How the Scouts Saw Roy Halladay and Todd Helton

Two of the great players of the aughts are on their last legs. Two days ago, apropos of Roy Halladay‘s shoulder surgery, Eno Sarris asked, “Is Roy Halladay Done Done?” and a month ago, Paul Swydan asked a similar question about Todd Helton. It’s a shame to see two of the greats — or at least two of the Very Goods — look like shadows of their former selves. So it may be worth reliving the good times by taking a look at what the scouts thought of them two decades ago.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame has partnered with The Scout of the Year Foundation to offer a searchable database of scouting reports. The interface is clunky, the response times are incredibly slow, and the data is woefully incomplete, but it’s an absolute treasure trove of eyewitness accounts going back decades.

In 1992, Montreal scouting supervisor Ed Creech saw an 18-year old Todd Helton and wrote: “Shows some athletic ability & prowness [sic], pwr probably most projectable tool… could see drafting low & following in college, also going to play football (quarterback).”

There are nine reports for Helton, and his power is by far the tool that prompts the most disagreement — particularly among a passel of White Sox scouts who were scouting him in college, when he was 21, before the 1995 draft (when the Rockies took him 8th overall).

White Sox Scout Mark Bernstein noted that the power was inconsistent — he marked Helton has having 25 power at present with 50 power in the future — and wrote, “Feel power will come when he learns to open his hips.” Around the same time, White Sox scout George Bradley saw him and wrote, “A solid #1 with one nagging problem. The awesome hitting and power displays he puts on in BP don’t always carry over to the games.” Ed Pebley agreed: “Very good looking prospect would have in as Group 1 Type if showed a little more sign of game power. Will show in BP but in game situation seems to be more concern of putting ball in play.”

Kevin Burrell was much more dismissive: “This guy will hit and drive in runs, but will not produce w/ hitting HR’s as that position demands./ He has pwr, but is not useable in game type conditions.” And Doug Laumann wrote, “May be a Mark Grace type that if you want him to show some more power, you may have to have him sacrifice some points on his batting average.”

Scouts from other teams were just as varied on his power. Brewers scout Russ Bove saw him in April 1995 and wrote, “Chance as H.R/RBI guy,” predicting him as a 25-homer a year hitter in the big leagues. But Orioles scout Earl Winn saw him in the minor leagues in 1997, and saw the same problem the White Sox scouts had seen: “Good hand action and raw power in BP… did not see dominant bat, .260 18 HR potential.”

Overall, the predictions actually turned out to be very good: Helton was a very good player who wound up with pretty good, but not tremendous, power. His career ISO in away games was .161, and from 2005-2013, his age 31-39 seasons, it has been .140. But he has still been a useful player for much of that time because of his glove and his batting eye.

Meanwhile, Ed Pebley took a look at 18-year old Roy Halladay in 1995 and wrote: “Has chance to be front line starter with power arm. Needs a little work but not all that much.” It was a nice call. But White Sox scout John Kazanas was a bit more muted, writing, “Downward plane, command, and better action on FB-CV should improve to help him develop into a solid starter, check later in year for progress.”

George Bradley put it all together, writing: “Will struggle with command for awhile. Would have made #1 with better 2nd pitch but indications are that it has been much better. Front-line ML starter.”

Two years later, Chicago Cubs scout Hugh Alexander saw him in Triple-A, and nailed it: “Great FB & hard slider. Needs better control now but it will come. Good deliv now. Challenges all hitters & he will be a great pitcher, barring arm trouble.” (On the same page, though, he flopped in his prediction on Chris Carpenter: “Could help the Cubs as a #4-5 starter or a good set up reliever. Try to obtain if possible.”)

Just browsing through the reports is a lot of fun, but there’s a larger point to be made. One of the most important things that the archive of raw scouting reports shows is exactly how opinions of a player form: a team trying to come to a decision on a player will try to get as many answers as possible to a pressing question — will Todd Helton hit for power in the big leagues? — and attempt to sort through a series of majority reports and minority reports to arrive at a single actionable prediction.

Obviously, some of the scouts were more right than others. Scouting is an imprecise art: it’s the art of extrapolating a player’s future from glimpses of a player’s present. In the end, the scouting consensus on Halladay and Helton was spot-on. (At least, the consensus of the scouting reports currently in the database was spot-on.) It’s fascinating to look back and see these players as teenagers with tremendous talent and uncertain skills, as scouts made their livelihood by trying to determine if they would ever live up to their potential.

When George Bradley saw Roy Halladay, he described him as having a “young face and a mouth full of braces.” Eighteen years later, Halladay is a potential Hall of Famer with a tough road ahead as he hopes to make a comeback that few other pitchers in history have ever made successfully. There’s probably something to be said about the human condition and memory and stuff. But mostly, it’s just fun. Enjoy the history.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

43 Responses to “How the Scouts Saw Roy Halladay and Todd Helton”

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  1. rbt says:

    Does anybody else get an error every time they try to access a scouting report on this website? Every time I go there and enter a search it says “The Microsoft Jet database engine cannot open the file ‘|’. It is already opened exclusively by another user, or you need permission to view its data.” I’ve tried several different browsers to no avail.

    The home page says “We’re currently making improvements to the database. If a search results in an error, please try again just a few minutes later.” But a few minutes later, or even a few hours later, brings the same result.

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    • Benzedrine says:

      I am forced to use Internet Explorer at a work computer, and I get the same errors.

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      • I got frequent error messages, too. I think part of the problem is related to the number of queries that are coming in. So, try only opening one report at a time, and if you get an error, wait a while then reload the tab.

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    • bill says:

      Same deal. It works about 20% of the time, some players/links seem to not work at all right now.

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    • bennoj says:

      Microsoft Jet database engine?? No wonder it’s slow, they’re using Access as the back end!

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  2. Alex says:

    “His career ISO in away games was .161″

    Are we really going to start that stupid shit? Dave Cameron himself has written about how dumb it is to only look at road numbers

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    • MDL says:

      Easy there champ. It seems fair to look at home/away splits for a guy who spent his whole career in one place (especially one with a track record for boosting power numbers).

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      • Alex says:

        It’s easier. It’s also wrong. It’s easiest to look at his overall wRC+, which takes his home park into account and properly puts them in context. But instead, authors insist on hindering all players who play in hitters parks by just looking at road numbers, which are lower across the board. Average road hitter has a 92 wRC+. I think that shows why it’s completely unfair.

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        • wRC+ is not a measure of power, it is a measure of overall offensive prowess. The point I was making was a simple one: Todd Helton is not particularly powerful. His lack of power has been partly masked by playing in Coors Field in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which was maybe the best offensive environment in the history of baseball, and almost certainly the best since the Baker Bowl.

          There is no such thing as perfect precision in baseball, or any kind of empirical evidence. There’s just approximation, and some approximations are good enough. Helton’s road ISO serves the point I’m making well enough.

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        • Angel Hernandez says:

          “There is no such thing as perfect precision in baseball, or any kind of empirical evidence.”

          That’s what I said.

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      • adohaj says:

        Todd Helton Home K% 10.7, Road K% 14.4. Not only does Helton hit for more power in coors he also completely misses the baseball less.

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        • That is likely because breaking balls break less in the thin air.

          For example, Rockies pitchers are almost always near the bottom of the league in swinging strike rate. (Yes, they pitch half their games away from Coors, but they also pitch half their games AT Coors, which is far more games at Coors than anyone else.)

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    • Yes, Dave has — here’s one such post:

      There are plenty of other ways to deflate Helton’s numbers, and they’re all counterfactual to a greater or lesser degree. I just picked one that was easy to grasp and easy to calculate. The key point is, Helton isn’t particularly powerful for a first baseman. Last year, all MLB first basemen had a collective ISO of .180:

      Helton’s true talent ISO may be higher than .161, but he’s still very likely at or below the major league average.

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      • Alex says:

        It would be more accurate to look at his overall ISO and assume his line with any other team would be a few points lower than to look at his road ISO and say his true talent might be higher.

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      • Tommy says:

        In 2001 Helton hit 22HR in 340PA on the road playing a good chunk against LAD, SDP, and SFG for a guy said to peak at .260 18HR that doesn’t seem accurate. Also he suffered a power sapping back injury in 05 so what you are saying is that these reports accurately reflect what an injured Helton can do.

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  3. attgig says:

    wonder how scouting changed because of PED’s…. I would think there are some really bad calls because PED’s boosted a player’s performance beyond what the scouts saw at lower levels.

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    • Kuroneko says:

      Those 2000-2001 numbers look so suspicious. 42 and 49 homers respectively. But almost every top player during that period has massive home run numbers.

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    I haven’t been able to get access either, how far back do these reports go?? Can we see reports on guys that are in the HOF??

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    • Here’s a racist but somewhat prescient scouting report of a 17-year old Henry Aaron, written when he was playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, by Boston Braves scout Dewey Griggs:

      Great pair of hands, seems relaxed at all times and a good wrist hitter…

      Negro ball players as a whole are front runners in my estimation. When ahead they look very good and very bad when behind. However this boy looks very good and if he can make the plays to his left and right he could be the answer. I feel that he has the ability.

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  5. MikeS says:

    I could get lost there for hours. Interesting that every report on Frank Thomas says he will hit for power, but not for average.

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      It’s because he was an extreme flyball hitter. I’m not sure what his HR/FB rate before 2002 was, but from 2002-2008 it was only 14.7%. I say only since he was a massive human being, and you’d expect someone his size to put the ball over the fence more frequently than that.

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  6. TheTheory says:

    The scouting reports for Jim Abbott were really fascinating.

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  7. Record Keeper says:

    The Players Chosen In Front of Todd Helton in the 1995 Amateur Draft

    1 Darin Erstad
    2 Ben Davis

    Scouts saw his arm as very, very good and his bat as powerful from both sides of the plate. “Chance to be ML Player of All-Star Caliber for long time” crowed Billy Blitzer. “Carlton Fisk-type catcher,” said Reggie Lewis.

    Had a 44% CS in 2002 to go with a .259/.313/.404 in 80 games. Played in 80 games for Seattle the next year and 148 total the rest of his career, which ended in 2004 with the White Sox.

    3 Jose Cruz, Jr.
    4 Kerry Wood
    5 Ariel Prieto

    (No scouting records available.)

    Serviceable 1996 season followed by a disappointing follow-up campaign. Injuries derailed and apparently ended his career.

    6 Jaime Jones

    (No scouting records available.)

    Baseball America’s #31 Prospect going into the 1996 season never made the Major Leagues, crapping out in 2006 in independent ball.

    7 Jonathan Johnson

    “Power pitcher” with a “plus fastball” raved Mark Bernstein. “Loose, live, quick arm,” said Bill Meyer. One scout did have some reservations, calling him “not our type of guy for the first or second rounds,” but he was taken ahead of Todd Helton regardless.

    Made it to the Show as a very ineffective reliever for the Rangers, where he accumulated just 46 2/3 brutal IP in four years. Signed as a free agent with the Padres in 2002 and pitched 15 1/3 innings in which he posted a 21:5 K:BB. Pitched an ineffective 15 1/3 the next year and never pitched again.

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    • Thank you! This is really fascinating. Obviously, for everyone who succeeds there are scores of guys who failed despite turning a lot of scouts’ heads. So in highlighting the scouting reports of two men who went on to be great players, I’m sampling on the dependent variable. Amazing to look over the scouting reports of the might-have-beens and never-wases.

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    • Tim says:

      ““Power pitcher” with a “plus fastball” raved Mark Bernstein. “Loose, live, quick arm,” said Bill Meyer. One scout did have some reservations, calling him “not our type of guy for the first or second rounds,””

      If it was a Twins scout, that’s totally consistent.

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  8. Visitor says:

    Maybe I’m not the only one who will find this interesting. I looked up the career ISO leaders to see how many got 80 power grades before making the majors just out of curiosity. Here they are, skipping those who had no scouting reports in the system, with their highest future power grade that I could find (I will note that there were some reports I frankly could not read, so this is imperfect.):
    Mark McGwire-60
    Barry Bonds-80
    Albert Pujols-60
    Jim Thome-50
    Albert Belle-70
    Carlos Delgado-65
    Alex Rodriguez-70

    I only got through the top 20 on the ISO list, but so far only one got an 80.

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    • Sean T says:

      It baffles me that Bonds could have had a rating that high when he couldn’t have weighed more than 160 pounds soaking wet when he was drafted.

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      • 96mnc says:

        Bat speed and swing plane.

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      • Visitor says:

        I somehow misread the year on that report. The earliest report on him, from 1985 (the year he was drafted), lists him at 180 and gives him 50 power. Three years later, during his third season of MLB ball, he’s listed at 185 and graded a 70. Then in 1990 he has 80 future power and is listed weighing 185.

        So, yeah, he should actually be a 50, sorry.

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      • jruby says:

        That actually probably boosted the rating. They probably saw a skinny 6’2″ kid with ML skills and pedigree and thought “if we can get 60 lbs of muscle on that kid, he could break records.”

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    • Visitor says:

      Adam Dunn-50
      Ken Griffey Jr.-80
      Frank Thomas-80
      Russell Branyan-60
      Larry Walker-50
      Lance Berkman-65
      Darryl Strawberry-60
      Richie Sexson-60
      Jeff Bagwell-60
      Jim Edmonds-55
      Jason Giambi-50
      Jay Buhner-60
      Mike Piazza-60
      Troy Glaus-75
      Vladimir Guerrero-70
      Mo Vaughn-80
      Alfonso Soriano-50
      Greg Vaughn-50
      Sam Horn-50
      Rafael Palmeiro-60
      Chipper Jones-40
      Todd Helton-70
      Bobby Estalella-55
      Bo Jackson-80
      Rob Deer-80
      Jon Nunnally-40

      Hank Aaron is noted with two Xs in “power,” but I have no idea how to translate that into the 20-80 scale.
      Jose Canseco doesn’t have ratings in the one report out there before he came up, but it says, “he has shown some power.”
      Willie McCovey’s power is listed as “good” and the scout also notes, “This negro hits quite a few home runs.”
      Frank Robinson’s power is listed as “good.”
      Dave Kingman’s scouting reports before making the majors are all as a pitcher. I hadn’t known he was a late conversion.

      So, having looked up everyone I could in the top 100 in career ISO, the 80s in future power were Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn, Bo Jackson, and Rob Deer.

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  9. Kevin says:

    halladay turned out elite, but in a much different way than scouts predicted (great fb, curve, spotty control), although how could anyone have predicted his career path? ended up being a power sinker/cutter pitcher with +++ command and solid secondaries.

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    • My read of it was that the scouts were saying that even though his command wasn’t completely there at the time, they felt confident that it would come. And that’s what happened.

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      • Kevin says:

        you may be correct, although in reality his command seemingly came about as a result of fundamental changes to his delivery and pitching style. you probably know the history of halladay being sent down to A ball and reinventing himself with the help of mel queen. the halladay that dominated the big leagues was quite a bit different than the ones that scouts saw in the minors.

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  10. Paul Allen says:

    Rickey Henderson’s 1991 scouting report: “Has to be worth more than the big donkey in RF.”

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  11. Tim says:

    I have a hard time calling that a miss on Carpenter, who was a #4-ish starter for his first six years with the Blue Jays, tore his labrum, and became a much better pitcher afterward.

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  12. Millsy says:

    Splits only go back to 2002. Helton’s best power years were the 2 prior to that. I think it’s unfair to talk about meeting his power potential without including his 3 top power years in there, no? I mean using 2002 and on ignores nearly half of his career HR (156 of 356).

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    • alecthegreat says:

      I completely agree. Helton has a career .320 average and was the NL batting champ in 2000, it seems that his contact scouting couldn’t have been more incorrect.Also- it is ridiculous to only look at his road power ISO, then infer that he didn’t really have that much power despite hitting 30+ HR’s from 1999-2004, prior to the back injury. If you didn’t need any real power to hit that many homeruns, wouldn’t every player on the Rockies during those years have had that many?

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  13. Yokel says:

    Ah, yes. Because Todd Helton played at Coors, his offense there doesn’t count. Nevermind that he played 27 road games every year in extreme pitchers parks in California. Those road numbers are true-talent.

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  14. jmpmk2 says:

    It’s a shame that Helton gets pushed aside in the greater context for regressing into his 30’s, unlike most of his contemporaries. His pre-back injury number were about as impressive as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. His 2000 season, when he flirted with .400 up until the final month of the season, was probably the best hitting I’ve witnessed outside of the pumpkin-headed lab creation in San Francisco.

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