Scouting & Coaching as Art or ... Not
Michelangelo vs. Some Guy Named Mike


Jeff asked for some pinch-hitting this week, and so I thought I'd throw out a couple of new things together with something that I never got around to publishing last spring ... all along the same theme.


Clearly, the difference between a Michelangelo and a mediocrity is in the margins -- in the fractions of inches.

The whole "lump-of-marble-to-something-relatively-humanoid" trick may not be that easy, but it's a lot easier than the "make-it-a-masterpiece" part.

We can posit that every pro team and major college program gets access to the marble or the clay or the blank canvas.

But who will be Van Gogh and who will be some guy named Vinnie?


First, a bit that was buried near the end of a sidebar on college signing day, from the coach of the Friendly Neighborhood Big Ten Institution of Higher Learning and Football in my state.  But I found it fascinating.

I had never seen a coach go into such detail about the importance of cornerbacks, in particular, but also such detail about what specific traits he looks for in a cornerback. Here's the whole quote:

“You don’t have to be the fastest guy, but you have the great ability to transition,” he said. “How you handle your body (and) your feet is really the key. How fast you can basically go from backwards to transitioning to running and being full speed is a real key issue. You do not have to be the fastest guy, but you have to be a good, fluid athlete.

“We like a guy with ball skills. I know that he doesn’t have to have the ball skills necessarily to be a receiver, but he has to have great hand-eye coordination. A lot of times, they are in awkward situations and their ability to get one finger on the ball and make a play can be the difference in a game. They have to be able to handle their body and have good ball skills, great feet, and body control.

“Probably what trumps everything is they have to understand the position they are playing. The ramifications of a mistake or a not very smart play at corner are very, very costly. It might cost you 5 yards in the defensive line and it may cost you a game at corner.”


Second, a commercial from Julian Edelman, who plays (let's face it) "Welker" for the Patriots (maybe one of the few positions in sports defined by a person who played it?).  It turns out Edelman is kind of a jerk in the real world and maybe not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but the video itself -- involving Edelman reading negative scouting reports from when he was an undersized quarterback entering the 2009 draft -- is priceless.


Of course, everyone passed on Edelman except the Patriots.



Finally, an unpublished bit from last spring that I wrote up about Andy Van Slyke:

In the brief '90s glory days of the Pirates (skinny Barry Bonds, if you recall), Andy Van Slyke was one of the minor stars and Lloyd McClendon was pretty much a utility guy.  But now McClendon is the big dog and Van Slyke is the role player.  But it could be a major role.
It was revealed -- somewhat surprisingly -- that the Mariners had no coach in 2013 who was responsible for the outfield.  And it showed.  Of course, the team wasn't built for outfield defense anyway (and the roster always seemed built for a healthy Franklin Gutierrez, which never happened), but it was easy to make the case that outfield defense and positioning cost the M's a fair amount.
Enter Van Slyke, a five-time Gold Glove winner (who will also be first base coach and baserunning coach). Van Slyke immediately started drilling his crew on what he expects.  Some of the quotes from his Yakima Herald interview are priceless:
I want the hard play to become ordinary and the extraordinary to become routine and the impossible possible,’’ he said. “You try to make the conditions of practice harder, faster, and almost impossible to accomplish whatever drill you are doing so when the game starts, every other play becomes possible.’’
And if players don’t want to dive after balls in practice? “It’s irrelevant what they think,’’ he said. “It’s what I think, and whether they buy into it is up to them.’’
And then this, which was amazing to me:
“Every ballpark you go into, the speed of the field is going to be different,’’ he said. “The grass in California is different than the grass in the Northeast. So you have to be in with your surroundings on a series-by-series basis. You’d be surprised that a lot of major-leaguers never put that into the equation, so they are not cutting balls off the right way, or they get beat on a ball.’’
Spring training chatter makes good Arizona copy.  But a guy who analyzes the speed of the grass at each park?  We like that.
And an outfielder cutting off the ball in the gap ... not unlike the cornerback preventing the big play, is it?
My sense is that, in the sports world, one can get pretty far on good-old-boy-hood, locker-room-alpha-male-ness and the like. You learn the buzz words and the "hot" scheme, and you identify who's strong and fast and who has a "compact swing," you become buddies with the right people.
Those guys can be Mike, Vinnie and Leo.
But to make the masterpieces -- to get that fraction of an inch or fraction of a second that makes all the difference -- maybe you gotta have the artist's eye for seeing the not-quite-visible ... and know the speed of the grass in Anaheim.

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