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April 30, 2014

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Scouting Fortitude

by Jason Parks

“Doesn’t pitch with enough fire.” He’s soft.” “Doesn’t attack.” “Lacks fortitude on the mound.” “Doesn’t pitch with confidence.” “I question the sack.” “Doesn’t act the part of a number one starter.” These are all descriptions found in various scouting reports on pitcher Mark Appel going back to his amateur days and continuing in the present. Validity of the scouting assessments aside, the number of evaluators questioning the fortitude of a recent 1:1 player is significant for several reasons, but for this particular article, I want to focus on the role fortitude plays in the scouting process, and why some pitchers take a hit based on such a subjective and often biased means of categorizing talent.

As observers, our eyes are trained to recognize and appreciate exceptionalism in athletic form, the ease and sophistication of motion, the grace in which a player moves from starting point A to finishing point B. Within these physical applications exists intent of execution, an often-visible manifestation of desire to succeed in the given action. In the background, we use these visual clues to rationalize the purpose of the physical act, and as a result we tend to favor those who offer more recognizable expressions of intent over those who appear more casual with their commitments. Add to this subjective recipe a dash of tension and stressful circumstance, and the inherent need to play effect-detectives is more enhanced and the results are more heavily scrutinized. Basically, we want to see effects that mirror the significance of the actions taking place, and something appears missing when those are visually incongruent.

In a scouting/real world paradox, we search for premium characteristics of strength in players—both in a physical and emotional sense—yet often discount the archetypal strong, silent types in favor of the ones that wear their aggression on their sleeves, as if we need a visual indicator on the field to appreciate their intent. Fortitude is found in all forms, regardless of how we come to discover it, but as mere mortals we often expect our modern superheroes to posses all the courageous qualities that we struggle to find in our own daily lives. We want to see a player step up in a warrior situation and provide us with an alpha display that requires no deeper explanation. We seek the obvious. We seek simplicity in perceived chaos. We seek a mound visit between Roger Dorn and Ricky Vaughn, with a straight-forward and easily understandable objective of “strike this m*therfucker out,” and then we reach orgasmic levels when the desired outcome actually occurs, accompanied by a powerful fist reaction and vocal expression. That’s fortitude, the ability to take control of a substantial situation and emerge victorious. It’s fortitude because I could see that it was fortitude, and seeing is believing, right?

But in a scouting context, is visible fortitude as highly sought after as it appears to be from a less specialized [read: fan] perspective? Does the highly trained eye of the baseball industry seek the same visual recognition of intent, or does the concept of fortitude extend beyond the reductive definition of recognizable courage in an athletic circumstance? I asked several scouts and front office personnel to weigh in on the idea of fortitude as it pertains to scouting a pitcher, particularly—if there are inherent biases with those who lack such outward and obvious signs of competitiveness. Here are a few money quotes on the subject:

“I think ‘presence’ on the mound is something scouts use to support their bias on a player. If there is a player they are supposed to like, say, a first rounder with plus stuff but they don't like how he applies it, I think they use the visible fortitude (or lack thereof) to support their like/dislike of the player. Conversely, I would bet the fortitude for a smaller pitcher is something noteworthy if they like it—if he shows guts/aggressiveness—but he is short in stature and scouts are looking to find something to push him over the finish line of an acquire. My preference is the under-control competitor that has a fire burning— controlled aggression. I don't want the vanilla boring guy. I want him to be able to control it and apply it when necessary or applicable. I also don't need the fake maniac who is all bravado but you can't trust him some days.”

“Pitchers need mental toughness. However, the challenging part from a scouting perspective is: The pitcher has to have emotional control. So is it low heartbeat or lack of aggressiveness? I think a scout has to dig deep into the personality profile. Mussina and Nagy are two guys that come to mind with very little emotion on the mound, but big-time competitors. Presence and composure are big words, but is it real? Confidence but not arrogance or cocky or fake belief in yourself. We know what we want in a pitcher, but sometimes it's difficult to get all the info you need. Not an easy job.”

“You can see it. Does he establish the fastball? I want to see either stone-faced determination of some controlled f*ck you body language. Is he hanging his head backing up third or telling the third baseman to give me the ball and watch me punch the next batter out to strand the runner at third.”

“Do I prefer pitchers that shove it down a hitter’s throat or do I prefer pitchers that let the hitter dictate the emotion of the at-bat? Can it be that simple? I don’t need a loud jerk on the mound—those rarely can maintain the necessary composure to remain in control of situations. But I don’t like soft arms, pitchers that are already behind the curve before they even throw the first pitch. Intimidation matters. Psychology matters, I will absolutely discount a pitcher that lacks fortitude on the mound. What does that look like? To me, it looks like command of a situation with intent to destroy. You asked me if that could occur in a more controlled, strong/silent manner. My answer is yes and no, because you can always see it, even when a pitcher goes about his task without a lot of fanfare. You can see it when a pitcher owns the plate. When he attacks from an elevated position of authority. It’s not about being a character as much as its about showing character, and in a pitcher, I want to see the guy who isn’t afraid to let you know—through his actions—that he is the superior competitor.”

“There are both types. I like guys that can fill up the strike zone. Keep throwing strikes and have the ability to make pitches. Pitchers are different: some show emotion and some don’t. Throwing strikes to me—whether they get hit or not—says a lot to me. The ability to control the pace of the game and not get rattled. “

“I don't think visible fortitude matters one iota—at least not to me. Yes, it's nice to see and exciting for the fans, but there have been countless pitchers who have been more reserved—Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Cliff Lee, etc.—who have been tremendous competitors and had terrific careers.”

“Not sure I have a definite answer. I’ve seen guys with sack that are super aggressive and guys with sack that don’t look like they have a pulse. I also don’t think it can be determined every time with each guy. Sometimes you won’t see a guy get backed against a wall or see him struggle in order to see his reactions. For me, it can’t be forced. It’s something that I see and my gut buys into it. I don’t think Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens had more sack than Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine. It takes sack to throw an 85 mph fastball to Barry Bonds.”

After polling numerous industry voices—as well as taking the temperature of several fans of the game—the skeleton of fortitude in the scouting process appears to be made of competitiveness as observed through situational composure rather than the standard visible or vocal clues often used by fans to form the same conclusions. Scouts tend to look for specific behaviors on the mound to provide a roadmap for fortitude, most of which remain subjective but have a firmer root in situational acumen than the average fan, who tends to look for more tangible and obvious signs of hyper-competitiveness, such as physical domination or outward expression, all delivered in the name of entertainment rather than employment.

The recognition of competitiveness is clearly in the eyes of the beholder, with subjectivity and personal bias front and center in that decision-making process, be it from a fan perspective or a trained industry eye. For me, I want to see a little fire in a pitcher, a physical presence that encourages a psychological dominance over his rival. I want to see a guy who sits 92-94 all game reach back for 96 when the game is on the line and the best is standing against him in the box. This particular form of competitiveness is obvious in the right situations and scenarios, but the process becomes more abstract when you aren’t fortunate enough to witness such magical and consequential moments.

I tend to see the game like the scouts I’ve been fortunate to learn from, so I put more stock in the situational composure of a pitcher than I do the overt physical or emotional fire that could flare up during a game. But that still doesn’t stop me from seeking such visible reactions from pitchers, and as a result, I do find myself judging arms that offer a more subdued, low-energy/low-effect approach. More often than not, I want to see the beef-eating, fire-breathing, high-octane, “don’t ask for mercy because you will not find it here” types of arms; the unforgiving, unrelenting types that put a palatable psychological tension in the air when they stand on the mound. I recognize this bias and make conscious efforts to minimize it when forming opinions on players. But the truth is that we can’t change the experiences we’ve had with the game of baseball in the past, the ones that came in the form of theater or entertainment, the ones that directly influence the way we see the game in the present. I can’t change the memory of watching Nolan Ryan treat Robin Ventura like a rogue steer, and using that experience to help formulate what a power pitcher not only looks like but also acts like when he’s threatened. I can’t change the memories of Clemens or Johnson dominating the opposition with pure power rather than pitchability, much like those lucky enough to watch Bob Gibson in game action can’t wax poetic on mound fortitude without first mentioning Bob Gibson’s mound fortitude. I can’t change the memory of my first viewing of Ricky Vaughn going to the smoke three straight times to punch out Clue Haywood, each pitch ticking higher on the gun, matching the march of the intensity of the moment. Would we really feel the same if Vaughn pitched backward or coerced weak contact and reacted to the result in a casual, unassuming manner?

My point is that its natural to bring these subjective biases into the scouting process, as we each view the game through our own unique lens based on our experiences with the game. But when it comes to forming an opinion of a player’s fortitude and documenting or propagating those conclusions, the biases we carry with us can often be barriers to the reality we are viewing. Not everything is going to fit into clever and clean boxes or fit the narratives we associate with certain outcomes or events, and just because something appears to be soft one day doesn’t mean it can’t also be strong the next, if viewed from another perspective. Even though I can’t change what formed the original construct of my ideal pitcher—or preferred behavior of said pitcher—I can expand the depth of my own evaluation process to include possibilities I would have previously discounted or dismissed, and open my mind to foundations of mound strength or fortitude that exist beyond what is inherently obvious to the eyes, because some of what we see is just good theater.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Prospects,  Scouting,  Minor Leaguers

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