Scouting the Arizona Fall League

Baseball was around and popular in large cities like New York in 1883, so it’s technically possible, however unlikely, that Emma Lazarus had the game’s rising prevalence on her mind when she wrote The New Colossus. Still, regardless of actual intention, she could hardly have created a more apt description of the Arizona Fall League when she wrote “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” a quote which now sits below the Statue of Liberty and once welcomed immigrants arriving to Ellis Island to their new home in America.

The Arizona Fall League is the Ellis Island of the prospect landscape, where prospects young and old, healthy and injured, and tired from an arduous season, huddle together for an opportunity found in few other places this time of year. And while the lure isn’t perhaps as strong as a new land, wealth or religious freedom, the opportunity to play an additional 30 baseball games is significant for developing prospects.

Given its occurrence each fall, with the mainstream baseball world entering its winter hiatus, it’s not hard for the AFL to grasp the attention of avid baseball fans and scouts alike. Our desperation to cling on to every last drop of live action puts the AFL on center stage, and it’s easy accessibility – especially when compared to the concurrently operating international winter leagues – make it the last true pro scouting opportunity of the baseball season.

The collection of talent in the AFL, unmatched anywhere else on the scouting landscape, makes the league a must-attend attraction for both pro scouts to fill in gaps in their coverage, and also for public sector scouts whose travel budgets fail to exist. But despite the opportunity to see such a strong collection of talent all on one field, the uniqueness of the league requires all evaluations in this setting to be taken in the context in which they are delivered.

While a complete venture to the desert for the month-long schedule would result in a good look at players, the sample size in the AFL is, by definition, a small one. The entire season is roughly 30 games long and, as a developmental league, playing time is dispersed more evenly than during a regular season. In 2014, for example, no hitter had more than 113 plate appearances, and no pitcher threw more than 31 innings. While that’s enough exposure for an effective scouting look, it’s not nearly long enough for meaningful statistical relevance.

Additionally, baseball players are creatures of habit, vassals to their routine, uncomfortable when change is forced upon them. In the AFL, players don’t play every day the way most position players are accustomed. Some players handle the uniqueness of the setting/situation well, appreciating the occasional days off. Others struggle with inconsistent playing time, and while that’s difficult to identify as the reason for a player’s struggles, it can be a factor nonetheless. Writing off a player based on AFL struggles alone would be unwise.

A major league season is long and arduous in its own right, and it’s five month, partially scaled down minor league counterpart isn’t much better. If anything, replacing the grandeur of chartered planes with arduous bus travel in many leagues makes it even more taxing on the body, and more importantly, on the mind.

By mid-October, it’s difficult for any player (save perhaps those who missed time during the season due to injury) not to be exhausted. While World Series participants enjoy an adrenaline-fueled post-season run, AFL participants do their best to feign a dedication towards winning an apocryphal championship in a developmental league.

Arms are tired, bodies ache, legs are heavy and minds are weary. While radar guns are as prevalent as ever, their readings, while still recorded and analyzed, must be compared with regular-season outcomes and not taken as gospel. The same applies to run-times to first base, body language, and general lethargy witnessed on the field. Its prevalence in the desert is not as much a testament to poor makeup, as it might be in May, as much as it may be the result of playing in the 150th game of the season for the first time in a player’s career. And this year more than ever before, we’ve seen players shut down for minor aches, pains, pulls, or just general fatigue.

Scouting directors were prevalent in Arizona last month, keeping a close eye on their kin for developmental steps as well as anything that might cause injury. “We wanted [player name redacted] to work on [said skill] this fall, and that’s why he’s out here, but after a long season, instructs, and two weeks of the fall league, he just looked wiped out,” one front office member told me. “We decided to shut him down because playing more just wasn’t going to do anything but get him hurt.” This is common practice in the AFL- carefully monitoring player fatigue, and adhering to organizational directives to work on a specific skill in a setting where outcome is of little importance.

Talking to scouts and front office personnel is essential to providing context in fall league views, as it’s otherwise difficult to gauge just what percentage of a player’s true skill set we’re witnessing. Pitchers, for example, are often sent to Arizona to work on a particular pitch in need of development, instructed to throw it more often than normal without concern for situation, effectiveness, or outcome.

Other times, like in the case of Mariners lefty James Paxton, players are pitching without a full repertoire. Paxton was instructed by the Mariners not to throw his curveball, as it had played a role in splitting his fingernail, an injury that shut down his regular season a week early. Understanding that he is in the AFL simply to log innings that he missed because of the injury, and that he is pitching with only two-thirds of his repertoire, is important context to provide when grading out his performance.

Despite operating at less than full capacity, most pitchers like Paxton are still able to find their comfort zone on the mound. Some position players, however, are sent to the fall league to learn a new position for the first time, an adventure that often times bears out as you might expect. Jake Bauers, for example, has played nothing but first base as a member of the Rays and Padres organizations, but he was sent to the fall league to learn right field and increase his versatility. It’s a work in progress for the 20-year-old, and any evaluation of his abilities must factor in his callowness at the position –where a scout’s eye becomes more focused on predicting his future potential at the position, rather than focus on his mishaps of the present.

Developmental reasons for position switches aren’t the only reason we see players in new spots. Roster make-up issues often find players playing at positions where they have less experience than their primary position. While this offers unique looks at a player’s skill set, and perhaps gives a player a venue to showcase his athleticism, it also must be considered in their evaluation.

The looks in the Arizona Fall League are as essential a part of scouting as sitting on a series’ throughout the year, especially for those of us in the public sector who may not get to cover the country as completely as we would like. But the non-skill variables that go into making an evaluation are more prevalent in Arizona than they are perhaps anywhere else on the scouting landscape, and must be considered in all situations.

Much can come from scouting the Arizona Fall League, assuming one understands the context.