Scouting Steve Carlton
What Branch Rickey Saw
By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM
As noted in posts on other HOF players, scouting baseball players back in the day was a lot different than it is today. In the 1950’s, for example, the only things that mattered were the five tools: hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding, baserunning and throwing. For pitchers, there were boxes for velocity, curve, change, control, poise and stamina. Intangibles were secondary concerns, and scouts reported only on attitude, habits and hustle. Scouts appeared to be more concerned with prospects as ballplayers than looking at their off-field habits. Tools weren’t graded using a number system. They were graded with short one- to two-word descriptions, like “Good,” “Fair-good” or “Excellent.” Scouts didn’t spend much time describing a player’s strengths and weaknesses. A typical assessment of strengths and weaknesses might be –
Strength: Young, athletic, tall, power.
Weakness: Can’t hit curve, can’t hit good pitching, slow.
When it came to recommending whether a player was a prospect, scouts wrote either “Yes” or “No” on the line next to a simple question: “Is player a prospect?” Unlike today’s system, scouts didn’t provide detailed reports on player metrics and what a player might become. They provided an educated guess of what the future might hold.
Things began to change in the with the implementation of the Major League Draft in 1965. Unlike the 1950’s when teams could simply send scouts out to look for young talent and, if they had enough money, sign whoever they wanted, teams had to rank players by ability and position and be prepared to draft the best option when their slot came up. Scouts began assigning numbers for each of the 5-tools and provide information on age, height, weight, body type, limb length, release (arm) angle, bat speed, work ethic, attitude, habits, family, etc. They also expounded on everything that they liked about a player’s strengths and a detailed description of his weaknesses and things he needed to work on. The “yes or no” prospect box was replaced with a “Prospect Rating” system in which scouts could rate a player’s potential to reach the major leagues as “definite, good or fair.”
Two years before the first MLB draft, a young, left-handed pitcher from Miami, Steve Carlton, appeared on the radar. The Cardinals sent 3-4 scouts to see him and they all liked his size, “sneaky” fastball and curve. They deemed him a definite prospect and outlined things he could do to improve his command, curve and stamina.
On scout, a “lifer” with 60-years of baseball experience as a player (Browns), manager (Browns and Cardinals), GM (Dodgers and Cardinals), part-owner (Dodgers), chairman of the board (Pirates) and consultant (Cardinals), Branch Rickey, not only wrote a detailed report, he made a suggestion that few if any scouts would make today. Rickey ended his report with – “Whoever manages him should let him alone. Don’t try to over-instruct him. He simply needs to pitch.”
The Cardinals signed Steve Carlton in 1963 for $5,000 and the rest is history. After two years in the minor leagues during which he went 24-11 with a 2.79 ERA and 299 Ks, he made his MLB debut with the Cardinals in 1965 at age 20 and helped them to two NL pennants and a World Series title before he got into a contract dispute and was traded to the Phillies before the 1972 season.
History proved Rickey right. Carlton became a Super Star. During his 24-year MLB career, he made 7 All-Star Teams and won 4 Cy Young Awards. His first Cy Young was in 1972 when he won 27 games for the last-place Phillies, a team that won only 59 games all season. He finished his career with 329 wins; second to only Warren Spahn among lefties and 4,136 strikeouts. Carlton was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1994.
A printed and typed copy of Rickey’s report on Steve Carlton are presented below.
“A very tall left-handed pitcher well-built boy. Long, slender, strong hands. A good fastball, straight as a string but good velocity. A fair curve and decent control of it. He has a change upon his fastball which is really a change of pace curve, and this chap has the most remarkable control of this particular changeup that I have seen in a long time. Steve has an intelligent face, fine eyes set far apart, and intelligent conversation. He can learn to hold men on first beyond a doubt. Good aptitude.
His delivery is not deeply faulty in the sense of becoming a fielder. He is not out of position badly to go either direction, – right or left. I like this boy. I would not be surprised to see him in the major league. In fact, I will be surprised if he doesn’t go to the major league, – and perhaps sooner than later. He lives in Miami. His father works as a maintenance man for Pan American. Graduated last June and will be 19 years old this coming December.
Whoever manages him should let him alone. Don’t try to over-instruct him. He simply needs to pitch.”— Branch Rickey (April 4, 1964).
Branch Rickey, the consultant/scout who recommended Carlton was a graduate of Ohio Wesley University and the University of Michigan Law School and an excellent judge of baseball talent as indicated by his signing of future first ballot Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (HOF 1962) and Stan Musial (HOF 1969). Rickey was an innovator. He created the first “farm system” to train and develop future Major League players that became the backbone the Cardinals dynasties in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He established the first permanent spring training facility, Dodger Town, in Vero Beach, FL in 1948, established the Knothole Gang, invented the batting helmet, encouraged the use of batting cages and pitching machines and foreshadowed the modern-day sabermetric movement by hiring a full-time statical analysis. He established the Continental League which spurred big-league expansion in 1961 and 1962. He passed away in 1965, about 8 months after Carlton’s MLB debut. He was elected in the Hall of Fame in 1967. Carlton was admitted in 1994.
Rotary International of Denver, Colorado, created the Branch Rickey Award, which is given annually to a Major League Baseball player in recognition of exceptional community service. Outside of Coors Field in Denver is a monument to Rickey with this simple inscription:
“It is not the honor that you take with you but the heritage you leave behind.”
Other scouting reports of HOF players:
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org.