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February 17, 2008
In the past, scouts have been called the lifeblood of baseball, and even with the increased emphasis on statistical analysis in today's game, they remain a vital part of a team's success. The best of them, like Arizona's Joe Bohringer, incorporate both analytics and traditional scouting methods as they evaluate talent. Bohringer joined the Diamondbacks in 2006, and has a degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management and previously served as an Area Scouting Supervisor for the Mariners and as the Senior Manager of Player Development for the Dodgers. The 2008 season will be his 19th in professional baseball.
Joe Bohringer: Currently, I am one of the Diamondbacks' professional scouts. My primary focus is professional players at the minor or major league levels. Overall, we have a staff of about ten scouts who travel the country in an attempt to evaluate all professional players and rank them in the universal pool of talent. My specific assignment includes seven major league teams and somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen minor league teams. Over the course of the season, I will likely have seen at least 20 professional clubs on behalf of the Diamondbacks.
DL: Do you write reports on everyone you see, or only on specific players that you're assigned to?
JB: It's actually a combination of both. Sometimes the Diamondbacks will assign a scout to get more in-depth information on a specific player. However, our main focus is to cover the clubs in our original assignment and submit a report for every single player on each of those clubs. Over the course of the year, the typical professional scout will report on hundreds of players. Last year, I filed somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 reports between winter-ball and regular-season coverage.
DL: When you're writing a report on a given player, are you the only Diamondbacks scout doing so?
JB: No, we try to get multiple looks if we can. Different scouts may have different opinions, and everyone's input is valuable. One of the advantages a scout has when seeing a player is that you get to follow him for five or six days. You get to see his routines, how he handles himself in pre-game, how he interacts with his teammates. However, one of the weaknesses of scouting is that your five-or-six day look is only a brief snapshot. Because of that, we try to have teams seen multiple times. I'll see my period--my snapshot--and another scout will see a different snapshot. I might see a player when he's at his best, and someone else may see him at his worst. What you hope is that your coverage is broad enough that you can say, "This is what we can probably expect from this player on a regular basis."
DL: Is that based strictly on eyeball scouting, or are you also looking at how a player's numbers are trending?
JB: It's a combination of both. Each individual scout uses some combination of what he sees and what a player's track record tells him. The use of available information can also vary due to the age and level of the player you are evaluating. For instance, if you have a player with a four- or five-year major league track record who is in his mid-to-late 20s, you can definitely use his statistical history to help tell his story. However, if you are watching an 18-year-old foreign-born pitcher in Low-A and it's his first year in the US--maybe he has 50 professional innings in the States--the numbers aren't going to tell you a whole heck of a lot. That's when you really need to use the instinct of what you see, and rely less on what his statistics might tell you. In that instance, the statistical data you have is either incomplete or unreliable because the level of competition is so far removed from the major leagues.
DL: Do you use comps when describing players?
JB: I think most organizations have some sort of comp area on their reports. I can't speak for other clubs, but we do have the option of putting a "body comp" and/or a "player comp" on our reports. I've obviously seen the player, so I know what he looks like. However, I can give someone who hasn't seen the player a much clearer physical picture if I can say he looks like Travis Hafner or Alfonso Soriano or Randy Johnson. At the same time, the player comp area allows us to list a current or former major league player who best represents what we think a younger player may become. However, these areas aren't mandatory for us. If a strong comparison pops into our head, we can list them in the comp area. If a comparison doesn't seem obvious, we have the flexibility to leave that area blank. Hopefully the text of my report and my summary will best tell the story of what I see in this player, but the comp area does allow me to make it a little clearer if there is a body or player type that fits.
DL: How important is body type?
JB: It's important, especially in younger players. With every player we see, regardless of level, we're asked "what is he going to be in the major leagues?" If you think about it, there is sort of a minimum physical requirement needed to compete at the major league level. In evaluating body types, we like to see the strength, athleticism, size, and stamina to suggest that a player will be able to handle a major league workload. We're trying to minimize the risk of our projections, and identifying physical attributes can help minimize that risk. It's just another piece of the puzzle, but one we definitely have to consider.
DL: Scouts typically rate players on a 20-to-80 scale. Are the ratings position-specific, or would a Grady Sizemore inherently be rated higher than a Travis Hafner because his skill set is more multi-dimensional?
JB: Some clubs do use one general scale for every player, but the overall grade we use in Arizona is position-specific. Our scale still runs 20-to-80 with 50 being average, but a 50 center fielder is not exactly the same as, say, a 50 catcher or a 50 first baseman. Each position on the diamond has a different set of guidelines for the type of performance you'd expect from an "average" player. Our scale tries to account for some of those differences. However, when you're talking about players like Grady Sizemore or Travis Hafner, they tend to get pretty high grades regardless of the system you're using.
DL: How often do a player's ratings change?
JB: Players get better and players get worse. Any scout will tell you that players change over the course of their careers. That's why teams make sure they evaluate players year after year after year. You want to establish some history so you can recognize changes as they happen. At the same time, you'd like to have the most current, most accurate information when trying to make an evaluation. Players get better, they get worse, and they get older. It's not like you hit a certain level and continue that indefinitely. You're always going to have some peaks and valleys.
DL: Is it primarily a year-by-year process, or will rankings change over the course of a season?
JB: It's more of a year-by-year look. We all know that a player's performance fluctuates during the course of the season, and we try to take that into account in our evaluation. A player may outperform one month and under-perform the next, but we're trying to determine his value on the whole. We don't necessarily try to evaluate how they will do in a very small window of time. We try to make it larger, more of a "what is he this year?" and "what is he going to be next year?" thought process.
DL: How about if a player makes a mechanical adjustment at midseason, and it results in a marked improvement in the level of his play? Is that type of situation accounted for?
JB: Yes. We always have the ability to adjust a report if a player is showing us something different than what we've seen before. Players make adjustments, and they evolve. They become different types of performers. We're constantly forming opinions by taking what we see and combining it with what the player's recent history tells us. If one of those opinions changes, we have the opportunity to identify that and explain why.
DL: How much do the Diamondbacks scout within their own organization?
JB: In Arizona, most of our scouts get to see at least part of our organization during the course of the season. In my opinion, that helps to make an apples-to-apples comparison. If I see the Oakland Athletics' Low-A team in Kane County and I've seen our Low-A team in South Bend, I'm better able to judge how a player on Kane County stacks up against someone in our system. Being able to compare what's out there with what we already have is information that our front office seems to find useful, and it helps us make our decisions going forward. By the end of the season, almost all of our players will be seen by someone from the Diamondbacks' scouting staff.
DL: How many times did you see the Diamondbacks last year?
JB: I saw our club for six games in a row. When reporting on an entire team, you try to stay with that club for at least five consecutive games. That way, you'll be sure to see the entire starting rotation at least once.
DL: You covered the Indians last year. How many times did you see them?
JB: I saw the Indians quite a bit, mostly because of how the season progressed last year. I saw them roughly 10 games or so during my normal regular season coverage. Because they qualified for the postseason, as did we, I also had a chance to do some advance scouting when they played in the American League Division and Championship series. By the time I was done, I had seen Cleveland in the neighborhood of 16 or 18 games, which was the most I saw any club. Normally you'll see a team between five and 10 games, depending on how they line up on your schedule.
DL: Fans are used to seeing scouting reports in a number of publications. How different are those from what scouts turn into the front office?
JB: At its simplest, they're not that different at all. The look of a report may vary from team to team, but the basic information contained in the evaluation is very similar. We're all grading the tools and describing the player. We list his strengths, his weaknesses, and the overall summary of what we feel he's going to be. The format isn't much different from what you might see in a Baseball Prospectus or a Baseball America, because the general intent of the report is basically the same.
DL: Do you ever see the reports generated by fellow scouts in the Diamondbacks organization?
JB: Everything we do is done electronically. While I always have access to my own reports, I very rarely get to see other scouts' reports. Obviously, most of the people making decisions in our front office have access to everyone's information.
DL: From what you have seen, do most reports on a given player essentially read the same? Do scouts typically see the same things and give players similar grades?
JB: In some respects, we're looking for the same things and working off the same scale. However, as I said earlier, the looks you get at a player can come at different times during the season. One scout may see a player playing at his best, and another scout may see that same player while he is really struggling. In general, you hope you can take several reports and kind of balance them out. My individual evaluation may be the high report or it may be the low report, but you have to have a belief in the scouting staff as a whole. When your organization puts all the reports together, you hope to have a fairly accurate picture of what a player can do.
DL: You've done a lot of amateur scouting over the course of your career. Can you go over that process with us?
JB: Amateur scouting is a little bit different than professional scouting. Although both processes are geared toward identifying the best players, the scope of your look varies a bit. When watching a major or minor league club, you're focusing on every single player on the roster. As an amateur scout, your focus is more toward the best individual players in your respective area of the country. Who are the players that have a chance to play professionally? When you go to see a high school or college game, you might be focusing on only one player or maybe a handful of players. You're not writing individual reports on the entire team as you would on the professional side. Your focus is a lot narrower, because there are only a few players on most amateur fields who have a chance to someday play professionally.
DL: From a projection standpoint, what is the hardest part of amateur scouting?
JB: I think the hardest part of any kind of projection is the simple fact that you're trying to predict the future. The further you get from the ultimate goal, which in this case is the major leagues, the murkier your crystal ball is going to get. When you're looking at an 18-year-old high schooler who has never faced professional-level competition, there is a vastly different set of circumstances to consider than when you are watching a bunch of big leaguers run around Chase Field. The further you are from the major leagues, the more intuition comes into play, the more your experience as a scout comes into play, and the more risk is involved in your evaluation.
DL: How much does the level of competition factor into your assessments?
JB: The level of competition is a huge factor in amateur scouting. What you ideally strive for is to see a player in conditions that mimic what he will see at the professional level. So, any game that matches a top-notch position player against a top-notch pitcher--whether a high school game or college game--will attract a large number of scouts because it allows you to gauge a player against a higher level of competition. One of the things the amateur baseball community has done over the years is put together a large number of showcase events, travel teams, and elite teams. This development has allowed scouts, college coaches, and major league organizations to watch first-hand as the best players compete against each other. It helps us to answer some of the questions we might have when trying to compare players playing in different levels of competition.
DL: Do numbers matter in showcase events?
JB: They all matter a little bit, but again, the further you get from the major leagues, the less reliable the numbers become. There is no high school showcase that is going to equate to major league competition. The best players at every level are always going to have good numbers. That's why they're the best players at that level. The challenge is to look at the player's package as a whole, and evaluate whether that package will translate to the professional level.
DL: Those are players at the high school level. How about players competing in the top college conferences?
JB: Being one step closer to the major leagues gives the numbers a little bit more weight, but not much. Again, you'd expect the better players to have better numbers--that's why they are getting the most draft attention from scouts. Some of the available college stats can help you tell the story, but you're still relying a lot on the instinct of what you see. College numbers have a little more validity than high school numbers, but you're still taking a bit of a leap of faith as far as projecting whether or not a player can play in the major leagues.
DL: If you had to write a report on a player based on seeing him in person 10 times, or on seeing video on him 10 times, but not both, which would you choose?
JB: That's kind of a loaded question, because it depends on the type of information I would be getting. If it was only video from behind the plate and I didn't get to see the rest of the game, I would probably take the live look. We need to see the big picture: how a player fields, how he runs, how he throws, what type of base runner he is. But if I could get all of my field information and observations on video--and then have the chance to look at them in slow motion or rewind them--I'd be more inclined to take the video. Obviously, the angle and context from which you gather the information has a large effect on how you use it to make your evaluations.
DL: You've been scouting for a number of years. Has evaluating players become easier, or has it become more complex?
JB: In scouting, we've always talked about the maxim of "leav[e] no stone unturned." With the advances in statistics and the ability to collect more data, organizations have realized that there are a lot more stones to turn over than there were just a few years ago. Advances in technology have really changed the way in which we think and talk about athletics. We have a lot more information available to us, whether it be in the form of scouting reports, statistics, or video. Every team in every professional sport is in the process of trying to determine how to best use all of the available data to help make better personnel decisions.
DL: As you alluded to, if you look under enough rocks you'll find some Snakes.
JB: I guess that's one way to put it. We're just hoping the "Snakes" we find are a little better than those found by the other 29 clubs.