'Balance' is important to Astros' MLB Draft philosophy under Cam Pendino, Deric Ladnier

HOUSTON — “Blend” is one of Dana Brown’s buzzwords. Its usage is an attempt to settle the scouts versus stats debate while soothing those who presume the Houston Astros have strayed from their analytical lean.

That most of Brown’s outside hires as a general manager boast extensive scouting backgrounds could lend credence to those claims, but Brown has projected balance since arriving in Houston last season. He spent most of his previous baseball life as a scouting director, so Brown’s hiring preferences should surprise no one.

Brown’s biggest coup came in November, when he lured Deric Ladnier from the Arizona Diamondbacks to reimagine the Astros’ amateur scouting infrastructure. Ladnier received the title of senior director of amateur scouting and, as a first order of business, handed over the department’s day-to-day operations to Cam Pendino, a 28-year-old scouting analyst.

“I roll my eyes when teams say, ‘It’s a balance here.’ I roll my eyes because that just means you’re not really objectively anchored in leveraging predictive information. I think we actually truly embody that here,” Pendino said this week.

“I do think at the end of the day, information is driving the process, but I reject the analytics versus scouts, black and white debate. I don’t think that’s what happens here. We have a pretty tried and true process, weigh all the pieces of information and these are baseball decisions. We’re going to use our baseball intuition to make the best possible decision, but that is heavily informed and rooted in data.”

Nothing may reinforce Brown’s pursuit of balance more than pairing Pendino and Ladnier. Thirty-one years separate them in age and thousands of games in experience. Pendino honed his skills by contributing to data-driven scouting reports while studying Houston’s draft model under some of the people who developed it. Ladnier took a more traditional route.

“My brain just watches a guy and I kind of go, ‘I like this guy.’ And then I try to figure out why I like this guy and then rely on the data to basically support it or go, ‘Maybe you’re a little high on this guy,’” Ladnier said.

“I’m smart enough to know that sometimes you just get caught up in the moment and then somebody has to tone you down. Those are the type of things that I’ve been learning with this organization, especially probably more so from a pitching perspective, because they do a lot of deep diving into the numbers.”

Ladnier played baseball at Ole Miss before spending seven seasons in the minor leagues. After one season on the Washington and Lee baseball team, Pendino transferred to Boston College, where he wrote advance reports and did video work for the Eagles. The Astros gave Pendino his first full-time baseball job in 2019 as a scouting analyst.

Six years later, Pendino now will oversee a crucial draft for a franchise in need of a more fertile farm system. Before the season, both MLB Pipeline and The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked Houston’s system 27th of 30 clubs. Baseball America had it 29th. Outfielder Jacob Melton remains the team’s only consensus top-100 prospect.

Houston has $5,914,700 with which to sign its draft picks, the sport’s smallest bonus pool. The Astros also forfeited their second pick by signing closer Josh Hader this winter, meaning 73 picks will pass between Houston’s first selection at No. 28 on Sunday and its next choice at No. 101 on Monday.

“I’ve been in every situation where you have the most money in it and where you don’t have any money. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum,” Ladnier said. “I think what’s important is to keep everybody’s eyes on drafting big league players. It may be an up-and-down guy. It might be a guy that’s a role player, whatever. But just trying to find talent for the major league club or talent that we can build some depth in this organization.”

During stints in Arizona and Kansas City, Ladnier oversaw drafts that produced Zack Greinke, Corbin Carroll, Eric Hosmer and, in a serendipitous twist of fate, Dansby Swanson. Arizona selected Swanson ahead of Astros star Alex Bregman with the first pick in the 2015 draft. Bregman still wears No. 2 in part because of his draft position.

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Alex Bregman has been a star for the Astros. (Tim Warner / Getty Images)

If Ladnier’s longevity has produced any ego, it never shows. Upon his hiring, Ladnier said he told Pendino, “This is your department,” and gave him the freedom to run it as he saw fit. Ladnier had a similar setup in Arizona, where Ian Rebhan worked under him to coordinate many of the department’s day-to-day operations. Rebhan is now the Diamondbacks’ director of amateur scouting — the same title Pendino now owns.

Pendino’s endless energy is infectious and is something both Brown and Ladnier have lauded throughout the season.

Ladnier remained based in Florida for most of the amateur cycle, meaning Pendino organized responsibilities for the Astros’ army of area scouts and cross-checkers. He sent Ladnier a schedule every Sunday of what players or matchups he wanted Ladnier to see.

“I don’t want to pigeonhole him into, ‘He’s the data guy. He’s the analyst.’ I think he’s got tremendous leadership ability,” Ladnier said. “I think he has an eye for talent and is a tremendous listener. He works harder than any human being I’ve ever been around in my entire life. His ability to multi-task is as good as I’ve been around.”

Pendino is a rare constant in an organization prone to overhaul. He’s worked under three general managers and two scouting directors, including Kris Gross, whose departure to the New York Mets this winter precipitated this restructuring. In addition to Ladnier, Brown also hired former Washington Nationals farm director De Jon Watson as a special assignment scout.

Before Gross left, the Astros already planned to promote Pendino to director of player evaluation. Though Pendino said he interviewed with Brown, taking the title of scouting director “kind of just happened.”

When it did, Brown and Ladnier had one point of emphasis: getting Pendino more in-person scouting experience. He took 37 flights and stayed 80 nights on the road during the amateur cycle, not only to expand his purview but also to understand the grind Houston’s area scouts and cross-checkers live on a daily basis.

“You cannot do this job — evaluating — without being at the ballpark,” Pendino said. “I also have my own core evaluation processes, but being able to have a richer understanding of the physicality of certain players, mound presence for a pitcher, actions for position players. That’s been the biggest thing that I’ve picked up and it’s been crucial for me.

“The data side of the Astros’ amateur scouting process is very well-known and documented, but I think the core members of our scouting group and our area scouts are the lifeblood of what we do. I don’t think that’s changed.”

The Astros’ presence in ballparks has increased since 2021, when former general manager James Click expanded the team’s amateur scouting staff. Pendino said this amateur season mirrored the two that preceded it in terms of in-person scouting.

Few other similarities exist. Click is gone and so is Gross, allowing Brown — a man who made his career across three decades of drafting elsewhere — to deploy the balanced vision he always preaches.

“Our scouting evaluations are really crucial information driving the process, but all these other information sources that we leverage to make decisions are really important,” Pendino said.

“Dana has a phrase he ‘likes to weigh all the evidence’ and I think putting someone like myself in charge of the scouting department — it’s an honor, but my job is to help distill information from whatever source it comes from to help the Astros make the best decision on draft day.”

(Top photo of Dana Brown in spring training: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

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