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Published: Tuesday, 6/5/2001

Scouting: Players must be evaluated for what they will become

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Sandusky's Mike Trbovich, a scout for the Colorado Rockies, has been watching college and high school games for 38 years. Sandusky's Mike Trbovich, a scout for the Colorado Rockies, has been watching college and high school games for 38 years.
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“Why do we need so many scouts? All they do is watch games anyway.”

- Marge Schott

Poor Marge got it wrong.

She uttered this famous line when she owned the Cincinnati Reds, proving that she didn't understand that scouts don't watch games.

Scouts watch players, not games. Actually, scouts find players.

What's more, the work scouts do can make the difference between a major league franchise having young players who can fill holes - or providing the bait to make trades that fill those holes - or leaving those holes unfilled.

The work of scouts will come to light again today, when baseball begins its two-day, 50-round draft of amateur talent. Nearly all of the names will be unfamiliar to even the most die-hard baseball fans, yet all 30 teams probably will have sent a scout to see each and every drafted player in action at least once.

Still, scouts remain a faceless group. Few people realize that one of the more famous scouts in baseball history is the late Tony Lucadello, a Fostoria native who signed 50 players who reached the big leagues, including Mike Schmidt, Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Marshall.

And while many fans have watched high school or college games, few have an idea of what a scout, watching the same game, is looking at, or for.

SOME ART, SOME SCIENCE

The NFL and NBA drafts have become television events, filled with names familiar to even the casual fan. Everyone has an opinion on whether Michael Vick can play in the NFL even before we know what team has drafted him.

In baseball, that's not the case. Not by a longshot.

“(Scouting) in baseball is a lot more difficult than football and basketball,” said Anup Sinha, a former scout who now works for TeamOneBaseball.com, an internet baseball scouting service. “In football and basketball you can watch everyone you want on TV. But in baseball there aren't many college games on TV.

“And having to scout players at the high school level is a whole different element. In basketball and football the players are often 22 years old, physically mature and ready to play. Scouts there are just trying to determine if players can fit into a system. In baseball very few of the players are close to being major league players. You're trying to project what they will be able to do five years down the road.”

Lou Laslo, a Tiger scout who lives in Pemberville, said he tries to evaluate a player's skills in a variety of areas.

“I'll watch a certain play to judge his `tools,'” said Laslo, a full-time, year-round employee of the Tigers. “For a pitcher I'm looking at things like his velocity, his breaking pitches, his arm action and his mound presence.

“For position players I'm looking at a player's tools to play a certain position, how he runs, how he swings the bat and how he throws.”

Many of those “tools” are subjective, which is why scouts begin to analyze players by focusing on tools that can be measured, such as a pitcher's velocity.

“The magic number is 90 (mph), either in high school or college,” Laslo said. “You can't teach arm strength. If a pitcher is not above 84 or 85 mph I'll move on to the next one.”

For position players, one tool that is measurable is speed, which usually is judged by a player's time running from home to first base.

“A time of 4.2 (seconds) for a left-handed hitter and 4.3 for a right-hander is about average,” Laslo said. “But a guy who is below average in speed still may be a prospect if he has a strong arm or hits with power.”

When you factor in that scouts are trying to judge not only how a player performs those skills now, but also how he will perform them in five years, you can see how scouting turns into as much an art as a science.

“You won't even come close to batting 1.000 (judging players),” Sinha said. “In the majors a good player hits .300, and it's the same with scouts. Only 70 percent of first-round picks make the majors, and only 40 percent of the second-rounders (make it).

“In all only 17 percent of the players who are drafted make the majors, so really if you're hitting .170 as a scout you're doing pretty well.”

And nowadays a new wrinkle has been added to the scouting process.

“We need to judge a player's signability,” Laslo said. “We try to get as much homework done in that area as we do with physical skills. For high school players, we try to determine if a player is ready to pursue a professional career or if he wants to go to college.”

And don't think that judging a player's monetary demands isn't important.

“A mistake is expensive, even for a team like the Yankees,” Sinha said. “In the old days, the difference in signing bonus was between $50,000 and $60,000. Now the difference is between, say, $3 million and $8 million. That's a huge difference, even to a team like the Yankees.”

But before a scout can sign a player, he first must find him.

THE TASK AT HAND

It's 11 a.m. on a Saturday, an hour before a high school game between Bowsher and Eastwood on the Eagles' field.

The two teams are there, but that's about it. There are no fans. There are no concession workers. There aren't even any umpires. Fact is, only people who have to be there are actually there.

Mike Trbovich is there.

Trbovich, who lives in Sandusky, is nearing his fourth decade as a “bird-dog” scout. For 38 seasons he has watched high school and college games, and those years of experience have taught him the importance of being early.

“It's important to get to the game an hour before game time,” he said. “You can do your grading and evaluating of the arms, especially during infield when the outfielders throw home and when the infielders throw to first.”

After warm-ups, Trbovich settles down to watch the game, a rarity among scouts.

“Most scouts come in and they know the one or two people they came to look at. But I actually have a scorecard, and I stay for the whole game. I try to watch the complete game, and I try to at least see a player a second time if I'm interested in him.

“I want to give a player every opportunity (to impress). You can see some kid go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4, but if he shows you something - athleticism, good mobility, soft hands, good throwing arm or good running speed - he'll have my interest.

“But you also have to judge the competition a player is playing against. If you've got a guy that goes 0-for-4 against a flame-throwing pitcher hitting 93 or 94 (mph), and then all of a sudden he hits three home runs against a youngster throwing only 82 mph, that doesn't make him a prospect.”

If Trbovich sees a player he likes he will pass the details on that player to Ed Santa, the Ohio area scout for the Colorado Rockies.

That starts a chain reaction that Laslo says may result in multiple looks at a particular player.

“If I find a player I'll pass that player's name along to our regional supervisor,” Laslo said. “If he likes the player he'll pass the name along to our national cross-checker. Whatever he reports determines who from the team's front office will look at a player.

“If a player is a first-round talent, at least eight or nine people (from the Tigers) will see him play at least three or four times. After that, usually three or four people will look at a draftable player; a minimum of two people will see anyone we draft.”

Each major league team handles scouting differently. For every Detroit, which has one national cross-checker and four region supervisors, there is a Cleveland, with two national cross-checkers and three region supervisors. And to confuse the issue, the Tribe's two cross-checkers both serve as region supervisors. Most teams have between 20 and 25 full-time and part-time amateur scouts, including supervisors.

But no matter how a team sets up its staff, the goal is the same: evaluate as many players as possible for selection in a 50-round draft.

THE GLAMOROUS LIFE

You might think that watching baseball games for a living would be fun.

Sometimes it isn't.

Laslo said it can be difficult driving from town to town searching for players.

“I put 40,000 to 50,000 miles on my car in a year. Recently I made a trip where on Monday I saw a game in Erie, Pa. On Tuesday I drove to Philadelphia to see a pitcher. On Wednesday I drove back to Butler, Pa., for a game. In three days I ended up putting 1,300 miles on my car.”

The Saturday Trbovich spent at Eastwood was the end of a long week too.

“So far this week I've been gone every single day. I think I was in Fremont on Monday, I forgot where I was Tuesday, but I was in Youngstown Wednesday night. I was in Hudson, Ohio, on Friday.”

And the Saturday Trbovich was watching Eastwood and Bowsher play happened to be his wedding anniversary.

“I promised my wife Mary Ann that I would not watch the doubleheader; (I promised) I would just watch the first game and then we would go out to celebrate our anniversary.”

Another factor that makes scouting tough is the weather.

“When you see games in late April and it's 40 degrees, the wind-chill factor is probably 20,” Laslo said. “It's tough to evaluate players some times because of the weather. Plus, (because of the weather) you only have a short time to see the high school players - five weeks, maybe six. You need to see 90 percent of the college kids before the high school season starts.”

So why do it? Love of the game, mainly.

“You wouldn't do it for 38 years and short-change your family if you didn't enjoy it,” said Trbovich, who is retired after a career at the Lorain Ford plant. “It gives me a great feeling if I can help some youths and give them a break. But the most important thing is that it keeps me active; it keeps me young.”

And don't think that a scout stops watching a player the moment he's drafted.

“You keep track of (the players you've scouted) as much as you can,” Laslo said. “In the last couple of years I had two of my players get traded (pitcher Bobby Sismondo for Wendell Magee and pitcher Ricky Roberts as part of the Dave Mlicki deal). You hate to see your players get traded, but when they were traded for guys on the major league roster, I had a fellow scout tell me, `Hey, you have a big leaguer.'”

INDIANS AND TIGERS

The Cleveland Indians have five picks among the first 51 in today's draft, including No. 17. The Detroit Tigers have four among the first 65, including No. 11.



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