Today Todd Zolecki published a very interesting interview with Phillies president Pat Gillick. There were a lot of very interesting answers because Gillick has an incredible baseball mind, but the quotes that stuck with me involve the draft and scouting philosophy.
Question: You have new amateur scouting director in Johnny Almaraz. What do you think is going to be different about future drafts? Is there a philosophy change?
Gillick: Not saying that our former director (Marti Wolever) didn’t like players, but our new scouting director likes players. People might not understand that, but sometimes you look at a player and you can talk about his minuses or you can talk about his plusses. Our new scouting director, he talks about players’ plusses. He wants to concentrate on what this player can do, not on what he cannot do. So I think it’s a little bit of a different approach.
Question: Does that mean more baseball players and less “high-ceiling athletes?”
Gillick: To some extent. We’re still looking for high-ceiling guys and athletes, but it’s the right round to take him in. So consequently there might be a different philosophy about where to take the high-ceiling guys. You might take someone that’s a little closer, a little better baseball player, a little earlier than you normally would and there might be a high-ceiling guy available in the second or third round.
This got me thinking about the Phillies 2014 first round pick Aaron Nola, and specifically a conversation pre-draft on the Fringe Average podcast between Mike Ferrin and Jason Parks about Aaron Nola and Tyler Kolek. The conversation centered around which one you would take if you were in a front office. Parks ultimately went with Nola based on the fact that while it is a profile you can acquire, it is the safest profile to impactful and help you win a championship during a reasonable window.
For reference here are the Baseball America pre-draft scouting reports:
The Blue Jays drafted Nola and his older brother Austin in 2011, and they both turned down the Jays to play the 2012 season together at LSU. While Austin is now playing shortstop at Double-A in the Marlins system, Aaron was having one of the best seasons in college baseball in 2014. Athletic and flexible, Nola manages to stay on top of his pitches and command them despite a mid-three-quarters release point that gives his fastball excellent life. His fastball sits 93-94 mph and touches 95 regularly, and he reached back for 96 in a hyped, head-to-head showdown with Vanderbilt and Tyler Beede in March. Nola’s fastball command ranks toward the top of the college class, as he can pitch to both sides of the plate, though his walk rate has increased (1.3 to 2.3 per nine) this season as he has thrown more sliders. His strikeout rate has jumped even more (8.7 to 10.7 per nine). Nola arrived at LSU with a plus changeup with sink that looked like his fastball out of his hand, but he has lost feel for his change while improving his slider, which was once below-average. Scouts give his slider average or better grades as he has added power to the pitch, but they would like to see a return of his plus change. Nola gets swings and misses in the zone with his fastball, the mark of a starting pitcher, and is one of the safest bets in the class. His command should help the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder move quickly.
Scouts knew about Kolek as one of the top 2014 targets in Texas when he broke his left arm in a collision at first base in March 2013. The injury ended his junior season, but Kolek kept himself in shape. When he went to the tryouts for Texas’ Area Code Games team in late May, his fastball popped 99. A three-sport star who was drawing interest as a defensive end, Kolek decided to focus exclusively on baseball after the ACG tryout. Kolek then spent the summer establishing himself as the hardest thrower in a draft class full of velocity, and has maintained triple-digit radar gun readings all spring, hitting 100-102 mph regularly. Kolek’s fastball sits 96-98 mph thanks to tremendous strength, coordination in his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body and surprising arm speed. Kolek is very athletic in his delivery has a very long stride, even for his size. Scouts consider Kolek’s consistent top-end velocity unprecedented in the draft era for a high school pitcher. His fastball plays up beyond its pure velocity readings because of its heavy plus life, working downhill with sink. His dense fastball will likely be a groundball-inducing offering when hitters make contact. He throws both a curveball and slider, and the slider is a power pitch in the mid-80s that is his best secondary pitch and shows at least plus potential. His curveball has decent shape but he prefers the slider. He repeats his delivery and throws quality strikes. He has shown a changeup in showcases or in the bullpen but hasn’t needed it in games. Kolek can lose his direction to the plate, working from the far first base side of the rubber and occasionally landing closed. But he has cleaned up his delivery this spring, leading to the consistent velocity. He has performed as expected as a potential top-five pick against small school Texas competition, striking out 60 percent of hitters against 6 percent walks. Scouts struggle think think of a physical comparison for Kolek and that lack of analogous players make scouts wonder how his body will progress as he ages. Strike-throwing ability and the development of his offspeed stuff will be the keys to his development, as he has the chance to develop into a power pitcher that fronts a rotation.
While it may not be exact point made by Gillick, this got me thinking about the idea of how we view projection. Kolek (#2) went ahead of Nola (#7) in the 2014 draft. The first thing you see with Kolek is the raw velocity, and it was something that I was very stuck on early in the process because it is special. You compare that to Nola who is in the mid 90s and very unlikely to add more velocity to a much smaller frame. Then you talk breaking ball, and Kolek brings that power slider with all sorts of wipeout potential, Nola comes with a more slurvy pitch that lacks sharp dramatic movement and velocity. Kolek just looks the part too, he is big, he is square, and he looks like a workhorse. Nola on the other hand is small, he is a bit slight, he comes from a funky arm angle.
All of this fits into a narrative that has you bringing Nola down because he lacks the potential future upside of Kolek, so lets flip this to talking positive. Aaron Nola brings a fastball at 91-94 touching 95 that has late armside run. He has a slurvy breaking ball that is a plus pitch as long as he stays on top of the pitch. His changeup has good deception and has shown plus in the past. He ties all of these pitches together with absolute control all of his pitches, he can add and subtract velocity and movement. He can carve up the strikezone move pitches in and out, painting all four corners. He pairs all of that with incredible makeup, he is unflappable on the mound and not intimidated by any situation. This changes the narrative, now you have a profile that makes much more sense for a pitcher who should go in the top of a draft.
This isn’t to say that Kolek won’t be better than Nola in the long term, but you are going to miss a lot of very good players if you spend your time waiting for all the Koleks to develop. There is obviously a level of talent that a player needs to be at to achieve success at the major league level, this is more a call to look at a player for the individual profile they are and not as an imperfect ideal of high upside profile. This does mean that you are going to miss on some superstars at the top of a draft. This ties into Gillick’s second point, which is that isn’t all about a single type of player.
This whole philosophy doesn’t mean you ignore high-upside, high-risk players. It is all about how you value players. It means being a bit more realistic with valuable picks, but taking the risk later. It is about building a diverse portfolio of talent at values you are willing to pay. In many ways this is similar to the Phillies 2013 draft where they took Cord Sandberg in the 3rd round and not the 2nd round as was widely anticipated.
I don’t know how many tangible this change will be. I do think it means you are more likely to a polished college player over a dream like Justin Hooper. Personally thinking about this has nothing to do with individual tool grades or projections, it is about being realistic and evaluating the player for what they do.