The Sixth Tool

Teams have learned not to rate prospects merely on their physical attributes. A player's character can make or break him as a draft pick
June 06, 2010

Former Padres general manager Kevin Towers raised more than a few eyebrows when he made shortstop Matt Bush the first pick in the 2004 draft. The senior from Mission Bay High in San Diego hadn't even been the second player listed on the team's draft board. The organization had spent months researching three other prospects: Stephen Drew, a shortstop from Florida State; Jered Weaver, a 6'7" righthander from Long Beach State; and Jeff Niemann, a 6'9" righty from Rice. But when it became clear that the agents for the three would be seeking lucrative deals, Towers shifted to Plan B. Bush appealed to him for two reasons: a right arm that dazzled at shortstop and lit up radar guns at 94 mph from the mound, and a disinclination to demand big bucks. The Padres signed Bush for a modest $3.2 million bonus despite knowing next to nothing about his character and background—his "makeup" in baseball parlance.

Matt Bush is now a major league cautionary tale, a reminder of what can happen when teams neglect their homework. A few days after the draft, San Diego invited Bush and his friends and family to watch a game from a private suite at Petco Park; the group, according to several sources, cleaned out the suite's supply of alcohol. ("Red flags," says Towers, "but it was already too late.") A few days after that, after Bush reported to the team's spring training facility in Peoria, Ariz., he was arrested for fighting with a bouncer at a bar. (He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, trespassing and underage possession or consumption of alcohol, paid a $1,000 fine and was placed on unsupervised probation.) In February 2009, while rehabbing from an elbow injury, an intoxicated Bush assaulted several members of a high school lacrosse team in El Cajon, Calif., reportedly screaming, "I'm Matt F------ Bush," as he drove off in his Mercedes. (He pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of simple battery and was sentenced to four months in a residential alcohol rehabilitation program and to perform volunteer and public service.)

Bush's poor conduct was matched by his performance on the field: Unreceptive to coaching, he batted .219 with just three homers in four minor league seasons. In February 2009 the Padres traded him to Toronto for a player to be named.

Towers concedes he should have known better. When he was a young scout with the Pirates in the early 1990s, the club made sure their scouts got close enough to prospects to evaluate their personalities by having them record not just stopwatch times and radar-gun readings but also eye color and hand size—to ensure they were interacting on a personal level. Every team attempts this sort of evaluation, in different ways. Some use psychological tests. Interviews with players, coaches and parents are de rigueur.

Dodgers scouting director Logan White has gone so far as to develop a "matrix" consisting of 50 separate markers that White, a psychology minor at Western New Mexico, believes relate to success as a pro—including grade point average, SAT scores and the marital status of parents. "It doesn't mean that if a child comes from a divorced family, or has bad SAT scores, that he can't be a big leaguer," says White. "The point is we try to find players that have consistently made good choices, whether it's in school, on the athletic field, in the community, and families that have made good choices too. We've found that this has a high rate of correlation to success in baseball."

Now 24, Bush pitches for a Rays Class A affiliate. "The past is the past," he says through a club spokesman. "I am focused on the present and the opportunity the Rays have given me to change my life and career." Character, he knows now, counts.

PHOTOMAL COOPER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX (BUSH)CONDUCT UNBECOMING Former No. 1 pick Bush (with the Padres in '07) is trying to restart his career as a pitcher.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)