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January 9, 2014
What Percentage of Scouts Played Pro Ball?
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At some point, you may have wondered (as I have) what percentage of scouts played professionally, and what percentage played in the big leagues. The information is out there, so I decided to do some digging.
First, a few notes on the study: I looked at each team’s amateur scouting staff from the 2013 season. While I know there have been some changes since then, that was the most recent listing I had, thanks to the Baseball America 2013 Directory. That gave me 705 total scouts. I searched for each scout’s name on Baseball-Reference.com and didn’t give a scout credit for playing professionally if their only experience was in the independent leagues.
At first I was skeptical about how comprehensive Baseball-Reference’s minor league data was, but I checked with Sean Forman, who asked Ted Turocy, and this is what he said:
Published league averages started containing all players from about 1965 onwards. Before that, it depends on the league and year you're talking about; some published all players, some completely omitted less-thans below some threshold of activity. Generally, more recent years are probably more complete than older ones and higher-level leagues more complete than lower ones, but there are probably hundreds of exceptions to that pattern.
Could there still be errors in my data? It wouldn’t surprise me. The minor leagues are vast, and data collection for those leagues hasn’t always been the greatest. Perhaps a couple guys slipped through the cracks, or maybe I missed counting a guy because his first name at Baseball-Reference is different from what he actually goes by. Either way, it wouldn’t impact the overall percentages too greatly. But if the minor league data is complete from 1965 onward, then realistically everyone aged 65 and younger would be covered.
Let’s take a look at the results.
Of the 705 scouts, 368 (52.2 percent) have professional experience.
Honestly, that’s lower than I expected. I thought the number would be closer to two-thirds, or even 70 percent.
Of those 368, 71 made it to the big leagues. So, about 10 percent of all scouts have big league experience of some kind. And that makes sense because, first of all, it's extremely difficult to get to the big leagues. Secondly, playing in the big leagues is lucrative, and if a guy has any success there, taking a low-paying scouting position and being away from his family even more probably doesn’t rank too highly on his retirement wish list.
What about the current set of 30 scouting directors? A little more than half of them (18) played professionally to varying degrees, though the Diamondbacks’ Ray Montgomery and the Orioles' Gary Rajsich are the only ones with big league playing experience.
Here is a breakdown of each team’s 2013 amateur scouting staff, sorted by percentage from highest to lowest:
Of the 368 scouts with professional playing experience, 130 of them (35 percent) were pitchers. In other words, probably a tick less than you would expect given current lineup construction.
Scouts who played professionally certainly have some advantages. When you’re looking for professional players, there’s no doubt that it helps to have been there and done that. They’ve been around the professional game longer. They’ve seen, first-hand, what it takes to succeed and what doesn’t work. They know how prominently makeup factors into the equation. They’ve been on those fields, in those clubhouses, on those long bus rides and in the crappy hotels. When they’re in a player’s home, they can talk about all those experiences and assure parents that their son is going to be okay. Because of that, they also likely have more contacts within the game.
On the flip side, those who didn’t have the fortune of playing professionally probably at least played in college, and many coached at the college level before getting into scouting. Others grew up around the game because their fathers were involved somehow. So, while they can’t talk about what it’s like to have played professionally, they have still likely been around a lot of players who have gone on to play at the next level.
Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous is one of those without professional playing experience. I talked to him about it last spring:
“You know, I think the advantage of playing professional baseball immediately gives you more contacts within the professional game,” Tanous said. “When you’ve not played professional baseball, you have to work on getting those contacts a little bit more. But, as far as playing professionally, or how good of a player you were, I’m not sure that has much to do with evaluating. Otherwise, the best players in the game would be the best scouts, and that’s certainly not true. But I do think it has advantages. As an area scout, going into a home, and parents and players asking you, ‘What is it like to play pro ball?’ I think you have some first-hand knowledge there and it adds a little validity to what you’re trying to tell the player about professional baseball. As far as not playing professional baseball, because I was recruiting, I always felt comfortable going into a home and describing what our organization was about. I think that was an advantage of being a college coach.”
Everyone’s experiences are unique, and different backgrounds can have their own pros and cons. You don’t need to have a criminal background to be a good detective. You don’t have to be a master chef to know what good food tastes like. Evaluating players is the separator. If you can accurately evaluate players, judge talent, and find diamonds in the rough, it doesn’t matter if you never even played in college. If you played in the big leagues, you may get a longer leash, but you’re not going to last long if you can’t get out there and find players for your organization.
One of my favorite pieces I did during my time at Baseball America was called "Scouts on Scouting," where I interviewed many scouts about the ins and outs of their job. I asked scouts about what they considered the five tools of scouting, and evaluation was always one of the first things they mentioned.
"I would say number one, first and foremost, is evaluation skills. You can be organized, you can look nice, you can wear nice clothes, you can be professional and all that crap—and it's not crap, it's part of the game. You can run around like a crazy man and put 80,000 miles a year on your car—you can do all that, but the bottom line is, you've got to know what the hell you're looking at."
It all comes down to judging talent, regardless of your background. Just look at some examples from other industries. In football, just three of the 32 teams have directors of college scouting who played in the NFL—Eric Stokes with the Buccaneers, Scott Campbell with the Redskins, and Scott Studwell with the Vikings.
Most of the famous music executives didn’t have successful careers as musicians. That’s true for John Hammond, a talent scout with Columbia Records, who is credited with discovering and/or signing Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holliday, Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
Lorne Michaels wasn’t a famous comedian, but as the creator of Saturday Night Live he has put his stamp of approval on a huge percentage of the people responsible for laughs you’ve likely enjoyed over the years.
Scouting works the same way.