Long before they ever see the field in a Major League Baseball game, baseball prospects must traverse the multi-layered world of the minor leagues. Almost all prospects spend at least some time at this level, and for the vast majority of players breaking through from the minor leagues to the big leagues is an accomplishment in and of itself.
On every level of their journey exist people like Dalton resident Chris Blessing. With every pitch and every swing of the bat, there are those in the stands who are watching the game through a different lens. In his role as an associate scout for the Cleveland Indians and a baseball writer for BaseballHQ.com, Blessing evaluates baseball prospects who hope to make their way to the next level in professional baseball. Finding value where others may not see any is the name of the game, according to Blessing.
“It’s hard to explain, but you look for things in players,” Blessing said. “For example, in the lower minors you look for if a guy is going to be able to hit major league pitching. What do his mechanics look like? You’re right a lot, but you’re wrong sometimes.
“I was talking to someone the other night about (Atlanta Braves rookie) Austin Riley. When I saw him there were definitely some mechanical issues. You’re never 100% sure if they guy can make the correction, even with good coaching.”
So far, so good for Riley. After debuting of the Braves on May 15, the outfielder has burst of the scene with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs through May 13.
For someone with such a deep understanding of what it takes for a player to make the big leagues, Blessing's playing experience is very limited. While his dream as a child was to play like his heroes on the New York Mets' teams of the late 1980s, he soon realized that wasn't going to happen. He did play Little League baseball, along with recreation and American Legion baseball, from age six to 17, but never tried out for his high school team.
"I probably could have made the team, but I wouldn't have played much," Blessing said.
After analyzing baseball players on online forums for free for several years, Blessing began his professional baseball writing in 2010. Though he holds a day job as a real estate property appraiser with the Whitfield County Tax Assessors Office, Blessing moonlights around the southeast as a baseball talent evaluator. His role as associate scout with the Indians is to assist the team’s regional scout with evaluations of players, and although the position is unpaid, Blessing makes money through his writing which has been featured in outlets such as BaseballHQ.com, USA Today Sports Weekly and Lindy’s Baseball Preview. Blessing’s work has also been used in books such as “Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster” and BaseballHQ’s “Minor League Baseball Analyst.”
Blessing said he usually makes between five to seven speaking engagements a year at fantasy baseball and prospect symposiums, and also makes guest appearances on podcasts involving minor league baseball. He attends between 75 and 100 games a year, and if there has been a top prospect in the past decade, chances are Blessing could speak intelligently on that player’s tools.
“I tell people all the time who are new to this business, you can’t like every prospect,” Blessing said. “If you like every player, why is anybody reading your stuff? For instance, there was a prospect in this year’s draft, everyone had him as a first round pick. I saw a second-to-fourth round pick.”
The player was selected early in the first round of this year's draft, but like with all his assessments, Blessing stands by his evaluation.
Listening to Blessing describe a baseball prospect will give you an idea of the minutiae involved in appraising baseball talent. How comfortable does a catcher look in his crouch? How smooth is a pitcher’s delivery through all the different points from his elbow to his hips? Does the player show signs of being coachable if he were placed in the right environment? How easily does a batter make contact, even if he isn’t getting hits?
Most of the games Blessing attends are in Rome and Chattanooga, and through his connections in the scouting world he’s developed an understanding of the culture of each organization in baseball. Baseball clubs are like any business, each with their own processes and procedures. Some clubs, like the Houston Astros, employ very few scouts, while others may employ dozens. Blessing also said some are better at developing talent than others.
“With the Atlanta Braves, I love how they work,” Blessing said. “The Atlanta Braves are very good at two things. They’re very good at scouting players to the strengths of their player development team. And number two, their player development team is fantastic about getting through to kids about making adjustments.
“Austin Riley has made several adjustments. With (starting pitcher) Mike Soroka, they moved his arm slot down just a little bit and all of a sudden he could throw that slider. They totally reworked (relief pitcher) Touki (Toussaint).”
Blessing said there’s a difference between drafting a talented player and drafting a player you know you can develop. For example, Blessing doesn't believe the Cincinnati Reds have a strong track record of developing starting pitchers. On the other hand, some organizations are much stronger at developing players.
“The Braves, the (Tampa Bay) Devil Rays, the organization I’m with right now (Indians), they identify their players very well,” Blessing said. “Some organizations don’t do that. They’ll draft a toolsy player, but do they have a history of developing players at that position?"
Blessing evaluated players for the Arizona Diamondbacks before becoming an associate scout with the Indians. The Indians assign a list of players to Blessing to evaluate throughout a season, and on his list are high school, college and minor league prospects in and around north Georgia and the southeast. If there has been an elite baseball prospect in this area over the past decade, Blessing has seem him play.
It seems fitting that Blessing is tasked to identify value at both his day job and with his hobby-turned-side job. Being able to turn a hobby into a job is an opportunity he said he never takes for granted.
“There’s so much beauty in baseball, there’s just so much going on,” Blessing said. “I get to do this part-time job and say I assist the Cleveland Indians, and hey maybe I find a player who they didn’t have already. To have that opportunity is pretty cool.
“I think a lot of people give up on their dreams to easily. The thing is, life can beat you down, but you can always find your joy. My joy is I get paid to write about baseball. I did this for free for years. It was a hobby and now its a business and I still get the same joy out of it.”