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Sunday, October 25, 2009

$3.1 Million Man Wins Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge

Allan Simpson        
If anyone should know a five-tool talent when he sees one, it’s Bo Jackson. With his combination of brute strength and blazing speed, not to mention his superior athleticism that enabled him to dominate a second major sport, he may be the ultimate five-tool player in major-league history.

Jackson was the host Saturday night of the first annual Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge, a made-for-TV event whose filming at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium coincided with Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association World Championship going on this weekend at two adjoining spring-training complexes.

The 85-team event attracted the cream of the crop among the high-school talent in the 2010 draft class, and some of the elite, most well-rounded prospects on hand were selected to participate in Jackson’s own personal showcase. It was designed to identify the best five-tool talent in the land, and Jackson himself was one of the judges.

He quickly identified the player who subsequently won the five-event competition.

“Wagner Mateo,” said Jackson. “He was the most complete player in the competition.”

Mateo, 16, was a bit of a wild card in the 15-man competition as he is technically not in the 2010 draft class. But he was hardly an unknown to upwards of 400 scouts attending the festivities in Jupiter as Mateo, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, was very much in the news this summer—first for signing a $3.1 million bonus deal with the St. Louis Cardinals on July 2, the first signing date for international players, and then for having his contract voided by the Cardinals on Sept. 22.

The deal was always contingent on Mateo passing a physical, and the Cardinals elected to opt out of the agreement when they determined that Mateo had a pre-existing injury. He reportedly has 20-30 sight in one of his eyes, and the Cardinals believed his condition to be degenerative—something that glasses or even Lasik surgery wouldn’t fix.

Mateo had no trouble seeing fastballs thrown at batting-practice speed at the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge as he put on a mammoth display of power hitting in the competition’s final two events, to come from behind and win the competition. He scored the most aggregate points overall, and his performance should only enhance his cause to sign with another big-league club in the coming weeks.

Once Mateo’s deal with the Cardinals was voided, he had little choice but to go back to square one and try to convince other major-league clubs that his vision is not impaired, that his game is unaffected by a potential flaw in his eyesight.

He chose the WWBA World Championship to audition his talent before scouts from all 30 major-league clubs, and landed a spot on the powerful Texas Scout Team Yankees. With raw tools that were clearly among the very best among some 1,500 players in attendance, he was invited to participate in the Five-Tool Challenge—an event conceived by Perfect Game founder and president Jerry Ford, and endorsed fully by Jackson. The event is expected to appear on a major sports network in the spring.

The chosen players were entered in competitions in the five basic disciplines of scouting, with a maximum of 15 points per event. Points were awarded on a descending basis depending on how each player fared in each category. The player with the most accumulated points, in this case Mateo, was selected the winner of Jackson’s Five-Tool Challenge.

Mateo won the aggregate, even though he never won any of the individual events. But he scored particularly high in the strongest-arm category with a clocking of 97 mph from the outfield, and he left a favorable impression on the a five-man judging staff of former major leaguers, with his overall hitting ability—though his explosive raw power to all fields was ultimately his main selling feature.

Mateo still has some significant adjustments to make in his overall approach to hitting as he tends to fly open early and has a long, exaggerated uppercut swing that might leave him vulnerable to much faster-velocity pitches that what he saw Saturday night, and also to breaking stuff on the other half.

Mateo overtook two heavily-scouted domestic players, Chevez Clarke (Marietta, Ga.) and Kaleb Cowart (Adel, Ga.), in the Home Run Derby portion of the event by launching five moon shots out of Roger Dean Stadium. Clarke homered only once, while Cowart was blanked.

Clarke and Cowart, long-time teammates with Georgia’s East Cobb Astros, had stood out for most of the competition to that point, excelling in the disciplines of speed, arm strength and fielding ability.

The biggest surprise overall was yet another Georgia player, Kevin Jordan (Columbus, Ga.), a relative unknown nationally who ended up in third place ahead of Cowart. Jordan was a last-minute substitution, effectively replacing one of the pre-event favorites, Justin O’Conner (Muncie, Ind.), who turned his ankle in the Indiana Bulls opening game of the WWBA tournament, and missed his team’s final three games, along with the tools competition.

O’Conner, a potential first-rounder in 2010, almost certainly would have scored high in every event and possibly given Mateo a run for his money overall, especially after winning the Home Run Derby at Perfect Game’s National Showcase in June at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Players were graded in the five conventional tools for a position player: speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting and power.

The speed category, the first event, was measured simply by having players run a straightaway 60-yard dash. Arm strength was established by using a radar gun to gauge the velocity on throws from the outfield. Power, the final event, was based simply on the final results of the Home Run Derby, with players accumulating home runs before eight outs were recorded.

Those events were objectively-based and not subject to human interpretation, but the fielding and hitting skills were more subjective-based, and the voting panel that consisted of five former big leaguers graded out the players. In addition to Jackson, the committee included John Cangelosi, Carl Everett, Chet Lemon and Dwight Smith.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the five disciplines, and how each played at out:


Among the players selected to compete in the Five-Tool Challenge, Pennsylvania infielder Sean Coyle (Chalfont, Pa.) posted the fastest 60 time at 6.48 seconds. Jordan was second at 6.51, Clarke third at 6.55. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Mateo was clocked in 6.92 seconds, finishing near the bottom of the field.

Several other noted speed specialists also ran in the event and, as expected, 6-foot-1, 175-pound Virginia outfielder Mitchell Shiflett (Midlothian, Va.), a high-school track star of some note, turned in the fastest time at 6.38 seconds—though he didn’t come close to matching his Perfect Game-record 6.11-second time earlier this summer at PG’s National Showcase.

Speed was obviously one of Jackson’s elite tools, and he was asked what his fastest-ever recorded time was in the 60, and he said, unhesitatingly, 5.98. Jaws quickly dropped among those within listening distance.

Jackson later qualified that pronouncement a bit to say that he did it while running track, in a pair of track spikes. But speed is speed, and Jackson, the former three-sport star, has documented times of 4.12 seconds over 40 yards and 10.39 seconds over 100 meters.


While radar-guns readings generally are the measuring stick for pitchers, they are also a popular tool when grading the arm strength of position players. Competitors in the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge were given three chances to showcase their raw arm strength from right field to home plate, with the best velocity the one that counted.

The strong-armed Cowart wowed those in attendance by hitting triple digits. He topped out at 100 mph—roughly 6-7 mph faster than he generally throws from a mound on the rare occasions he pitches for his high-school team and East Cobb. Mateo and California high-school outfielder Michael Lorenzen (Anaheim, Calif.) were next at 97.

Though Clarke was one of five players clocked at 94, it was apparent that he and Cowart impressed the panel of judges most. Coincidentally, all the judges happened to be former outfielders.

“They had the best form and the best arm strength,” said Everett, a former New York Yankees first-rounder who was known for having a powerful outfield arm and acknowledged that he once threw 93 mph when he pitched in high school.

“Clarke might have been only 94,” Everett said, “but he had the best form of all. He had the perfect crow hop and fluid mechanics, and his throws were strong and very accurate.”


Players were divided into two groups in this category, depending on whether they were traditional infielders or outfielders.

Clarke stood out among the outfielders, though he was challenged by a second Dominican, 15-year-old Vicmal de la Cruz, who spent the WWBA World Championship playing for one of Perfect Game’s assembled scout teams. Though still very crude, de la Cruz projects as one of the top prospects on the international market in 2010, and his well-timed appearance at this year’s tournament and participation in the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge provided an excellent sneak preview for scouts of his considerable raw talent.

De la Cruz scored a lot of points with the judging panel, though more for his arm strength than his overall outfield skills. He especially struggled in tracking fly balls.

“Clarke took the best routes of all the outfielders, and he’d be the player you would put in center fielder of this group,” Cangelosi suggested. “With his arm strength, de la Cruz would be your right fielder.”

The acknowledgment of Clarke as the best defensive outfielder is noteworthy because his defense was considered the weakest part of his game when he first made a name for himself at the 2007 WWBA World Championship, but mostly then for his bat.

Judging infielders was a little more challenging for the panel because none spent any appreciable time at the position in their careers. Lemon quickly volunteered to serve as a spokesman, however.

“I was drafted, in the first round, as a shortstop,” he said, grinning. “I guess that makes me qualified.”

But Cangelosi, a 5-foot-7, mostly singles hitter in his day, quickly interjected, “I know the most about infield play because that’s where all my balls went.”

All fun aside, Cowart scored highest among all infielders in the final result. “He moved the best, and obviously had the best arm,” Lemon said.

“Eventually, he’ll end up at third base,” Smith added, “because he’s going to get bigger and less mobile, and there’s less ground to cover at third. He can also spend more of his time on his hitting by playing third, but he is plenty good enough to remain at shortstop in the short term.

“Ideally, to be a true shortstop,” added Lemon, “you need to be quick and stay low to the ground, and (Chris) Triplett (Fayetteville, Ga.) stood out as the one that has the best chance to stay at shortstop. He had the best range of anyone.”

Marcus Littlewood (St. George, Utah) and Tony Wolters (Vista, Calif.) are generally acknowledged as being on the short list of the best middle infielders in the country in the 2010 draft class. Yet neither scored as high as expected with the judging panel as most felt their tools were a little short of major-league quality at shortstop and they would both end up at second.

Nonetheless, Littlewood drew praise for his balance and easy actions in the middle, and always being in the right body position to field balls. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Wolters didn’t stand out in a six-groundball snapshot, but scouts who have seen him play numerous times routinely have praised him for his superior instincts and steady play at both second and short.


All five panel members were reasonably accomplished major-league hitters in their day, and their emphasis in judging this discipline was clearly on stroke, balance and power.

A total of 19 players were given the opportunity to take eight swings, and some clearly stood out more than others.

“I liked the guy with the shortest, most compact swing—and that was Arce,” Jackson said.

Eric Arce, a lefthanded-hitting outfielder from Marietta, Ga., took part only in the hitting segment of the competition, but balls exploded off his bat. He hit bombs far over the right-field wall in his first three swings.

Smith preferred Arce and Roderick Shoulders (Valrico, Fla.) over all others because they showed the ability to drive the ball out of the park without resorting to a jacked-up, unnatural swing. But he also made a point of praising Mateo, both for his considerable raw talent and surprisingly advanced approach for a player his age.

“He swings the bat like he’s a lot older than 16,” Smith said. “He’s got a very mature approach to hitting.”

The switch-hitting Clarke stood out at the plate, as well, but only after he moved from the right side, where he showed a slow bat and little ability to turn on balls, to the left side and immediately began pulling balls hard down the first-base line.

It was in this competition that the fast-rising Jordan’s tools started to really stand out. He showed excellent extension throughout his swing, especially on pitches on the outer half of the plate.


Huge raw power was the tool that may have most separated Jackson from the average big leaguer in his day, and that category was also a difference-maker in determining the overall winner of the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge.

Cowart, with 49.5 points (of a possible 60), and Clarke, with 47, led the aggregate tally heading into the final event, but Mateo, with 44, was close behind. And when Cowart and Clarke struggled to go deep in the Home Run Derby, Mateo jumped over both with five prodigious blasts to all parts of the park.

Mateo didn’t win the power-hitting competition, though, as the 6-foot, 180-pound, lefthanded-hitting Jordan outdid him by going deep six times—all long, high blasts deep over the right-field fence.

Jordan’s belated charge earned him accolades from Jackson, the ultimate five-tool player. “He’s got the body and all the tools to be pretty special one day,” Jackson said. “But I thought Mateo was still the most complete player.”


With the focus on players with excellent tools, Jackson was asked what he thought was his best tool at the prime of his career. He was reluctant to grade himself.

“You’ll have to get that from someone else,” he said. “I just went out and played. I didn’t worry about that kind of stuff.”

In baseball scouting history, Jackson and righthander Bobby Witt, the second overall pick in the 1985 draft, are generally credited with being the only players ever to grade out at a perfect 80 (on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale) among all reports submitted to the Major League Scouting Bureau. Interestingly, Witt, now an agent, was also in attendance this weekend at the World Wood Bat Championship.

By most accounts, Jackson graded at the top of the scale in three areas, scoring an easy 80 for his superior power, speed and arm strength.

But as a .256 hitter in a major-league career that fell short of expectations because of a football-related hip injury, Jackson may have graded out as only a 40 hitter, maybe 50 (major-league average). And while he often made spectacular, athletic catches in the outfield, Jackson was also prone to misjudging the odd fly ball and running an awkward route, lowering his score as a fielder from perfect in the area, too, to possibly a 60—still above major-league average.

Jackson has been gone from the game for 15 years now and played in parts of only eight seasons, but he is still held to legendary status because of his amazing physical ability.

Asked if there was anything in 1982, when he emerged from an Alabama high school as a prep baseball and football legend, to remotely compare to the Bo Jackson Five-Tool Challenge, to measure the raw tools of rising high-school stars, Jackson was succinct in his response.

“Nothing,” he said. “I wish there was, but there was nothing. Just regular high-school baseball.”

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