I think I want to be a major league baseball scout when I grow up.
I had the opportunity to hang out with some during part of my day at the ballpark on Thursday at the Big South Conference tournament at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. The lure of three college baseball games for a $10 ticket proved to be too much to resist on a day when I didn’t have much of anything going on, so I made the journey down across the state line to Winthrop’s comfortable 1,800-seat off-campus facility for the second full day of action.
I fell in with the scouts just before the start of the day’s second game, between top-seeded and No. 4-nationally ranked Coastal Carolina (47-7 entering the game) and No. 3-seed Radford, facing elimination with a loss. But all that didn’t matter to the “bird dogs” who were in attendance at the game in abundance.
I watched the game with Eric Tokunaga, a personable native Hawaiian whom I’ve gotten to know in the last year or so in the press box at Charlotte Knights’ games. He was working for the Kansas City Royals when we first met and now he evaluates talent from the high minors to high schools for the San Francisco Giants.
I saw this as a chance to soak up some “inside baseball,” so I tried to pay close attention as Eric watched Coastal’s prospect and interacted with his scouting colleagues. In the photo below, Eric records the speed of Wheeler’s pitches with a portable radar gun – nearly all of the scouts have them – while Sonny Collins, working for the Cincinnati Reds, takes some notes.
At this point in the season, they’ve all seen Wheeler at least a couple of times and I got the impression that most of them are here because they think they have to be. It’s a busy week for looking at college players in the Carolinas, as the ACC is holding its tournament in Greensboro and the Southern Conference in Charleston.
“I don’t think Wheeler is going to show me anything I haven’t seen already,” Eric said.
“At this point it’s just babysitting,” said another scout, using the term for just checking in and protecting their team’s interest in the player. The Major League Baseball amateur draft starts 11 days from now.
Wheeler picks a bad day to have a bad day. I think he never quite looks comfortable on the mound, a layperson’s judgment that is verified both by the scouts and by the results on the field.
He has every reason to relax, as his teammates give him a huge lead with a 10-run second inning. But he struggles to escape a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first unharmed and, after two fairly easy innings, gives up a grand slam homer to the Highlanders’ Tyren Rivers in the fourth.
He doesn’t last out the fifth, and ends up yielding seven runs on eight hits in his 4-1/3 innings. He walked four and struck out three.
And contrary to Eric’s earlier statement, he has seen something new in today’s look at Wheeler. “Something in his delivery, it’s just a little off,” he said. “Maybe a hesitation in his pitching motion.”
It’s actually enough to affect the way he fields his position. Eric points this out to me when Wheeler’s follow-through takes him off the mound in such a way as to make what should have been an easy double-play ground ball back to Wheeler into a close play just to get the batter at first.
After Wheeler’s day is done, the game that everyone who’s not a scout is watching turns competitive, as Radford closes to within 10-8 before Coastal hangs on to win and advance, 11-9. By that time several of the scouts are gone, although some have stuck around to look at a couple of Coastal’s position players.
(NOTE: Two reading recommendations for anyone interested in the topic of baseball scouting. The definitive book is Dollar Sign on the Muscle, by Kevin Kerrane, an English professor at the University of Delaware. He followed Philadelphia Phillies’ scouts during the 1981 baseball season and his account is a good look at their lives and their often difficult job.
Of course, in the nearly three decades since then, evaluation of baseball talent has become more quantitative, based on statistical analysis and somewhat less on the intuitive judgments of scouts. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, while not specifically about scouting, does discuss the role of scouts in signing players and includes a sometimes-harsh critique of the scouting process. Both are just darned good books about baseball.)
And at this point, I’ve spent more than six hours in the broiling sun, as the first game of the day was also a three-hour slugfest. Host Winthrop eliminated VMI, 11-6 in that one.
So the day’s final game at 7 between High Point and Liberty was a welcome change, a lot cooler and characterized by some effective pitching and “small ball” – baseball terminology for strategy which emphasizes things like the bunt, the hit-and-run and the stolen base.
Starting pitchers Jaime Schultz of High Point and Shawn Teufel of Liberty tossed matching shutouts through five innings. (I thought the Teufel name rang a bell, and sure enough he’s the son of former Clemson Tigers star Tim Teufel, who had an 11-year career as a major league infielder).
High Point pushed across the game’s first run with a bases-loaded walk in the sixth and scratched out another in the ninth – batter hit by pitch, sacrifice, ground out, single.
But the Panthers had to hang on as Liberty loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth – again, small stuff: single, hit by pitch, hit by pitch – and scored on a passed ball. That left the winning run at second with one out, but High Point’s Kyle Wigmore came in to retire the last two batters without further damage. High Point escaped with a 2-1 win.
This game featured one of the few players in the tournament who’s already a major league draft choice. High Point center fielder Nate Roberts, a junior, was a 48th round choice of the Tampa Bay Rays last summer, but chose to return to college to try to improve his position. The statistics — .424 batting average, 19 homers, 61 RBI entering the game — indicate that he’s probably done so.
But, like Wheeler, he didn’t have a great game for the scouts that remained. He struggled to a 1-for-5 night at the plate although he did hit the ball hard a couple of times.
Even prospects get the blues, I guess.