By now you should realize that baseball scouts are a lot like your local weather man, only not as well-dressed and more likely to eat fast food for dinner five nights a week. They typically offer inaccurate predictions based on inadequate information, which undoubtedly costs Major League franchises hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) each season.
Still, we tend to take a scout’s word as gospel because they watch more baseball than any of us could bear to imagine, just as we do with Dr. Mel’s forecast, because he mutters the words Doppler radar here and there.
But that seems to be where their credentials come to an end. Which is why I’m worried that all this hype around Stephen Strasburg may never result in much of a career in the Major Leagues. Strasburg, of course, is considered a can’t-miss prospect, a term that should be as banned from baseball as any performance-enhancing drug. As Alan Schwarz of the New York Times wrote last week, “Strasburg is the sixth once-in-a-lifetime pitcher of his lifetime.”
The scouts can’t get enough of Strasburg, and so general managers swoon over him, which makes owners love him, which then gets the media aboard the bandwagon and ultimately, results in fans believing he’s the next 300-game winner. It’s a vicious cycle that usually begins with a high radar gun reading and a load of strikeouts against an obscure group of players and ends with some type of unprecedented contract.
There might be no better example of this than the last can’t-miss pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka. We’ve heard Dice-K’s name mentioned a lot in association with Strasburg, mostly because each is represented by Scott Boras and the super-agent expects to get Strasburg a contract similar to the one he negotiated for Matsuzaka three years ago.
But the similarities between the two right-handers don’t end there. Strasburg is billed as throwing in high 90’s with devastating secondary pitches and impeccable control. In Japan, scouts said Matsuzaka approached 100 mph on the radar gun and had as many as seven plus-pitches with pinpoint accuracy.
Someone ask Theo Epstein if any of that is true.
What the scouts didn’t seem to account for with Matsuzaka was that the strike zone is significantly larger in Japan and most of the lineups he pitched against featured only a handful of dangerous hitters, so there was probably a lot of bad hitters swinging at bad pitches. That plus the fact that Dice-K was considered an icon, which certainly resulted in him getting the same borderline calls that Greg Maddux received in his prime.
You have to wonder if scouts have made the same mistake with Strasburg. Was he simply blowing away inferior lineups from a generally weak conference? Were bad hitters just swinging at bad pitches? And were umpires so jazzed up to be calling a Stephen Strasburg-pitched game that they subconsciously gave the future top pick every call?
The answer to all those questions could be no. But considering just how subjective scouting seems to be, the outlook for Strasburg is just as vague as your typical weather forecast:
Bright. Unless it’s cloudy.