Randy Arozarena surfaced with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019 and got 23 plate appearances. This year, he hid away at the Tampa Bay Rays' alternate site until Aug. 30 before aiding a division-title push with seven home runs in 64 at-bats. Then he made history in the playoffs with 10 homers, a single-postseason record.
In any October, talent evaluators would struggle over whether he is a trick or a treat.
But 2020 overflowed with Arozarenas, players who far outpaced expectations or fell woefully short within the confines of a small sample. Because the entire season was a small sample, 60 games that went faster than an eye blink. Factor in other oddities of pandemic baseball — a three-week training camp, limits to off-field workouts, spectator-less ballparks, pick-up-style scrimmages replacing Triple-A games, alternate-day COVID-19 testing, players living apart from their families, hotel quarantines on the road, on and on — and it follows that performance would vary more than usual.
So, as teams plot their courses in an offseason that will be defined by cost-cutting and decreased spending on free agents as a result of steep revenue losses, one question looms in baseball front offices: How should players be evaluated after such an anomalous season?
"I think it's difficult," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said a few weeks ago. "We usually don't make a season out of 60 games. If a starter has two bad starts out of 12, his ERA will be higher than it should be. I think you have to look at each guy individually, case by case, and understand what happened in the course of their season to really be fair."
Inherently, then, talent evaluation in 2020 has a higher degree of difficulty. Information will be less reliable, and there will be a tendency to overvalue or underestimate certain data points. And as teams cut payroll and dig for creative solutions to fill their needs, the chances of making mistakes will increase.
"At the big league level, your evaluation is probably 80% what they do on the field, what their statistics are, and 20% projection depending on the age of the player," former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. "This is a very unusual season from the standpoint that I don't know how you do that projection."
It can't help that many teams are eliminating boots-on-the-ground scouts in favor of maintaining robust analytics departments. The Phillies cut loose five pro scouts last week — and don't intend to replace them — even as managing partner John Middleton concedes that talent evaluation has been a systemic organizational problem "for 100 years."