August 28, 2003
Can Of Corn
Normally, I try to avoid being baited by a hapless demagogue like Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, but this waste of trees/bandwidth was too much to abide.
You see, Griffin, in a column delightfully free of facts, is wringing hands over how "sabermetricians" are forcing traditional scouts to the margins of the industry or, in some instances, taking their jobs altogether. And Griffin's bang-spoon-on-highchair tone suggests statheads are also stealing the wives of scouts and rounding up "good baseball men" everywhere in internment camps.
Unfortunately, this sentiment is somewhat common these days. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi cut back on his scouting staff after taking over for Gord Ash, and Oakland GM Billy Beane--at least according to Moneyball author Michael Lewis and his license to dramatize--likes junk food, working out, screaming at Grady Fuson and ignoring his scouting staff. Then comes Theo Epstein in Boston and his subsequent hiring of Bill James. Ever since, Griffin and his ilk have been vociferously defending scouts and G.B.M. (Good Baseball Men) everywhere from a cabal of imaginary enemies. That is to say, the animus that Griffin is so damned sure stathead types have for scouts and other purveyors of traditional methods isn't really there. And it doesn't need to be.
I'm quite sure there are analysts out there with an irrational disdain for scouts, but they are what they are--repugnant outliers. The influx of analytical types into major league front offices is, to mix metaphors, more market correction than coup d'etat. Many organizations are realizing they've for too long depended upon only one source of knowledge. They're taking steps to end this over-reliance on scouting and gain a competitive advantage over those that aren't. If Toronto decided to cut bait on a few of its scouts, well, those are the kinds of decisions that blighted businesses must make. What it's not is a stinging declaration that scouts are of no value to the Ricciardi regime. On the afternoon of this year's amateur draft, I spoke with someone in the Toronto front office, and it was striking to hear how many times this person, who is highly analytical in his approach to the game, said of a certain draftee, "our scouts loved him."
What's peculiar is that Ricciardi and Beane, the two men on whom Griffin empties both barrels almost weekly, have the pedigree he seems to hold in such high esteem--both played pro ball, and both spent time as scouts. That both now realize the value of quantitative scouting apparently doesn't sit well with Griffin.
Is there a rivalry between scouts and statheads? Probably, but in most organizations, it's a healthy and productive one. The work of one most often complements and informs the work of the other. I personally have a tremendous amount of respect for the work that scouts do. One of the most engaging days of baseball I've had in a long time came earlier this year when I took in a University of Texas game with Padres cross-checker Jay Darnell. Good scouts are blessed with acuities I don't have, and they make valuable contributions I can't make. That doesn't mean their work can't be enhanced by sound statistical analysis.
Grumps like Griffin don't understand the concept of synergy. A question that's sometimes posed goes something like this: "Should you run an organization with scouts or statistics?" My answer is the same it would be if someone asked me: "Beer or tacos?" Both, you fool. Why construct an either-or scenario where none need exist? Heady organizations know they need as much good information as possible before they make critical decisions. Boston under Epstein, for example, is a veritable clearinghouse for disparate ideas and perspectives, and so far it's working just fine.
Griffin can go on writing like a man hopelessly out of ideas--confused about the past, uninformed about the future, trafficking in clichés and distortions, writing tepid hagiographies to the way things were. Baseball will go on without him. Scouts, statheads, warts and all.