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July 10, 2014

Painting the Black

Book Review: The Art of Scouting

by R.J. Anderson

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The Art of Scouting, a new book written by Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger, was released last week. The title belies the content to some degree, since what follows is not a scouting manual (though there is a chapter that covers the basics, like the 20-80 scale). Instead the Art in question refers to long-time scout Art Stewart, whose seven decades in the game are covered in memoir form.

Reviewing The Art of Scouting is a tough assignment. It delivers on its promise by chronicling Stewart's life—focusing heavily on his career with the Yankees and Royals, of course, but also finding time to spend two chapters on his wives—and Mellinger makes no attempt to steal the show with dazzling prose; this is a book about a baseball man and the game he loves, and he realizes it. So should we. That means, rather than approach the book with a critical eye, we ought to review some of the many takeaways.

The Royals have almost signed a lot of good players
What-if scenarios are a genre staple, and Stewart offers plenty of them throughout the book. A cynic might wonder whether Stewart is sharing these stories about the Royals and Derek Jeter and Roberto Alomar in the name of self interest. That does not appear to be the main motivation, however, and the book features instances where Stewart cops to mistakes. For instance: the Royals were convinced Roy Branch would become the next Bob Gibson when they took him fifth in the 1971 draft. Truth is, Branch would never appear in a big-league game for Kansas City.

The best of these could-have-should-haves focuses on a scout named Herb Rayborn. Rayborn teased Stewart about two kids he had "hidden in the bushes" down in Panama. Yet because the kids were not yet of age, the Royals needed to wait before adding them to the system. There was just one catch: Rayborn's contract expired before Kansas City inked the kids. The Royals wanted to keep Rayborn with the org, but the Yankees offered him a $5,000 raise. When Kansas City failed to match, Rayborn and his two Panamanian prospects headed to New York. Their names? Ramiro Mendoza and Mariano Rivera.

The James Shields trade is still defended
While most of the book is focused on past players and transactions, Stewart finds space to gush about Salvador Perez and shed light on one of the Royals' most polarizing deals: the James Shields trade.

You might expect Stewart to sidestep the move, but he doesn't. He offers a fair assessment of Wil Myers, even acknowledging that he was a better player than Jeff Francoeur, before explaining why K.C. made the trade."You hate to give up talent from your own system, but that's the only way you're going to get something in return," he reasons. "You can't wait until everything's in place. Like one of our scouts likes to say, that's like waiting until you're financially set before having kids. Good luck."

Stewart is effusive in his praise for Shields' leadership abilities, and concludes: "We were building something here, and we owed it to the guys in that clubhouse and to ourselves to be aggressive."

Whether you agree with Stewart and the Royals on all the points are not, they aren't apologizing fore the trade.

Scott Boras is tricky
Even though everyone recognizes Boras as a skilled negotiator, we know little about his methods. Sure he's good for binders, quips, and the occasional holdout, but most of his work is done behind closed doors, with people who have no reason to dish on his secrets. Stewart offers rare insight into one of Boras' strategies during a story about Johnny Damon's amateur negotiations. The trick? Not countering a contract offer. It seems to go against the negotiating grain, yet it makes sense; if the team doesn't know what the magic number is, then they might bid above it. Of course there are some caveats—the team has to find the player desirable enough to play along, etc.—but you wonder how often Boras has used that card to his gain.

George Brett's memorable reaction
Another genre staple is talking about a great player before he was great. Given Stewart's job, it's no surprise the book features many of these stories. The one that stands out concerns George Brett.

Stewart includes a scouting report that pegs Brett as a good, not great prospect who won't stick at shortstop and needs help with his hitting mechanics. (An almost identical report is viewable here.) Stewart again passes on the self-high-five, opting instead to credit Brett's hard work and dedication to getting better. He goes on to praise Brett in about every way imaginable. It's all touching. None of it can size up to how Brett reacted to his drafting, which according to Stewart, went like this: "Where the hell is Kansas City? And who the hell are the Kansas City Royals?"

Stewart embraces the present
Perhaps the most impressive aspect to the book is Stewart himself. Although his experience could entitle him to ignoring the latest developments in the sport, he shows an impressive grasp of current events. Stewart explains why teams like the Royals have to lock their youngsters up early, nods towards the Rays as a team that has revolutionized the shift, and seems well-informed about all the technological advances enabling players and executives to make improved decisions. In short, Stewart is anything but the stereotypical old scout, even if he has every right to be.

If any of this or stories about Lou Brock, Buck O'Neil, and the Royals Baseball Academy sounds interesting, then consider giving The Art of Scouting a purchase.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Kansas City Royals

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