Scouting knows Bo Jackson
I just finished reading The Art of Scouting, the memoir of Art Stewart, who’s been working for the Yankees and then the Royals for more than 60 years. Which is a pretty incredible thing.
One of the more interesting bits in the book is about the Royals’ pursuit of Bo Jackson.
In 1982, the Yankees drafted Bo out of high school in the second round. He went to Auburn to play (mostly) football.
In 1985, the Angels drafted Bo in the 20th round. He went back to Auburn for his senior football season.
The Royals won the 1985 World Series, and didn’t pick until 24th in the first round of the draft. The Angels picked twice before the Royals, and chose (the original) Roberto Hernandez and Lee Stevens. The Angels picked three times after the Royals, in the first round, and took Terence Carr, Mike Fetters, and Daryl Green. Of those five first-round picks (including supplemental, compensation picks), only Fetters ever did anything for the Angels.
And the Royals? With their first-round pick, they chose high-school shortstop Tony Clements, who later became Tony Bridges but never did become a good prospect, let alone a major leaguer.
In the second round, the Royals took high-school outfielder Darryl Robinson, who also didn’t reach the majors. In the third round, they took high-school outfielder Harvey Pulliam, who did reach the majors and got into 123 games as a replacement-level sort.
In the fourth round, though? They took Bo Jackson. A few months earlier, he’d been the first pick in the NFL Draft, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse had flown Jackson in, which was an NCAA violation and disqualified him from playing baseball for Auburn that spring.
And made him mad, according to Stewart. The Royals, and especially scout Ken Gonzales, had gotten close to Jackson and thought they had a pretty good chance of signing him. So when the fourth round came along, Stewart says to his colleagues, "Gentleman, if we blow the fourth-round pick on Bo Jackson, the franchise is not going to fold."
Well, they didn’t blow the fourth-round pick. As I’m sure you recall (or know), Bo Jackson reached the majors in his first professional season and was, for a spell, one of the game’s, and later the planet’s, biggest stars. In his book, Stewart presents Gonzalez’s report on Jackson in the spring of ’86, and Gonzalez pretty much nailed it.
He gave Bo a 65 OFP, which essentially translates to good major-league regular, maybe a touch better. Gonzalez’s lowest individual grades — this is on a 2-8 scale, of course — were for Bo’s "hitting" and "arm accuracy," both of which were rated at 4 in present, 5 (average) future. And in fact, these would always be Jackson’s poorest attributes. He did eventually become an average hitter for average, or close to that. I don’t think he ever became average in accuracy.
Bo Jackson was arguably the most interesting and exciting player that we’ve ever seen, or will see. Which is why I nominated him for the Wing of Amazing. But he never really became a great baseball player, at least if you believe the applied-retroactively defensive metrics.
"It really is a shame that he couldn’t stay healthy," Stewart writes. "There’s no doubt in my mind he could’ve been one of our game’s greatest players if he put all his attention on baseball."
I suppose that’s possible. If all you knew about Bo Jackson was the numbers, you would just see a pretty good player who was peaking at 27, as so many players do, before he got hurt. Before he got hurt, he was showing a slightly better contact rate, slightly better strike-zone judgment, and slightly more power. But my guess is that Bo Jackson wouldn’t have been a truly splendid baseball player unless he’d gotten an earlier start, played a lot more baseball in high school and college.
All of which is picking nits, I know. Stewart tells a good story, but I was hungry for more. The lesson in Bo Jackson is that it really pays to get close to a player and his family, because once in a great while something will just fall into your lap. Purely in terms of scouting, though? I’d love to know why the Royals drafted Tony Clements/Bridges, and why he didn’t develop near as well as they thought he would. And I’d love to know why the Royals drafted, that same year, Tom Gordon in the sixth round. Purely in terms of bWAR, Gordon is the third-greatest pitcher ever drafted in the sixth round, behind only Tim Hudson and Jamie Moyer. Considering how little value Moyer gave to the team (Cubs) that drafted him, you might argue that Gordon should be second all-time.
Now there’s a story, I’ll wager.