Baseball may be the Americans” national pastime but they are discovering that Canada’s national sport of hockey is building big league ball players. Brandon Newell, scout for the Milwaukee Brewers said, “When I look at the Canadian players, some of those kids who have played hockey growing up have a great mentality for baseball. They are tough kids and they are driven kids.” Newell, a former pitcher in the New York Mets organization, is one of the elite coaches at the Okanagan Big League Experience Baseball Camp held in Oliver every year throughout the summer.
Coming to this camp has been a family tradition ever since his father, former Atlanta Braves organization’s third baseman, Dan Newell, started bringing his family to Oliver’s camp in 1971. Ken Myette, a former pitcher in the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds organizations also sees the value of Canadian boys. “There’s lots of talent. Canadians are strong kids with hockey backgrounds that are moving into the baseball realm.” “The American draft has only been open to Canadians for ten years now,” added Myette. BC born Larry Walker has a lot to do with Americans taking a second look at Canadians. Walker,” a goalie who dreamed of becoming an NHL player, was told that he wasn’t good enough for the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pat’s team.
Today Walker, a right fielder for the Colorado Rockies, is the greatest baseball player to come out of Canada and ranks among the association’s elite. He’s the only Canadian to receive a most valuable player award in the baseball league. Being the new kid on the field isn’t always easy and it shows in the attitude of Canadian players. “They have a little chip on their shoulders, sometimes because of the strength of the U.S. kids in the draft,” said Newell. But, Newell, who scouts for the Milwaukee Brewers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, says, “If you’re a player, you’re a player, whether I find you in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan or if I find you in Seattle, Washington.” And just what are these scouts looking for when they spend countless hours watching Canadian high school and college games? “Most scouts grade on a scale from 20 to 80,” said Newell. “An 80 is for sure a Hall of Fame player. A 20 is an average high school player.
If you can’t put a 40 on a person then they are not considered a professional baseball player. If you have a 25-man roster, 40 are those guys at the bottom four or five. They are the fill in players, back-up players, and pinch hitters. That kind of thing.” Scouts use the five-tool concept that scores arm strength, running ability, ability to hit, hit with power and defense ability. “You grade each tool,” said Newell. “After you grade the tools you need to profile the player. Different positions need different strengths and not always in that order.” “If you’re a left fielder for instance you need to be able to hit and hit with power. If you can run it’s not really that important. Your arm strength isn’t important because the throw is from left field and doesn’t mean as much because they are shorter throws.” “From right field you need to be able to throw a ball all the way to third base for a guy going from first to third. So for a right fielder it would be hitting ability and good arm strength.” “When you’re looking at a pitcher you’re looking at arm control,” said Newell. “How many pitches they throw for strikes, what kind of strikes are they, are they quality strikes or are they balls right down the middle, does he have the ability to throw to corners, can he throw balls when he wants to, can he throw balls that look like strikes and then break out of the strike zone?” “A pitcher that can throw a ball 95 mph doesn’t have to be as effective with where the ball goes if he can throw that hard,” added Newell. “You can get away with mistakes throwing the ball down the middle of the plate more than the guy that throws 85 mph.” “There’s lots of things that go into it so basically when you are looking at a player you need to first figure out what position this kid is going to play when he gets to the big league because I have one job, and they always tell the scouts this, your job is to find big league players.” But there is one skill that is never underestimated.
“The ability to hit in the major leagues right now is the one tool that can keep you in the big leagues even if you can’t do other things,” said Newell. “It’s such an offensive game now that they will almost concede a little bit of defense when they find a guy that can really hit.” Newell said scouts watch how many times a batter hits the “sweet spot” on the bat. “The sweet spot on the bat is only about 2.5 inches wide,” said Newell. “During batting practice I sit and watch how many times, and I don’t care where the ball goes, but I want to know how many times the kid can hit the bat or the ball in the sweet spot.” “Over the year, take 300 swings during batting practice and if he hits 270 balls on the sweet spot that’s pretty good hand-eye coordination.
The kid that hit 100 out of 300 balls on the sweet spot, he hit 100 homeruns that year but the rest of the balls he swings and misses it, he gets them off the end, those are the guys that are going to have a hard time. They are going to strike out a lot. They are going to get home runs but they are going to be 200 hit career hitters instead of 300 career hitters.” “Those are the things you look for,” added Newell. “The intricacies of the game where anyone can just watch and see a guy go four for four but if you look at his four hits, did he get four real bloop hits or he could have been zero for four and got four line drives at the center fielder.
I’ll take that guy.” “The more times you can hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat the more hits you are going to get in the long run,” he said while chewing sunflower seeds and spitting them onto the ground between comments. “Those guys get a 1000 at bats in the big league; 162 games with five bats a game, that’s close to 800 at bats and that’s a lot of at bats.” “I could turn my head away from the hitter and listen to two guys hit and I can tell you just by the sound of the ball coming off the bat what kind of hitter this kid is.” A scout’s job is often subjective. “I like looking at people’s facial expressions,” said Newell. “Do you see tension in their face, especially when the game is on the line. Is the kid relaxed? Is he confident enough?” If there are two equal players and he must choose between them, Newell will look deeper than the surface abilities. “I’m going to look at their background and find the kid that has the ability to struggle and fail and dig his way out of it because those are the kind of kids that can make it through the minor league system.” “I get paid for my opinion of players and if there are 30 scouts at a game there will be 30 different opinions on the same player so the trick is to pick and choose the players that you really think have the extra stuff,” added Newell who watches upwards of 50 games a month for five months out of the year. “I just want to make sure that when I stamp my name on a player that I believe he’s got a chance to play in the big leagues.”
By Lisa Joy, Oliver Chronicle, Thursday, August 8, 2002