Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Conner Greene and The Good Face

Connergreene.com photo
“Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”   
-Michael Lewis, Moneyball 
 "We're not selling jeans here."
-Billy Beane, quoted in Moneyball
 Meet Conner Greene: right handed starter/model/actor—a guy who’s literally capable of selling jeans. We’ll spare you the full-on Parks-ian description of Greene’s physique and facial features but let’s just say he has “the good face.”
BaseballProspectus.com Top 10 Toronto Blue Jays prospects 
       "You ever hear of 'the good face'? Well, I never used to sign a boy
unless I could look in his face and see what I wanted to see: drive,
determination, maturity, whatever. And when I was the Dodgers'
scouting director, we used to have a real thing about that. Some
scout would give me a report on a boy, and I'd say 'Tell me about
his face,' or 'Does he have the good face?'"
           Al Campanis, quoted in Dollar Sign on the Muscle
     The world of amateur baseball scouting is fascinating.  Thanks to Moneyball and sabermetrics, we've come to favour analytics over traditional methods when it comes to evaluating MLB players, because of the warehouse of data that results from each MLB game.  Evaluating minor league and amateur players, who don't have a dozen cameras, radar guns, and other high-tech measurement devices aimed at them every take the field, is a different story.
   Certainly, when it comes to scouting pitchers, there are some quantitative measures:  speed on the gun, amount of break on the curveball, and the ability to repeat a delivery consistently can all be quantified to varying extents.  The proliferation of showcase events across North America certainly give scouts a chance to see how players stack up against elite competition, but sometimes a lack of data or comparability means that scouting can become subjective.

   Which brings us back to The Good Face.  Psychologists may have a different term for it:
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person ("He is nice!") impacts your evaluations of that person's specific traits ("He is also smart!"). One great example of the halo effect in action is our overall impression of celebrities. Since we perceive them as attractive, successful, and often likeable, we also tend to see them as intelligent, kind, and funny.
    Most younger scouts do not believe in the concept of The Good Face, at least in the vague form that it once existed. The lead quote from Baseball Prospectus aside (which was more of an attempt at poking fun at former BP Prospect writer Jason Parks, known for his over-the-top and graphic description of some young players),  The Good Face does seem to come from another era, when scouts had to go more on their gut instincts about a player than any substantial amount of hard data.  One of those scouts was George Genovese, who passed away recently after 7 decades in the game.  In his biography, Genovese recounts watching and projecting a 17-year-old three-sport High School star named Giancarlo Stanton, who was little known by the scouting community in Southern California, because he didn't play travel ball:

The more I watched Stanton, the more eager I became.  It was easy to look at him and believe he would gain another 20 pounds and become even stronger.  Experience told me once he was playing more than a 24-game high school season, his pitch recognition and understanding of the game would improve greatly, and he would get even better.

   This was not an anecdote from the 30s or 40s.  Decades of watching young players gave Genovese the knowledge on how to view prospects like Stanton not as they were, but as they would be in 4 or 5 years. What was it that made up that knowledge base?  Was The Good Face part of that?  Whatever it was, Genovese had it:  among others, he signed the likes of Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox, George Foster, Gary Mathews, and Dave Kingman while scouting for the Giants.  So, while Campanis may have had something of a very arbitrary ("whatever") element to it, Genovese at least was able to look at the overall prospect and project his frame and his skills into the future.
When evaluating talent, one has to make multiple determinations based on small sample sizes, unbalanced competitive landscapes, and a plethora of unknown eventualities.....Is it possible (for a scout) to separate our own deficienices and insecurities from the process?        Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus

   Campanis, for his part, had a history of not being able to express himself clearly, despite being a New York University grad, and his unfortunate verbal meltdown on Ted Koppel's Nightline  undid much of  a marvelous baseball legacy that included leading the Dodgers to four World Series as a GM for twenty years, being a mentor to Jackie Robinson, and learning from the great Branch Rickey about how to acquire and develop players.
   But Campanis, despite his verbal bumbling, was expressing a widely-held belief of the scouting community for much of the last century:  intuition was an important factor in evaluating a player.  The problem was that it could be full of bias.  Kevin Kerrane, in Dollar Sign on the Muscle, talked to Dave Ritterpusch, who brought psychological evaluations like the Athletic Motivation Inventory (AMI) to Baltimore's front office, about the problems with solely subjective analysis of players:
 A lot of baseball scouts feel threatened by a tool like the AMI, because they like to believe that they 'just know' about a kid's makeup.  Sometimes they do - and when they talk about 'the good face,' they may be on to something, by intuition, that's fundamentally important, like honesty or aggressiveness.  But how do you make very fine distinctions?  What kind of number-system would you use to grade good faces?
   An example Ritterpusch used was that of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray.   Murray's motivational profile indicated that his drive was well above average, and his emotional control was off the charts.  Many scouts confused his calm, cool, and collected manner with being lazy to the point of being lackadaisical.  And that was one of the problems when white scouts evaluated black prospects:  a cultural divide that the scouts couldn't necessarily see or account for in their reports. Murray had ample drive, but his emotional control allowed him to keep it in check.
  For many scouts, Murray probably didn't have The Good Face.  Kerrane observed that many of the old-time scouts he talked to use the phrase "for me" in their discussions of players, as in "that kid doesn't do it for me."  Probably more than one scout said that in regard to Murray.  Over 3000 hits, 500 Home Runs, and 1900 RBI would indicate otherwise.

   The modern scouting world doesn't pay a lot of attention to The Good Face anymore.  Perhaps the move to a more scientific approach to scouting was initiated by Ewing Kaufmann of the Royals, who developed a baseball academy specifically dedicated to evaluating and developing prospects.  The Royals used multiple types of methods to grade players, including video analysis and psychological tests.  Major Leaguers Frank White and U.L. Washington graduated from the Academy before it closed in 1974.  Kaufmann maintained that the worst mistake he had ever made was allowing the Academy to be shuttered, but the die had already been cast for a new way of looking at amateur players.

   Of course, there still is room for instinct in scouting players today, and one look no further than Toronto's own Jim Stevenson, who while scouting the Midwest for the Astros over a decade ago kept close tabs on a high school pitcher in his adopted hometown of Tulsa.  "He was 84-86 mph with his fastball," he told Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, "but you could project."
   Stevenson followed the pitcher when he joined the University of Arkansas throughout his freshman, sophomore, and junior years:
“He was a Friday night starter in the SEC. Friday night guys were all in their mid-90s. He was 86-90. Yet, when you look up and he had rolled 13 or 14 grounders and didn’t walk anyone.  He reminded me of a guy like Tom Glavine with plus command and control as well as a disappearing fastball. He had three average pitches, with plus pitchability, plus-command and plus-control.  Guys would sit behind the screen at Arkansas holding radar guns.  I'd put the gun down - he was a crafty lefty.  Hitters told me if he could pitch.
    In the 2009 draft, Stevenson was on the phone to the Astros war room after the third round, insisting that they draft this "crafty lefty," which they did - in the 7th round.  That pick turned into 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.

    Which brings us back to Conner Greene.  Described as mostly arms and legs in high school, Greene was all about projection, which more and more is the modern day equivalent of The Good Face.  Again, scouting Greene in high school was about what he would be, and not what he was as an 18-year-old.  Had he gone to college and pitched under a bigger spotlight against tougher competition, providing a larger sample size, Greene would have been relatively easier to scout than he was as a high schooler.  Like Keuchel, he was a 7th rounder (class of 2013), and Blue Jays West Coast scout Jim Lentine likely had to lobby as hard as Stevenson did to get the Blue Jays to sign him.
   And so far, it's looking more and more like a shrewd pick.  Greene may not develop into a Cy Young winner, but in his first year of full-season ball he pitched at three levels, finishing the year at AA and firmly establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the system.
   Greene has the typical Californian good looks - when he reaches the majors, the Toronto media will be full of stories about his days as a model, and his brief role on Charlie Sheen's Anger Management.  In that sense, he truly is The Good Face, but he also has the long, athletic build that MLB teams covet.
    And maybe there isn't all that much question about the Good Face, either.  Maybe it was used as a cute little ironic throwaway line in the BP article about Greene, and the concept certainly was broadened beyond all definition by the scouts Kerrane interviewed in his first edition of Dollar Sign, but there is something to be said for intangibles, the instincts of a seasoned scout, and the modern day term for it is "Makeup." Thanks to psychological profiles, the data they provide can help confirm a scout's intuition about a player.  Makeup consists of a player's physical, mental, and emotional constitution - his "tools," character, work ethic, resilience, and understanding of the game.  It encompasses subjective and objective evaluations.

    The job of the scout is a difficult one, and the best ones are among the most valuable members of their organizations.  There is the issue of small sample size, as Parks mentioned, as well as other issues that are not as visible as bat speed, arm slot, or pop times.  How will a certain prospect deal with the vicissitudes of playing pro ball?  How will he adapt to being on his home, far from home, without his family and support system?  How will he deal with failing at a game that has come so easily to him since about the 3rd Grade? Will he eat properly, stick with his conditioning, and handle his money properly (keeping in mind, of course that the vast majority of players in short season ball have little)?  Will he turn into the player the scout had projected?  Psychological testing may help to determine the probabilities of those questions, but sometimes the only way to tell is by the gut feeling scouts can have that comes from having interacted with hundreds of past prospects.

   After Moneyball debunked so many myths of old time methods of scouting and evaluating players, the pendulum is swinging back from analytical methods to some of that former wisdom.  We have learned, contrary to what quantitative methods may have originally told us, that defence DOES matter - it's no coincidence that Toronto's hot run to the pennant in August and September owed to its improved infield defence.  So perhaps the organizations that will succeed in the future will be those that best marry the information they receive from scouts and analysts.

   The last word on the subject goes to Kerrane, who updated Dollar Sign a few years ago, and talked to scouts in other sports to see how their methods varied from baseball's.  He spoke with Baltimore Assistant GM Eric Da Costa, who had a strong football scouting background:
"I thought Moneyballwas a great book," he said, "and the one part that really stuck with me were the pages on Billy Beane's own playing career when he would dwell on his mistakes, like when he would strike out and then take that negativity out into the field with him, or into his next at-bat. Or Beane might let himself get intimidated by some hard-throwing pitcher, whereas a guy like Lenny Dykstra would look at the same pitcher and say: "I can't wait to hit against that son of a bitch!'"

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