How far off the radar was Trey Mancini when it came time for a major league team to turn him into a professional four Junes ago? Ask the scout who, in a brief meeting with Mancini, asked him how many innings he'd thrown that year at Notre Dame.
"Zero," Mancini told him. "I'm a first baseman."
Flustered, the man asked a few more courtesy questions and then left.
Mancini can laugh about it now. But it's hard to blame anyone for passing on the first baseman only the Orioles wanted, and who is evolving this year into an everyday player.
In a baseball world where amateur talent and minor leaguers are evaluated based on their upside with a premium on athleticism, a right-handed-hitting first baseman isn't the most attractive of prospects. No one inside the game believes they can do it until they do it in the big leagues, and even then skepticism persists.
Mancini, 25, has spent four years combating that, and is prepared to do so as long as he needs to beat away the stigmas of his archetype.
"You can pretty much know from the second you're drafted," Mancini said. "Eighth round, first baseman — you're going to have to hit. I knew that at the time, and I probably wasn't going to make the majors being a great defender and not being able to hit."
Everyone else who saw a player like him knew the same, and that's the problem, illustrating not only how hard player evaluation and development is but how unique a case like Mancini's has become.
The only reason he was so firmly on the Orioles' radar for the 2013 draft was that Kirk Fredriksson, now an Orioles scout, was the general manager of the Holyoke Blue Sox in the New England Collegiate Baseball League and had Mancini on his team in 2011. Fredriksson was hired by the Orioles the following season, and stayed in contact with Mancini the following two years to let him know the Orioles were legitimate suitors in that draft.
Not many other teams saw much in Mancini. Despite sharing the field with first-round pick Eric Jagielo, scouts didn't see much from Mancini that stood out.
But Fredriksson wasn't parachuting in to form an opinion — he knew from a whole summer.
"Kirk is a natural judge of talent, and he hustles," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "That summer, he got to know him, and he got to know what his skills were. ... Kirk deserves all the credit for the club drafting Trey, because even in spring training, Notre Dame came down and they worked out our ballpark over at the minor leagues. All the scouts were over there driving down on Jagielo, the third baseman who went a lot higher in the draft. Kirk said, 'The guy you've got to look at is Mancini.'"
Mancini acknowledges he had a poor start to his junior season — the most important for college players — and knows it might have been enough to turn scouts off to him. That he ended the year batting .389 with a 1.034 OPS and seven home runs didn't matter. Scouts focused on the holes in his swing and just how hard it is for a player whose defensive future was, at that point, first base only, to hit enough to be an impactful major leaguer.
John Manuel, editor-in-chief at Baseball America, has spent long enough overseeing both draft coverage and minor league evaluations to know how the deck was stacked against Mancini early on.
"It's amazing to me the symmetry with Mancini being an eighth-round pick — that's where the Diamondbacks got Paul Goldschmidt, and they have a few things in common," Manuel said. "They're college players, and they're both bat-right/throw-right and played first base in college. So often, those guys are just perceived to be stiff and not athletic enough.
"I just think scouts — there might be 100 players like that, and they just assume that all of them are stiff. And that stiffness, that rigidity to their swing, their stance, their hands, the way they develop and produce power — I think that most scouts believe those guys have too much stiffness to hit big league breaking stuff, right-on-right sliders. Like Crash Davis said, they throw exploding breaking stuff in the big leagues. That's what they think those guys can't hit. So those guys being exceptions, most of them, they're right about."
Mancini certainly fit that profile, but rival scouts who have tracked his progress since the 2013 draft saw indicators early that he didn't fit that model. Whether it was his draft year in Short-A ball at Aberdeen or his first full season in 2014 with Low-A Delmarva, there was something more than an organizational first baseman there. He always got the run in. He always saw the ball well.
He was never the most fluid in the field, and that could play into the negative stereotype. Every scout acknowledged that his swing could get a little long, too, which created holes for pitchers to exploit and would have made him susceptible to falling short like so many of his ilk.
But his ability to cut down and produce, even at those low levels, showed a smart hitter. So did the fact that he shortened his swing in their view, lessening the holes and bringing more useful power into games. By the time Mancini started hitting in High-A Frederick in the first half of 2015, he was on the radar.
Still, the threshold for producing at first base is so high that it took him doing it so far in the majors for the believers to emerge.
Now, reports are being revised from a potential platoon bat to a player with a chance to stay as a regular.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said there's little reason to doubt Mancini could carry it forward, if only because there's no level you can look back at and say he hasn't hit there.
"He's one of those rare guys that has, I don't want to say mastered, but he doesn't have to look behind him at a level," Showalter said. "I challenge you to find anybody on the field that we play that has shown that he can hit at that level in the New York-Penn League [at Aberdeen], Delmarva, Frederick, Double-A [Bowie], Triple-A [Norfolk].
"It doesn't happen anymore in our game. They come too fast. I think a lot of it is because of the position he plays, and that used to be the blueprint of how you develop players, so when they came up here they had a foundation."
Another scout who tracked Mancini since Double-A said he believes that foundation at the plate is based in his approach. Much of Mancini's success in the majors has come with, as Showalter calls it, the lack of ego in being willing to go the opposite way into right-center field. Mancini has done that at every level, and has developed all-field power without having to cheapen his approach to drive balls.
His background going the other way with pitches on the outer half allowed him to stay on time and drive both fastballs and off-speed pitches consistently.
At the major league level, at least for his first 155 plate appearances, that has meant success — 10 home runs and a .919 OPS over parts of two seasons, with the requisite defensive aptitude at his adopted position in left field to hand him 20 starts in 27 games in May.
That's another thing that proved serendipitous about Fredriksson's recommendation — he was the one who recommended the team try Mancini in left field, as he did for his summer team in 2011.
Duquette subscribes to an old adage: "If you can hit, you can hit."
Mancini, he said, can hit. That's all anyone has asked him to do in these past four years.
"That's the message that's portrayed to you, and I never doubted that for a second, and that's what happened," Mancini said. "I looked up and ended up making the team out of spring training, which wasn't really expected last year or a couple years ago. I knew it wasn't out of the realm of possibility, too."