The Organizational Battle

added 9/15/2005 by Scott Barzilla

It warms my heart to talk about baseball again and why not jump into a huge issue while we do it. An issue was brought up on the boards that I felt needed to be addressed in this space. I really don’t want to spill over, but the answers don’t come easily in the span of a paragraph or two. They are best answered in a space like this where the argument can be fledged out completely.

Allow me to start by setting up our combatants: traditional scouts versus the sabermetrical community. In my world view, there is no real black and white divide in baseball. The real divide is insider versus outsider. Those in the sabermetrical community are on the outside while the traditional scouts are on the inside. For our purposes, this debate will be articulated as the “Jimerson group” against the “Self group”. Traditional scouts and baseball fans love to exploit their position on the inside in this debate. The argument I’ve heard more than once is the: “are you saying you know more than the professionals?” This is usually followed by snickering because they obviously know more since they are on the inside.

In the education world, we are constantly inundated with “new” strategies we can use to reach our students. Teachers usually do one of two things: they immediately scoff because “those people can’t know what we have to deal with” or they try to incorporate what’s useful into their teaching. I alternate between the two groups depending on whether the suggestion makes sense. However, there has always been a realization on my part that if I do things the same way I did them last year or the year before I won’t be as successful.

The scouting community has to be going through the same kind of thing. This sabermetric business won’t help me because those people don’t know what I know. Admittedly, I’d be a moron if I completely changed my teaching style every time someone came in with a new system. Yet, I’d be a dinosaur if I didn’t consider implementing even part of it. In the same way, sabermetrics won’t give a scout everything he or she needs, but incorporating some elements from it would serve scouts well. Some of them have and they are the most effective in the business. The others will go the way of the dodo bird.

I remember hearing a story on NFL films about how the (then) St. Louis Cardinals drafted a quarterback because “he looked like he could throw a ball” in a picture they saw. As it turns out, he couldn’t even throw a football ten yards. Scouting has come a long way since then, but it hasn’t necessarily come as far as we’d like to believe. This is where I bring up the case of Charlton Jimerson.

Jimerson is the perfectly built baseball player. He can run like the wind, he can throw with the best of him, he can hit for power, and he can steal bases. Such a perfect player has never been built right? Why is it then that Charlton Jimerson is still in AA without any indication of being on the Astros immediate radar? Simply put, Jimerson can do everything a big league player can do outside the batter’s box. It’s when we get inside the batter’s box that we see a virtual mess. Here are Jimerson’s hitting statistics all the way back to his final two seasons at the University of Miami.

	     AB         H         2B        3B         HR          SB         SO          BB
2000          68	       14	         0	          1            3	  14	    38	       10	
2001        162	       49	         7	          2          10	  31 	    57	       16
2001	    197	       46	        12          1            9	  15	    79	       18			
2002	    439	     100	        22          4          14	  34	  168	       36
2003	    336	       89	        19          3          12	  25	  109	       25
2004	    488	     116	        22          5          18	  39	  163	       31		
2005	    448	     117	        25          3          16	  30	  152	       29

These numbers are very telling. If we combine the University of Miami numbers into one season we see that Jimerson’s numbers have remained fairly stable. Jimerson will hit between ten and twenty home runs, steal between 25 and 45 bases in a complete season, but he will also strikeout at least four times as often as he’ll draw a walk. In fact, if we look at the strikeout per plate appearances we see some really stable numbers.

           PA     K    BB    K/PA    BB/PA 
UM        256    95    26    2.69     9.85
2001      215    79    18    2.72    11.94   
2002      475   168    36    2.83    13.19  
2003      361   109    25    3.31    14.44
2004      519   163    31    3.18    16.74 	
2005      477   152    29    3.14    16.45

These numbers are fairly stable and quite depressing when you get right down to it. All of us would love to see immensely talented players develop and become polished at the plate. It rarely ever happens. The problem traditional scouts and fans have is that they can list dozens of players that have “figured it out”. It’s harder to remember the Charlton Jimersons of the world because they never make it. For every dozen tools players that make it, there are hundreds that don’t.

For traditional scouts, this ratio is perfectly acceptable. After all, when you find that next superstar it makes the ten or eleven draft picks you spent trying to find that kind of player worthwhile. The difficulty is in accepting that Jimerson is what he is. If he reaches the big leagues he will likely hit ten to fifteen home runs and steal thirty bases. He’ll also strikeout at least 150 times and walk around 30 times. He’ll also have a sub .300 OBP to go along with it. All the tools in the world can’t cover up a sub .700 OPS.

The other side of the issue is the Self camp. If you want to boil the argument down to its very core, you can say the issue comes down to “tools” versus “production”. Just like with K/BB ratios, you rarely ever see a player go from ten home runs a season to twenty or thirty. Tools scouts discount what players like Self can do because he can’t steal a lot of bases or hit a lot of home runs. What you have to do is look at the production numbers (OBP and SLG) to see if you can live with the total he is putting out.

Like Jimerson, Self has been remarkably consistent throughout his minor league career. No, he will not be a Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds, but he will be a productive big league player someday. The limitations of the argument are crucial. None of the production guys are saying Self should be a first round pick. Ideally, you can find someone with the talent of Jimerson and the patience of Self that early. The argument becomes more tangible in the later rounds when the decision is between someone that doesn’t have physical tools but produces or someone with physical tools that hasn’t produced. Consider these numbers from Self.

	    AB      H    2B   3B   HR    SB    SO    BB 
2000       160     31     3    1    1    10    42    28
2001       261     79    13    4    3    10    61    46
2002       491    152    36    5   12    10   104    65
2003       431    137    27    2    6     2    93    87
2004       476    150    34    1   11     1    95    89
2005       326     97    25    2    8     4    91    58

In order to see the stability of these numbers I will add the OBP and SLG numbers to the strikeout and walk ratios I used with Jimerson. The numbers you see above may not seem like much, but it reminds me of an infamous quote Terry Collins used when talking about John Cangelosi, “all he does is get on base.” Collins used that as a defense for not playing Cangelosi (.370 career OBP). I’m using it as a reason why Self was a keeper.

         PA     K    BB    K/PA   BB/PA     OBP     SLG
2000    188    42    28    4.48    6.71    .314    .244
2001    307    61    46    5.03    6.67    .407    .418
2002    556   104    65    5.35    8.55    .390    .477
2003    518    93    87    5.57    5.95    .432    .432
2004    565    95    89    5.95    6.35    .423    .460
2005    384    91    58    4.22    6.62    .404    .460

Again, these numbers have been fairly stable. If we exclude Self’s 2000 season, we see that in his last five minor league seasons we’ve seen stable strikeout, walk, OBP, and SLG rates. His OPS in those five seasons has fluctuated between .825 and .883. That is a very tight range of scores over a five year period. Self has accomplished this all while moving up from low A ball to AAA this season. Admittedly, AAA is not the big leagues, but he has matched this performance all the way up the ladder. Those scores won’t make him a superstar at the next level but he would have been the third best hitter in the Astros lineup this season with even an .825 OPS.

The point is that we can predict performance to an alarmingly precise degree if we look at the right numbers. If you don’t believe me I’ll go through and look at OPS figures for Charlton Jimerson as well. Hope all you want for players to suddenly “get it” but usually players are who they are. We can be depressed by this or we can use this information for our benefit. I’d just as soon use this information to our advantage. Other clubs are already doing this, so it’s not as if I’m talking about something revolutionary. Certainly, the Astros have hit on an impressive list of prospects (particularly pitchers), but we can always do better.

         OBP     SLG     OPS
UM      .348    .500    .848
2001    .298    .442    .740
2002    .286    .477    .763
2003    .316    .446    .762
2004    .283    .414    .697
2005    .306    .438    .744

Jimerson had some key hits for the Hurricanes as they advanced to the College World Series. Yet, an 848 OPS in college is not necessarily a tremendous feat because of the aluminum bats. As a professional, we see that Jimerson never approached an 800 OPS and was doing good to have a .300 OBP. Jimerson’s range of scores were not as tight as Self’s but we’re still talking a total range of 66 points as a professional (Self had a range of 58 points).

The sad part of this debate is that there really doesn’t have to be one. To ask if I claim I know more than the Astros scouts is an unfortunate diversion from the real issue. Scouts get to meet these players and their families. They watch them play multiple games and talk to their teachers, coaches, and fellow players. They know more than any of us will ever know about these players. That knowledge is still very useful. I would never want that knowledge to be replaced with anything else. The performance on the field is a large part of the equation, but it isn’t the whole equation.

The real solution is for scouts to supplement their knowledge with some knowledge from the sabermetrical community. Then, you can combine the knowledge you’ve gained from the legwork with a little extra analysis that might prevent unfortunate mistakes like Charlton Jimerson. At the end of the day, it isn’t about inside versus outside, tools versus production, or traditional scouting versus statistical analysis. It’s about inside and outside, tools and production, and traditional scouting and statistical analysis.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”