The Cubs scouting department picked out a series of video clips ahead of the draft prospect's interview. Each came from a game that the scouts thought could teach them something about the young man. On a video conference call, they asked him to break down his thought process, mechanics and adjustments.
They designed this interview process in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns and put it into practice, in interviews with players across the country, in the months leading up to the 2020 MLB Draft. Cubs vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz described his department's approach to player interviews on a conference call Monday.
"I think the reality is," Kantrovitz said, "everybody's just had to be a little bit creative."
When the Cubs hired Kantrovitz in November, he'd imagined his first meeting with the Chicago media differently. A scrum in the dugout, or something like that, he said. Thanks to the pandemic, three of Kantrovitz's first seven months on the job haven't gone to plan. He didn't expect the draft this Wednesday and Thursday to be virtual and only five rounds either. But the experience hasn't been all bad.
"This is a time of year when we typically don't have access to players," Kantrovitz said. "We're normally going to watch them play games, they're preparing for their playoffs, their postseason runs if they're college players. But this year in particular … we've been able to get to know these players on a level that we otherwise wouldn't have."
Kantrovitz and his scouting department reconvened a few months ago to shift their plan for this spring, as season cancellations spread through the country.
"There was just a lot of uncertainty as far as, would we be able to see players again before the draft, and to what degree," Kantrovitz said.
He didn't know when the draft would be or how many rounds it would go. The good news was, all 29 other MLB teams were facing the same challenges. The bad news was, they were stepping into unchartered territory.
In mid-March, MLB had temporarily shut down all scouting activity. But a few weeks later, the league relaxed some scouting restrictions, allowing teams to contact players, advisors, coaches and trainers.
Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, suggested Kantrovitz reach out to some NFL teams for advice.
"I was a little skeptical frankly," Kantrovitz said, "as far as how much overlap there would be between our drafts. … It really ended up being a pretty invaluable channel of communication between us and some of the NFL teams."
The NFL Draft was scheduled for late April, and according to Kantrovitz, the general managers and coaches he talked to had more experience conducting player interviews through Zoom than most MLB teams. They talked about how basic questions lead to generic conversation, especially when players are going through similar interviews with multiple teams. So, the Cubs scouting department decided to use game film in video interviews, for both hitters and pitchers.
No matter the creative workarounds, the coronavirus pandemic will still affect the draft. Emerging high schoolers may see their draft stock drop, without any film on their cancelled senior seasons. College players whose bats started out hot this year may be over-valued, and those in slumps may be under-valued. But there are surprises – both good and bad – in every draft.
"We've always been faced with trying to compare players with varying degrees of data," Kantrovitz said. "… This year it's just a little more extreme."
First-round draft order
St. Louis Cardinals