WAR a year, and most of them either never sniff that or they do it once and get hurt.
Eric: You seem to like some of the lower level guys, including Maikel Franco. We know about his hands and the bat speed but what else do you like about Franco? It seems like a high maintenance body. You think he stays at 3B or is a move to a corner OF spot or across the diamond to first looming?
Keith: I don’t see it as a high-maintenance body. I’m very impressed by the fact that he didn’t fold after that awful first half he had in 2013, not just improving his stat line after that but improving his approach, especially with two strikes. When I talk about guys who are soft or un-clutch getting weeded out in the low minors, this is what I mean. If you can’t bounce back from hitting like your dead great-grandmother for two months, you’re not going to reach the majors. The future big leaguers can recover from the self-doubt or the humiliation that comes from a stretch like that. (Eric’s note: If anyone ever says Keith Law is only about numbers and totally disregards the human aspect of our game, kindly direct them to this paragraph)
Eric: When guys improve their approach like that, do you think it comes from instruction or does a lightbulb just suddenly click on?
Keith: I don’t think you can generalize other than saying there there’s some innate ability or inability to make significant adjustments like that. It’s another thing scouts are looking for when evaluating players at any level.
Eric: I think we all kind of know what the upper level guys (Pettibone, Asche, Valle) are going to turn into, but you’ve stated some interest in the lower level guys. Who are players in A-ball and below that might take a step forward this year?
Keith: Quinn and Franco are the obvious names, not top 100 candidates for this year but with enough breadth to their skills that it’s fair to discuss them as breakout prospects within the system. I pegged Shane Watson as a potential breakout prospect as well when I wrote about their system, giving him the edge over Mitch Gueller due to better present offspeed stuff. Yoel Mecias (Eric’s note: That name is new) is further away but belongs in this paragraph too – lefty up to 94 with good feel for a change.
Eric: Did you see Dylan Cozens as an amateur? What are your thoughts on him?
Keith: Yes. Not a fan. Has raw power but that’s it. Big kid, stiff body, real crude as a hitter. Big makeup concerns, including but not limited to anger issues that led to him being kicked off his HS team when he shoved a coach to the ground and told him to “fuck off” during a game.
Eric: I’ve spent a disproportionately large amount of time thinking (and writing) about Domonic Brown and why things haven’t worked out like we all thought they were going to. Do you have info or a theory as to why he is where he is right now?
Keith: He hasn’t developed at all since reaching AAA. His swing hasn’t improved, his reads haven’t improved, even his throwing motion, which I thought would be one of the easiest things to fix, hasn’t improved. I’m sure blame for that is shared among several parties, but it’s hard to think of a prospect this promising who stalled so completely after reaching AAA.
Eric: I think even calling it stalling is kind of generous. He’s gone backwards in a lot of ways, and not just on a “feel” level. I feel like some of the tools have regressed, too. He was a 45 runner from home to first last year. Maybe that was because he’s incessantly injured or just because he’s such a strider that it takes him more than 90 feet to get going. One thing it seems clear they’ve changed is his stance. I could kind of care less what your stance looks like as long as you get into a good hitting position. Do you have an overarching opinion on swing changes, especially when they come as late in someone’s development as it did for Brown, or does it depend on the player?
Keith: Depends on the player and the org. When was the last time the Phillies reworked a swing with positive results? I’m not sure.
And with that, our conversation ended. Huge thanks go out to Keith for taking the time to do this. If you’re interested in checking out my other conversations with the scouting industry’s most prolific writers, you can check them out here. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo is next on the list. He and I are talking early this week.