Interview With John Sickels & Open Draft Day Discussion Post

Happy Draft Day, everybody!  In addition to this post serving as an open thread to discuss the draft's developments, I had the pleasure to sit down with John Sickels and ask him a few questions.  By "sit down", I mean that we were both (presumably) seated at our respective computers in order to exchange emails.  Make sure to head over to John's blog, Minor League Ball, where today is basically their Halloween, Bastille Day, and Canadian Boxing Day all rolled into one.

BtB: Who are some of the players in this year's draft who create the most debate as to their future value?

John Sickels: Kyle Gibson obviously due to the uncertainty regarding his health. It will be interesting to see how teams assess the stress fracture. No one doubts that Scheppers has the best arm in the draft other than Strasburg, but because of last year’s shoulder problem he could go anywhere from 5 to 25. Donavan Tate’s tools are undoubted, but not everyone buys into his bat, and there aren’t that many teams willing to meet Boras’ asking price given that uncertainty. He could go third in the draft, or fall out of the first round altogether.

BtB: Where are the biggest opportunities for improving prospect evaluation?  Better prediction of injuries?  Predicting development of skillsets? Mental and emotional diagnosis?  Other?

John Sickels: I would say the mental side. I think finding new ways to assess a player’s mental and emotional makeup, both currently and in the future, is the "next frontier."  Some people are doing neurobiological work the "brain types" of competitive athletes, while others are taking a more psychological approach. A lot of teams use standardized personality tests, and of course scouts have been assessing and analyzing player personalities for 100 years. I think that is where the next breakthroughs in player analysis will be, though what exactly that breakthrough will involve, I don’t know.

BtB: Not all teams use all of their fifty draft picks.  With some teams finding talent with that last pick in recent years, do you see teams using all their picks more this year?

John Sickels: Well I think they should. I’d use every slot available to me if I was running a team.

BtB: How valuable do you think college stats are in evaluating players? Are there certain stats that are more valuable in judging future talent than determining current production?  What would you notice from a scouting point of view to make you downgrade a college player with amazing numbers?

John Sickels: I’ve done a lot of work with college stats. They have some value, but you have to make very strong adjustments for things like park effects and level of competition. Another factor is that no two college teams play the same schedule due to the strong variations in non-conference opponents, so even comparing teams within the same conference is hard. You could throw out the non-conference numbers, but that makes the sample size even smaller. The numbers you look at are the same as you look at for pro players: for pitchers you want to see good K/IP and K/BB ratios, adjusted for context. For hitters I look very closely at BB/K/PA ratios, power production, all the standard stuff.

Of course, the aluminum bat makes a direct translation from college stats to the pros very difficult. But, generally speaking, if a pitcher has good strikeout rates in college, he’ll usually have good strikeout rates, at least in the lower minors. And if a hitter can’t control the strike zone in college, he’ll have problems doing it as a pro, too.

All that said, I would never draft a player based on numbers alone. Scouting reports are crucial. College players are still very young, and can still develop their skills as they mature. Some hitters aren’t able to make the transition away from metal bats, and scouts often (though not always) have a good idea who those guys will be. For pitchers it is the opposite: there are some guys who struggle against metal but who can bust hitters with wooden bats more readily. The wood-bat summer leagues, like the Cape Cod League, are extremely important in this respect, giving scouts a look at what the player will do with a real bat.

So, all that said, I think college stats are important to look at, but they are just one part of the picture. You can’t replace scouting with stats, BUT you can’t ignore the stats either. At the very least, they give you an idea what a player’s strengths and weaknesses may be. Both stats and scouting are necessary. They complement each other.

BtB: What are some of the more unique organizational approaches to drafting and developing prospects?

John Sickels: Well every organization has a somewhat different approach, but I think it is more a matter of emphasis than huge disagreements in weltanschauung. Some teams focus more on plate discipline than others, though almost everyone looks at that more than they did five or ten years ago. In drafting, all teams look at both performance and projection, but some emphasize the numbers more than others. I do know that even teams that aren’t regarded as particularly sabermetric in orientation still look at the numbers and conduct their own studies. This is something that’s changed a lot over the last 10 years. I think the lines between "statheads" and "traditionalists" have blurred quite a bit, especially in the last five years. The lines were probably overstated in the popular press in any event.

BtB: Do you have any personal favorite prospects you think of more highly of than other scouts?  What are the others missing?

John Sickels: Well I try to stay ahead of the curve on sleeper prospects. After we get through the draft I’m going to look at the players I pointed out as sleepers in the book, and update on how they are doing. David Hernandez is one guy I have been focusing on for a couple of years. Scouts didn’t seem to like him much, but the numbers were always there, particularly his strikeout rate, and it looked like he had good stuff to me when I saw him in person. Josh Outman is another guy I think I liked more than others. Again, the numbers were pretty solid, and when I saw him in person he had better stuff than I’d heard about.

Sometimes scouts can get caught up in groupthink and underrate a guy. Curtis Granderson is an example of that. Statheads can get into groupthink, too...

BtB: What are your thoughts on the risk/reward of drafting high school pitching, a topic that's been popular on BtB recently.

John Sickels: I don’t have a problem with drafting high school pitchers, in theory... if it’s the right high school pitcher, and if you mix some college guys in with them.  If you look at the Shadow Drafts I have done over the last 13 years, I’ve taken some high school pitchers high. Michael Bowden and Joel Hanrahan were two guys I liked in high school. Jake Odorizzi last year. I don’t think any source of talent can or should be overlooked, and that includes high school pitchers. I wouldn’t draft them exclusively, I think a good organization needs a mixture of players from different sources.

BtB: Are there any prospects where there might be a divide between scouts and statheads?

John Sickels: They line up more than you’d think. Scouts have been higher on Cameron Maybin than a lot of statheads, who have worried about his strikeouts and low line drive tendency cutting into his power production. That would be one example. Statheads like Jaff Decker more than traditional scouts do, though even traditionalists respect his bat. They just worry about where he will fit defensively. Pre-season, some statheads (including me) were really worried about Mike Stanton’s strikeout rate, while scouts focused more on his physical projection and his youth. Stanton has really improved his plate discipline this year and looks to be a favorite of both camps now. Again, the differences aren’t as strong as they were 15 or even five years ago.

BtB: Which MLB teams do a good job of combining scouting and objective analysis in all facets of their decision making?

John Sickels: Oakland and Boston are the two obvious examples, but I think just about every team does this to a greater or lesser extent, even the "traditional" clubs are doing this more and more. They might not talk about it much, but they do it.

BtB: How will Pitch f/x (and soon Hit f/x) affect the accuracy, and cost, of scouting?

John Sickels: Honestly, I haven’t thought a lot about this yet. It’s been in the majors so far, and frankly when a player gets to the majors and graduates out of rookie status, I start to lose interest in them since I focus mostly on the minors and prospects. When a rookie gets to the show, I'll look at his Pitch f/x stuff, though if he still has rookie status the data set is usually limited. What I really want is Pitch f/x for the minors. Then we can answer that question.

***

John has tons of information on his site about the players who will be drafted today, but here are some recent BtB draft-related articles:

Ok, the comments are yours...

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