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On prioritizing "Skills" over "Tools"

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When publishing my list of top-prospects this off-season, I used an evaluation process that valued skills ahead of tools, or rather, an ability to showcase a major league talent today above and beyond the tools to do so eventually.

Previously, I had misnamed this thought process as ceilings and floors, believing an acquired skill (a well developed tool) raised the floor on a prospect's projected future. This kind of evaluation is quick and dirty, creating misunderstandings along the way. Reid Brignac had a high floor, but that didn't make him more than a bench player. The same could be said today of Curt Casali's rising stock, or a particular outfielder that vaulted into the spotlight this off-season:

Kevin Kiermaier was recently labeled as having the best outfield defense in all the minor leagues by Jason Parks and his crew at Baseball Prospectus, an accolade not given lightly. "KK" found his fame when he was called up for Game 163 as a defensive replacement, a move that could have been a big gamble by the Rays management. He'd started the year in Montgomery, then flashed his defense in Durham, but he was otherwise unheard of, even here. There was a gross under-appreciation of his present skill set. Now I can reflect and say I should have known better, as I wrote in my prospect rankings:

[Kiermaier] typifies what I look for in a prospect: the presence of major league skills. Tools are not enough for me to think highly of a player, I want to see those tools in action, developed into skills that will play at the major league level.

Kiermaier has that to his name -- major league defense -- even if it's destined for a bench role. And it's that which puts him in the top ten of everyone's list when he was only a forethought the year prior.

Furthermore, Kiermaier is ready for the bigs, but not because of his bat, which has tools for average, but a hitched swing. He has a good turn and developing contact. No, it's what's already there.

His mentality (as carefully approved by Maddon and the coaching crew), but because of his present major league skills regarding outfield defense. He has the intangibles of great instincts to read balls off the bat, not merely the ability to do so later. He doesn't just have the tools to run great routes (plus-plus speed), but he tracks balls down efficiently and quickly. He has the arm with accuracy, not just arm strength. That's the difference between skills and tools.

20140307_mje_mb2_782Kevin Kiermaier heads home -- Photo credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

I owe much of my baseball fandom and the writer who I am today to Nate Silver, even if I am not yet that sort of statistician. Just as Justin Vernon might listen to Bonnie Raitt, or Kanye West might listen to Bon Iver, there are glimpses of inspiration that shine through my writing, but it's not emulation all the time. After all, Silver would call his own approach Rigorous and Empirical, and yet here I am giving perceivably ad-hoc opinions and backing that with anecdote. My career took a similar path as his out of college, and my interest in sports has long followed his writing years after he turned to politics, but Nate Silver I am not. Still, out of homage to his re-launch of FiveThirtyEight, this article felt fitting.

Returning to the topic, Nate Silver's central encouragement of his book The Signal and The Noise is that a good forecaster must draw his inspiration from many sources, and constantly be re-evaluating his process.

In the novel's third chapter, the first to discuss baseball, Silver details the Stats vs. Jocks mentality of scouting that permeated the sport a decade ago, then introduces the reader to Los Angeles Dodgers scout John Sanders -- a failed prospect of the Bonus Baby era and a described "industry veteran, who is skeptical of the emphasis placed on the Five Tools." As he detailed to Silver:

"The impact toolbox is obvious to anyone. Runs fast, throws hard, all that stuff. Scouts can walk in and see those immediately [...] I think the question is -- are those skills used effectively to [make up] for winning ballplayers? Are those tools converted into usable skills? Bat speed -- we can see that fairly quickly. But if the person has bat speed but he doesn't trust it -- if he's always jumping out at pitches -- that's not usable."

As Silver summarizes, "Sanders's focus is less on physical tools and more on usable, game-ready skills." Sanders followed this by describing the intangibles of a ball player that are indicative of a major league skillset, and Silver categorized them as Preparedness and Work Ethic, Concentration and Focus, Competitiveness and Self-Confidence, Stress Management and Humility, and Adaptiveness and Learning Ability. "These same habits, of course, are important in many human endeavors," Silver concludes, drawing lessons on baseball evaluation, methods of prediction, and life.

It is the role of the scout, and it can be perceived through the front office's decisions and votes of confidence, that a player possesses many of these traits. The latter we can identify through Maddon's scrutiny of prospects and ballplayers, see it played out in interviews detailing Friedman and Maddon talking for thirty minutes after interviewing a prospect before deciding to call him up for what would be a relief defensive appearance. The former is far more subjective, far more anecdotal, and practically hearsay from our vantage point. Nevertheless, skills are evident, whether they are supplemented by the five intangible categories, plain as day in the Five Tools and beyond (command of strike zone, proper defense), or written down by the industry into scouting reports.

So how do I have a say? Why would Chris St. John weight my opinion equally with others in his rankings? There's a function of time, of conversation, of always reading and probing for more answers. Sometimes, of interviewing players. Also of my own perception. No one has hired me for my opinion, I freely give it and some respected powers that be trust me enough to communicate that to you. It deserves scrutiny and a dump truck of salt -- and if there's improvements to be made in this evolving process, I'm all ears and constantly reading to learn more. I want you, the reader who's made it these first thousand words to know where I'm coming from, and perhaps there's a signal of truth in the noise of my opinion and poor writing.

Sanders's perspective was the starting point of my mental shift toward skills and tools over ceilings and floors, and it was reinforced by my reading of Dollar Sign on the Muscle, a novel called "the best book on baseball scouting ever written" by the venerable Jonah Keri, and "the scouting bible" by Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers.

Expertly written by Kevin Kerrane, the book makes two key points when discussing "talents" -- a word that already invokes the God-given aspect of a ballplayer's ability -- stating that the language of baseball is anything but scientific, and that the business of baseball scouts is to describe the future.

The discussion of baseball terms is subjective and precise at the same time, with the aim of casting projections and imagery and realism. The familiar answer is to turn to grades on the 20-to-80 scale, and when you grade a tool fifty you're claiming average. When you move away ten points, that's one standard deviation. But the underlying evaluation here is not tools, per se, but talent. You grade the tool, and you project the talent, but I would take that one step further to assert that you promote the skill.

The mystery in baseball scouting, beyond the men who dutifully carry out the task, is that very aspect of the future. In basketball a scouted high school player might be ready for the big leagues within two years. In football, that player scouted is expected to play in the NFL that following summer. In baseball, we are often discussing four years away. Nick Ciuffo, the Rays' top draft pick of 2014, was born in 1995. That's a decade younger than Longoria, and half the distance to Kiermaier. Are you ready to say he can crack the bigs? The weight of time in prospect evaluation is real.

Andrew Toles is a heralded prospect for his ability to swipe bags in Low-A ball, but could he face major league pitchers and catchers and be just as successful? Right now that's a tool, and scouts might project that talent by grading it seventy, but that's built on potential. Furthermore, scouts might project a grade sixty glove on Toles, but they observe a grade sixty-five glove on Kiermaier, and that's a world of difference. One that deserves priority.

130727007The Cardinals celebrate winning the 2011 World Series -- Photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

In January, Cardinals writer "fourstick," well known for the Twitter account Future Redbirds, wrote a piece for Viva El Birdos titled Secret Sauce: Evaluating Talent the Cardinal Way.

The Cardinal Way is a mythical book that contains the recipe for one of the best organizations in baseball, but it's also the general ethos of the club. fourstick writes:

Tools are all about potential and projection, but skills are what determine success [...] Can the player utilize the tools he has and refine them into skills that can make him successful at the MLB level?

My take is that the Cardinals are more focused on skills than tools.

The distinction is real, and observed by fourstick in the Cardinal Way of cultivating players. He writes how, "few of the Cardinals [prospects] are guys who don't have at least one high profile skill to go along with some other average or above-average too." The secret sauce is blending that mix of ascertainable skills with projectable futures:

1. Determining tools, skills, or attributes that have the greatest predilection towards success as a player enters professional baseball and moves up through the farm

2. Utilizing player development programs to turn above average tools into above average skills

3. Identifying players who might have only one elite tool, skill, or attribute but have enough other tools and skills that they can be developed into a productive player.

Nothing struck a chord quite as well as this method. The first step is one already provided through the traditions of scouting, drafting, and development, which we already observe. The Rays have their own process for the second step, a slow burn through the minors and particular attention given to defense. The third step is wherein lies success for that player at the major league level.

This is what I now give prudence in my evaluation: skill is no longer a "floor" in my thought process, but an actuality.

Skill is the development of a tool into a major league product, ready to take the field. Skill is what matters in making it at the next level. Skill is what I'll be looking for in my prospect evaluations from here on out.