Simply Baseball Notebook straight from the source July 2003

 Q&A with John Sickels

sickels.jpg

John Sickels is one of the best in the business.  Known for his knack for rating and ranking minor league prospects, Sickels publishes a "Prospect Report" anually, does extensive work for ESPN, and has recently finished a biography of Bob Feller.  He took some time out to answer some questions for us on June 17th.

*************************************************************

SBN:  First off, give us a little information about yourself: education, other  jobs, interests, etc.

JS:  Well, that's a big question. I'll start with the basics.

I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and have lived my entire life in the Midwest. I graduated high school in 1986, then went to college at Northwest Missouri State University. I got a BA degree in history and philosophy in 1990. I then went to grad school at the University of Kansas, earned an MA in European History in 1993, and did everything for my PhD except the dissertation, which I dropped in '97. For a long time I thought I was going to be a college professor, but that's not the way it worked out. I still love history; my office actually has more history books in it than baseball books. But I ended up as a baseball writer instead, and couldn't be happier.

I tell the story of how I ended up doing this in my book this year. To distill it down into two sentences: I accidentally got a job as Bill James' research assistant in 1993, then started writing prospect articles for ESPN in 1996. I wrote the STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook from '96 through 2002, and have been a full-time baseball writer and consultant since late '98. I'm happily married, have a wonderful wife and son, and am one of the luckiest people on the planet.

SBN:  You have become one of the foremost experts at rating and ranking minor league prospects. How do you go about gathering your information? (How many games do you attended? Rely a lot on film? Second hand info?)

JS:  My method is to combine statistical and objective analysis with traditional scouting and observation. The statistics are easy to find, and I've been doing this long enough that adjusting for things like league and park effects, level of competition, and player age aren't difficult if you know what to look for.

The subjective scouting is the hardest part for me, actually. I see as many games as I can, and I get pretty decent coverage of the Pacific Coast League (AAA), the Texas League (AA), and the Midwest League (A) travelling from where I live. I also go to the Arizona Fall League every year, and see lots of prospects there. But there's always somebody I don't see in person, so for players like that I rely on a network of friends and spies, the telephone, and second hand information. I mix that stuff with the statistical analysis and my own instincts to make my judgments and ratings.
 
 
SBN:  You recently completed a Bob Feller biography (due to be released later this  year). Tell us a little about the book, and what it was like writing it.

JS:  In a way, I look at this like the dissertation that I never did. I picked Feller as a subject because, frankly, no one else had written about him lately. He has two autobiographies, but no straight biography by an objective observer. Feller was as big a star in the 30s and 40s as DiMaggio or Williams, but for some reason his historic image has faded a bit, despite the fact that he is still alive and very active in the game, and was very important in the history of baseball. I wanted to go back and recreate Feller in context, to show his impact on the game and the way he was viewed at the time.

It was very different from the prospect writing, of course. It was the hardest thing I've ever done actually. I spoke with Feller himself several times, and that was certainly an interesting experience. He is something of an enigma. He can be really gracious and kind, but he can also be a jerk at times. The book tries to explain that dichotomy. It's not an "authorized" biography, and I don't know if he'll be completely happy with it, but I tried to deal with both the positive and negative sides of his personality.

The book is called Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation. It is being published by Brassey's, and should be out this fall.

SBN:  Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli has taken the AL by storm thus far, did you think  he would catch on this quickly? How good can he be?

JS:  Well, he has the strike zone judgment of a turnip. I'm a fanatic about plate discipline, so I tend to be suspicious of guys who strike out a lot and don't draw walks. Baldelli has cooled off some, but is still playing well, certainly better than I expected he would. The fact that he can play well without controlling the zone is a testament to his natural ability. It's possible he can continue playing at this level, but I expect that unless he makes some adjustments to his approach, the pitchers will eventually find his weaknesses.

Now, all that said, we're still talking about a 21-year-old who is playing well at the major league level despite little experience, as well as the handicap of poor plate discipline. If he finishes the year with even average numbers, he has to be regarded as a success. Baldelli literally could be anything. He could turn into an average player, or he could be a superstar, especially if he does refine his approach at the plate. I'm told he has an excellent work ethic, so it won't be for lack of effort. My biggest concern is organizational context: the D-Rays don't have a great record with helping younger hitters develop.

SBN:  On the other end of the spectrum, Josh Hamilton's future seems to be in  serious doubt. Is it time to give up on him?

JS:  Injuries have been the biggest factor in Hamilton's career so far. He is healthy now, but apparently has some problems with depression, and right now the word is he will take the rest of the year off to try and resolve this. I don't know the details, and it's best not to speculate about such things.

All I'll say is that Hamilton's problem has nothing to do with not being macho or lacking character. Depression has nothing to do with that. It can be controlled, even healed, with the proper therapy, psychological and sometimes pharmaceutical. I wish him the best of luck.

SBN:  In 2001, the Minnesota Twins selected Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior with  the #1 overall pick, is that as big of mistake as it appears to be now?

Prior is terrific, of course, and a lot of Twins fans wish they had him instead of Mauer. But there's nothing wrong with Mauer; he is the best catching prospect in baseball, and has already reached Double-A. The Twins picked him because they weren't sure they could sign Prior, plus Mauer was a local kid and would sign. Just about everyone, not just the Twins, thought Mauer was the best high school player in the '01 draft, so the Twins have nothing to be ashamed of. Mark Prior would certainly look awfully good in a Minnesota uniform. But if Carl Pohlad wouldn't sign the check, it's hard to say the scouting department made a mistake in picking Mauer instead.

SBN:  Since you began rating and ranking prospects, which player has surprised you the most and who has been the biggest disappointment?

JS:  Hmmm. There have been plenty of disappointments. I don't get too concerned about pitching disappointments, since they tend to get hurt easily and are hard to project anyhow. Hitting disappointments worry me more. Two I can think of are Ruben Rivera and George Arias, both of whom I thought were potential stars when they were first coming up. Junior Spivey has been a positive surprise, though if you look closely at his minor league record, you can see hints that he could be very good. I know David Eckstein surprised a lot of people, but I liked him when he was in college, and I'm proud of the fact that I pegged him as a prospect before just about everyone else.

SBN:  Are there any players currently in the minor leagues that could come up this  year and make an immediate impact?

JS:  I think the three best guys who come to mind are Justin Morneau in Minnesota, Rafael Soriano in Seattle, and Freddy Sanchez in Boston, but all three are in the majors now, though their playing time is in question. I don't think Jose Reyes in New York is quite ready yet to make an impact. Another Mets guy, pitcher Aaron Heilman, is definitely ready. Rich Harden in Oakland should be watched closely.

SBN:  Your critically acclaimed Prospect Report is now available; tell us a little  about it, and how to purchase it.

JS:  The book is called The 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. It is the successor to the old STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. STATS merged their publishing arm with The Sporting News, and they decided to drop my book, but I wanted to keep going, so I published it myself this year. It is very similar to the old MLSN. It has scouting reports on over 800 players, using my mixture of statistical analysis and traditional scouting. You can only order it directly from me. Check my website, Johnsickels.com, for details on how to order. It costs $19.95 plus $5 shipping/handling.

SBN:  Finally, share any advice for aspiring sports writers that you might have.

JS:  My advice for anyone trying to get into sportswriting is this: don't limit yourself to sportswriting. Develop a wide range of interests. It will help your perspective on things, help you see patterns that others might miss. Develop your own unique style; find a way to stand out from the crowd, and the best way to do that is to have your own perspective.

*************************************************************

www.johnsickels.com

*FEEDBACK*

Simply Baseball Notebook