August 6, 2014
In The Game
How I Learned to Scout
A long time ago, my father told me, “Son, be the dumbest guy in the room, maybe you’ll learn something.” That message has always stuck with me, and I try to apply it to baseball as often as possible. Whether I’m sitting next to scouts at a minor-league game, or working with the rest of the prospect team here at Baseball Prospectus, I’m always learning and adapting.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been an evaluator on the prospect team since Jason Parks brought me aboard last winter. A lot had to happen for me to get to that point, and I thought I’d share how I got here, how I view the game, and how that has evolved as I have learned the trade.
In my playing days, I was lucky enough to learn from two of the smartest minds in the game: Ken Howell, assistant pitching coach for the Dodgers; and Bruce Fields, minor-league hitting coordinator for the Tigers (and former hitting coach for the Indians and Tigers). Through hours of repetition, they helped hone my understanding of the mechanics of the game. More importantly, they told me about the ballplayers who had success at the highest level, and how they went about their business. I got to play with and against the best talent Michigan had to offer at the time, including Daniel Fields and D.J. Lemahieu, and I participated in the Perfect Game circuit, giving me a look at the best talent in the country. In that formative time, it was really important to see what “it” looks like—you know, future big leaguers. How players carry themselves, the aura that hangs around them, and the look of a player whose skills jump off the field—recognizing those features became a vital skill I still use today while evaluating minor-league games.
After high school, I wound up at Indiana University, competing for the chance to make the squad as a preferred walk on after turning down offers from small D1 and a few D2 schools. While I was never as highly regarded as my counterparts, I did boast an 85-88 mph fastball, a fringy slider, and inconsistent changeup. I had an arm wrap, inverted W, shoulder subluxation, a stiff landing leg, and basically any other problems you can dream up. Long story short, I tore a muscle in my back, near the shoulder blade—from there, I used my shoulder to compensate, and my labrum gave up. I had surgery, but never made it all the way back, and never got the chance to be a part of the team.
It was jarring to see my career in baseball end. Once I stopped playing, writing and evaluating were all I wanted to do. I had always been into statistical analysis, but now I wanted to understand how the game worked at a deeper level than just a bunch of random events on the field. I re-read Moneyball, and spent three hours a day researching advanced stats, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It was one thing to see a guy performing on the field, but I wanted to know why, and to truly understand why takes a combination of player evaluation skills and statistical knowledge. Once again, I’m the dumbest guy in the room; trying to read up on Bill James, The Baseball Economist, statistical glossaries, whatever I could get my hands on. While I didn’t (and still don’t) agree with everything out there in the statistical community, it enhances the viewing experience, and in the right hands, helps predict outcomes.
With that newfound statistical knowledge, I started going to minor-league games, especially those of the Tigers affiliates. I wrote down what I saw at local website and on message boards, but the product was crude and required refinement for me to make it in the vast prospect jungle. I tended to make snap judgments, or try to make evaluations in short order without a large enough sample. I needed feedback—I still do, still crave it to this day. One way to test myself was to watch a game—especially for a team I didn’t know that well—without looking at any stats in advance. Just the players’ ages. Then, after the game, I’d try to predict what kind of stats each player had, to see how close I was. Frankly, it was difficult to get close—at that level, the stats are wonky. But mixing statistical analysis and on-the-field evaluation is how many of the brightest minds try to predict the future.
An underrated stage of the journey from former player to amateur talent evaluator has been constant dialogue with actual scouts—which I’m not, by the way—about how they view the game. Not everyone looks for the same things in batting practice or in a pitcher's warmup throws. Organizations have diverging opinions on how they look at talent—the Tigers fall for big, right handed pitchers, or the Rangers chase toolsy up-the-middle players, and so on. Some teams value particular skills or analytics over another, and that also varies from scout to scout, too. Not every scout falls in line with his organization’s philosophy.
I remember hearing Don Welke once say something like, “Sometimes I don’t even pay attention to the radar gun. You can tell if a pitcher makes hitters uncomfortable.” That always stuck with me. Pitchers are a forte of mine, and I focus on them often, but I try to focus more on the ability to get outs than I do pure velocity. Velocity will always be a factor in pitching, but this isn't the state fair, and throwing the ball through the catcher's glove won't win you a prize. I can always go back to see the velocity readings later.
Another part of my process is moderation. If it seems like I'm hesitant to throw a 60 realistic potential on a player it's because those guys are rare. Calling someone a major leaguer is a compliment, and it's easier to accept it as such when you watch major-league games after scouting the minors. It reminds you what a big leaguer is, and how freaking talented you have to be to get there. I think this can be an overlooked aspect of the evaluative process, but it's an essential part of it for me. The important thing is to figure out what works for you, not for someone else.
I love Jason Parks’ “Where Did I Miss” series, because he attacks his own personal biases/scouting misses, and tries to learn from them. Jason's insistence on self-evaluation is part of what made me a BP subscriber in the first place, and a huge reason I applied to be part of the prospect team. BP (including its subscribers) is hands down the best collection of talent, intelligence—whatever you want to call it—that I've been privy to. I’m so proud to be a part of it; yet again, the dumbest guy in the room. But hey, maybe someday I won’t be.