Mechanics, Wealthy 12-year-olds and Scouting Philosophy: An E-Mail Exchange with Baseball America’s Ben Badler

Ben Badler’s a really cool guy. He writes for Baseball America, primarily as the International Free Agent Scout, and on Twitter, he often responds to whatever questions fans pose to him. He took time after the international free agent signing deadline to correspond with me by e-mail. Here’s the resulting conversation.

1. So starting off, how many languages do you speak and how often do you use them? Per day? Per week?

I speak enough Spanish to be able to communicate, but the only language I speak fluently is English. For my job, the scouts I talk to are almost all bilingual, so it’s never an issue.

2. Earlier this week in an interview with BBTIA, you said bonuses have taken a huge jump for even marginal players. How is this affecting a given team’s economic plan? Think Red Sox international scouting vs. Brewers.

I think it’s forcing certain teams to be more patient regardless of whether they are big or small market clubs. If the Red Sox and Yankees wanted to drop $3 million on a player in this market, they have the money to do so, but you don’t see them doing that because a lot of the players’ asking prices aren’t congruent with how they value the players. The escalation of the market really hurts teams that have the antiquated notion that running an international program on a shoestring budget is still a viable option in today’s market.

Look, as long as players can sign when they are 16 years old, there are always going to be players who sign for $50,000 or so who will be late bloomers and turn into quality major leaguers.

But with more teams becoming competitive in Latin America and more agents with vast networks of their own getting to players when they are 15, 14, 13, even 12 years old and helping them get fair market value, I think those bargains are going to be harder to find. They will still be there, but being willing to spend $500,000 on an international free agent and finding a bargain for $50,000 aren’t mutually exclusive–you can do both. That doesn’t mean a team has to spend $2 million every year on an international prospect, but the teams that aren’t willing to spend the money to sign prospects in the low to mid six-figure range have already fallen behind and will continue to do so going forward.

3. And speaking of that, is it becoming more beneficial to be internationally born than to be American born and enter the Rule IV draft?

Any time you can negotiate with 30 teams rather than one, yes, you’re going to be better off. However, I don’t think it’s a universal truth that all players would be better off as free agent at 16 than going through the draft. How much would a kid like Stephen Strasburg or Tim Lincecum have signed for at age 16, even assuming they were 16 in today’s market? Not much, maybe low six-figure money at best and probably less than that. They matured later on in their lives and ended up signing for millions, even with the restriction of being able to negotiate a contract with only one organization.

4. The Dodgers have had some success on the international scouting level, mostly in pitching and particularly in relief pitching. Logan White’s talked a lot about spending wisely and frugally on the international market, for someone who’s not so familiar with the process of international scouting, what does he mean by that and has he stuck to it?

I think every team wants to spend wisely in the international market, or any market for that matter. Signing a player for a huge bonus in Latin America to make a “statement” is just foolish, and most of the “statement signings” (Esmailyn Gonzalez, etc.) have blown up in teams’ faces. The only statement it makes is that you’re willing to throw away money. The Dodgers aren’t going to do that, which is smart. At the same time, it does take more financial resources than it did in the past to compete in Latin America for talent, and the lack of Latin American prospects in their farm system reflects the fact that they aren’t investing as much money internationally as many other other teams.

6. Moving on to scouting, what’s the first thing you look for in a hitter? Power swing through the hips? Swing fluidity? What about a pitcher’s mechanics? Hyperabduction? Repetition of motion?

The first thing I do is ask the scouts what they see, preferably as many scouts as possible. Even if I see a player, usually I only get a handful of looks at him. A pro scout will usually be in charge of covering a few different organizations, which means he’s going to see a player several times over the course of a season. So talking to a handful of scouts is always going to paint a better picture of the player’s present and projected future talent levels than going off of what I or any other one person sees.

I wouldn’t say there’s one thing I look for first in a hitter. Hitters can be successful doing things in different ways, and the things you look for in an 18-year-old high school hitter aren’t necessarily the same things you expect to see out of a 23-year-old in Triple-A.

That said, you want to ideally see a player with a short, compact swing, good bat speed, a clean trigger, good extension, the ability to recognize balls and strikes and to hit the break ball, and good hand-eye coordination. Hitters can do some unorthodox things if they have outstanding hand-eye coordination and can put the barrel to the baseball, although the further they are from the big leagues, the more of a challenge it is to project whether that skill will carry over at the major league level.

7. Scouting is, I’m guessing, a fluid enterprise where players desired can change–I’m thinking specifically of moving from average to OBP and high-K rates to high GB-rates–would you say this is accurate? What about scouting has changed in the last 15 years? What will be the future of scouting?

The best practices in any industry are always evolving. I think it’s fair to say that there is more emphasis today on OBP and plate discipline than there was 15 years ago, but that means finding players who will get on base at a high clip at the major league level, not just picking the high-OBP college player whose skill set won’t translate well as he moves up the ladder.

One thing that has changed is that teams have expanded their scouting staffs, a trend I expect to continue both domestically and internationally. Today, most teams have an area scout who is in charge of a multiple states or one big state, with a regional crosschecker supervising an even larger area.

I don’t know when, but I think at some point in the future we’re going to look back and wonder why teams operated this way. I think we’re going to see multiple full-time area scouts with coverage in the same state, which reduces travel for scouts, increases the number of players a team can see and increased the eyeballs and insight you can get on a player. The more good scouts you have getting more looks at amateur players, the better your evaluations are going to be.

8. About pitching and hitting mechanics, there’ve been a few sites popping up over the years that seem to be teaching uninformed fans about mechanics, both swing and pitching (Chris O’Leary and Drive Line are two that come to mind). Are there any analysts who you would say understand scouting? Ones that you’d say don’t?

Not talking about anyone in particular, but the one thing I see that I think is misguided is when people make sweeping generalizations based off what they see from a video clip online. Those videos can give you an idea of what a player looks like and usually a few basic things about a player’s stance, swing, arm action, etc., but that’s all it is–a brief look at a player on one date, and usually that date isn’t included in the video clip.

Even a great hitter’s swing at times will get long or he’ll swing through a good fastball, or a great pitcher will throw a soft breaking ball or fly open with his delivery. The same way a scout wouldn’t make a judgment on a hitter based on one game or a pitcher based on a couple of innings, there’s just no way you can state anything about a player based on video without placing an enormous error bar around any of your judgments.

9. Finally, now that we’re in a world where PitchFX is readily available, have you found your analysis of a pitcher’s pitches, whether they be plus or average or plus-plus, matches what PitchFX reports?

The raw Pitch f/x data won’t tell you whether a pitcher throws a 60 curveball or a 70 changeup; it’s up to the analysts to break down the raw data and turn it into information. From that information, I think Pitch f/x has agreed with what scouts are saying in most cases.


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