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MLB Scouting Is Hard. These Four Players Prove It.

In 73,000 scouting reports, there are bound to be a few misses. And in our unprecedented look at a Cincinnati Reds database, we unearthed a handful of players who either overperformed or fell short of their big league projections. We spoke to them to find out why.

Ringer illustration

What would we learn if we could see what an MLB team’s scouts saw? For the first time, we can: A former member of the Cincinnati Reds front office provided The Ringer with a copy of the Reds’ scouting database from between 1991 and 2003, consisting of more than 73,000 reports. Throughout this week, we’ll be using this newly declassified scouting gold mine to analyze old-school scouting’s strengths and weaknesses, profile players who defied the scouts’ expectations, and examine how scouting has evolved in recent years. In Monday’s Part 1, we crunched the numbers on how well scouts projected players. In Wednesday’s Part 2, we talk to four players about how they defied the scouts’ expectations and ask the most unerring Reds scout to explain his success.

“The major league scout must have three qualifications: detective, bloodhound, and diplomat,” wrote one of Branch Rickey’s longtime lieutenants, Dodgers scout and farm director Fresco Thompson, in his 1964 memoir, Every Diamond Doesn’t Sparkle. “He must have nerve, strong arches, and a crystal ball.”

As we learned last time, scouts’ crystal balls are often broken. The nature of scouting is such that even the best evaluators will miss on many players. In many cases, of course, guys get hurt, forever altering their talent trajectories. But plenty of players deviate from their appointed paths for non-injury-related reasons, and we can learn a lot by examining where their reports went wrong.

Today we’ll be talking to and tracing the paths of four players—Travis Hafner, David Ross, Ben Davis, and Jeff Schmidt—to find out how and why they strayed significantly from what scouts expected, in either a positive or negative direction. Compared to the vast majority of professional players, let alone amateurs, all four were successes: Each one made the majors for some amount of time. Yet two lasted much longer and accomplished much more than forecasted, while two fell short of their forecasts. We’ll start with the duo that did more than the scouts thought they could.

Travis Hafner, DH/1B (11 reports, 10 “do not acquire” grades)

Link to full reports

From 2004 to 2006, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols were baseball’s best hitters. After them, though, there was nobody better than Cleveland Indians DH Travis Hafner. He slashed a combined .308/.419/.611 in those seasons, producing a 167 wRC+ that bested the marks posted over the same years by Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Cabrera, and other Hall of Fame–level hitters.

In July 1998, a Reds scout wrote, “Only tool is raw power can’t help us at any level. A ball tops guy.” Two years later, another scout wrote, “Seen as a platoon or bench player at ML level. Probably better suited to AAA and ML in case of emergency.” Within several years, a player who began his career with five consecutive Reds pro reports labeling him a nonprospect went from a hitter who looked like he’d top out at A-ball to the best bat in the American League. How did Hafner do it?

The Reds’ scouts weren’t the only ones to whiff on Hafner. The teenager who would one day be a top-10 MVP finisher in back-to-back years was the Texas Rangers’ 31st-round pick in the 1996 amateur draft, and the 923rd player picked overall. That late selection had something to do with his skills, but it was also a product of where he was born and the low levels of competition he’d faced as an amateur. Hafner, a native of Jamestown, North Dakota, grew up playing American Legion ball. “We just played 20 to 25 games a summer, as the weather allowed,” he says.

After he graduated from high school, Hafner attended an Atlanta Braves tryout camp and received a small offer to sign with them as a free agent. He knew he wasn’t ready for pro ball, so instead he enrolled at a junior college, Cowley County in Kansas, which has sent only one other hitter to the majors (Junior Spivey). Hafner hit well at Cowley County, but to scouts, that didn’t mean much. “I think if you’re not doing it in high school or Division I, you probably get docked a little bit,” Hafner says.

Hafner couldn’t do much except hit. As one scout said in 1998, “He is a weak fielder poor fielding position and lacks flexibility.” The next year, another noted, “He is a bad defensive player shaky hands and slow feet.” “Station to station type guy,” a third declared in 2001, and in 2003, a fourth wrote, “below average at 1B, hands and arm just playable, doesn’t move well around bag, below average runner, has some stiffness to movement.” It’s no accident that one of the lumbering slugger’s nicknames was “Donkey.” Hafner had home-run-trot speed, which was obvious when he improbably hit for the cycle in 2003.

Hafner, who’s entering his fifth season as a special assistant to baseball operations for the Indians, has gained some perspective on what the scouts saw—or didn’t see—through his work for the front office. “Now that I work for the Indians and kind of on the scouting side, I understand all of it,” he says. “If you were basically a kid [whose] one tool is mainly power and you don’t really play good defense, OK arm, and can’t run, it puts a lot of pressure on your bat to be your carrying tool. I guess playing against junior college competition, maybe it’s a little tougher to project how the bat’s gonna do.”

Once Hafner got into pro ball, though, the bat did well almost from the beginning. Hafner posted a .933 OPS with 28 homers in A-ball in 1999, followed by a 1.027 OPS in High-A in 2000. The Reds’ scouts were still skeptical: “Should hit with power through AA but breakers and speed of game will catch up to him,” one wrote in November ’99. Nope. Hafner produced a .941 OPS in Double-A in 2001, followed by a 1.022 OPS in Triple-A as a 25-year-old in 2002. The Rangers, who had Mark Teixeira ready for first base in 2003 but whose designated hitters had managed only a 102 wRC+ in 2002, responded by trading Hafner to Cleveland in December along with Aaron Myette. Hafner, who’d been frustrated by his slow movement through the Rangers’ system, wasn’t sorry to enter a clearer lane. “You see guys that you’ve played against getting moved up, and you’re like, ‘I’d really like to get moved up and see what I can do at the next level,’” he says.

The lone Reds scout who recommended Hafner wrote in March 2003, “I can’t believe that this player was traded for Einar Díaz and Ryan Drese. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t a very solid 1B for the next 5-7 years, and I’d love to see him in a Reds’ uniform.” In fairness to the Reds scouts who dismissed Hafner as a DH or an “AL type player,” he would have been stretched as a full-time first baseman. “It probably would have been fairly iffy,” Hafner admits. “I played it all the time in the minor leagues. You could have stuck me out there. I don’t know how good I would have been.” When he was hitting at a league-leading level, he would have been worth playing despite his failings in the field. As the one complimentary Reds scout said, “Can’t run, but he won’t need to.” Reds first basemen—mostly Sean Casey and Scott Hatteberg—managed a 119 wRC+ from 2004 to 2006, which ranked 12th among teams.

Hafner’s best-known nickname, “Pronk,” came from combining “Donkey” with another nickname bestowed on him by Cleveland teammate Bill Selby, “The Project,” which Hafner says was intended to signify, “he has potential, but still a ways away.” Hafner acknowledges that he did have significant flaws as a hitter coming out of college. His swing was geared toward left-center, and he had trouble catching up to inside heat. His high leg kick also left him unbalanced and vulnerable to secondary stuff. “If you threw any off-speed pitch, unless you hung it in the middle of the plate, I would swing and miss or be out front, so you look at those things, I was having trouble hitting the inside fastball, and he’s having trouble hitting breaking balls, that’s not a glowing thing for a scout to see.”

What the scouts saw in Hafner’s present, then, wasn’t inaccurate, although in that pre-Moneyball period none of the scouts praised the southpaw’s patience or on-base ability. The bigger problem was what they failed to see in his future. “Each level I was able to make adjustments in my swing,” Hafner says. “Probably the most drastic adjustment was in 2000 when I just really simplified everything, I got rid of a leg kick and just made it a lot more simple, and then each year it would be some small tweaks to try and make my swing more efficient, refine my approach.”

Hafner was a hitting obsessive. If he was in A-ball and a big leaguer on a rehab assignment was in the same batting cage, Hafner would ask him to talk hitting. Once he got to big league camp, he says, he picked the brain of anyone who was willing to discuss mechanics or approach. For that reason, Hafner didn’t surprise himself with his success as much as he must have surprised some scouts. “I was really determined to get there, and I never wanted to be outworked by anybody, so I would spend a ton of time working out and hitting and all that stuff. So anything I could do to try to get better or shore up weaknesses, I would do that, and also just watching a ton of video and trying to be as prepared as I could be so nothing ever surprised me from a pitcher and that I always had a plan, no matter who I was facing.”

Hitting is tough to project, but so is a willingness to work as hard as Hafner did to close the holes in his swing and become both a leading power threat and a perennial .300 hitter during his three-year, late-20s peak. An appreciation for those less publicly apparent tools—determination, coachability, willingness to tinker—has opened Hafner’s mind in his own scouting work. “I just really believe that anyone that has on a uniform in pro ball, whether that’s rookie ball or whatever, if everything clicks for them, they’ll have a chance to contribute to a big league club in some capacity,” he says. “Obviously the more talented you are, the more chances you’ll get and the more likely you are to get there, but even a kid with not a ton of talent, if he’s really consistent in his work and he has a short swing and a good approach, that can still be a valuable guy on a big league club.”

David Ross, Catcher (8 reports, 7 “don’t acquire”)

Link to full reports

Ross, the Dodgers’ seventh-round pick out of the University of Florida in 1998, never hit like Hafner, although he ran a little like him. But between his positional value, defensive acumen, and major league longevity, he offered almost the same value over the course of his career (21.2 wins above replacement player vs. Hafner’s 20.5).

Ross caught in the majors for 15 years, including for two championship teams, and while he was justly celebrated as a catch-and-throw guy, he also managed a cumulative 92 wRC+, better than the MLB average (88) for catchers over the same span. Yet through 2003, only one Reds scout advised acquiring him, and even that scout’s report (from 2001) read, “Seen as a AAA player that can be used as a 3rd catcher at ML level or emergency guy.” Others had harsher comments, including “AA level at best,” “will never hit,” “dead body,” and “slow lower half” (the last of which was somewhat in evidence on Dancing With the Stars.)

Like Hafner, Ross is now a special assistant to baseball operations (in his case for the Cubs), which makes him inclined to give the scouts who slighted him a pass. “Now that I’m doing some scouting stuff, and I was in the draft [room] last year, it’s such a crapshoot, especially back then when the information wasn’t as prevalent as it is now,” he says. Charitably, he adds, “I don’t know if they missed as much as I just improved and adjusted.” Of course, projecting how a player may improve and adjust is an important aspect of scouting. It’s also what makes it so hard.

Ross agrees with some of the scouts’ critiques. He was, he allows, a low-ball hitter who had trouble with balls up and probably retired at the right time, before more pitchers began to go upstairs with high-spin four-seamers. Nor is he surprised to see the label “long stroke,” which he’s heard before. “That’s the one stigma and thing I had to overcome was I always labeled a slow bat, long swing, looping swing,” he says. “And it got so bad that when I hit a home run and when I finally got called up by the Dodgers, the [hitting coach] called it ‘the loop.’”

What he doesn’t agree with are the occasional critiques of his defense. Some scouts lauded his arm and release, while others wrote, “labors to throw,” “lacked accuracy,” “arm is below avg.,” “notch below average behind the dish,” and “Arm was erractic” [sic]. “I could always really catch and throw,” Ross says. “I would say in that case they missed, but … maybe they had a bad day or I had a bad day, who knows?” Ross threw out 35 percent of attempted base stealers during his career, well above the league average of 28 percent, and he remained lethal with a back-pick even late in his career.

Ross says that some of the value he brought to teams—and that kept him on rosters through 2016, his age-39 season—came via soft factors that scouts couldn’t glean from their quick looks. “I think that’s where my niche was,” Ross says. “You can’t tell from the stands. You can’t tell what maybe I bring in a conversation with a pitcher or in a dugout when I’m not playing, or in a locker room. … As my career progressed, I learned more and more and how to share those things and how to communicate. The scouts come in, they see skill, they see a skill set, and they move on.”

During Ross’s career, though, scouts—and the game as a whole—got better at valuing his non-interpersonal skills, some of which still couldn’t be quantified and some of which weren’t in vogue when the Reds scouts saw him. At the plate, Ross was ahead of his time when it came to true outcomes (walks, strikeouts, and homers). In an era when batting average reigned supreme, he didn’t mind striking out as long as he’d seen several pitches first.

“I didn’t care as much,” he says. “I always had the mind-set that if I got to 3-2, I did my job as a backup, made the pitcher work. … I never valued the walk very much until later on in my professional career, when teams started valuing it. … I think that’s what kept me going late in my career is I did have some slug, I was able to get on base.” Ross was a low-average, high-strikeout, high-walk hitter with power at a time when that assortment of offensive skills was gradually becoming the game’s dominant and desired model.

What’s more, by the time Ross’s teammates began calling him “Grandpa,” his greatest contribution behind the plate was no longer murky. “As my career went on, what I did really well [on defense] … became more valued,” Ross says. “I think I batted about .180 with Boston my last year, something terrible, and the next year, I got a two-year deal with Chicago.” Ross landed that deal in advance of his age-38 season at least in part because of his framing ability, which teams had only recently started to measure. The Reds’ scouts had said Ross was a “Solid receiver” who “Frames ok,” but both statements severely understated his skill. Of 120 catchers with at least 8,000 framing chances in the pitch-tracking era (2008 to 2018), Ross ranks fourth behind José Molina, Yasmani Grandal, and Gregg Zaun in Baseball Prospectus’s called strikes above average, a rate measure of framing performance.

The Reds’ scouts wrote off Molina, too, filing 13 reports on him through 2003, all of which recommended avoiding him. “This player can’t help this club, how can he help a ML club?” wrote one scout who saw him at Double-A in 1998. “No prospect.” Only two of the reports (briefly) saluted his receiving. Yet Molina, who like Ross wound up with 21 career WARP, outlasted the old school and landed his own two-year deal after posting a .600-something OPS in his age-37 season. Like most talent evaluators in the pre-PITCHf/x era, the Reds’ scouts fixated on defensive skills that were easy to see, but the industry has shifted to focus on receiving. “When I go to spring training, we’re harping on pitch framing,” Ross says. “It used to be all throwing and blocking. Now that stuff’s very secondary compared to pitch framing.”

Maybe Ross exceeded scouts’ expectations because he got better. More than that, though, scouts and front offices got better at recognizing the things he already did well.

Ironically, Ross wound up playing more games with the Reds than any other team, and his 2006 season in Cincinnati was the most valuable of his career. Like Hafner, he concludes his career reflections on an uplifting note. “People label you just by looking at you or maybe seeing you for two or three games, but you’re constantly evolving and growing and working hard. … If you’ve got enough competitiveness and enough wherewithal to keep working your butt off and trying your best, you figure some things out.”

Ben Davis, Catcher (18 reports, 0 “don’t acquire”)

Link to full reports

Sometimes, though, you don’t figure things out, even if you seem so good to begin with that even before you make the majors, a scout writes in all caps that it’s “HARD TO FIND MANY NEGATIVES.” The Reds’ scouts said Ross had a “dead body.” Ben Davis, they said—more than once!—had “Gods body.” Davis’s scouting reports read more like mash notes. “Chiseled.” “Specimen.” “Cut strong.” “BEST CATCHERS BODY TYPE ANYWHERE!” A still from a video of Davis in high school shows him towering over his teammates, and he only filled out from there. Not only that, but the guy’s got the Good Face. His headshot alone could book roles that Eric Dane has to audition for.

Screenshot via Malvern Prep Sports Archives YouTube account

“Between my sophomore and junior year, I started to grow a little bit, and I really did do a lot of push-ups and sit-ups, and things like that, pull-ups and a lot of body-weight things,” Davis says. “Then I started to grow into my body a little bit more.” In his junior year, he stood 6-foot-2 (en route to 6-foot-4) and could already dunk a basketball. The scouts who flocked to Malvern Prep in Pennsylvania to see Ben’s teammate and older brother Glenn—a first baseman drafted a year ahead of him in the 18th round, and then again two years after him in the first round—couldn’t help but notice the other Davis, a big catcher with a big arm.

When the hype began to build, Davis didn’t believe a Northeastern catcher from a class of 80 kids could go high in the draft, so he jeopardized his health by playing basketball as a senior and started to tour colleges. His prospect status sunk in when the Stanford head coach canceled his visit, knowing he’d never commit to college. The Padres selected Davis second overall in the 1995 draft, and Baseball America rated him the 10th-best prospect in baseball the following spring.

Davis always had a rifle—before he retired, he tried pitching for a few years in A-ball and indie ball—and the Reds’ scouts were confident that his glove would get him to the majors. None of them went so far as to say he was a good hitter, but at least some were willing to believe he could be. “Franchise player,” one said. “Shows BP power,” said another. The hopeful comments kept coming. “Has solid hitting mechanics. Should develop power as he matures.” “Chance to hit 20-25 HRs.” “Has a chance to be a .290 hitter with 60 power.”

Davis hit OK in Triple-A, but aside from a hot start to the 2001 season—the only one when he played more than 80 games—his bat never translated to the majors. “There were times when I had some spurts of good offense, but I don’t know,” Davis says. “Offensively, it just never really seemed to click for me.” He didn’t do well against pitches with depth: curveballs gave him fits, and he had trouble with changeups.

Davis remembers facing Mike Mussina in a game in 2002. “I was scared to death of the knuckle-curve,” Davis recalls, but Mussina threw him nothing but fastballs. Davis struck out looking twice before doubling in his third at-bat. Four years later, Davis was in Yankees camp, catching Mussina. “Hey Moose,” he said. “You’ll never remember this, but you always just threw me all fastballs. Why did you never throw me the knuckle-curve?”

“Honestly, man?” Mussina said. “I never thought I had to.”

By that point, Davis had another problem, in addition to dealing with depth: His bat speed had started eroding. “As I got a little bit older, it just seemed like my bat speed had just—it was gone,” Davis says. “I never really had a ton of bat speed, but I [thought] I was going to be a late bloomer. … For whatever reason, I just think I kind of fizzled out offensively. It was very frustrating at times.” In his last few seasons, he posted sub-.600 OPS marks in Triple-A, struggling so much that he wasn’t having fun. He retired with 3.2 WARP and a career 78 wRC+ in the majors, and his bat is best remembered for a bunt.

In 1998, a Reds scout wrote, “This kid is such a good catcher that he’ll probably only have to hit .230 to be the starter for 10 years.” As it turned out, Davis batted .237, but only once was he the starter. Ross, who was drafted 525 picks after Davis in 1995 (but didn’t sign), batted .229, but his patience, power, and superior receiving skills helped him last twice as long in the big leagues.

In the ’90s the Reds’ scouts gave Davis glowing “Aggression” ratings: “Poised,” “Competitor,” and “Leader.” In the early 2000s, they downgraded him to “Average,” “Questionable,” and most dismissively, “Dog.” Had he changed, or were the scouts just reaching for a reason that the “Good looking package” had proved less complete than they’d thought? Had Davis deserved to be drafted so high, or were the scouts selling jeans, convincing themselves that someone with “Gods body” couldn’t slug .366?

“Nothing is a for-sure thing,” Davis says. “Padres took me with the no. 2 pick, Blue Jays take Roy Halladay with the 17th pick. Don’t you think the Padres wish they would’ve taken Doc? … I think it’s gotten better over the years, how they project and what they look at, but it’s just not an exact science.”

Jeff Schmidt, Pitcher (17 reports, 3 “don’t acquire”)

Link to full reports

Investigate any pitcher picked in the first round who didn’t pan out, and you’re almost certain to discover that an uncooperative elbow or shoulder derailed his career. Technically, the Angels’ Jeff Schmidt was no exception: A 1998 shoulder surgery effectively ended the 1992 no. 29 pick’s pitching journey. By then, though, Schmidt was 27 and well past prospect status. Up until that point, he’d suffered only minor arm issues; as he puts it, “probably nothing more than what other or all pitchers experience.”

Schmidt, a 6-foot-5 righty out of the University of Minnesota, suffered from two other ailments: missing secondary stuff and inconsistent command. “I was probably a pretty easy guy to scout in that I threw one pitch, basically, and spent my entire career trying to develop a second and third breaking pitch,” he says. Like Davis, Schmidt looked the part, and as with Davis, the scouts were somewhat willing to look past present flaws. “Outstanding pitchers body,” the first post-draft report read, citing his long arms, large hands, and agility. “With such a good arm I have to believe someone can teach him the breaking ball.”

The arm was no mirage: Several Reds scouts clocked Schmidt at 96 mph, and he estimates that he topped out at 97 or 98 and consistently delivered 95. Even now that’s enough to make a scout sit up, but in the early ’90s, it was serious stuff. “At the time, I was throwing as hard, harder than just about everybody,” Schmidt says. (The Reds’ records include 10 pitchers, all in 1998 or later, who touched 100 mph, if their radar readings are to be trusted: Bartolo Colon, Matt Anderson, Kyle Farnsworth, Erick Threets, Bobby Jenks, Nick Neugebauer, Billy Koch, Billy Wagner, Scott Proctor, and Randy Johnson.)

Schmidt always had the heater. He threw hard from an early age, and once he hit high school, he says, “I was just throwing harder than everybody else, and so if I just threw strikes, they couldn’t hit it.” In college, that fastball drew scouts in droves. “I think back to right before the draft, and there were always 20, 30 scouts watching [me] warm up before the game,” he says. Schmidt earned a $250,000 signing bonus on the strength of that pitch alone.

Schmidt threw a slider and splitter, but neither pitch was plus. As a pro, he played around with a curveball and a knuckle-curve and abandoned both. In Double-A in 1995, he walked more batters than he struck out, and the Angels, impatient, moved him to the bullpen the following season. He had thrown a changeup as a starter, but he scrapped it as a reliever, which he now regards as a mistake. Today, a pitcher like Schmidt could use high-speed cameras and sensitive tracking devices to design and refine pitches, but back then, he was “just trying anything,” he says. “Obviously would’ve been great to have other tools to work on those things, but for the most part, it was trial and error.”

The Reds’ scouts couldn’t quit him, raving about his explosive fastball and how close he was to a breakthrough. Their reports repeatedly recommended taking a chance on acquiring him. Lake Elsinore, ’94: “Had best arm on club.” Midland, ’95: “Too good of an arm not to have more success. Should be in ML.” Arizona Fall League, ’95: “Command only thing keeping him from ML.” Vancouver, ’96: “Has closer type arm if he develops command and breaking pitch.” Even the latest report, also from ’96, holds out hope: “Would be good in relief. Not many arms around like this.”

Scouts try to project players’ development, but player development is a department unto its own, and scouts shouldn’t bear all the blame if that department doesn’t do its job. Schmidt wonders whether another organization might have helped him more, supplying the off-speed stuff that the scouts kept expecting. His fastball was his fallback, but while it seemed to be a safety net, his reliance on it may have hurt more than it helped. Schmidt estimates that he threw the pitch 80-90 percent of the time. “There certainly could’ve been an emphasis with me, just from a development standpoint, on forcing the player to throw certain pitches in certain situations,” he says. Facing pressure to perform, “I always just went back to the fastball, and unless you have somebody telling you differently, that’s just gonna be the natural reaction.”

Schmidt did have his days in the sun: In 1996, the Angels called him up twice to replenish an injury-plagued pitching staff. He made his debut in Yankee Stadium and faced the likes of Tim Raines, Paul O’Neill, and Rubén Sierra, which he remembers as a blur. All told, he threw eight innings in nine games, striking out only two batters, walking eight, and allowing nine runs (seven earned) on two homers. That’s an ugly line, but it’s a major league line.

Schmidt, who earned a law degree after retiring from baseball, now serves as the University of Wisconsin’s associate athletic director for administration. “I wish I’d had a longer major league career,” he says, “but at the same time, I realized that I accomplished a lot of things that people don’t and experienced a lot of things that many people don’t get a chance to experience, so I look back on it fondly.”

One Reds scout morosely summed up Schmidt with the words, “Had a losing record all his life.” That was almost true: Schmidt lost more games than he won in each of his seven minor league seasons. There was just one exception to his seasonal losing streak: His 1996 record in the majors, which was spotless despite his horrendous ERA. “I had two wins, so undefeated, 2-0,” he says. “That was pretty good, so I’ll rest on that, and I can tell stories about that for a long time.”

The Scout

An insatiable desire to be better, buried within an unathletic-looking frame (Hafner). A difficult-to-quantify skill set out of step with its time (Ross). A jaw-dropping, deceptive physique (Davis). Poor player development (Schmidt). These are among the many reasons why a scout might miss. They’re also among the many challenges that former Reds scout Hank Sargent contended with as well as any other scout in the sample.

In 1991—the same year the database begins—the Montreal Expos hired Sargent as their new area scout responsible for the region from North Florida to Macon, Georgia. Sargent’s grandfather played in the minors for the Red Sox, but Sargent himself had topped out as a player at Florida Southern College, where he’d coached for seven years before the Expos came calling. Led by GM Dave Dombrowski, scouting director Gary Hughes, and a rich crop of scouts and executives who would go on to take prominent jobs elsewhere, the Expos had become a drafting-and-development dynamo. And their rookie hire was suffering from impostor syndrome.

“I was overwhelmed in regard to, these guys are unbelievable at what they do and how they do it,” Sargent says. “I’ve got so much work to be that. … I was almost completely insecure about my background being less than sufficient, based on some of the other scouts that were in the system that had played pro ball, had played in the big leagues for an extended amount of time.”

Yet Sargent held his own, soaking up insights from scouting mentors in his area (including the late legend George Digby) and sticking with the Expos for six drafts. His lack of confidence became a key to his success. Because he couldn’t coast by on professional playing experience, he says, “I tried to be thorough and all-encompassing in regard to every position, every role that I would try to scout.” He rigorously reviewed his own evaluations and scrutinized his mistakes. “Every year was a microscope,” he says. He still laments rating career minor leaguer Mike Peeples higher than Nomar Garciaparra in the 1994 draft.

In 1997, he joined the Reds as an East Coast crosschecker. He was assigned the northern division of the Florida State League and the southern division of the South Atlantic League, but he covered virtually everything: amateur ball, the minors, the majors, and international markets (including Costa Rica, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic). In two years with the team, he produced almost 400 amateur reports and more than 1,250 pro reports. Sargent spent roughly half the year—150 to 180 nights—on the road. He’s held Platinum Premier Lifetime status at Marriott (the unofficial hotel brand of baseball) for two decades.

The correlations between Sargent’s reports—both pro and amateur—and career outcomes were uncommonly strong, especially in light of his sizable body of work. One of his secrets was his adherence to a system. The Expos, Sargent says, “had laid the foundation for the first profiling system that was put in place from a scouting standpoint, so every position on the field had expectations and tool priorities attached to them, which to me made scouting somewhat idiot-proof.”

At catcher, for instance, speed hardly matters. At first base, arm is almost an afterthought. Hughes’s system was a kind of crude positional adjustment that prioritized the aspects of performance that actually mattered to each player rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all system. With the support of De Jon Watson, who replaced longtime scouting director Julian Mock in 1998, Sargent introduced it to the Reds, although he says they encountered some resistance from old-school scouts.

Keith Law, the ESPN prospect evaluator who worked for the Blue Jays from 2002 to 2006, says that while there may not have been big gaps between clubs in the skill of their scouting staffs in the era covered by the database, “scouting philosophies varied a lot across teams.” Sargent says that when he arrived, the Reds were “exclusively a run-and-throw organization. You draft a guy who can really run and really throw, and we’ll teach him how to hit.” The Reds, he adds, were notorious for conducting tryout camps and signing the players with the best arms and times in the 60-yard dash.

“I personally completely disagreed with that,” Sargent says. “You don’t hit, you ain’t playing in the big leagues.” Sargent aspired to be “the best hitting evaluator that I knew,” and with the Reds, his hitter ratings were particularly prescient. Of the six Reds scouts who filed reports on Adam Dunn in the months leading up to the 1998 draft, Sargent’s 60.7 OFP (overall future potential) grade was the highest. (The others averaged 52.2.) That speaks to another Sargent signature: “I was more aggressive in using the scale,” he says. Sure enough, Sargent’s grades reveal consistently higher standard deviations than the Reds’ staff as a whole, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. “If you didn’t use the scale, you’d have 47 52s and 58 53s, and you’re going, ‘These guys all look the same on paper now,’” he says.

After leaving the Reds, Sargent did a stint with the Angels as a national crosschecker and assistant scouting director. In 2004, he became a certified agent and joined Jet Sports Management. At 54, he’s still a partner at Jet, which represents more than 80 players and more than 40 big leaguers. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped scouting, which remains as central to his job as ever. “As an agent, you can go after whoever you want,” he says. “You don’t have to wait until your next pick, which was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m shooting fish in a barrel now.’ If I can represent three or four first-rounders, the percentage of success goes way up.”

One industry source says of Sargent, “He’s kinda known as one of the few agents who actually can scout better than most scouts.” Sargent and fellow Jet partner Al Goetz—the former Braves scout who signed Jason Heyward—“go see a kid and sign them pretty quickly, and most other agents call five scout friends first.” That scouting advantage has helped Jet grow from a one-client company—with founder and CEO B.B. Abbott representing childhood friend Chipper Jones—into one of baseball’s largest.

Sargent, whose son now works his old territory as an area scout for the Dodgers, already represents Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and Wade Davis, but his discerning eye is always turned toward the next potential talent. Even though he no longer works for a team, his decisions still have stakes. “It doesn’t do us any good to represent guys we don’t think are gonna be in the big leagues,” he says.

On Friday, in Part 3 of our series, we’ll examine how teams are trying to do a better job of determining who’s going to get there.

Thanks to Rob Arthur, Russell Carleton, and Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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