Randy Arozarena surfaced with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019 and got 23 plate appearances. This year, he hid away at the Tampa Bay Rays' alternate site until Aug. 30 before aiding a division-title push with seven home runs in 64 at-bats. Then he made history in the playoffs with 10 homers, a single-postseason record.
In any October, talent evaluators would struggle over whether he is a trick or a treat.
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But 2020 overflowed with Arozarenas, players who far outpaced expectations or fell woefully short within the confines of a small sample. Because the entire season was a small sample, 60 games that went faster than an eye blink. Factor in other oddities of pandemic baseball — a three-week training camp, limits to off-field workouts, spectator-less ballparks, pick-up-style scrimmages replacing triple-A games, alternate-day COVID-19 testing, players living apart from their families, hotel quarantines on the road, on and on — and it follows that performance would vary more than usual.
So, as teams plot their courses in an offseason that will be defined by cost-cutting and decreased spending on free agents as a result of steep revenue losses, one question looms in baseball front offices: How should players be evaluated after such an anomalous season?
“I think it’s difficult,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said a few weeks ago. “We usually don’t make a season out of 60 games. If a starter has two bad starts out of 12, his ERA will be higher than it should be. I think you have to look at each guy individually, case by case, and understand what happened in the course of their season to really be fair.”
Inherently, then, talent evaluation in 2020 has a higher degree of difficulty. Information will be less reliable, and there will be a tendency to overvalue or underestimate certain data points. And as teams cut payroll and dig for creative solutions to fill their needs, the chances of making mistakes will increase.
“At the big-league level, your evaluation is probably 80 percent what they do on the field, what their statistics are, and 20 percent projection depending on the age of the player,” former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. “This is a very unusual season from the standpoint that I don’t know how you do that projection.”
It can’t help that many teams are eliminating boots-on-the-ground scouts in favor of maintaining robust analytics departments. The Phillies cut loose five pro scouts last week — and don’t intend to replace them — even as managing partner John Middleton concedes that talent evaluation has been a systemic organizational problem “for 100 years.”
Star players in the prime of their careers will almost certainly get a mulligan for two subpar months. The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, won’t be compelled to trade 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich because he batted .205 with a .786 OPS.
But drawing conclusions about players who lack a major-league track record or veterans whose best years are behind them will prove more challenging. And those are the players who most often comprise the field of non-tender candidates and free agents.
“The thing that’s difficult about a short season is you don’t get to see a player adjust,” said one longtime scout from a National League team. "Young guy comes in, he starts hot, killing fastballs. How’s it going to play out when they start feeding him sliders and curveballs all the time? Now you learn more about the player, and we can’t see that because we didn’t have it [this year].
“At the same time, an older player didn’t have time to show that he’s slipping. It’s August, you’re at game 120, and holy cow, all of a sudden this guy looks like he’s done. The regression process, or the development process, that’s where the crapshoot is going to come in. It’s up in the air, and there’s going to be more misses.”
To wit: Phillies rookie reliever Connor Brogdon’s first pitch in the majors went for a three-run homer on Aug. 13. He allowed five runs on four hits, including three homers, in his first three outings. But after three weeks at Lehigh Valley, he returned and gave up one hit with a 14-to-2 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 8 2/3 scoreless innings.
As the Phillies rebuild baseball’s worst bullpen, should they take for granted that Brogdon will be a reliable reliever? Or do interim general manager Ned Rice and his circle of advisers need to see more from the 25-year-old former 10th-round pick before they really know what they have?
“He’s a guy that you could miss on, one way or the other,” another scout said, “because you didn’t have the full year.”
A third scout mentioned free-agent right-hander Kevin Gausman, who has caught the Phillies' eye previously. For most of his eight-year career, he has pitched better after the All-Star break (3.65 ERA, 1.238 WHIP, 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings) than before it (4.96, 1.453, 7.9). But this year, he posted a 3.62 ERA, 1.106 WHIP and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings with the San Francisco Giants.
As Gausman hits the open market as part of a free-agent middle class that could feel the virus’ pinch on baseball’s economy, will his solid 2020 season help his value? Or will it be dismissed as an aberration?
“The data people might go, ‘Historically he’s been a second-half guy. Has he figured something out?’ ” the scout said. “I watched him pitch, and I thought, ‘He’s pitched well in August before.’ But that was late-in-the-season August as opposed to midseason August. So, what the heck do you do with that?”
Not even Gillick can be sure how to interpret what he saw this season. If anything, he suggested that the final 30 games might paint a truer picture because many players were rounding into shape in the first 30 after a short training camp.
But Gillick also suspects that 2020 results are less helpful for projecting future performance than for monitoring a player’s health.
“I think the main thing is to make sure in your own mind, if you did see the player, that they’re sound and healthy,” Gillick said. “Then, even though maybe he didn’t perform well this year, if you look at his track record and you know he has the form, I think that’s a possibility that somebody might take a chance on him.”
Scouts weren’t permitted to attend games this season, either. They filed reports by watching on television, and although they had access to multiple camera angles, most agree that it wasn’t the same as being there. In particular, Gillick noted the difficulty in seeing a fielder’s pre-pitch preparation, a baserunner’s jump and other intangibles, such as a player’s body language.
But it was better than nothing. And to make up for holes in their coverage, many teams have sent scouts to Florida and Arizona, where fall instructional camps were ongoing this month for minor leaguers who didn’t get to play in games or attend alternate sites.
The Phillies, citing safety protocol, denied scouts entry to their Clearwater training facility. In turn, they didn’t deploy their scouts to rival teams’ camps.
It all will contribute to the challenge of making evaluations.