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June 23, 2004

Scouting the Debate

Is the Scouts vs. Statheads Argument Overblown?

by Jonah Keri

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 exactly Joe Sheehan talking.

    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 the out
    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. True story.

  • 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. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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