In a piece for the main site last week, I mused about how a relatively new test used by the NFL might serve as a blueprint for psychological testing in baseball. Many teams already test prospects before drafting them, but each test is different, making the process as a whole a little bit all over the map. If Major League Baseball could develop a test that was administered to all prospects before the draft, we could start to measure—with more data points than we have now, and thus (one assumes) more validity—which non-physical traits correlate most strongly with success at the highest levels of the game.
Here at BP Wrigleyville, we care less about other teams and more about the Cubs. So today, I’m going to focus in on some traits the Cubs’ front office values the most when selecting a player to join their organization. We know they care about the mental side of the game, in general (see Leigh Coridan’s recent piece for details), but what specific traits are they looking for in young players that still need to be developed before they can contribute?
Let’s structure our thoughts around the draft. Since Epstein and Hoyer took over the helm they’ve signed the following first-round picks: Albert Almora, Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. A first-round pick is a big deal—it says a lot about how the team assesses a young player’s potential to one day contribute at the big-league level. And it’s especially important when you’re picking near the top of the draft, as this front office has since they took over. In the absence of a league-wide test that tells us exactly what traits are being scouted for, let’s take a subjective look at the traits the Cubs are focusing on. Some of these, of course, are traits any big-league team would look for, but when taken together they paint a picture about what the Cubs are trying to do.
Almora is still only 21 years old, but those around him rave about his confidence. For a kid drafted at 18, who’s been one of the youngest players at each level he’s played, you’d better have some faith in yourself if you’re going to get through the inevitable rough patches the game brings with it. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
“My approach is to know I’m gonna get a hit. Having that confidence, the positive mentality is huge. Getting a good pitch to hit and hitting it hard. When I was doing well last year, everything was simple. I would laugh and be confident that I would hit it really hard. So you just have to be positive.”
It may sound cliché, but baseball players need that confidence. It’s the difference between a Darryl Strawberry, who was a star, and a Billy Beane, who wiped out of the game despite superior tools. The Cubs clearly felt Almora would take to this type of approach, even at the young age of 18 (that or they figured they grabbed him young enough that they could mold him to their liking, which sounds sinister but really isn’t). In his own words:
“‘I know I’m still very young, but I feel like I’m just getting the mental side of the game more now,’ he said. ‘My first couple springs, I wanted to do the physical stuff, I wanted to hit the ball far. Now, I still want to do those things and I still want to perform physically, but I want to work on the mental part of my game.’
The Cubs have boosted their mental-skills program, and Almora is taking advantage of it.
‘I’m just taking it further because of what they want me to work on and what I want myself to work on, which is swinging at better pitches or staying deep in the count,’ Almora said. ‘[The mental part of the game] is part of baseball. Everybody goes through it, and that’s my focus this spring.'”
For a guy that’s only 21 years old, Almora sounds like a player that’s not only buying into the organizational philosophy around the mental part of the game, but thriving because of it.
Intensity and Work Ethic
“It really f—— pisses me off when people say I can’t catch.”
That’s what Kyle Schwarber said to Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod when the topic of catching came up—and that was before they drafted him. That tells you a lot about the type of guy Schwarber is—can you imagine going to a job interview and dropping an F-bomb?
But there’s more to the left-handed slugger than fire in the belly. He’s also a guy that’s willing to put in the hard work to back up strong words. As profiled in this Chicago Tribune piece, he’s a methodical guy that knows what he wants:
“Cave recalled Schwarber taking a speed class after regular team practices because he didn’t feel he ran fast enough.
‘That’s what separates him from everybody else. He could see his weaknesses. And he would work on them all the time just to improve them,’ Cave said. “That comes from his competitive nature.'”
Another section of that article focuses on how much the Cubs scrutinized Schwarber before selecting him fourth overall. Presumably, the focus on analyzing his makeup may have allowed the Cubs to steal a top player further down in the draft:
“‘The Cubs, by far, were the most thorough team in interviewing him and doing their due diligence because he was a bit of an unconventional pick,’ Smith said. ‘Everybody knew he was going to go in the first round but not that high. I had people text me, ‘Is this guy for real?’ And I said, ‘Just wait.’ To their credit, they did their homework and ultimately got one of the best young players in baseball.'”
As much as Schwarber focuses on himself, he’s also a team player who meshes well in a big-league clubhouse:
“‘I don’t want to overblow this, but he’s a guy you really want in your dugout,’ McLeod said. ‘He’s all about competing and winning and picking up his teammates. In the short time he was here, guys really gravitated to him. He interacts with everyone—whether it’s the American players or the Latin guys, the veterans or the younger players. He’s very comfortable with who he is. For a guy who’s really confident, there are no airs about him.'”
At the end of the day, Schwarber is a bat-first guy. After all, that’s what got him to the majors in just 519 at bats. Wouldn’t a young guy that got to the Show that quickly simply be happy to be there? To contribute? To be making big-league money? That’s not Schwarber—he’s still working hard to give himself the best chance at becoming a catcher. Luckily for him, the Cubs’ approach to developing catchers is a little different than most—they believe in selecting players with the aptitude for the position and then working on developing them into capable backstops. Here’s what catching coordinator Tim Cossins had to say about it:
“‘Not a lot of people want to get back there and do it,’ Cossins said. ‘It’s a desire-based position. You see guys who don’t connect with it, and you see guys who get immersed in it and end up loving it. Once you get a guy who falls in love with the position, then you have something you can work with.'”
This is probably why the Cubs are willing to keep giving Schwarber an opportunity to stick behind the plate. After all, he’s going to keep working at it until it happens:
“That’s my mindset. No one thinks I can run? Hey, I’m going to run as hard as I can. No one thinks I can catch? Well, I’m going to catch as hard as I can. I’m going to be perfect back there.”
Whether or not Schwarber ends up spending a considerable portion of his playing time behind the plate, it’s sure going to be fun watching him try. And besides—as long as his bat is in the lineup, Cubs fans should be pleased one way or the other.
Ability to Adjust
Next up: Kris Bryant. What can you say about a guy that shot through the system and won Rookie of the Year? Why not start with one of the most clichéd lines in baseball: that it’s a game of adjustments. Look no further than Sahadev Sharma’s article on this very site for some great insight into one of the tools that makes Bryant stand out head and shoulders above other players with a similar talent level (not that that’s a very big pool to begin with):
Bryant’s other-worldly ability to adjust makes Epstein’s talk of growth—both in the near and long-term—as a very real possibility, nay, a likelihood. It wasn’t just the changeup, the low strike, or mechanical tweaks; Bryant improved from the season’s start to October significantly on defense. Numerous scouts and front office personnel talked to me about how his footwork and throwing motion looked quite a bit better in September and the playoffs compared to what they saw in the minors and the first few weeks of the season.
Bryant faced the best pitchers in the world for the first time and as they adjusted to his skills, he in turn adjusted himself. In mid season. In his rookie season. That his glove improved as well is mind boggling. Is there anything this guy can’t do?
What’s interesting about Bryant is that the year the Cubs drafted him, the top-two consensus picks were pitchers Mark Appel and Jon Gray. I was one of the many people that wondered what the Astros would do with their first overall pick, knowing full well that the Cubs would take the “other pitcher.” The organization needed some impact pitching in their system, and this was a no-brainer. But the front office saw something in Bryant that told them he could be a special player that had the potential to contribute sooner rather than later. From a 2014 profile on ESPN by Sahadev Sharma (again!), here’s some prescient comments on the sparkling-eyed third baseman:
Although the strikeouts will likely always be part of his game, many talent evaluators believe the combination of Bryant’s makeup, work ethic and advanced approach at the plate will mitigate those issues and help him adjust more quickly than the average talent as he makes his way to the big leagues.
So far so good—and if Bryant can keep getting better and better, then we’re looking at a perennial MVP candidate. Anyone out there still doesn’t think scouting the mental side of the game is worth it?
Ian Happ is the latest draft pick from the current front office, and again they went with a bat-first guy who could potentially move up through the system relatively quickly. One of the things teams really valued leading up to the draft was that Happ was a switch-hitter and could also play a variety of positions—both in the infield (2B, where he’s set to play this year) and outfield.
There’s something about guys that can play multiple positions and bat from both sides of the plate. They never get used to one particular point of view and that can really help a young player improve his overall game and climb up through the system. I don’t want to go down a psychological rabbit hole around empathy, but being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes is a big deal in terms of the mental side of anything. And physically playing different positions means Happ innately understands this. If you don’t buy into the psychobabble, I refer you to Ben Zobrist, Javy Baez, and Joe Maddon. The versatility angle has been covered to death, but if there’s value in it at the big-league level, then how could there not be as a player is developing?
Let’s move on.
We’re here to talk about the mental side of the game, and that becomes even more important when you’re a switch hitter that could be playing second base one day and center field the next. Before he was drafted, he sat down with former player Sean Casey and they discussed how important the mental side is:
A couple things stood out for me in the interview: first off, the fact that Happ is open to advice and instruction from a former Major League player (and all-around good guy) is a good thing. Second, that the same young player (he was 20 at the time) understood the importance of focusing on the mental side of the game gives you a hint of why the Cubs decided to pick him in the draft.
The talent has to be there, but the mental side is very important to Epstein & Co. The way Happ describes it, he’s developed a mental process for himself and he intends to stay within that process as he makes his way to the Major Leagues. Casey gave Happ a book (The Mental Keys of Hitting) and here’s how Happ describes how the book helped him:
“The book for me has been a savior for me through every level, every challenge… Mentally, I’m going to stay with it, stay with the process. I’m not going to get overwhelmed by the situation. Every day I’m going to come out and grind and compete, all the way up.”
You’ll also notice Happ mentions the importance of confidence to his game, which we touched on earlier and is worth highlighting. Another thing that stands out about Happ is how that confidence comes with the humility of knowing he has a lot of work ahead of him. While he was good enough to be picked 9th overall in the draft, he still has plenty of room to improve. That’s something the organization is definitely looking for in players. As Happ told the Chicago Tribune after he was drafted:
“‘I’m excited for the Instructional League,’ Happ said in a genuine tone. ‘It’s three weeks of practice, and it’s three weeks to get better.'”
A player that’s excited for practice because it’s a chance to get better? Well played, Theo, well played. And make sure to tune into Baseball Prospectus’ Top Ten Prospects on Thursday—you may be surprised where Happ shows up on the list.
The “It” Factor
I’m going to include one more player. You can’t go through a list of players like this without mentioning the Cubs’ top prospect: Gleyber Torres. Torres is a guy that was highly touted as a 17 year old, but has managed to fulfill those lofty expectations (so far). He’s been the youngest player at every level he’s played, and the Cubs are thrilled with his progress. Here’s how Baseball America put it:
“Cubs officials say Torres has an ‘it’ factor that belies his age. He doesn’t have the loud tools of big league Chicago rookies such as Kris Bryant or Addison Russell, but he’s already exceeded the Cubs’ expectations.”
And here’s what Jason McLeod had to say about Torres’ 2015 (emphasis is mine):
“‘I tell ya, it was such an impressive year he had. From the time … from the moment we signed him, I’m taking a quick step back, we felt that this was a kid that was very mature for his age. I think as he went into the Midwest League last year as an 18-year old he probably surprised us even more so with going out playing the shortstop position every single day. Obviously he had a lot of success there and how he dealt with that. He faltered a little bit in August. I think it was a combination of being tired and chasing .300, but really getting to see him go through some of the ups and downs of a long season, first full season, dealing with some cold weather early in the year and then dealing with the dog days in the summer and seeing how he dealt with the mental grind of it as well as the physical grind. I think he probably … a little stronger makeup than we even maybe thought in terms of his maturity level.’”
Torres is still very young, but so far that “it” factor has helped him keep up with some over-the-top expectations for a 17-year-old kid after he was signed by the Cubs. Signing players at such a young age is risky business, but when you factor in some of the mental qualities of a player, it can certainly help you make more informed decisions.
In case you’re curious about whether this rigorous approach to the mental side of a player is relegated only to top draft picks, you’d be wrong. We don’t have an objective way to measure how much focus the front office puts on the off-the-field makeup of the players they draft, but if you look around, you’ll see many mentions that point to this being an organization-wide phisolophy when it comes to bringing players into the org:
“The Cubs scouts do thorough background checks on their prospective high round draft picks and free agents. In the case of the draft picks, they talk to the players family, friends, even their teachers, to get an idea of what kind of person they are getting behind the ballplayer. We all know about Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. You’ve also heard me mention the work ethic, coachability, and maturity of young prospects such as Andrew Monasterio, Kwang-Min Kwon, Jonathan Sierra, Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, DJ Wilson, and more. The instructors down here in Arizona raved about the quality of people the Cubs scouting staff continue to bring into the organization.”
If you were to read all the prospect lists and scouting reports for every team in the league, you’d come across some of the same things I’ve highlighted here. But when it comes to this team and the players this front office has chosen, there’s definitely more of a focus on the mental side of the game. It isn’t just something they “look at” or “take into account.” Trying to quantify the mental capabilities of a player and using that information to make decisions is at the core of the Cubs organizational philosophy. And so far, that seems to be paying off.
Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports.