Cardinals in Asia: Evaluating talent

February 3rd, 2016

On the heels of South Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh signing with the Cardinals, began an examination of the organization's decade-long journey back into the Asian market. This three-part series began on Monday with a look into why the Cardinals returned to Asia and how they went about structuring their process and resources there. In this second installment, explores the logistics of scouting talent in Asia and the near-misses that preceded Oh.

ST. LOUIS -- However deliberate the Cardinals may have been in creating a process that they believe can help evaluate and attract players from Asia, so much about the scouting process in that market remains a guessing game.

In some areas, the club has worked tirelessly to minimize the guesswork, just as it does when evaluating talent in the U.S. The inexact science of projecting future performance with Asian-born players is not all that different than the challenge of forecasting talent in the Draft. The Cardinals have developed analytics programs to assist with both.

But other wrinkles remain.

There is the logistics complication of maintaining a presence in a country where no one in the organization actually resides, as well as the risk of dedicating resources to scouting players who may never end up becoming available, either in free agency or through the posting system. Even trips that the club's scouts make abroad come with the caveat of a loose script.

They see who they can, when they can, most of the time without any guarantee of actually speaking to the player they specifically went to watch. Other times the interactions, at least when viewed through a traditional scouting lens, are simply bizarre.

Matt Slater, who began scouting in Asia while working for the Dodgers and now oversees the Cardinals' Asian efforts under the title of director of player personnel, recounted one visit in which his first impression of a player included watching that player lounging with a cigarette in his mouth less than an hour before he was to take the field.

That same player went on to have a successful Major League career.

"Different culture," Slater laughed.

The nuance of scouting in Asia is one of the reasons it took the Cardinals several years of behind-the-scenes work before jumping into the market. Their research concluded that about half of all Major League teams have an organizational scout living in Asia. Slater said that while this may be an investment the Cardinals consider down the road, the organization does not yet believe it to be necessary.

Instead, the Cardinals rely heavily on Slater, Jeff Ishii, a California-based pro scout who has shown an interest in scouting Asian-born players, and other scouting crosscheckers to gather as much information as they can during periodic visits. Slater typically travels to Asia once a year for about 10-12 days. Ishii has made three trips to Asia over the past two seasons.

Their focuses do differ, as Slater, who also serves as a consultant for the Orix Buffaloes club in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League, spends much of his time in Asia setting up meetings with personnel from various organizations. Because it's so difficult to connect directly with players, cultivating sources who will provide information is imperative.

He used the team's recent signing of Oh to illustrate that point.

"Oh we had been following for six or seven years, but I didn't get to directly speak with Oh until within the last two months," Slater said. "I relied on my sources with that team, Hanshin, and my sources with Orix, who played in the same city. They were giving us a lot of intel on the type of person he was and his makeup."

Ishii follows a more traditional scouting model, scheduling his visit so he can maximize the number of teams and players he sees. His eye is drawn to players who can make adjustments. Those players, Ishii believes, have a better chance of adapting to the higher level of competition present in Major League Baseball.

"You have to be very careful," Ishii said. "You can see a guy strike out four times and like him. You could see a guy go 4-for-4 and not like him. It's not really about performance, but about the way he reacts to the game."

It is also about moments, as Ishii goes on to explain.

"You're watching a level of play that, overall, is not big league quality," he said. "But naturally there are going to be some big league-quality type pitches, some action in that game that more represents big league quality. There is going to be, over the course of a game, domestically in the U.S. maybe 10-20 things that are significantly relevant. In Asia, there might be five to 10, just because the level of play isn't as challenging."

International showcases such as the World Baseball Classic offer other opportunities to scout Asian talent in different locales.

The scouting reports penned by Ishii and others are then compared to the analysis done via video. The Cardinals have a video system in place where they get tapes of every professional game played in Japan and Korea. Video of key players is then passed along to various pro scouts, who offer their assessments. Concurrently, the analytics team puts together its report on the player.

In the case of Byung Ho Park, a Korean first baseman who signed with the Twins this offseason, the Cardinals' scouting and analytics staff built a 45-slide PowerPoint last fall to present to general manager John Mozeliak and others in the front office. It included stats, scouting reports, a detailed playing history, information about his makeup and more.

The information was convincing, and the Cardinals decided to bid on Park. Minnesota outbid them with a blind submission of $12.85 million to receive exclusive negotiating rights. Minnesota later signed Park to a four-year contract worth $12 million.

It was the second straight offseason in which the Cardinals fell short in their pursuit of a South Korean hitter. After the 2014 season, they were outbid by the Pirates for the opportunity to negotiate with infielder Jung Ho Kang. St. Louis then watched Kang become a key piece on Pittsburgh's 98-win team. Kang finished third for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

His success as a rookie, though, helped the Cardinals self-evaluate their own process

"I do think when you look at the success of the Pirates and knowing what we learned from that, it gave us some confidence moving forward," Mozeliak said. "Hopefully, it's a sign that we'll continue to grow in this regard."

Ishii, who projects that South Korea will produce the next wave of impact MLB bats, is particularly intrigued to see how Park adjusts to the new level of competition. He believes the Cardinals will learn from Park's transition, as well.

"I think Park has significant adjustments that he has to make," Ishii said. "This is going to have to be an adjustment to his swing. There is going to have to be an adjustment to his physical setup. To me, just approach-wise, there will be a growing period, kind of like Kang, who had that really bad spring last year and then really adjusted well once April and May rolled around.

"It's going to be fun to look back in 20 years and see how the Korean hitters translate. And personally, I think they're going to adapt."

COMING FRIDAY: A look at how six years of scouting and studying Oh paid off for the Cardinals this winter, and how the organization views its future viability in the Asian market.