General : : Professional
Friday, January 29, 2010

Why it’s good to scout a player on a bad day

Anup Sinha        

Perfect Game contributor Anup Sinha has written a book with longtime MLB scout and executive Bill Lajoie entitled CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie.

The book has been pre-released and is available through the ( bookstore.

Bill Lajoie was the architect of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers as well as an indispensable right-hand man to John Schuerholz (1990s Atlanta Braves) and Theo Epstein (2000s Boston Red Sox) during their terrific World Series runs.

Here is an excerpt (pages 253-254) from the WISDOM section of the book for PGCrosschecker readers to preview. We will post three more excerpts weekly.

Why it’s Good to Scout a Player on a Bad Day

“Bill was such a bright guy. He had the ability to see things other guys didn’t see in players. I mean, every night we’d talk about players. He’d say you’re taking this guy, I’d say I didn’t like him. We’d argue. The way it worked out, he was always right.” -- Jim Leyland, MLB manager and Tigers minor league manager under Lajoie

It’s a cliché among baseball scouts.

“Hey, Joe, what did you think of Johnson?”

“I didn’t like him, but I saw him on a bad day. He went 0-4.”

Every scout wants to see a player at his best, but there’s something to be said for how he looks at his worst. Bill Lajoie has stolen his share of players in that manner, but perhaps his greatest example is Aurelio Lopez.

Not only was Lopez an overweight 29-year-old Mexican League journeyman, but he was getting drilled by the Evansville Triplets on that summer day in 1978. Lopez was pitching in AAA for Springfield, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. He ended up having a decent season (6-6, 9 saves, 3.55 ERA in 76 IP), but on this day he was bad.

Lajoie watched how Lopez handled it. He still wanted the ball, he couldn’t wait to get the ball back from the catcher. Whether he got a strikeout or gave up a home run, Lopez came after the next hitter just as hard.

Most pitchers, even big league pitchers, can’t wait to get out of a game when they’re getting drilled. It’s hurting their ERA and their ego. But to Bill Lajoie, Aurelio Lopez was a different animal altogether. He competed fiercely and the last place Lopez was going to look with the bases jammed was toward the dugout.

Lajoie remembered that and though he wasn’t the general manager at the time, Jim Campbell allowed him to follow his gut feel and work out a trade for Lopez. Lajoie gave up two young lefties named Bob Sykes and Jack Murphy for Lopez and another journeyman, backup outfielder Jerry Morales. To an outsider it must have seemed foolish to give up two prospects like that, but the deal ended up one-sided in favor of the Tigers. Aurelio Lopez would become one of the game’s better closers over the next six seasons. On his best days, he possessed not only that intensity but a 92-94 MPH fastball to go with a hard slider. The stuff wasn’t constant but the man on the inside was.

And Bill Lajoie saw him “bad”. So much for that.

Not to say Lajoie didn’t learn his lesson the hard way. There was one very notable college pitcher Lajoie was turned off on after seeing him bad in 1974.

Tiny Clarion University in rural Western Pennsylvania had a 6-foot4 right-handed pitcher attracting attention from scouts. Clarion was/is a Division II school that had yet to produce a major league player.

Gwen Keating, Lajoie’s very trusty secretary, was from that same area in Pennsylvania. She was hearing all about the big righty at Clarion and urged Lajoie to go see him.

Lajoie did one afternoon and the game was delayed repeatedly by rain. The young pitcher had to warm up and sit down on several occasions. When the game got going, he wasn’t throwing very hard. Lajoie didn’t have a radar gun, but it was likely 85-87 MPH and flat.

When draft day came, Lajoie made catcher Lance Parrish his first-round pick. In the second round, he jokingly asked Gwen Keating to hand him the card of the player she thought he should pick. She gave him Pete Vuckovich,, the big righty from Clarion.

Lajoie smiled, put the card back, and instead took a high school lefty from Tennessee named James Taylor. The Chicago White Sox would select Vuckovich 16 picks later in the third round.

Needless to say, James Taylor never pitched a day in the big leagues while Vuckovich became a very good starting pitcher for both the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers over an 11-year career. A tremendous competitor, Vuckovich would win the 1982 American League Cy Young Award and give the Tigers fits as the ace of their division rival Brewers.

The lesson to be gained is that you learn a lot about what a player has inside him when he fails. You might not see his best stuff, or his best swing, or his best running times, but you do see how he handles failure and adversity, which is every bit as important in the long run. Baseball is such a game where you’re rarely 100% and at your best. Over the course of 162 games, players will have to battle even when they don’t feel like it.

Lajoie was unable to see what Vuckovich had inside him on that spring Pennsylvania day in 1974. But in 1978 he recognized Lopez for his strong baseball character even though he failed miserably that day pitching in Evansville.

Vuckovich proved a costly mistake, but Lajoie learned and would make good with Lopez and others in years to come.

CHARACTER IS NOT A STATISTIC: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie will hit and Barnes and Noble in March, but is already available for purchase from at
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