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June 23, 2004
Scouting the Debate
Is the Scouts vs. Statheads Argument Overblown?
Michael Lewis' Moneyball
and the fallout from the best-selling book have given rise to what some have deemed the great statheads vs. scouts debate. While some reactionary members of each camp have assumed their battle stations, by and large it's a false argument.
"The goal is the same in either case--identify players who'll help you win at the big league level," said Joe Bohringer, amateur scout for the Seattle Mariners. "Both methods will help you make your evaluation."
Every team relies on scouting of some kind. Scouting budgets and tie-breaking decisions may vary from team to team, but every club relies on scouts, in some form, to evaluate talent. Likewise, every team uses performance analysis to shape its decisions. Statistics are simply a record of a player's performance. Even the most tools-informed scout on the planet won't throw out results entirely.
Bohringer takes a holistic approach to his work. Just
as general managers like Theo Epstein and J.P.
Ricciardi have combined scouting backgrounds with
analytical approaches to run their ballclubs, so too
has Bohringer wedded scouting and analytical
principles in his work for the Mariners.
An MIT graduate with a B.S. in Management, Bohringer started his professional life armed with a knowledge and hunger for objective analysis. He hoped to parlay his business acumen into a career in baseball. After several stops, Bohringer landed at Triple-A Ottawa. From there, the parent Expos sent him to the Major League Scouting Bureau--scout school. Bohringer had already cut his teeth keeping pitching charts. He'd also worked on the administrative side, acting as a liaison between the farm director and the big league club.
But scout school, he said, changed everything. "It was an entirely different way to watch the game. We were taught to observe the mechanics, as opposed to the final results."
Despite that lesson, Bohringer has also immersed himself in statistical
research. He's read Bill James, Moneyball, Baseball Prospectus, and
other analytical tomes. He's just as comfortable at a Pizza Feed as is he
working closely with Mariners' Amateur Scouting Director Bob Fontaine.
Recently, I took in a game between the homestanding Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres' parent club) and the visiting High Desert Mavericks (Brewers' parent club) with Bohringer, Cleveland Indians scout and long-time baseball man Dave Malpass, and the world's best baseball wife, Angele. Being untrained in scouting, I planned on asking questions between Bohringer's radar gun clockings and recorded throw and run times. No way would I get caught up in admiring a great catch or a burst of speed--I was going to let the larger body of performance guide my evaluations...or at least that's what I told myself. Here's what transpired.
Speedy High Desert outfielder Kennard Bibbs leads off
the game, and draws a walk. He gets a great jump off starter Chris
Tierney and steals second. Big deal, I say, the guy's a pop-gun hitter
(.095 Isolated Slugging through Monday's games). He sure looked fast,
though, I think to myself.
The rest of the inning goes strikeout, walk, double, fielder's choice,
groundout to second, as the Mavericks push across one run. How can a
scout get a read on a player so quickly, I ask, when you may only see a
swing or two per at-bat, three or four times a game?
"Batting practice is very important," Bohringer says. "You can look for
a line-drive or uppercut swing, or if the guy's beating the ball into
the ground. You can see it in infield and outfield practice too, whether
a player shows soft hands when taking groundballs, if he can throw from
the hole at short, if he's fluid chasing down a flyball."
Turns out minor league coaches will actually lay out what they want to see during warmups from players in A-ball, which helps the scout a lot; each time he watches infield and outfield practice, he knows the players will give it their all, running through a regimented set of drills. Don't tell Larry Bowa.
Bottom of the first and Paul McAnulty steps to the plate. Listed at 5'10", 220 lbs., McAnulty was a 12th-round pick out of Long Beach State in 2002. He's showing moderate power and solid plate
discipline, with a decent .293/.396/.473 line. Needing to protect work
product, Bohringer isn't tipping his hand about McAnulty or anyone else.
He does disclose a scouting truism, though:
"The less physical projection you have, the more polished your skills
have to be. If you see a pitcher who throws 85, you may be able to look
at him and see a body that will only go 85. If it's a tall, lean guy,
it may be different--a more projectable player may be able to improve."
McAnulty's the Storm's #3 hitter, and looks like one of the bigger
threats on the team. Still, already 23, showing decent but not great power
in a hitter's haven while DHing, the scouting and performance analysis
views seem to agree here.
Bohringer brings up another challenge of melding stats with scouting.
The further you get from the majors, the less reliable the stats become,
and the more scouting reports become necessary. Funny, that sounds
Both scouts and analysts liked Michael Johnson, a .636
slugger in four years at Clemson. The Padres picked the big first
baseman in the second round in '02, but thus far he's disappointed. Turning
24 this week, Johnson has posted a line of .241/.345/.460, striking out
about once every three at-bats. He failed to impress in this game, and
the clock is ticking.
I told myself I wouldn't get worked up over any individual plays...but
who is this Kervin Jacobo guy, and when did he get
possessed by the spirit of Brooks Robinson? I'm
cataloguing the Dominican third baseman's plays as the game goes on:
2nd inning: Charges weak grounder, bare-hand, rocket throw to first for
3rd inning: Ditto
5th inning: Fields cut-off throw, wheels and fires strike to second,
nailing runner trying to advance
6th inning: Backhand stop on screamer to third as he hits the ground;
fast runner beats the throw, still a laser
I'm mesmerized by this guy.
Jacobo (pronounced Ha-ko-bo) laces a solid single to center in the
fourth, flying out of the box after contact. I turn to Angele and ask how
she'd feel about naming our first-born Kervin Jacobo Keri.
"Your boy runs OK too," says Bohringer, as he and fellow scout Dave
Malpass snicker quietly. Something's amiss. I pull open the stats. Through
Monday, the 21-year-old Jacobo is hitting .227/.288/.367.
I've let my eyes deceive me. Huckabay will be coming any minute now to
claim my BP badge. Huckabay and Jacobo, by the way: distant cousins.
Chris Tierney, a tall lefty with a funky delivery,
isn't showing much. He's throwing only fastballs, topping out at 87 to 89
mph, and from my vantage point behind home plate, looks like he's
throwing them dead straight. A High Desert hitter lines one up the middle for a
two-run single, nearly knocking Tierney off the mound. And the stats
say...42.1 IP, 6.96 ERA, 56 H, 18 Ks, 19 BBs. Ouch.
It's another case of the scouting report agreeing with the numbers. "A
guy like Vladimir Guerrero, the scout and the analyst
will both have positive things to say obviously," Bohringer says as
Tierney goes to ball three again. "Most guys are in the 40-60 scouting
range, in the middle of the pack, unlike Vlad, who's going to be up there
in the 70-80 range. We're paid to spot the subtle differences between
the 50 and 55 guys, the 55s and 60s."
Bohringer's job is essentially the same as any performance-oriented
analyst or general manager's. A superstar is a superstar, no matter your
philosophy. The trick is to find that hidden gem whose skills get
overlooked by the masses. In the late rounds of the amateur draft, an
analysis-focused team like the A's or Blue Jays may go after an unknown player
with a body unloved by scouts, if the numbers are there. Meanwhile a
tools-oriented team like the Twins or Braves might pursue a raw athlete
who's either played little baseball or struggled on the field. Both
offer degrees of risk and reward, just in different ways.
I'm struck by the difficulties of relying on personal observation. Looking over my scorecard, it looks like every player has gone a
generic 1-for-3 with a single, without doing anything extraordinary.
And what to make of the player who works the count and draws walks? It's
tough to find a player with a great batting eye who jumps out at you,
Bohringer concedes, as opposed to one who slams a triple off the
center-field wall. Plate discipline can be a tie-breaker between two players
with similar tools, but it's tough to base a scouting report on it.
Sample size can be a significant problem with scouting as well, just as
it can with statistical analysis. Thirty at-bats beats four at-bats,
but you'd always like to have more. Pitchers can be especially tough. A
scout may write up a pitcher after a couple starts, noting that he's wild,
only to see him strike out eight and walk none the next time he sees
him. As with analysis, context must be considered: Does the other team
swing at everything? Did the pitcher make a mechanical adjustment? Did he
simply have a great day? Learning to spot relevant conditions is a huge
part of his job, Bohringer says.
As the game winds down, we see Marcus Nettles, in his
third tour of duty at Lake Elsinore this season, fly around the bases
for a triple. We see more dazzling plays--a few even of the non-Jacobo
variety. We watch players with bodies scouts love and players with the
patience that statheads love. Malpass, who's seen all types in his
career as a scout, coach and instructor for the Indians, Expos, Long Beach
State and elsewhere, waves a hand dismissively.
"Most of what you've seen is irrelevant," he says. At the end of the
day, Malpass--like Bohringer, or Billy Beane, or anyone else who follows
baseball--goes by one simple, all-encompassing theory:
"No hittee...no playee."
Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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