Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/11/13

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.” And that prediction 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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