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January 20, 2005

Breaking Balls

There Is No Divide

by Derek Zumsteg

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One of the problems at the core of the artificial scouting-versus-statistics debate is that it's hard to talk about either side if you don't already understand it. Trying to explain projectability to someone who doesn't want to hear about frames and adding muscle is like trying to talk about isolated power to someone who doesn't want to know anything about how it plays into projection systems.

This is all so silly. We all use both schools even if we don't know or acknowledge it. All that remains is to realize it and learn the other side. Even if we don't speak the language, we know the meaning.

I've done a fair number of job interviews in my years, and I mention this because almost everyone's been on one side or the other of one a couple times in their life, unless you were born into unreasonable amounts of money and are also lazy and shiftless. Considering people for jobs is a process in which you use exactly the kind of scouting/statistics balance that baseball people face in player development. Except that the stats are supplied by the applicant and are hard to verify.

I have examples.

Hiring for a senior position, the candidate pool will be experienced. They'll be able to talk about actual things they've built. Their abilities can be gauged by the size of the projects they've been on and the success or failure of those projects (though, to skip back to baseball, there can be good players on the Brewers). They can talk about problems they've encountered and what they did to solve them, information that's much better in determining how they'll handle those situations in the future. They will likely have a much clearer idea of what their career goals are. The interviewer can work in hypothetical situations that are relevant to the job.

This is performance analysis. This person can talk about the technical side all day, but they can't recognize the curve.

Hiring for a junior position, the candidates often come without applicable real-world experience. They're all potential, without performance records. It's impossible to tell what they'll turn into eventually. What do you look for in an interview?

Are they smart? Do they think in the right direction? Do they ask for and apply the right information? Are they inspired, or more workmanlike? And so forth.

All of this is brought out by asking wide-open questions and getting them to talk out loud. "I'm going to start a company that makes wine. What do I need to go get?"

The interviewer is doing scouting: will this person fill out? Do they have the tools? Is the light on?

For both positions, there are a set of intangible questions that need to be answered: what motivates this person, and does that fit in with the group they'll be working for? Companies are going to be reluctant to hire someone motivated entirely by the size of their salary. If they invest in bringing someone on and training them, they don't want that investment to walk off if they're offered a dollar more a year by their chief competitor.

The intangibles are scouting. Does this player want to play baseball? Will they put in the required effort to make the most of their talent? Are they a risk to spend that signing bonus on ripple and develop a crippling addiction problem?

There are questions like that that will sink the deal; if a candidate mentions that they're leaving their current job because they can't work for a woman, that's the end of the interview, no matter what their resumé looks like.

There's a parallel for baseball in that, too. Given that candidate's resumé, it may be hard to imagine why a company wouldn't throw money at them. Even knowing the intangible reason, someone might shrug and say "So what? Make sure they don't have women bosses."

There are companies like that. I wouldn't want to work for them, and they're not as good as they'd project to be, given only a collection of their resumés.

I have come to appreciate this. I don't believe in team chemistry, but organizations make commitments to find players of a certain mold. They may want to assemble scrappy kids with dirty uniforms who they hope will all push each other to outperform throughout the minors, or they may look for kids with good batting eyes, building an organization of on-base machines.

There are great companies out there that will reject stellar candidates who don't share the group's sense of humor. Their motivation goes beyond job fit to the person's fit into a larger whole. In the same way, some teams draft and sign players based on those kinds of criteria. I used to mock the Twins for having a certain view of what their players should be like. The Twins showed me: they win. People mock the A's for trying to find ways to use an organizational philosophy to develop, trade for, or kidnap productive players. The A's win.

And those intangibles questions about makeup and character...I don't agree with how they're evaluated, though that's a different column. However, I would bet that if all things were ultimately knowable, we would find that many of the great flame-outs of can't-miss prospects were due to things scouts are digging for: their motivation, what their work ethic is, things like that. A pitcher can be 22, left-handed, throw a 97-mph fastball with good movement complemented by a wicked slider and a change-up so deceptive it plays in local poker tournaments on off days, but if that pitcher doesn't want to work out or make an attempt to stay healthy, listen to scouting reports on opposing hitters, and would rather stay out all night before starts dancing and drinking, that's going to limit what they become. From a performance-analysis standpoint, given 20 pitchers putting up lines like the one this kid does in A ball, you're going to do fine. On that one particular case, though, not knowing or seeing the stuff off the stat line will cost the team money and more.

Go back a bit. Say you do two sets of interviews, one for a junior person who'll make $30,000 and one for a senior person who'll make $45,000. Two candidates come out of the interview process:

  • The Graduate, who graduated a month ago from a good school, where they got good marks. In interviews, he or she took even advanced-level questions and displayed great native intelligence and adaptability, and worked well under pressure. While they didn't know the business, they asked questions about how it worked that demonstrated they were thinking about the same problems you were.

  • The Transfer, who comes over from another team with a great record, recommended by all their peers. They've done the type of work this position requires, and did it well. Their track record goes back years, and it's as consistent as it is good.

Which do you hire if budget cuts mean you only get one of the two positions you interviewed for? What if the Transfer, instead of being great, is good, or even okay? Do you risk it? What if you only had $30,000?

Look at that, you're weighing scouting against performance analysis. Whatever you came up with for the new person, it's projectability against a better idea of performance. It's looking at someone's raw swing and thinking of what they might become, what they might fill out into.

Or a thousand choices a day: buy the cheap can of black beans, or the more expensive variety that's served me so well for my burrito needs these last ten years? Get the new car with warranty, or try and find a bargain on a used one? If I take this job offer, will I be better off than staying with the one I have?

We all do scouting. We all do performance analysis. We all do both at the same time. There are no camps.

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