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May 28, 2006

Gerry Fraley Makes Me Angry. Angry and Tired.

The Dallas Morning News’s Gerry Fraley had this to say Sunday morning:

In the Best Interest Of The Game

The rise of St. Louis' multi-talented Albert Pujols should make every organization reconsider the value of scouts.

The Cardinals found Pujols because a scout, Dave Karaff, pictured a power hitter where others saw only a pudgy junior-college catcher. Karaff fought to have Pujols taken in the 13th round of the 1999 draft and given enough of a bonus ($60,000) to sign.

St. Louis ownership forgot about that. It is obsessed with drafting collegiate players based on their statistics. The Cardinals' first 26 picks in the 2004 draft were collegiate players. In moving to this philosophy, the Cardinals let Karaff go in a purge of scouts.

Where to begin…

As Fraley notes, St. Louis selected 26 consecutive college players in the 2004 draft, though, like Pujols, three were from community or junior colleges. The Cardinals selected only four high schoolers in 47 picks and signed none.

What did the college-obsessed Cardinals do the 2005 draft? With their first pick, they selected high-school outfielder Colby Rasmus. In fact, they selected six high schoolers with their first ten picks and fifteen overall along with five JuCo/Community College players.

Why would Fraley ignore the St. Louis’s most recent draft? Perhaps because it makes his argument incredibly lame.

When St. Louis overhauled its scouting organization after the 2003 season, its farm system had ranked among the worst in baseball for several years. In 2001, Baseball America ranked the Cardinal farm system 23rd of 30 teams. In 2002 it fell to dead last, and in 2003 it rocketed to 28 th. Here’s what Baseball America had to say about them in February 2005:

Aside from Albert Pujols, St. Louis had few significant contributors to their pennant run who were produced by the farm system. Pujols and So Taguchi--a veteran player who was signed after playing several years in Japan--were the only everyday players originally signed by the organization. On the pitching staff, Dan Haren and Matt Morris were the only players with at least 45 innings who started their careers with the Cardinals.

Most anti-stathead rants like Fraley’s revolve around straw men and simplistic either-or arguments. What evidence suggests that St. Louis -- with the same ownership, general manager and manager in place since 1996 and six consecutive winning seasons – embraced the all-stats, no-scouts approach derided by Fraley? Practically none, unless the purpose is to find thin slivers of facts supporting a premeditated conclusion. Per Baseball America’s Will Lingo in late 2003:

In a nod to… the best-selling book “Moneyball,” the Cardinals restructured their scouting department this offseason to try to get more out of the draft. Scouting director Marty Maier was reassigned to special-assignment scout, and assistant general manager John Mozeliak took over the scouting department in addition to his duties as director of baseball operations. The Cardinals also hired Jeff Luhnow as an assistant vice president of baseball development to compile databases and try to improve the team’s efficiency with the draft. Mozeliak said his ultimate goal is to rely more on the decisions of individual scouts when drafting players, rather than giving more credence to crosschecking. “The restructuring we’re going through will ultimately empower our scouts,” he said. [emphasis added]

Well, the article did mention Moneyball. Perhaps Fraley stopped reading at that point.

Regarding the college-heavy 2004 draft, Lingo noted dissatisfaction with previous drafts and the thin farm system, further saying “the Cardinals didn't exclude high school players from their scouting, but rather wanted advanced players who could add immediate depth.” Lingo reiterated St. Louis’s new multidiscipline approach in late 2005, after the franchise reverted to its traditional draft-day mix of high schools and college players:

The Cardinals’ 2005 draft showed their willingness to look at all types of players. There were sleepers who were picked based on their college performance, such as outfielder Nick Stavinoha (seventh round). But there were also college players whose performance has never seemed to quite measure up to their tools, such as righthander Mark McCormick (supplemental first). There were toolsy high school players whose projection is based on the judgments of scouts much more than their statistics, such as outfielder Daryl Jones (third). St. Louis even spent a couple of early picks on Tyler Herron (supplemental first) and Josh Wilson (second), a pair of prep righthanders—considered the riskiest demographic in the draft.

The Cardinals have shown a willingness to blend all these approaches, which could pay quick dividends for the farm system. [emphasis added]

The Cardinals are attempting to augment their scouting department, not replace it. They have no obsession with college players, and they have not abandoned their scouts as a group. Fraley is making unsupported arguments to criticize something that does not exist.

Finally, what did the fired scout in question have to say in retrospect about Pujols? Nothing but effusive praise, yes? No:

I felt he was going to be successful, but I didn't know how successful. I don't think there's any way we could have seen all these things. My one fear was whether he was going to hit, if you can believe that. If we all felt he could hit consistently, he would have been a first rounder and got his $3 million bonus. He still does some of the things that I feared, but he has the ability to make adjustments, and that's something I never saw.

Dave Karaff saw more in Pujols than his peers, and for that he deserves immense credit. However, nobody on the planet (except perhaps Pujols himself and maybe his mother) foresaw him arriving fully developed as a once-in-a-generation player. Somehow, Gerry Fraley has turned this anecdote into an indictment of statistical analysis. I suppose you go where your imagination takes you.

Posted by Lucas at May 28, 2006 09:19 PM