Across the Astros board: An interview with Mike Elias, Director of Amateur Scouting (Part 1 of 2)

Scott Halleran

Staff writer Edward S. Garza interviews a key architect of the Astros' future.

Since becoming the Astros’ Director of Amateur Scouting in 2012, Mike Elias has played a crucial role in building Houston’s farm system, recently ranked number one in MLB by Keith Law of ESPN. He coordinates with both domestic and international scouts, synthesizes their reports, and creates strategies for each year’s draft, among other duties. Moreover, he uses his own scouting background to personally evaluate players.

Indeed, Elias has brought a wealth of skills to Houston. The Yale grad (B.A., History) previously served as Manager of Amateur Scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, working under then-Scouting Director Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ current General Manager. He was first hired by the Cardinals in 2007 as an area scout.

In the passages below, part 1 of the interview, Elias discusses his history in baseball, including his work with the Cardinals, and then transitions into his philosophies on drafting amateur talent, along the way analyzing the Astros’ past two drafts. I would like to thank not only Elias himself for this interview, but also Scouting Coordinator Paul Cusick and Media Relations Director Steve Grande, who each made it possible. Enjoy.

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Elias on his journey into the baseball industry: "I was playing baseball in college, and I hurt my arm during my sophomore year. I needed to get shoulder surgery. In my conference, they didn’t allow graduate students to play. In most sports, when you redshirt, you usually stay around campus and then you play your fourth or fifth year as a graduate student. So it was typical for injured athletes to take a leave of absence from school. I knew I had to do this, given my surgery.

"So I took a year off and came back to finish my eligibility. I decided...that I wanted to do something that would help further my career....The book Moneyball had come out around then, and it helped me become aware of the opportunities that might be out there that I think most people weren’t aware of at the time. It was plausible to get a job in a front office or even in scouting. After reading that, it really crystallized my interest in working in baseball, so I decided to use the year as productively as possible to that end.

"With the help of my college head coach, I got an internship in the Philadelphia Phillies’ front office. For the second half of that same year, I got another job working with a pitching coach named Tom House. He used to be the Rangers’ pitching coach. He’s a very prominent professional pitching coach whom a lot of big-leaguers go train with. I went out to San Diego to work with him. While there, I came into contact with the Cardinals’ scouting staff, and that’s how I made the contacts necessarily to get an opportunity a few years later, after I graduated.

"Working at Tom House’s academy, I came into contact with a lot of big-league pitchers. I learned a lot about the motion, pitching injuries, those sorts of things. It was really an eye-opener. It was a good foundation for me in terms of developing my scouting eye. Once I was done with that, I went back to college and pitched a few more years, graduated, and worked briefly in the financial services industry while I waited for the baseball hiring cycle to come around, which is usually in the fall.

"The Cardinals had a scouting opening then, and Dan [Kantrovitz, the Cardinals’ current Scouting Director] had remembered me. I’d kept in touch with [him]. They hired me. It was really a lucky opportunity to get into scouting that young. It’s not common, and it was very uncommon then, to be twenty-three, twenty-four years old and get hired for a full-time scouting position. But I was fortunate that they gave me an opportunity and were willing to let me learn on the job for a year or so. It worked out very well."

On his mentors with the Cardinals: "There were many [mentors]. I mean, the Cardinals’ scouting department has a very rich history, and they’re a very successful organization. I think the biggest part of their success in general is that they’re able to hold onto and cherish their history as an organization while also adapting and being forward-thinking and embracing new ideas.

"So you had Jeff Luhnow who, as the scouting director at the time, was incorporating a lot of new information and technology and was being very innovative, but he also had a very strong staff of longtime Cardinals scouts who were there and are still there today. These guys have been with the team for thirty years, some of them. But certainly Dan [Kantrovitz], who’s now the Scouting Director there, was a big mentor. He was the guy who hired me and whom I initially worked for. He has a very good baseball mind.

"They [also] have a few longtime scouts there who are now national crosscheckers with the Cardinals, the main ones being Mike Roberts and Joe Almaraz and Roger Smith. These guys have had very long scouting careers and taught me quite a bit about how to think about the draft, how the Cardinals do things, how to look at players. Their mentorship--and they’ve mentored a lot of scouts--is immeasurable."

On getting value from late draft picks with St. Louis: "It’s not easy to do, and it’s always a testament to the area scouts when something like that happens. But I think a big part of it is [that] Jeff and we are big believers in really pursuing value from pick number one to pick forty. We incorporate the area scouts quite a bit....I think because their voice is so strong and they do such good work and are able to share it directly with the scouting director [that] we have been fortunate with the Cardinals to get some really good picks late in the draft. The scouts assigned those guys and found them. Trevor Rosenthal, Aaron Looper. Joe Almaraz was the scout who found Jaime Garcia. They just really do good work digging those guys up and evaluating them properly."

On the Cardinals’ success in scouting and player development: "It’s a blend of longtime scouts, veteran guys. We had some young scouts at the time being hired too, like me. Because those older guys were so willing and able to share their wisdom and teach the younger guys and also be open to some of the new methods that Jeff and Sig [Megdal, now the Astros’ Director of Decision Sciences] had begun incorporating with using college statistics, analyzing draft data, really produced a great run of success for that scouting department and that organization that they’re still carrying on to this day.

"They do it with scouting too, but they also have a lot of emphasis on the development side. They’ve got a whole host of teachers over there that have been part of the Cardinal tradition for a long time. They’ve got a very organized and intelligent way of teaching the game that goes up and down the minor leagues. It’s a whole conversation unto itself, but a big part of their player development success is their scouting and a big part of their scouting success is their player development. Those two things go hand in hand."

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On 2012’s high school draftees, and drafting high schoolers in general: "We’re very happy with the development of [Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Jr., and Rio Ruiz] and the draft class as a whole....We got some of these very high-ceiling high school kids, but we were also able to, around them, select a lot of really nice, polished players. Going back to the Cardinals, I think we and Jeff always had a reputation of being a college-leaning organization in the draft. If you look back on the actual picks, it’s not actually true. [Jeff] took several high school players early in the draft during his tenure. We’d always taken high school players with St. Louis.

"I think because we had a lot of success with our college picks we developed that [other] reputation. I think that, like you saw in 2012, we certainly have no aversion to taking high school players. Especially when we’re very excited about them, we’re going to grab them early. By nature, they’re riskier, just because they’re younger. You have less information on them and there’s more time for things to go wrong in their career. But there’s also more time for things to go right in their careers. They’re more likely to outpace your expectations.

"So there’s always that risk-reward interplay. You’ve got to weigh it when you’re thinking about taking any player, but particularly with a high school kid. The thing that makes us excited about [Correa, McCullers, and Ruiz]...is we really felt that the components of each of those guys added up to a very good chance of getting a front-line major-league player, whether it’s Correa, who has a chance to be an offensively impactful shortstop, or McCullers, who...is a guy who could be a dominant top-of-the-rotation or middle-of-the-rotation starter, and then Ruiz, who could be an everyday third baseman with a middle-of-the-lineup bat.

"When you’re taking high school kids that high, the risk is inherent, and you want to make sure that the feeling justifies or warrants the risk that you’re biting off. That was a good group in that regard, and we got some good high school players last year in the draft too. We love getting high school players and it’s a very important balance to strike in the farm system, where you want to have some youth but you also want to have some polished college players playing with and around those guys."

On drafting for talent over need: "If you follow the baseball draft, you hear a lot of people say, ‘You don’t draft for need. You just take the best player available.’ That’s true because the sport is very unpredictable. That’s reason number one. Reason number two is that it takes these players a while to get to the big leagues. You don’t exactly know what your roster composition is even going to be by the time these guys are ready. It’s very tricky to try to draft based on need."

On taking a college pitcher in each of the first three rounds of the 2013 Draft: "As it was, the fact that we got three polished pitchers in our first three picks, it did happen to dovetail with our previous year’s high school talent and the composition of our farm system....You could always use more pitching. The main thing is that it reflects what is in the year’s current draft. When you get into a market, you always want to examine what the market offers to you before you make your grocery list. In one sense it’s like you go to the supermarket first and see what’s fresh and what’s abundant and what’s on sale before you decide what you want to make for dinner.

"[The 2013] draft had a lot of pitching in it, and we knew that all year long. There was a lot of college pitching. There was a lot of pitching in general. It was just one of the strengths of the draft. So, I think if you had asked before the draft, I’d probably say, ‘Hey, the odds are high that the best player on the board in each of these [first] three rounds is going to be a pitcher.’ That’s kind of what happened."

On projecting college players: "I think a big misconception that we as scouts constantly have to remind ourselves of is the presumption that a college player has a lower ceiling than another kid, a high school kid who’s younger and has bigger physical tools. So much of baseball is a skill sport. It’s an athletic endeavor, but it’s also a skill sport. There’s a large hand-eye component for hitters.

"For pitchers, there are the mysterious components that make up deception and command. But it’s hard for the human eye to sense and evaluate properly, to know when and how improvement is going to come. When you look back at players like Dustin Pedroia, Allen Craig, Jason Kipnis, or Tim Hudson, these guys at the time of the draft weren’t perceived to be high-ceiling players. But the reality is these college players improve, and they get a lot better than you think sometimes.

"We can always fool ourselves into saying, ‘Oh, he’s a college player. He’s not that big. He is what he is. The ceiling’s low.’ But the reality is you do get pleasantly surprised a lot of times. Even if you take a guy thinking you’ve got a high-floor, low-ceiling guy, you may be pleasantly surprised. You may end up with a guy who’s an all-star getting MVP votes, and nobody was saying that in the draft room. So, it’s a very humbling profession. We’re wrong a lot. We’re right a lot. Sometimes we’re wrong in a good way, when a guy’s even better than we thought. We’ve always got to keep that in mind when looking at older players."

(Revisit The Crawfish Boxes next week to read part 2 of this interview, wherein Elias discusses the outlook of the 2014 Draft, sleepers in the Astros’ farm system, and how he likes living in Houston.)

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