Never mind the statistics, Orioles go into player evaluation headfirst

June 05, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

IF THE ORIOLES end up in the World Series this year, I'm going to write the ultimate behind-the-scenes book on front office strategy.

I'm going to call it Psychball.

It's sure to be a big best seller, along the lines of that Oakland Athletics book that was so popular a couple of years ago, but it will take the science of choosing and developing players a couple of steps past the pedestrian stat-based theories that currently rule the game.

While everybody else is going inside the numbers, the Orioles are trying to get inside the heads of potential draft choices and free-agent acquisitions to find out if they are mentally equipped to maximize their physical talent - which would be a nice thing to know before you hand somebody a multimillion-dollar contract.

The point man for this effort is director of baseball information systems Dave Ritterpusch, a former Orioles scouting director who is credited with unearthing Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and Orioles pitching great Mike Flanagan in the 1970s.

By some accounts, Ritterpusch has an inordinate amount of influence over the player personnel decisions that come out of the warehouse, which is just fine if you believe that he has achieved a major breakthrough in the analysis of the profiling tests that major league teams have been giving to potential draft choices for the past 30 years or so.

He claims he has identified some predictive trends among the thousands of player profiles - past and present - that are bulging out of his file cabinets. If he's right, that data could hold the key to maximizing the club's player personnel budget and helping the Orioles compete, year-in and year-out, with their richer rivals in the American League East.

Trouble is, the addition of a new component in the player evaluation process has created some misconceptions about the role that psychological testing plays in the day-to-day operations of the team ... to the point where there has been speculation that certain players are either in the lineup or out of it based on test results instead of talent.

"That's ludicrous," Flanagan said.

There also is the perception that something called "the ISAM test" has somehow superceded more traditional methods of scouting and talent evaluation.

(ISAM stands for the Institute for the Study of Athletic Motivation, which developed the original 190-question profiling test in the 1960s.)

"There is a great deal of misinformation out there," Ritterpusch said. "It's additive. It tells us who is most likely to maximize his physical ability, but that doesn't take people off the hook. You've still got to go out and see who has the physical ability."

Flanagan is a believer, and he is repaying the confidence that Ritterpusch showed in him when the Orioles made Flanny a seventh-round draft choice out of the University of Massachusetts in 1973. But he wants to make it clear that psychological profiling is just a piece of a much bigger player evaluation puzzle.

"It's part of the pie," he said, "but it's not a majority of the pie."

I'm just naturally skeptical when I think that somebody might be trying to reinvent the game, but it's possible that I'm just a narrow-minded traditionalist.

"Great ideas," Albert Einstein once said, "often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds."

(That, by the way, is the first time I've ever been dissed by a dead guy.)

It's certainly not a perfect science. In a Sun article last year, Ritterpusch touted three of the young pitchers the Orioles received in the trades that sent Sidney Ponson to the San Francisco Giants and Jeff Conine to the Florida Marlins. Kurt Ainsworth, Ryan Hannaman and Don Levinski were all "five or five-plus players" (on a scale of one to five), but only Ainsworth remains in the organization and he is on the 60-day disabled list.

Psychological profiling, Ritterpusch is quick to explain, is not going to tell you whether a guy has a sound arm.

Critics also point to the possibility that Ritterpusch is confusing correlation with causation. It's one thing to look back and see how Roger Clemens scored on a test. It's another to try to predict whether a player with comparable test results and talent will become the next Roger Clemens.

The Orioles would rather point to top minor league pitching prospects Adam Loewen and Chris Ray, who are expected to be the standard-bearers of the new Orioles player development movement after a string of disappointing drafts during the Syd Thrift era.

Who knows? Ritterpusch may have found the Holy Grail of player evaluation, and only time will tell whether the correlation between certain test scores and past performance can be used to make accurate predictions of future success. I have to admit, it's an intriguing possibility.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I've got to call my publisher.

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