There is a saying among baseball scouts: “Those who can, evaluate. Those who can’t, measure.”
As front offices across Major League Baseball have shifted their resources away from in-person scouting and toward building analytical models to predict player performance, the importance of those talent evaluators and their impact on the game has been lost on many teams. However, one club that won’t deemphasize the art of scouting just yet is the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals.
At the forefront of those scouting efforts is Johnny DiPuglia, an assistant general manager under Mike Rizzo and vice president of international operations. DiPuglia was hired in 2009 to help rebuild the Nationals’ Latin American scouting department after a scandal involving age fraud of a top prospect forced an overhaul of their baseball operations department. Though he had two World Series rings and nearly 20 years of scouting experience, he joined the embroiled department and started working from scratch.
Eleven years later, DiPuglia has a third ring on his hand and a new slew of international signees that he played a role in scouting, signing and developing. Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Luis García are only the latest names in a group that also includes Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts, Aníbal Sánchez, Placido Polanco and Rick Ankiel.
“I’m simple in my evaluations,” DiPuglia told NBC Sports Washington at spring training. “For position players, I look at guys that do quick things in small places. I look at the five-tool set that we look for as a scout and then I look for the performance factor in games.
“I look for a guy that can barrel a baseball consistently and a guy that can play the ABC’s in the game, make fundamentally sound [plays], got a really high IQ and then you go into the personal part of it…I think that’s almost 40 to 50 percent part of the equation, finding out what kind of aptitude he has.”
DiPuglia never made it far as a player – he called it a career after one year in junior college – but he found his calling as a scout came soon after. He started out as a part-time scout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990 and earned a full-time gig three years later. The Boston Red Sox hired him in 1999 and he spent 11 years there before being pried away by Washington. He has since been promoted three times, though regardless of job title he’s primarily focused on the Nationals’ presence in Latin America.
He’s found plenty of success, but DiPuglia admitted the job has not been an easy one. Working in less-developed countries has put him in situations fearing for his life; he talked of hearing “bombs in the mountains” in Colombia and what he did to avoid “getting guns pulled out on you” in the Dominican Republic.
“Being away from home, missing your kids’ birthdays, being on the road and having friends pass away,” DiPuglia said of the biggest challenges that come with being an international scout. “Some of the places I go, some of the airports that I go, it’s not like being in the U.S. It can be very dangerous. You gotta have eyes behind your head. [But] it’s being away from home.”
Two of DiPuglia’s biggest success stories have been Soto and Robles, the young outfield duo that is expected to anchor the Nationals’ lineup for the next half-decade. He had the chance to see both in their early teenage years and each had different qualities that stood out about them. Soto, who DiPuglia compared to Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry Rice because of his advanced mental approach to the game, was signed for a then-team record $1.5 million.
“[Soto] wasn’t the most talented player I’ve ever signed but his IQ was by far the best I’ve ever seen in Latin America. He had a very good history of the game, he knew the game very well. Different things you didn’t hear from young kids, he knew how to hit the ball to all fields, wasn’t a very good runner but he knew how to run the bases and the left-handed hitting part of it was obviously high interest. But the IQ that he had was amazing, I’ve never seen anything like that down there.”
The Nationals netted Robles for only $225,000, but his five-tool skillset pushed him all the way up to the top of league prospect rankings. When both were still in the minor leagues, it was Robles and not Soto who was lauded as the future MVP-caliber player.
“Victor, he was like a Home Depot, he had a bunch of tools,” DiPuglia said. “There [were] tools everywhere and he had a lot of energy. He didn’t have a lot of playing skillset because he didn’t play a lot. I saw him when I signed Manuel Margot with the Red Sox – he was in the same camp that guy that had him – so I always had a memory bank with him and Victor just loved to play, had a lot of energy, could throw, could run, had a good quick bat, had a middle-of-the-field toolset what [the Nationals] look for…and for the value that we got him done for $225,000 it was a low risk, high reward.”
An integral member of the Nationals’ front office, DiPuglia has transformed their international scouting department from an industry embarrassment into a key component of player development for a World Series-winning organization. As much as he’s enjoyed seeing the players he scouted go on to have productive MLB careers, it’s seeing them flourish as people that’s been the most rewarding.
“My favorite part about it is the maturation process of getting a young Latino that is in a third-world country, sometimes he doesn’t have any running water…and educating them, not only trying to make them a big leaguer but trying to make them a good father, a good husband and a responsible adult,” DiPuglia said.
“Getting them to learn how to speak English, for me that’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job. It’s great when they get to the big leagues but it’s great when you see them later on and some are doctors, some are lawyers, some are police officers, some are coaches with other organizations. So that for me is very, very rewarding.”