Scout's Honor Coverage: Picollo Interview

Scout's Honor Coverage: Picollo Interview

Braves General Manager John Schuerholz often refers to scouts as the most important part of an organization. One of the best over the past several years for the Braves has been J.J. Picollo, who found such talent as Bubba Nelson, Kevin Barry, Aaron Herr, Billy McCarthy, and Dan Meyer. In the continuing coverage of his new book "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," Bill Shanks talks with Picollo about the finding talent and the Braves' scouting philosophies.

SHANKS: Who hired you? What were you doing?
PICOLLO: I was coaching in college at George Mason University. Roy Clark hired me. I had played for Dayton Moore at George Mason. Paul Faulk, our East Coast Supervisor, signed me when he was with the Yankees. He was coming on as crosschecker and we basically got hired at the same time. So that was the connection there with the Braves.

SHANKS: So you had played for Dayton?
PICOLLO: Assistant coach in 93 and 94. Dayton is fun to watch. He hasn't changed. He's an outstanding person. He's very motivated. He has high expectations. He won't let people fail. As a young person, they are the ones you need to surround yourself with. You need that support and that's what we have here. I think regardless of what he was going to be involved with he was going to be successful. Part of it is he's not content with what he's doing. He knows there's a better way to do things, no matter how well it's going right now. He's going to find those ways.

SHANKS: Tell me about when you first saw Bubba Nelson?
PICOLLO: I first saw him when he was about 16 years old pitching for a fall scout team. It was fun to watch him grow into what he was becoming at the time. I don't think we really knew at that point what he might become, but it became pretty clear when he became 18 and draftable that he was going to be pretty special.

SHANKS: Most guys are throwers, so when you find a pitcher you want to grab him, right?
PICOLLO: Yea. Kenny had the ability to kind of add and subtract off his fastball when he needed a strikeout. He wanted to use his fastball and that's when you saw his best velocity. When he was behind in the count he would be able to take something off. He just had that touch and feel you look for. He pitched beyond his years. A lot of kids at that age have the good fastball and they never spend time to maybe throw a breaking ball in a fastball count. We don't necessarily want to see that all the time, but it's good to know that a guy can do it and that's what Kenny did.

SHANKS: What all did Kenny throw in high school?
PICOLLO: At that time he had a fastball and in between a slider and a curve. It was a matter of trying figure out what he was going to have. At that time I thought it might be a slider down the road, but his arm slot was ok where he could throw a curveball. That's where his pitchability came in and his feel for pitching. He was messing with a change up, but he really didn't use it all that much. But his arm kind of dictated that he should be able to use all three pitches. Now I understand he's throwing both a curve and slider.

SHANKS: When you were scouting him, did you feel he'd be available to us?
PICOLLO: I knew that we liked him because of how he performed in front of the right people. The hard part in every draft is figuring out who else likes him. I think every kid expects to go really high. But I think Kenny was realistic in his goals. I think he also had in mind the organizations he would like to play for. I know we found out later we were one of them, and we were hoping that would be the case. It was really a matter of placing him. But I think where we had him slotted we felt we had a pretty good chance of getting him.

SHANKS: How did you feel when Bubba was traded?
PICOLLO: There's a level of disappointment just because you build up a relationship with them. You want to see them in the big leagues with the Braves. But there's a business side that you always understand. That's going to be part of it. You can kind of take some satisfaction out of the fact that he's helped the team, even if it was indirectly helping the team through a trade. That's kind of how I took it.

SHANKS: Who told you?
PICOLLO: Roy called me. He let me know that it was happening. Bubba was finding out right then. He was with Dayton.

SHANKS: Did you talk with Bubba?
PICOLLO: I called right after I found out but didn't get Bubba. I got Big Bubba. He handled it well. He had a lot of good things to say about the organization. It was good to hear him say those things. It was a little bittersweet for him. But it was a situation where we knew he would go in and make an impact right away with a new organization.

SHANKS: In 2000 you also had Aaron Herr.
PICOLLO: Aaron was a little bit different situation. He's the son of a former major leaguer, so he had the name that he kind of had to live up to, which is inherent in every big leaguer's son. He had gone out and performed in the East Coast Showcase in Wilmington, North Carolina and then he went out to the Area Code games. So he was a marked player going into the year that I was told we needed to stay on top of. We had a plan going into the draft and that he was certainly in the plans being a position player and a middle infielder. The tools were there. He would get on the mound and throw 90, 91. He had power. He had plus power raw power. He showed the ability to hit the ball the other way. Defensively, he played shortstop. Can he play short? If he can't he was a good enough athlete to move to second and he can play with his back to first base. We were trying to see if he could play short. The switch-hitting he had done as a jr., but as a sr. he decided not to and just hit right-handed. So that eliminated that for the time being. But he had the tools. We knew the tools were there. He's a fringy or average runner on our scale. So the physical tools were there.

SHANKS: How important was it that he had grown up in that baseball environment?
PICOLLO: They're not going to walk into spring training and see 100 players and say, "Am I better than him?" They expect to see good players. When we talk to other prospects I really try to emphasize to other prospects and almost try to draw up the worst-case scenario type of picture: "This is what it is. It's the Gulf Coast League. It's 100 degrees in the day. It's humidity. You're playing in front of 12 fans, some parents and maybe a girlfriend or two. Are you ready for it?"

SHANKS: What do you remember about draft day in 2000?
PICOLLO: It was my first draft. I had an idea with Aaron. It was a little tougher to figure out where Aaron was going to go and the other teams that were involved. I knew that we were looking at him in the sandwich round and we had two sandwich picks. But I knew there was a team (The Texas Rangers) picking in between those two sandwich picks also had an interest in Aaron. If we didn't pick Aaron with that first one, we might not get him. So I was a little anxious about that. So when I got the call, I was real excited. (He was not in Atlanta). I got the call and I was real excited since that's the first guy I've ever had as a scout. I had developed a pretty good relationship with Aaron so I was happy for him. I believed he wanted to be an Atlanta Brave, so it was fun to make that call. I no sooner hung up the phone with Aaron and I got the call about Bubba. I was real happy about that as well. Then it was kind of a blur. It was a flurry of phone calls. I had to call Roy and Dayton to find out what I had to do next. But it was an exciting day. I think I was more excited than they were.

SHANKS: That was pretty good for a first year scout?
PICOLLO: I was fortunate. I was very fortunate. Both of those guys played so well when my supervisors were in. It was fun. You hope that things like that happen. But really the way Roy designs it we have so many opinions on those guys where if they do play well, they're really in. Going to bed the night before I wouldn't have thought it was going to happen the next day getting both of those guys. So it was exciting.

SHANKS: What was the phone call like to Bubba?
PICOLLO: It was super. They were screaming through the phone. Bubba is funny. Big Bubba is funny. He said, "You just made me the happiest man. I couldn't be happier for my son. He's going to get a chance to play." Then he invited me over for shrimp and cocktails. I said, "I can't do that just yet. I have some other things to take care of. But I'll be over there before you know it." We got together the next day. We let that night go cause they were taken so early in the draft. We still had another five hours to go in the draft before I got a second call saying, "Hey this is what you do now." But they were funny. They were great. It was a great time.

SHANKS: When did you first see Dan Meyer?
PICOLLO: I saw him first in high school. He was a high school guy who didn't throw very hard and wasn't very big. Then through college I coached against him watching him grow to the point where he was becoming a prospect. Then I got into scouting. We followed him in college. Then we we're working with two plus pitches on a physical kid. He was 5'11" in high school and now he was a solid 6'3", 200 pounds. We knew at worst we had a kid with two plus pitches going into our system.

SHANKS: How important is that to have someone with two plus pitches and know he's going into our farm system?
PICOLLO: At his stage, being a college pitcher, very important. I think we surprised some people because our past history showed we weren't drafting college pitchers at that point.

SHANKS: And you don't want to deconstruct him too much do you?
PICOLLO: Yea. And that window…he signs as a 21-year-old and we'd like him in the big leagues by 24. With a high school kid, we're going to give them five or six years. We still look at that age bracket, so Dan just had to move quicker through the system. That's where the "now" stuff matters a little more with a college pitcher. But with Dan it all comes down to coachability. Dan is very coachable. He wants to learn and he listens to what everybody tells him. I think he's smart enough to apply the things he can and maybe dismiss the things he struggles to acquire without doing it in a bad way. That's an intelligence factor. He's as competitive as anybody you'll see. He doesn't like to lose. He doesn't like it all. That's the intangibles too. He's not a soft kid.

SHANKS: How much do you try to get close to these kids personally?
PICOLLO: It's real important. We do home visits with players. We administer eye tests and psychological tests. We do everything we can to get in their house and talk with them. We have phone conversations if we have to, after a game stick around and say hello. We want them to know who we are. There's a level of comfort that needs to be achieved before the draft and it really comes in to play. There are a lot of players we do that with that we never come close to drafting. When we go into that house to actually open up the signing process, they're going to feel a lot more comfortable with you having met you before and spending some time with you. So it's very important. There's a difference with the high school and the college kids. With Aaron and Kenny, you wanted to get to know their parents well. With college guys, you very rarely get to meet their parents because they may be at the games and they may not. Dan's dad was very protective of Dan. He didn't want people interfering with his season. I was able to meet with him in the fall going into his junior year. Their coaching staff was great as far as answering some questions for me. But at the end, Dan didn't have an advisor or an agent so I was talking with his dad. His dad just asked me, "If you don't mind, if you can talk to me instead of Dan. He still has games to play." You can tell the apple's not going to fall far from the tree. The father was focused, so you knew the boy was going to be focused. I had been around Dan a little bit in the fall and knew what kind of kid he was. He wanted to go out and play. He really wanted the opportunity. He's another one…his dad wanted the Braves. When we were talking to him he said, "I want my son in the Braves organization."

SHANKS: Do you find that when you talk to pitchers and to pitchers families there is a little more interest there?
PICOLLO: There is. We get that. I think a lot of organizations do a great job with their pitching. We fortunately have had the success in the big league level and the end result was wins in the major leagues. So we get a little bit more credit. Sometimes when I'm talking to a position player I'll have to point out our position players because we've done a tremendous job bringing up position players as well. We have to spend a little more time explaining that, "Hey we have a process here that works for position players as well as pitchers." I've come to realize as almost an outside observer the answer to the question. Why does this work? It's the stability in our big league club. We've got a winning tradition there. We've got a General Manager that trusts his player development staff, and a player development staff with coaches that have been here for a long time. They've seen Glavine and Smoltz come through and they can talk to you about them. They'll tell you where they were at that point. That just makes the players more comfortable.

SHANKS: That must make you feel good as a scout knowing that the coaches you hand your kids over to know what they are doing.
PICOLLO: It does and it's very comforting to the families. I know when I go to talk to them that I believe in what I'm telling them. I'm not trying to sell something that's never been sold before. This has worked. You've just got to trust the process. If you can get the parents to trust the process, the kids will as well. College kids are mostly mature. They've been through a program and they understand. But the parents are the ones with the young kids that need to hear it because they're sending them away. It's hard for them to do. But they know they're in good hands with us and they're more likely to say, "Yea I'm ready to go." They've to want to do it. I'm not going to try to talk them into anything, but if they know the system works, and they believe in it, it's an easier sell.

SHANKS: When you're a scout, I've heard so much about how Paul and then Roy trusts their scouts. How much easier knowing that if your kid doesn't do well one time, it doesn't rule them out?
PICOLLO: 2000 being the first year the area I worked in was probably as good as has been in a while. I got a chance to spend a lot of time with Paul, Hep Cronin, Dayton, Paul Faulk, and Tony LaCava was with us at that point. So I was just trying to take in as much as possible and learn from them. Now having a couple of guys that have done well, I realize what they're looking for and since then a few guys have come along. This is my 5th year now so I think they trust me. But they allow that to happen.

SHANKS: That Braves way, not only the type of players you are looking for but also the way you go about it is special.
PICOLLO: Absolutely. Paul Snyder has been doing this for how many years? He's here all morning. He watches one of our minor league games. Then he goes to a high school game at night. He loves it. That's what he's done every spring training. When you look at him as a young scout, you know that's the work ethic the Braves want. That's what we have to do if we're going to survive and this organization is going to keep winning. On top of it all, we have tremendous people. They have great people skills. They trust whom they hire. They allow you to fail a little bit, but they're not going to allow you to fail many times. They're going to correct you before it becomes a problem. So they're tremendous teaches and mentors. Roy talks about when he was coming through learning from Paul. So I try to get around these guys as much as I can and learn as much as I can because they've seen it all. Sometimes as a young scout you're trying to look ahead and wonder where I belong in this game. But they go through the grind everyday. So there is a certain way that we're expected to do things. It's fun. It's the right way.

SHANKS: And once an organization finds talent in a certain area, they still with it, right?
PICOLLO: It seems to have worked out that way. What's helped is that Roy's worked Virginia, Paul Snyder is originally from Pennsylvania, and Tim Conroy works in Pennsylvania. I grew up in that area. We have a recognition and an acceptance that guys are going to come on as the season goes. You may not be able to make your final decision early in the year. Down here on March 20th kids in Florida are peaking while up there they've barely played. The draft is getting closer each day. They have an appreciation that you've got to stay on these guys and give them time to develop. Timing is key. We may not see what we think a guy can do, but if you have a gut feeling about a guy you've got to stay on him and be there when it does happen.

SHANKS: Do you think that you and Roy and Dayton feel the pressure of trying to keep this run of success going?
PICOLLO: The complexion of the major league team is changing. We realize that the 2000 draft is coming into play here. On there heels, we have to keep having good drafts, and if we don't, then it's on our shoulders whether it's going to be a success or not. When you go to work everyday, you have to have that in the back of your mind somewhere. It's not a pressure, but a challenge. But the groundwork has been laid. If we follow the blueprint that's been in place here for a number of years then it just should continue. But it's a challenge. There are expectations and there should be.

SHANKS: The public would probably assume that after Smoltz is gone, we should be done. But the key is to keep it going.
PICOLLO: We have to supplant some of those guys with homegrown talent because that's how it was done in the first place. So we've got to repeat the process. Now you say you can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. We've got to have people coming out of this side of the complex to get over there and to allow that team to win. A few years ago when I was hired people said, "Well when is it going to happen?" Well now we see it happening. It's now. It really is. Hopefully they'll go out and do the things they've always done and that's to win.

Picollo was named Assistant Director of Player Development in September of 2004.

SHANKS: Tell me about your new job. How did it happen?
PICOLLO: Dayton called and talked about some things that were happening and some things he'd like to see happen. He asked if I'd be interested in switching to player development and if I had an interest in player development. And I did, I always have. He told me I'd have to move to Atlanta and wondered if I'd be willing to move to Atlanta. It's a challenge. It's a whole different perspective now. It's kind of tough to cut ties with the scouting. Obviously, they work together but are two separate departments. But it's a kind of unchartered waters for me. I've got to learn a lot now. I'm surrounded by a lot of good people, which makes it a lot easier.

SHANKS: So you had thought about making the move to player development at some point?
PICOLLO: Well in thinking about your career and wondering what that is about and what this is about. When I would do my pro coverage in the summers, it was interesting watching how other organizations work. Then I was down in spring training this spring and watched how we do things and comparing them. So there was just kind of a natural interest there. By no means did I expect anything like that to happen.

SHANKS: You and Dayton go back a ways, so he must have felt comfortable with you to bring you up here?
PICOLLO: Yea Dayton and I more recently have had more of a professional relationship than a friendship. I played for him. I know him but he's so involved with everything that we do that it's hard to keep up with our personal relationship. It's been more on a professional relationship recently. It's been outstanding. If you have any questions, you can certainly call him and talk with him about it.

SHANKS: What are the things you have to learn? Do you have to learn about working with Dayton?
PICOLLO: Yea how he works and how he wants things done. The pace certainly has picked up. It's a different kind of pace. In scouting, you can lay it out and know where you're going to be but here you don't know what's going to happen day-to-day or hour-to-hour with injuries in a minor league system. There are some differences. Sitting in an office as opposed to being in the car is an adjustment. I'll probably be out for two weeks (in the field) and in for two weeks. Getting to know our players will be the biggest challenge. I know how they are, but I want to know what makes them tick and know their background. I want to get to know the players as well as I can.

SHANKS: You guys want to get to know the players as much as possible, don't you?
PICOLLO: Oh yea. Yea. Ultimately, we believe every guy in our system has a chance to play in the big leagues. However we can facilitate their actions and getting them to the big leagues is our job. That's an important part of it. It's important to know why a guy may be going through a slump. It might not be baseball-related, it might be off the field. It might be something at home or a family situation. It's our job to know when those things are happening so we can make better assessments. I'm trying to spend some time with our rovers and our coordinators. I want to know what they look for and how they like to see things run along with learning the day-to-day operations of the office here and making sure I follow protocol. I'm doing more listening now than anything and when called upon, hopefully I'll have an answer for someone. I'm just taking it day-by-day and challenge-by-challenge.


Bill Shanks's book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," is now on bookshelves all over the country. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com

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