October 17, 2013
Dollar Sign on the Muscle Excerpt
Scouting Makeup in 2013
Baseball Prospectus is proud to be republishing an updated version of Kevin Kerrane's classic, in-depth look at the world of scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle, later this month. Before the reprint's release, we'll be running a few excerpts to give you a feel for the book. The passage of all-new material below explores the parallels between how baseball and football teams scout player makeup.
The scouts I met in 2013, just like scouts thirty years earlier, never got tired of talking about the importance of competitiveness, intelligence, courage, and sheer ambition: the qualities that, in Jim McLaughlin's famous chart, "cannot be seen with the eye." According to Jack Powell, an area scout for the Twins, "Tools get you noticed as a player. Tools may get you signed. But makeup is what gets you to the big leagues, and keeps you there."
Jack's own makeup was impressive. He was a cheerful investigator, relentlessly curious about all the players on his prospect list, and he liked to talk with their mothers, their girlfriends, and even their opponents to pick up clues to character and personality. He continued following the players into the fall—and now that the showcase circuit extended through October, he had given up what had once been a defining activity for him: refereeing Southeast Conference football games. When I talked with Jack in Syracuse, I was most impressed by this last detail. "You were a referee in the SEC? Man, that's just one step below pro football!" Jack and I stared at each other in silence for a few seconds, as if waiting to see who would be the first one to say: "It is pro football."
Late in the summer I decided to visit a real pro football evaluator, Eric DeCosta of the Baltimore Ravens. I first met Eric in 2006 when, as the Ravens' director of college scouting, he visited the University of Delaware to look at quarterback Joe Flacco. Now he was the assistant GM in Baltimore, heir apparent to Ozzie Newsome.
I traveled to the Ravens' headquarters with Eddie Epstein, the pioneer of pro scouting in baseball, who was also a serious student of NFL history. Eddie's book Dominance: The Best Seasons of Pro Football's Greatest Teams used standard-deviation analysis as a tool to compare records of excellence in different eras of the game. And now that he was out of the baseball business, Eddie freely admitted his preference for football. "Every play," he said, "is a swarm of action, with 22 people all moving at the same time. In baseball you have to wait for moments of action—and when they finally come, they involve just a few guys."
Eric DeCosta, on the other hand, enjoyed watching baseball games. He was originally from Massachusetts, and whenever he went back during summers he liked going to games in the Cape Cod League and sitting with the baseball scouts. He had been a catcher in high school, and still saw the field in his mind from that perspective. At one point he contrasted Joe Flacco to Colin Kaepernick, the opposing quarterback in the 2013 Super Bowl. "Joe throws a classic spiral and he can drop it in anywhere," Eric said. "But Colin has an entirely different arm angle, and he kind of slings the ball. In fact, he throws like a catcher!"
Eric showed us around the Ravens' modern office complex, nicknamed "The Castle," starting in the war room where draft strategy was formulated. Every wall had a magnetic board with players' names, and next to every name were number codes indicating medical and psychological ratings. Eric said that he used a special symbol to mark players who had been team captains. The Ravens were also trying to refine a durability index based on biomechanical studies, and in that effort they had reached out to several baseball organizations.
All the new scouting technology, Eric said, was great for evaluating tools and performance. Everything was digitized now (there was no film in The Castle), and during a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore he could watch seven games on his iPad while tagging individual plays for later scrutiny. But the real trick was identifying players with the right makeup: "About 70 percent of our energy is spent trying to find out what drives the player, what motivates him, what kind of intensity he has, his passion for the game, his football IQ, his off-the-field character, his family support, what kind of mentors he has, how he learns, what's important to him, whether he drinks or smokes or has any relatives in trouble."
Eric took a special liking to those who had overcome serious adversity—like Ravens' offensive tackle Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis's The Blind Side; or running back Bernard Pierce, who had been in reform school before playing football at Temple. "When I interviewed Bernard," Eric said, "I asked him what reform school had been like, and he said: 'I loved it! It was the first time I had structure in my life, and I knew what I was supposed to do, and I could do it. And when it was time to go back to regular school, I didn't want to leave.' And that was music to my ears, because here we're all about structure."
But baseball isn't all about structure, Eddie Epstein observed, because it's less of a team game in general, and more typically one-on-one. "It's about trained reflex and muscle memory," Eddie said, "instead of surges of emotion in the fourth quarter." Eric nodded, but he wanted to go beyond the emotion. Yes, the offensive or defensive unit on the football field had to be thinking and acting as one in a series of complicated bursts, but this wasn't so radically different from fielders on a baseball diamond executing a play in perfect harmony. (That was the insight, I thought, that linked the great teachers in the Cardinal tradition, from Rickey through Kissell.)
Eric suggested another example of overlap: "I thought Moneyball was a great book," he said, "and the one part that really stuck with me were the pages on Billy Beane's own playing career when he would dwell on his mistakes, like when he would strike out and then take that negativity out into the field with him, or into his next at-bat. Or Beane might let himself get intimidated by some hard-throwing pitcher, whereas a guy like Lenny Dykstra would look at the same pitcher and say: "I can't wait to hit against that son of a bitch!'" To illustrate the point, Eric showed us a test that the Ravens gave to all prospects. It was a more sophisticated version of the old Athletic Motivation Inventory, with true-false and multiple-choice sections. One true-false statement read: "I remember things that upset me or make me mad for a long time." That sentence, Eric said, was a capsule summary of young Billy Beane's mindset. And if a college defensive back circled True, it would be a huge red flag.
Some of the other questions asked the player to prioritize various values—as in Which of the following, in order of importance, do you need to play your best? Half a dozen choices followed, including a good game plan, a good night's sleep, and good weather. (Giving priority to weather would another red flag, especially for a team playing in the AFC North.) The test was a proprietary tool developed by the Ravens with the help of eminent psychologists. "We don't belong to a scouting combine," Eric said. "We're like those baseball teams that wanted to stay out of the Bureau, and we use that money to do independent scouting." Baltimore's staff was bigger than most (14 full-time scouts, all home-grown) with enough manpower to do in-depth interviews with every player who genuinely interested them, and to cultivate a network of "sources" on campuses and in hometowns. It was the kind of scouting that Jim McLaughlin had once trained his Oriole staff to do, and it was the way that some area scouts in 2013—like Jack Powell of the Twins—still tried to operate.
Eric was in his early forties, but looked younger. At Colby College, where he majored in English and Classics, he was a linebacker (and a captain) on the football team. "I was an over-achiever," he said, "a small, tough white kid. And I avoid players like me in my scouting because I want guys with a lot more natural ability. But I think right now that the market is undervaluing players from smaller schools. And I'm all about 'value'—like Billy Beane."
After our session with Eric, Eddie and I drove into Baltimore for a delicious lunch in Little Italy. Eddie wanted to talk about quantitative aspects of pro football, in relation to game strategies as well as scouting. (He asked me: "Which statistic do you think correlates more closely with winning—positive turnover differential, or yards per pass attempt?") I was more intrigued with the language of football evaluation. A few years earlier, I'd heard Eric DeCosta dismiss a college defensive player as an "ass slapper." What did that mean? Only that when the player appeared to be "in on" a tackle, he was always a little late, basically congratulating the guys doing the real work. I told Eric: "I know a few people like that, and they don't even play football."
On this day Eddie and I had learned a couple of other new terms. One was "orange eater"—referring to amateur players at a practice who, as soon as a break is whistled, rush to the tables on the sideline and start sucking on the orange slices, while the serious players are often just lying on the ground. ("The authentic guys don't want any fucking oranges," we were told.) And finally there was "face grading"—the football scout's evaluation of a prospect's athletic appearance and demeanor. "The Ravens probably do this more than most teams," Eric had said, and he compared such scouting to the way that trainers might judge a racehorse by his conformation and "the look in his eye," or the way that art experts might instinctively sense whether a work was genuine or fake.
"And so," I said to Eddie, "it turns out that pro football scouts—with their iPads and tests, and their number codes and sophisticated symbolism in the war room—believe in the good face!"