John Barr: Scouting the Giants’ Draft

San Francisco’s front office may have a spotty record when it comes to trades and the free-agent market, but the same can’t be said of their efforts in amateur scouting and player development. The Giants have a solid core of homegrown talent — with reinforcements on the way — and in recent years much of the credit goes to John Barr. A member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, Barr has been in charge of the Giants’ drafts since 2008.


Barr on draft philosophy and trends: “This is what I’ve focused on for 28 years of my life. I’ve been in involved in the draft — and have been in the draft room — every year since 1985.

“From a standpoint of changes over that time… let me first say that you still have to draft good players and they have to be mentally and physically ready to go out. You’re still trying to draft the best players, because you’re trying to add value to your organization. That allows your general manager to have the flexibility to either decide to continue the development of that player — and then have him go to the big leagues for you — or put him in a trade to bring back talent. You can’t draft solely on what the major-league team may need, because that need will change over time as players go through the system.

“That said, there are trends [in the industry]. The scouting directors putting together their draft boards put weight on certain things that are important to them. They’ll do that each year, so their drafts may end up being similar. There is also the idea that you are looking at your organization and asking, ‘OK, where are our strengths and where are our weaknesses?’ Even though you don’t want to line up your draft based on that, you are certainly mindful of it.”

On catchers and drafting up the middle: “The old baseball theory — from guys like Joe McIlvaine, Frank Cashen and Paul Snyder — is that you build in the middle and then you spread out. Some of the players that you draft up the middle will end up moving to the corners if their bat allows them to. The skill positions up the middle are definitely hard to find.

“Going back to my days with the Orioles and Dodgers, I’ve often seemed to end up [drafting] catchers. We took Gregg Zaun when I was with the Orioles, and he ended up catching for a lot of years. When I was with the Dodgers, we drafted David Ross who caught for quite a few years. Russell Martin has caught for quite a few years.

“Catchers help your organization and they’re hard to find. We all say that, and it’s true. You want good catching in your organization because it helps you develop your pitching. That’s one of the reasons you draft them — and it has happened that we’ve been able to select catchers we feel can help us offensively, as well as defensively.

“You try to look for a guy who has athletic ability. You need to be athletic to catch. You need the feet, as well as arm strength and hands. You also want leadership qualities behind the plate. A lot goes into it, so quite a bit of homework goes into scouting catchers. I feel that catching is a strong area in our organization right now.

“When we drafted Buster Posey [in the first round, in 2008], he was a guy we had earmarked early on as someone we really liked. We were very excited to have Buster available when we selected. We felt he could be a difference-maker — both from an offensive and defensive standpoint, as well as from a team-leadership standpoint.”

On catching prospects Andrew Susac and Tommy Joseph: “Andrew Susac [second round, 2011] is a player we had watched, and liked, when he was in high school. We continued to follow him in college, and then he had the [wrist] injury. We felt that even though he was a sophomore-eligible [player], we had a shot at signing him. We liked his skill set. Not only can throw, he can hit for power. He brought that same element of being both an offensive and defensive contributor. He’s an athletic kid that we feel can be a leader of our pitching staff.

“Tommy Joseph [second round, 2009] had good offensive potential. We really liked his bat. We also liked his arm strength and his makeup. We saw a guy who had a chance to stay behind home plate, and we still do. His bat was a middle-of-the-lineup type of power bat that we were looking for. He took over as the everyday catcher in San Jose last year and had a fine season. He has also played some first base, but to us he’s a catcher.

“One of the things our organization does — and this is more on the developmental side of things, with Dick Tidrow and Fred Stanley — is take a catcher, especially one that’s an offensive catcher, and introduce him to first base. That way you can keep his bat in the lineup while giving him a rest behind home plate.”

On Gary Brown and speed: “I couldn’t say that Gary Brown [first round, 2010] is the fastest guy I’ve drafted, but he’s one of them. Speed is his game and it helps him both offensively and defensively. It’s exciting to watch him play the game that way, and when I say it helps him both offensively and defensively… in our ballpark, we have big gaps. AT&T is a big ballpark and you need a center fielder who can go get the ball.

“The other day he made a play on a base hit up the middle. He comes in on the ball so well — he charges the ball so well — and fields it cleanly and makes a strong, accurate throw. That was him using his speed to cut down the distance the ball came into the outfield, and it allowed him to cut down the runner by a step. He makes the most of his speed defensively, as well as offensively.

“You’re always looking for players who are athletic. Athletic players can make adjustments. The terminology we would use is being able to play the game as it speeds up. As a player goes up to a higher level, he’s able to make the adjustments needed to handle the increased speed of the game.”

On Joe Panik and mental makeup: “Joe was our first selection last year and we were really happy with the fact that he was there. We thought he could swing the bat and we also liked his makeup and instincts to play the game. He’s a left-handed-hitting middle infielder, whether at short or at second. Again, we like flexibility.

“Going back to the model, skilled players play in the big leagues. You try to select the players who have the abilities. Those include: ‘How well does he hit? ‘Does he hit for power?’ ‘How well does he field?’ Another tool is makeup. Makeup is the sixth tool and it’s what will determine if a player can turn his tools into skills. Skilled players play at the major-league level, so our philosophy is to not only look at the players from a physical standpoint, but from a mental one as well. They need to be able to get the get the most out of their ability.”

On Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn and the team‘s success in drafting pitchers: “We selected Kyle out of the Dallas area [as a first-round supplemental in 2011]. He’s a big, strong right-hander who hasn’t been pitching all that long. We felt, after evaluating him, that he has both the ability and the makeup to have a chance to develop into a big-league starter.

“Another player we took this past year was Clayton Blackburn, out of Oklahoma. He was a high school pitcher we got in the 16th round. Dan Murray, our area scout, as well as [Midwest supervisor] Arnold Brathwaite, did an excellent job. They felt that this player really wanted to sign. He had a commitment to the University of Oklahoma, but we selected him and he went out and pitched very well for us in the Arizona League.

“Dick Tidrow, and our whole development staff, does an excellent job of developing pitchers. In the past, Dick ran our drafts. He did so for a number of years, and does he have a feel for pitching? Absolutely. He’s one of the best pitching guys out there. At the same time, we have a veteran [scouting] staff, and that veteran staff has a good idea of what they like to look for and what they don’t like. In turn, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to do a good job of drafting players.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA

15 Responses to “John Barr: Scouting the Giants’ Draft”

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  1. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Nice interview. Thank you very much!

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  2. Hizouse says:

    How many guys can the Giant take? I’d go with ‘Taker, Jericho, and maybe Arn Anderson for old time’s take. That would be a formidable team.

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  3. Sabean Wannabe says:

    “San Francisco’s front office may have a spotty record when it comes to trades and the free-agent market”

    David, do you think you can support that statement? Specifically, I’m talking about trades. I think such statements like this are made because of either lack of knowledge or anti-Giants bias. I put together a spreadsheet of Sabean’s trade history using WAR as a measurement tool…calculating the WAR received vs. the WAR given up. In fact, I did it in the most disadvantageous way to the Giants as I only measured the WAR received when the players were with the Giants, yet I counted the remaining career WAR for the players given up (for example, I counted the remaining career WAR for Matt WIlliams even though he left Cleveland and went to AZ….but I only counted Jeff Kent’s WAR with the Giants even though he put up another 18 WAR after leaving the Giants).

    Even with that measuring criteria, the Giants are still up over 90 WAR over Sabean’s career, or approx. 6 WAR per year.

    I think if a GM can say his trade activity drops six wins a year to the bottom line, that GM will find easy employment. Everyone likes to point to the Pierzynski trade and Wheeler trade (which, granted, could have a negative impact some day on this scenario). But, all in all, trade activity under Sabean has been a positive. Free agent signings have not been great, but a) I don’t think its been as bad as generally perceived and b) there were many other factors involved in organizational philosophy that drove some signings (such as “win now while we have Barry”….).

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    • Tobias says:

      I made up a spreadsheet, too, some years ago, as a way of tracking and evaluating all of Brian Sabean’s trades. But I really like your idea of using WAR to evaluate.

      But I do think that, where Sabean is concerned, there’s kind of “A Tale of Two Sabeans”. The First Sabean Epoch goes from late 1996, when Sabean officially took over the GM reins from Bob Quinn, through the end of the World Series in 2002. This period represents Sabean at the top of his game, and there’s a marked difference in the kinds of trades he made–and how successful they proved over time–from the period that effectively begins in December 2002.

      Sabean Trades, Part I (11/1996-10/2002)
      Players Traded: 79.2 TOTAL WAR
      Players Acquired: 110.9 TOTAL WAR
      NET GAIN: 31.7 TOTAL WAR

      Sabean Trades, Part II (11/2003-10/2011)
      Players Traded: 60.7 TOTAL WAR
      Players Acquired: 20.9 TOTAL WAR
      NET LOSS: 39.8 TOTAL WAR

      Some things I notice that seem to differentiate Sabean I from Sabean II:

      Sabean I seems more energetic and more of a risk-taker. In the space of six years, Sabean was able to pull of some pretty gutsy deals that brought in some big-time WAR producers. During this period, Sabean’s trades brought in 5 players who gave the Giants 9.0 or better WAR.
      – Jeff Kent: 32.9
      – Jason Schmidt: 19.5
      – J.T. Snow: 12.3
      – Robb Nen: 11.8
      – Ellis Burks: 9.8

      What made some of these and other trades possible is that Sabean was willing to risk giving up some real talent in order to bring in the type of talent the Giants needed. Keith Foulke produced 21.5 WAR and Matt Williams produced 12.2. Even Bob Howry and Chris Singleton became productive players elsewhere. So Sabean gave up far more WAR in just six very productive trade years than he did over the course of the following eight very unproductive trade years.

      Even with two fewer years in it, I notice a great deal less activity during the second Sabean period (I’m not yet counting the trades prior to the 2012 season). For the most part, it appears that Sabean has become either unable or unwilling to make the types of trades he made from 1996-2002. In fairness, I suspect that the trade market has changed quite a bit from the late 1990’s to now, and I think that market inefficiencies that could easily be exploited then, aren’t as easy to find now. I do believe they are still there. It’s just that they aren’t in areas where Sabean is comfortable or knowledgeable.

      The ironic thing is that the second Sabean Epoch includes a World Series championship, and that in spite Sabean’s lack of trading success over the past eight years. I think this can be explained through Sabean’s continued ability to dumpster dive for cheap but productive free agent talent, and of course for the incredible talent–especially pitching–that resulted from the Giants’ overhaul of their amateur draft and farm system.

      Bottom line, there are many things that Brian Sabean still does well–or that his braintrust does well. And those things are able to somewhat overcome his really deficient areas, like position player evaluation, understanding hitting, mid and upper level free agent acquisition, and involvement in the international free agent market.

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      • These two are great rundowns of Sabean as a trader, showing both sides that is sometimes brought out him.

        I would note these about the Sabean II era. The basis for this era was building up over time. When a team is competitive, they get lousy draft picks in the back of the first round. My research showed that about 10% of them ever become the good players we all expect from a first round pick. Add to that the fact that players, especially past the first 5-10 picks overall, usually needs 3-5 years in the minors to develop and reach the majors, let alone star in it, and you got quite a time lap between drafting and actually matriculating a player to the majors while you are winning.

        Meanwhile, your current players get old, and more expensive, your pipeline of prior draftees start to winnow out, giving your team less and less talent base from which to trade. That forces you to go to the free agent market more and more in order to fill your need to compete.

        And, as noted, the “Win with Barry” era was here.

        Hurting that effort to add talent via free agency, teams during that period started signing up their young players more and more into their free agent years and beggars can’t be choosers, and you are forced to bid on the remaining that are free agents.

        Something I’ve never seen noted as a factor, but I think was a huge factor in why there is a Sabean II era as a trader, was the success in the early 2000’s of finding better prospects, despite drafting further back in the first round, Jerome Williams, Kurt Ainsworth, Jesse Foppert, then finally Matt Cain.

        Before, he was willing to trade off the younger players because they had determined that they were not keepers (The Hardball Times Annual this year had a nice research study on how teams know their prospects very well, mostly keeping the good ones and trading the not so good ones, for the most part), but once these young players became Top prospects and they wanted to keep them, that gave them less trading chips to use in trades, and thus you can’t be more “bold” in trades.

        And I think it can be argued that while in hindsight, they should have traded the first three, they were kept for good reasons. Williams was ready to break out but his success unfortunately sent to his belly, Ainsworth pitched well when he wasn’t injured, which unfortunately he was injured often (I recall him breaking his shoulder bone or some bone in his body, really rare), and Foppert just suddenly TINSTAAPP. Each were talented, but then suddenly, before they could be traded, their talent went quickly.

        I view Matt Cain as the bigger obstacle because as long as he was a prospect and young pitcher in our rotation, any time the Giants would try to start a trade conversation, the other team would drop Cain’s name. Clearly, the Giants have been right to keep him, despite all the fan’s calls to trade him for offense.

        I would also note that teams were apparently still, during the 2000’s, not very good at evaluating other team’s prospects, apparently relying on the Baseball America rankings for their trade evaluations. So when the Giants Top 10 included players not considered keepers, the Giants could do trades, but when it had players who were keepers, like all those pitchers, teams would demand those in trade negotiations and the Giants never got far enough in trade talks to pull off a deal.

        In addition, the Sabean II era was marked by their rebuilding efforts. While rebuilding, it does not make sense to trade away a young prospect for players in a bold trade, particularly if you think that your prospect is a pretty good one, keeping Lincecum, Wilson, Sandoval, Posey, Bumgarner, Belt.

        Furthermore, it did not make sense to trade from the major league roster until you felt that you have a surplus that could be replenished from the minors. That is why he was freed this off-season to, in your parlance, start the Sabean Part III era, by trading for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. We had plenty of good options for starting pitching, allowing them to trade Sanchez away (having Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, Vogelsong made depth a nice but not necessary luxury, with the possibility of the 2009-10 Zito returning as well), and Heath Hembree and now Dan Otero, coming in the bullpen. Plus, they picked up a nice replacement in Hensley, I think.

        Lastly, Sabean gets a lot of flak over his position player evaluations and understanding of hitting, but I contend that is mostly because the team had a strong pitching tilt to their draft choices, resulting in most of their best chances of finding a good player via the draft being spent on pitching. If they spend all their best bullets getting pitchers, of course their position prospects pipeline looks bad.

        For if he was truly deficient in position player evaluation, then why does the Giants have a pretty good middle of lineup trio of Posey, Sandoval, and Belt from the farm, plus good #1-2 hitters in Brown and Panik within 1-2 years of making the majors? And if Melky pans out, maybe he’ll be part of that core going forward too.

        Many Giants fans seem to think that they discovered Brandon Belt and that they know prospect evaluation better than the Giants. The Giants were the ones who drafted him high (some thought he was an overdraft where he was selected, in the 5th round; most said “who?”, including me, a failed pitcher?) and changed him into a Top 20 prospect in one season.

        The fact is, just because a player is a Top 20 prospect does not mean that he automatically does well in the majors. There will be struggles for most of them. Staying with them don’t always work (Sean Burroughs, Andy Marte, Andy LaRoche) or it takes years for their hitting to show up (Matt Weiters) or it goes away as fast as it came (Gordon Beckham).

        It may make sense to stay with a struggling young player longer when you are losing, but when you are defending your World Series title, not really. Also, it is fine to stick with your your prospect when his hitting peripherals are good (Dustin Pedroia), but Belt’s never been able to avoid the strikeouts.

        That’s fine if you want a Dave Kingman or Rob Deer type playing 1B for you, but I want more than that from Belt, I want something closer to his AA performances, not his AAA performances, which is all we have seen so far in the majors: lots of three true outcomes, K’s, walks, homers. If he can cut down the strikeouts, the Giants will have a monster hitter at 1B, not an all or nothing type of hitter.

        That is what the team needs to make the Giants the team of the 2010’s Decade.

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  4. Greg says:

    Good work and somewhat surprising results. Still I think we can agree that Sabean and co. can be one of the worst when it comes to free agency. They have made some really good moves (Torres, original Huff, Uribe, Vogelsong, Bonds, Zi… oh wait), but for every one of those there’s a terrible signing where the player is half as productive and ten times as expensive and those are the ones that stick in everybody’s mind.

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    • Sabean Wannabe says:

      Thanks. In no way am I saying Sabean is God’s gift to GMs, but I think the overall record is misunderstood. I think its difficult to be an MLB GM without taking risks (for example, signing Pujols to a 10 year contract would have been risky for St. Louis, but not signing Pujols is also risky). Since there is risk in almost every move, there are bound to be some moves that don’t work out and thus come under criticism. The risks the Giants took that didn’t work out seem to define Sabean, even though the overall result has been pretty good.

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  5. Darryl0 says:

    I’m not sure if you conducted an interview with Barr or if you just used an interview from another source, but I sure wish that whoever conducted the interview would have asked Barr about his philosophy of drafting college prospects as opposed to high school prospects.

    Since Barr took over complete control of the Giants draft in 2008, the Giants have had 21 picks in the first 5 rounds of the draft. With those 21 picks, Barr and his staff has drafted 18 college players and only 3 high school players (only 1 of which was a position player). Specifically:
    Zack Wheeler – 2009 (#6 overall)
    Tommy Joseph – 2009 (2nd rd, #55 overall)
    Kyle Crick – 2011 (1-S rd., #49 overall)

    That’s a pretty stark bias under Barr. Maybe Barr has gone this route because he was instructed to look to draft prospects that could reach the major leagues quicker and provide support to the great starting pitching staff anchored by Lincecum and Cain while the staff was still intact? Maybe it was due to money concerns, as college players tend to be much easier to sign and sign for less money than high school prospects during the time that Barr has been in charge? Whatever the case for the bias, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. The Giants major league payroll is unlikely to drop much at all in 2012 and 2013, and the new CBA will make it very difficult for any team, much less a somewhat conservative team like the Giants, from drafting and signing any highly-rated (let’s say top 100 ranked) high school prospect past the first 30 picks, or so. It certainly is going to be incredibly difficult to get anything other than a mid- or lower-level high school prospect to sign for anything close to slot once you get past the 2nd round of the draft.

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    • Brian says:

      It might have something to do with the Giants consistently contending. I always felt that teams who are winning consistently (or on the upswing) draft college players so they can get help for the major league team sooner rather than later. On the other side, rebuilding teams would go for high up-side high school players so they’ll be ready by the time the team is (hopefully) ready to contend rather than wasting a college player’s cheap playing years on a losing cause.

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      • Darryl0 says:

        Yeah, you’re essentially saying one of the same things that I did when I postulated that maybe Barr was drafting guys that could get to the majors quicker to help a competitive pitching staff. But, that doesn’t explain the 2008 draft. The Giants were clearly not a competitive team in 2008 (and unlikely to be one in 2009), yet Barr drafted no high school prospects until the 10th round of the June 2008 draft (he did take a JuCo sophomore in the 7th round). I can understand him grabbing Buster Posey with the 5th overall pick, but then he came right back and picked 8 more college guys in a row.

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  6. pbjsandwich says:

    John Barr is a god. This guy should be a household name for every Giants fan.

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  7. I suspect if Sabean were to leave the Giants, he would be working somewhere else within the hour, should he want to.

    I wish they had touched on Belt and the story behind his acquisition among the examples.

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  8. Derald Cook says:

    Interesting analysis of Sabean I vs II. It should be obvious that the amount of money Sabean has spent on signing FAs, resigning vets on the downside of their careers and some poor trades makes many of us wonder how he has kept his job. Barry Bonds phenonmenal years kept him afloat for Sabean I. Perhaps Barr is what is keeping him as GM for Sabean II.

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