Addressing a concern over the Pirates

John Sickels writes of a discussion he had with the Pirates' former scouting director in his latest mailbag.

Updated: April 5, 2003, 5:15 PM ET
By John Sickels | Special to ESPN.com

Hi, everyone. As the Winter of Discontraction fades, and as spring training approaches, it is time to fire up the old mailbag again. We will do the occasional mailbag piece this spring, before resuming full-time prospect reports and weekly mailbag features once the season begins.

I've received several questions recently about the availability of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook. The book came out last week. STATS is reducing the number of their titles sold in bookstores nationwide, and it is possible that your local bookstore may not have a copy on the shelf. I'm told that you can special order it if necessary, or you can also get it from Amazon. Probably the quickest way to get it is to order it directly from STATS, either through their website (www.stats.com) or by calling them at 1-800-63-STATS.

Now, to the mailbag. Today we're going to deal with a single letter. No one should doubt that people who work in organized baseball pay attention to what is written about them. After I wrote the Pirates minor-league report several weeks ago, I received the following e-mail from former Pittsburgh scouting director Mickey White. Mr. White took me to task for some of the things I wrote about the Pirates farm system.

    Dear John,

    I saw your report on the Pirates on the ESPN website and found some points that I disagree with.

    1. The insistence on John Van Benschoten should have been a right fielder based upon his numbers in college. As I said when we drafted John, we felt that the bigger upside for him was on the mound. We based this upon the type of swing that he had, the overall dimension of his body, ( i.e. long arms, lean build, angular shoulders, extremely loose effortless arm action, similar to Kevin Brown or Todd Stottlemyre), and most importantly the history and opinions that our area scout, Duane Gustavson and regional cross checker, Mark Germann, had of John and his ability. Also, we didn't convert him to the mound, he had been a pitcher since high school. By the way, the managers in the NY-P League did vote him as the No. 1 prospect in the league as a pitcher. That in itself should end the comparison to Clint Johnson.

    2. You wrote that "The last few years have seen the Pirates go hard after tools players." My number one mandate to our scouts was to sign Baseball Players with tools. In 1999, before my first draft, the organization had 22 players on minor-league rosters that were signed directly from independent leagues. That, to me, was the biggest indication that we had weak minor-league talent depth. The organization wasn't able to keep the players that were drafted because they lacked the ability to play. With this being the case we decided to rebuild with pitching as the No. 1 priority (it worked for Paul Snyder with the Braves). At this time, I believe that our minor-league pitching talent is above average with respect to other teams. Our catching depth is well above average. We have a core of young outfielders that we are very excited about. Our infield talent is young, but exciting. I believe that the competitive ability of our minor-league clubs will show a large improvement this year due to the overall depth of the talent that the scouts have drafted in the last three drafts. We should across the board field highly competitive clubs.

    3. Developing talent is a process that doesn't lend itself solely to hard, statistical analysis. That is one of the reasons that using OPS as the primary tool to dissect minor-league hitters, especially at the lower levels can be very misleading. Young hitters will tend to try and do too much with the bat and until they are hitting in a lineup that is balanced they will probably suffer in the on-base percentages, by trying to help the team win. Confidence that the hitter following you can "pick up the team" makes a big difference in selectivity in pressure situations. There are so many areas that organizations try to break down to improve players that relying on statistical formulas would lead to young players not being drafted in the first place because that way you would avoid the players struggling. We drafted young players, we know they'll struggle, we believe they'll overcome the adversity and develop their talent for the major leagues.

    Thanks,

    Mickey White

I called Mickey after receiving his missive and we had a really good conversation. The basic gist of the letter and our talk was that he didn't think I'd given the Pirates farm system a fair shake in my report.

In retrospect, he may be right, but I want to go over each of his points.

1. Van Benschoten. White was insistent in his letter and on the phone that they made the right decision about moving Van Benschoten from the batter's box to the mound. He had led NCAA Division I with 30 homers while also swiping 22 bases; most every team but the Pirates felt he would be best served by remaining a hitter. Other outside experts I talked with agreed with this assessment. I think the jury is still out. But one thing that does lend credence to Pittsburgh's decision was Van Benschoten's hitting numbers at Williamsport. Serving as the DH occasionally when he wasn't pitching, John hit .227 with 23 strikeouts and just seven walks in 75 at-bats. The sample size is extremely small, of course, but it is a data point that backs up White's contention that Van Benschoten's swing and strike zone judgment were not going to be good enough for him to succeed at higher levels. Time will tell.

2. It is quite true that during White's tenure as scouting director, they focused less on tool-oriented position players and more on skill-oriented pitchers. I should have made that clear in my report. 1999 first-rounder Bobby Bradley and 2000 first-rounder Sean Burnett were high school pitchers, yes, but both are very polished for their age, and not the classic raw fireballing type often drafted in the first round. It is also true that the Pirates have good depth in catching. I'm less impressed than Mickey is with the depth in outfielders and infielders. I don't see a lot of firepower in the system, at least compared to the stronger organizations in the game.

3. Here, of course, I strongly disagree. I believe that statistical analysis is useful, indeed crucial, at all levels of professional competition, provided that appropriate adjustments are made for league and park effects, as well as the level of competition and experience factors of the player in question. It is the foundation of my evaluative methods, and it has worked well for me over the years.

The bottom line, however, is that I was probably too negative in my report on the Pirates. The system is showing signs of improvement, no doubt, and White and his staff deserve credit for that. But there is still considerable work to do rebuilding the system, and the Pirates really need to win the gamble on Van Benschoten.

John Sickels is working on the 2002 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.

ALSO SEE