From Vlad to Vlad Jr., int'l scouting has evolved
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The scouting report, the official record and one of the most sacred documents in the international scouting world, spells out all the details.
Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero showed up for his tryout with the Montreal Expos in 1993 here on the island on the back of a motorcycle.
It was April. It was hot, and the humidity was thick. Guerrero, then 18 years old and wearing mismatched shoes, threw lasers from the outfield to third base all morning. He ran a timed 60-yard dash at a blazing speed, though he was limited at the plate because of a pulled groin. He signed for $2,500, and he would go on to make baseball history and enter the Hall of Fame.
More than 20 years later, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the husky teenage boy with the famous name and herculean power, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for $3.9 million under a completely different set of circumstances.
The next big international star could be discovered another way.
It's been almost 50 years since legendary scout Epy Guerrero started the first baseball training camp on a dirt field in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, and changed the landscape of international scouting. In the decades that followed, growth promoted change. Errors forced corrections. Now there's another transformation in the international scouting world and in the system that governs it.
"Countries outside of the United States remain an important source of Major League players, and we want to do all we can to promote the health of the game in those countries," said Morgan Sword, who oversees all international signings as part of his duties as senior vice president of league economics and operations for Major League Baseball. "We hope to improve our system of player acquisition and create a better working relationship with the trainer community of Latin America."
Sword and his staff have been researching priorities and policies related to international player acquisition since the beginning of the year. Their work has led to a series of new rules on tryouts. The most significant changes involve the biggest issue on the international market. As part of the effort to reduce the use of performance-enhancing drugs, MLB has assumed drug testing for international prospects and created the Trainer Partnership Program.
All players who choose to participate in the program are subject to random drug testing, and trainers who choose to participate are subject to a background check and other guidelines. For their participation, trainers are rewarded with invitations to exclusive MLB-sponsored showcases. The first is scheduled for Sept. 18-20 in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, for prospects eligible to sign in 2019 and '20.
The Trainer Partnership Program also includes a teaching component that covers such topics as league rules, financial guidance and other life skills.
The latest changes come at an unprecedented time on the international market. Clubs have combined to spend more than $120 million since the 2018-19 international signing period began July 2. The rise of Nationals star Juan Soto, Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Guerrero Jr. -- along with other top prospects like Eloy Jimenez, Victor Robles and Fernando Tatis Jr. -- also reinforce why the international market is an important part of the game.
The numbers tell the story. More than 1,200 international prospects sign each period. Guerrero Jr.'s signing bonus was about 1,600 times that of Guerrero Sr.'s, and he can thank his father for helping lay the groundwork. There's more competition for top international prospects and more money is being spent by more teams, in part because of the success of previous generations of international prospects that opened the door to the market. The current international bonus pools system also makes it worthwhile for teams to use their money to sign prospects or trade the pool money away.
"Some of those old guys signed for peanuts, and I think the reason is because not everybody was competing in Latin America," one high-ranking National League executive said. "So you go from more teams competing with more resources to trying to gain an edge over everyone else. The answer became better academies to develop better players, and now what's becoming popular is the technology you can use for your evaluations."
When Guerrero Jr. signed just three years ago, he participated in showcases and prospect games designed to give scouts the opportunity to evaluate their future investments in action. Those models were not available back when Guerrero Sr. signed. Teams are also using video and tools like Trackman -- the system that measure velocities, spin rates, exit speeds -- along with swing analysis devices attached to the bottom of bats, and force plates, which are small platforms that players stand on to measure strength and weight distribution.
There also has been a rise in the use of Edgertronic high-speed cameras for analysis of biomechanics and things like release points in slow motion. Rapsodo, another portable pitch tracking tool, and FlightScope -- a system used to measure hitting, pitching and running mechanics -- are also growing in popularity in the international scouting world.
"It's like we take the NFL combine to the player," one NL scout said. "A lot of the information we gather is with the hope that it's useful. We have an idea that it might help, but we are figuring it out as we go."
Sample sizes can be an issue when using advanced technology on the international teens, so traditional methods and experienced evaluators are still an integral part of the process. That could be part of the reason more teams are employing more crosschecker scouts, many of whom are from the United States, to assist in international evaluations by comparing prospects.
"There are always going to be men and women that are traditional scouts, and then some that are going to be data analyst types, and then there are going to be hybrids," one high-ranking American League executive said. "There are many ways to evaluate and you can be effective taking multiple approaches, but I think you'll see a combination in the future."
Ultimately, the mission is to sign international prospects and turn them into contributors on the Major League and Minor League level. But if that doesn't work out, they have also proven to be valuable pieces in trades. That practice has not changed in years. What really separates this era from those in the past is the high demand for international talent, competition among teams and the new rules of engagement.
"The international market has become so specialized and you have to make the right decisions, because along the way, a lot of money was spent, and a lot of money was wasted," the NL executive said. "I think what teams are doing is learning from their mistakes, reading the market and trying to minimize risk. I think we've gone from Latin America being viewed as some sort of isolated market, to now it being part of the overall talent-acquisition operation."