The MLB Draft: How Good Will You Be Down the Road?

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Where baseball at the collegiate level is more under the ‘here and now’ scope, evaluators from Big League clubs take the crystal ball approach when looking at potential prospects, trying to predict the ‘there and later’ of five-plus years down the road. With the Major League Baseball First-year Player Draft upon us, now is as good a time as any to take a look at not just what it means to play professional baseball, but also what some of the characteristics are of those who get the opportunity to do so.

First and foremost, it takes talent.

There are a lot of talented baseball players out there. A scout’s toughest job is not assessing their tools and ability, but rather foreseeing how that talent may develop in the future, and where it would stack among the best in the world at the Major League level. The baseball side of evaluating is actually the easy part. Scouts have such a well-trained eye for the game that they can dissect every swing that they see, along with every pitch they observe. True professional prospects need to have an ability (or combination thereof) to hit, run, throw, or field better than 99.9% of the rest of the baseball players on this earth.

The tools of the game are what scouts will always notice first; later, they will focus on how those tools are translated into the game skills when the lights turn on. The players with the most sought-after tools (hard throwers, fast runners, power hitters) who can best turn those gifts into on-field performance (outs on the mound, steals on the base paths, extra base hits with the bat) become very attractive to scouts as potential draft picks.

Herb Brooks, the late and legendary coach from the 1980 gold medal-winning USA Olympic hockey team famously said that his team “did not have enough talent to win on talent alone.” In his mind, there was something else that his players needed in order to compete with the best in the world. Baseball players are no different, even the most talented to ever put on a pair of spikes. With that in mind, therein lies a scout’s toughest job: identifying the things they can’t see and determining how and if those things will raise the talent they do see to the highest level of the sport.

In professional baseball, the talent pool is incredibly deep. Even the very worst player in the Minor Leagues is still better than the vast majority of the rest of the baseball players in the world. But for as good and as many as those who get paid to play truly are, the differences in their overall ability is miniscule. Yes, there are a handful of players who are just head and shoulders better than everyone else, like a Bryce Harper or a Stephen Strasburg. But also consider this: Mike Trout is arguably one of the best players in the game today and has had possibly one of the greatest starts to a career in the history of baseball. He was chosen 25th overall in the 2009 Amateur Draft. Twenty-four teams passed on the chance to have a once-in-a-generation player as the face of their club.

So, if most of the players good enough to play professional baseball are all generally within a similar ability level, then what separates one from the next? The answer is found in all of those things that are so tough for scouts to see on the surface: a player’s brains, passion for the game, and an inner drive to work and compete to do whatever it takes to get better, and win.

The idea of the dumb jock is a faulty stereotype when it comes to the best athletes in their respective sport. Baseball is no different, as a player’s intelligence plays a huge role not only in how they are able to play against another team, but as important, how they are able to develop from a talented amateur to a polished professional. Having the smarts to self-evaluate, players are able to understand what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why the need to improve. Game intellect obviously translates on the field in games, as the ever-changing chess match between players have one constantly trying to out-think the other in order to get on top.

Over the course of an entire professional baseball season, from the start of spring training, through the end of the playoffs, some will spend upwards of 200-plus days on the diamond over the course of six, seven, or eight months. To play baseball for that duration, players can’t just like the game; they need to love it. When they genuinely have a passion to play, often times they come with that same love when it comes to practicing, an obvious vital component when it comes to reaching one’s true potential.

One last intangible that is a clear difference-maker in the game is competitiveness. Many players thrive in the heat of battle, with something inside of them that brings out their very best when the game is on the line. Others wilt under the pressure that comes in competition, and seemingly waste their talent. In many respects, talent is worthless without the competitive gene. There will always be an innate pressure that comes in all forms at every level of the game, and those who are comfortable in that chaos tend to rise when the stakes are higher, and the moments are bigger. The ability to perform under pressure is one that scouts undoubtedly value because of the spotlight that shines at Major League ballparks across the country.

From the first time a kid puts on a uniform in tee ball or in a youth league, many will dream of one day becoming a professional baseball player. For the majority of those kids, that dream will always remain just a dream. But for a privileged few, the opportunity to turn that dream into a reality may be there with years of hard work and dedication to becoming the best player they can be. The sooner players, coaches, and parents alike get a true understanding of what it takes to get there, the sooner they can start working to do the things on a field that 99.9% of the world’s population can’t.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.