College Football Pick’em
Start or Sit
U.S. Soccer Podcast
Major League Baseball’s offseason will begin in earnest today, with the opening bell of free agency. Players are now allowed to legally (ahem) negotiate with all teams in pursuit of the best deal for their labor. Trade discussions between teams are sure to intensify, too, especially with important dates looming just ahead. (Thankfully, there is no risk this winter of an owner-imposed lockout turning off the hot stove.)
Over the last few weeks, in the lead-up to teams assembling the rosters they hope will usurp the Houston Astros next year, CBS Sports has spoken with various industry insiders about the challenges they face in evaluating players at a time when the game is in constant upheaval. The variability of the rulebook and the baseball, as well as the on-again-off-again usage of grip-enhancing substances, has left MLB‘s product in a state of flux, the likes of which would impress both Buddha and Bowie. Front offices have, in turn, had to adjust their processes to avoid falling behind.
The individuals quoted in this article work for teams in a variety of roles, be it as scouts, analysts, or player-development specialists. They were all granted anonymity in exchange for their candid insight into how their front offices operate.
Middle school science classes teach how independent variables work. Make a small tweak here or there and nothing much changes. Make a bigger tweak, and all bets are off. The same is true for baseball. Compound changes, and stake them to fundamental aspects of the game, and you’re inviting chaos. You can understand why some evaluators feel player evaluation has become more perilous.
“It’s probably a little tougher now than it was 10, 15 years ago,” a veteran analyst said.
Change is one of the eternal certainties in life. It’s no surprise, then, that it visits baseball from time to time. What concerns front offices is that change has taken up a permanent residency. Front offices have had to contend with a steady wingbeat of tweaks over the last several years that include, among others: the ball’s composition first resulting in the highest home-run rate in league history in 2019, and then, last season, the lowest since 2015; the sticky stuff ban that went into effect during the summer of 2021, but that suspiciously had zero violators in 2022; and the new restrictions on defensive positioning and implementations of a pitch clock and wider bases.
The rules that govern the game; the tack of the fingers that dictate every pitch; and the innards of the ball that determine the distance on each batted ball have, in other words, become the independent variables. To paraphrase Heraclitus, you can be certain no one steps in the same batter’s box or onto the same pitching mound twice — the last few years of steady transformation across the game have ensured it.
Most of the sources who spoke to CBS Sports were hesitant to say that player evaluation has become harder. What they did concede is that certain player profiles now have a wider range of potential outcomes. That, in turn, can make it tougher to know exactly what numbers you’ll receive from the player, since it hinges on outside factors. Think: hitters whose slugging production hinged on the rabbit ball, or relievers who slathered themselves in SpiderTack to up their swing-and-miss rates.
“I think the ball and sticky stuff give you uncertainty about particular player types,” scout No. 1 said before praising this past year’s baseball. “It’s nice that the actual power hitters have a real edge over every Tom, Dick, and Harry with 45 raw and a tweaked swing plane.” (“45 raw” is scoutspeak for fringe-average power potential.)
Good player evaluation comprises evaluative skills, institutional knowledge, and historical comparison, among other things. Those components require that the parameters of the game remain within the navigational buoys. If the game strays too much from the recent past, then the assessments that were based on the game’s old form become faulty assumptions, and downright liabilities to good player evaluation.
“Evaluating a player is the hardest thing to do anyway, so we’re talking fine margins,” a front-office type said. “End of the day, you’ve got to evaluate what you see.”
The challenge for front offices is, indeed, evaluating what they see. If a player gains power or starts missing more bats, is that a byproduct of legitimate skill or sustainable improvement — or, is it a grand illusion borne from potentially fleeting factors, like the unpredictable jumpiness of the baseball, or the latest in applicable adhesives? The sources who spoke to CBS Sports agreed that information is the equalizer, be it in the form of data or in gathering intelligence on (and from) players.
“Some of the trickier things are all about staying on top of things like the rule changes and building/maintaining the kind of relationships that help you get/retain more info on where guys are at and why they are where they are now,” scout No. 2 said.
“The amount of data available nowadays can signal when something changes,” scout No. 3 said. “You don’t start spinning a ball 20 percent more out of the blue. Even if you learn a new grip or change your mechanics to maximize it, that gives the scout an opportunity to investigate the ‘why.'”
Another source indicated that the “why” can include frank conversations about grip-enhancing substances with pitchers they suspect are still gooping it up. It’s better to experience some awkwardness now than to have buyer’s remorse later.
Teams who aren’t as skilled at combining data with observations, or who aren’t willing to do the investigative legwork, run the risk of being thrown for a loop. Consider how some teams silo data from their scouts so that they aren’t influenced by the numbers. Those teams may find that their scouts lack the necessary context to make accurate evaluations. After all, a player setting a new career-high in exit velocity or spin rate can be more or less meaningful depending on the league’s greater context. If a scout is left to guess at the specifics, their evaluation may prove to be off.
“It’s a ball-tracking league now, and if you don’t have the full picture you will have issues,” scout No. 2 said.
Front offices without the necessary capabilities may be in trouble, but teams who excel in those areas could gain a competitive advantage based on how they engage with and commit to specific profiles, as well as how quickly they can adjust to new information and alterations. As one player development specialist said: “We’re at a point in which teams are looking for the next edge.”
Again, so much of divining where a player is heading is based on the past, and based on knowing what attributes and profiles lead to prolonged success, versus which are more ephemeral. (“I still believe traits matter the most when trying to identify future talent,” a fourth scout said.) A forecast from a scout or an algorithm isn’t likely to hold up if the underpinning assumptions about how the game will be played prove to be incorrect. That doesn’t just apply to the ball and the sticky stuff, those resident agents of chaos, it can also apply to the changes coming to parts of the rulebook.
The league does teams a favor by announcing rule changes ahead of time, in accordance with the collectively bargained guidelines. That runway allows clubs to pivot before the new policies are enacted. This winter, for instance, teams are having to ask themselves several questions about their complexion as it pertains to defensive shifts, pitch clocks, and wider bases. (A similar calculus will be required if and when the automated strike zone is introduced.) Is it necessary to have another rangy middle infielder, or can a Max Muncy type survive at second? Will flamethrowing relievers who take a long time between pitches be able to hold up under a quicker tempo? And how much will the wider bases impact the running game and the ability to stop it?
Beginning today, teams will have a chance to provide their own answers. Just don’t expect them all to reach the same conclusions, at least not right away. “It might take recalibrating what [league-average] is in some cases.”
© 2004-2022 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.
CBS Sports is a registered trademark of CBS Broadcasting Inc. Commissioner.com is a registered trademark of CBS Interactive Inc.
Images by Getty Images and US Presswire
Why player evaluation is trickier in MLB free agency, trades thanks to a changing rulebook and baseball – CBS Sports