What Ken Griffey Jr. trade teaches us about scouting Lindor, Arenado and Bryant
Twenty years ago, when the Cincinnati Reds were trying to trade for Ken Griffey Jr., it wasn’t as though they had discovered a toolsy phenom playing semipro ball in a sugarcane field. Griffey was probably the most famous, most popular and arguably best baseball player in the world. He had just been voted, by his peers, the Player of the Decade. He had just won the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger award — which pretty much covers it all — for the fourth year in a row. His dad was the Reds’ hitting instructor.
“You don’t scout Ken Griffey Jr.,” says Jim Bowden, who was the Reds’ general manager at the time. “You just look and say, ‘Oh, there’s a Hall of Fame player.’ So when you’re making a trade for Griffey — I never looked at a scouting report. I never needed to.”
And yet, the scouting reports for Ken Griffey Jr. were written. As trade talks heated up and Bowden prepared for the winter meetings, the Reds’ front office produced three new reports on Griffey, to go along with the two that had been filed by scouts at the end of the regular season, and the dozen or so that had been written, at a rate of a couple per year, since Griffey had become a perennial 40-homers-and-a-Gold-Glove MVP candidate. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, who acquired thousands of Reds scouting reports from that era, revealed some of what those scouting reports said: Reds scouts gave him elite grades for his power and defense, plus very strong grades for his hitting, arm and baserunning. Obviously!
Which is all to say that there are, out there, scouting reports on the recently traded Mookie Betts, the most obviously great ballplayer this side of Mike Trout (and peak Ken Griffey Jr.). There are scouting reports on Francisco Lindor, on Nolan Arenado, and on Kris Bryant — all of whom are reportedly available in a trade right this minute if a GM wants them bad enough. Some of these scouting reports are regular, run-of-the-mill reports, with descriptions of his body type and swing plane: datapoints to track the player’s career progression in a clinical, check-every-box sort of way. Others are probably best seen as attempts to persuade: persuade the GM, or persuade somebody above the GM to approve and fund the trade.
So put yourself in the scout’s shoes: You’ve got to file a report on a player everybody knows everything about. Presumably, you want it to matter, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. One GM who recently acquired a superstar hitter says he had multiple reports on the player, and, he says wryly, “They all thought he was pretty good. … I can’t say I remember poring over the details of those reports.”
So what would a useful scouting report for these superstars do?
We can take some cues from the old Griffey reports, particularly the ones that came during the trade talks, when (according to just-after-the-facts reporting from Tom Verducci) the Reds’ front office was engaged in internal debate about whether to acquire him. Bowden — who had been calling the Mariners “three or four times a year” inquiring about Griffey since he had been hired in 1992 — was in aggressive pursuit, but according to Verducci he had to convince the Mariners and his bosses in the C-suite. They were less sure, and at least twice ordered Bowden off the chase. It was around this time that the tone of the reports shifted: The annual reports had been fairly straightforward, sometimes veering toward gushing but mostly bland. There are abbreviations and technical terms.
The reports that were produced during trade talks were more hyperbolic, more personal. There were exclamation points (“If you can acquire him, go get him!”) and clauses in all capital letters (“IS THE MICHAEL JORDAN OF BASEBALL”), and appeals to his place in baseball history and the broader culture. The nice thing about doing a scouting report on a known entity is that it frees you. The truth is already known. The report, then, can focus on the essence of the player. It’s not so much about describing him as putting him on the right scale.
If we were writing reports for the three superstars on the trade market right now, we’d write something like:
The best all-around shortstop since Alex Rodriguez and one of the 40 best players in history through age 25 — and 80% of those guys went on to make the Hall of Fame. His first five full seasons were as good as Derek Jeter’s, and he was a year younger than Jeter when he became a full-timer. When he dives for a ball, he’s up faster than any shortstop in baseball — mousetrap levels of spring. When he goes to his left, looks like he’s running downhill, and can spin and throw as accurately as most shortstops could throw and then spin. Nobody in baseball’s highlight reel looks more like it was spliced together from two different stars: A power hitter launching 35-degree bombs into the second deck, interspersed with a diving defender ranging impossibly to his left and glove-flipping feeds to his second baseman. He hit the ball as hard (by exit velocity) as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Pete Alonso last year. He’s going to make the Hall of Fame, and he’s simultaneously going to keep Andrelton Simmons out of it, by heisting Gold Glove Awards that would otherwise have been directly deposited into Simmons’ account.
History will remember all that, but not just that. In a few decades, it’ll be clearer that, late this decade, the era switched over from that era to this era. Before Lindor, Major League Baseball had been in a 25-year rut of players not being allowed to look like they were having much fun. The quirks, passions and extravagances of the 1980s were all suppressed — even Griffey was playing it straight after his first few years — and players were expected to maintain a scowl and chip on their shoulder. And then came 2016, when Lindor and Javy Baez were in the World Series, and it was like when Elsa realized that love was the key to controlling her magic. Lindor smiled constantly, and winter began to thaw. Lindor was young and stress-free and sometimes wearing a fedora, and for the first time in years baseball had a giddy superstar on its biggest stage. His nickname is Mr. Smile. That’s going to be on a Hall of Fame plaque someday: Mr. Smile.
Smiling, you know, is contagious. In 2003, German researchers at the University of Tübingen put subjects into an fMRI machine, showed them a facial expression, and told them to make either the same facial expression or the opposite one. When the subjects were mimicking the expression they saw, the emotional part of the brain was in action. When they were making the opposite expression, the inhibitory part of the brain was in action, resisting. I’m a scout, not a neuroscientist, but as I understand it the brain wants to mimic the emotions that it sees. Boss: You need to smile more, in my opinion. I do too. We need to smile around each other, and then we’ll both smile more. I smile when I watch Francisco Lindor play, and not just because of the glove-flip feeds to the second baseman. He’s telling a different story than the serious players out there, and I respond to it. It is, of course, important that we give our fans a winning product, and Lindor helps with that too, but we want to give them something bigger: a fun day at the park, a happy feeling after watching a game on TV, a sense that we’re rooting for the good guys out here.
If every player in baseball were exactly as good as every other player in baseball, Lindor would be the first player I’d take to start a franchise.
Every other third baseman is a small-town cop driving around hoping to be there when a bad driver runs a red light. Arenado is the red-light camera, catching all of it, unthwartable. He’s the computer in the highest level of Pong, with invincible AI-level anticipation. He throws harder from his knees than some left fielders throw from a crow hop. His barehand is impervious to spin. He’s got a nifty, underrated move when he has to stray far to his right: Instead of planting and throwing over his shoulder, or spinning and jump throwing in the first baseman’s vicinity, he cuts a little bit toward home plate, takes a step or two in and throws across his body, giving himself a good clean look at his target before he has to unload. That’s one of the amazing things about Arenado’s defense: When he makes an incredible stop — and he does about once per game, or sometimes five times — he never rushes the play. He usually has a moment, and he takes advantage of that moment to settle, square up and avoid turning an acrobatic stop into a two-base error with a wild throw. It also works almost as a taunt to the defeated hitter, one last split second that he has to run hard, despite Arenado having already sucked all the hope out of the play. Check this play out. It’s got a bit of all of that, and preserved a no-hitter.
Scholars estimate that as many as eight of the best highlights in baseball since 2014 are from Arenado. Nobody chews gum harder than this guy.
But you know all that, and you also know that he’s an RBI monster, and you mostly ignore the RBIs because it’s 2020 and we read Harvard Business Review. Boss: Don’t just ignore the RBIs. Of course, they’re an overrated stat and in Arenado’s case they’re partly a Coors Field creation. But Arenado, a good hitter overall, has been one of the best in history with runners on base and/or in scoring position. Only nine players in the past century have raised their performance with runners on more than Arenado, and only one has raised his performance more with runners in scoring position. Arenado is a .274/.323/.503 hitter with the bases empty — essentially Matt Chapman‘s line, though boosted by his ballpark. Put a runner on second or third and he has hit .332/.411/.630. There probably aren’t more than five hitters in baseball I’d rather have up with a couple of runners on, and we don’t have any of those five in our lineup. (No, I’m not criticizing you. You’ve done a fine job. I’m just saying.) His RBI percentage — the rate of baserunners he has driven in — has been among the NL’s 10 best in each of the past five years. Is that a little bit of a junk stat? Probably! But you already know all the facts about Nolan Arenado, perennial MVP candidate, future Hall of Famer, etc. I’m giving you something better than facts: superstitious speculation. The man is clutch. The junk stats prove it.
We have a couple dozen scouts, and this year we’re going to send them into every corner of this nation and most corners of a dozen others looking for good baseball players. Our scouts are going to drive tens of thousands of miles each, go to hundreds of games, file thousands of reports on players who will mostly fail to reach Double-A, all in search of the small handful who could turn into valuable major leaguers. These few are so rare and so valuable that dozens of coaches will spend hundreds — thousands? — of hours working with them to try to cultivate their special gifts. We will stare at these few constantly, filming their every at-bat, collecting terabytes of data and trying within this matrix of information to find the faint heartbeat of a future career. If any of these players make it to the majors and contribute, it’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of our employees — coaches, scouts, strength trainers, support staff, teammates and front-office executives — will have needed to do their jobs correctly.
But, boss, check it out: I have a shortcut. It’s Kris Bryant. Literally the Kris Bryant. One of the best college hitters in history, one of the best minor leaguers in history, a Rookie of the Year and an MVP and the best player on a recent World Series champion. Other people already did all the work for us. They found him, they cultivated him, they got him here. If we get him, we quite possibly get a future Hall of Famer to invite to future old timers’ games, a uniform number to retire someday, and a guy who had a 4.78 high school GPA. (For our book club!) I just checked his stats and his projections, and he’s still really good.
Of course, you know all that. You know, too, that he hasn’t been quite as good lately as he was in his first three seasons. He had a shoulder injury that sapped his power for at least one season and maybe two. His defense is, predictably, getting worse as he ages and slows. He’s an extreme fly ball hitter who might be more dependent on the juiced ball than most stars, and who really knows whether the juiced ball will show up again this season or not? All of that. But look at our third baseman, and look at Bryant. Bryant is better. My job here is just to point that out. There’s an easy way of doing things and a hard way, and you need to ask yourself whether we’re in the easy way business or the hard way business. Answering that question is above my paygrade.
(Speaking of which: Let’s talk about my raise.)