October 22, 2013
Dollar Sign on the Muscle Excerpt
The Young Scout
Baseball Prospectus is proud to be republishing an updated version of Kevin Kerrane's classic, in-depth look at the world of scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle, later this month. Before the reprint's release, we'll be running a few excerpts to give you a feel for the book. The passage of all-new material below profiles a newcomer to the profession.
In 2013 most front-office directories listed separate supervisors for the amateur and the pro side, because pro coverage was now much more extensive—from spring training through the fall leagues—and the staffs had become little armies in themselves. (Gene Watson was coordinating information provided by 12 scouts.) Many of the new hires were surprisingly young, and a few directors thought it made sense to break in a scout by assigning him to pro work, so that from the start he could understand the meaning of a "major-league average" (50 on the 20-to-80 scale).
In the course of my summer travels, I had lunch with one of those new scouts at Safeco Field in Seattle, in the hour before game time. At 31, in his second year on the job, he was constantly traveling up and down the Pacific coast to cover twenty teams, major and minor. At his request, I'm not identifying him or his club. ("I was raised in the 'Be seen and not heard' school," he told me, "and as someone still young in the game, I carry that with me every day.") He loved his work, and had only one complaint: baseball games at all levels were running much too long! Part of the problem, he thought, was that strike zones had somehow become smaller—"the size of a Kleenex box," he said—which led to longer counts. There was also too much variation from ump to ump. "It's like the National Anthem," he said. "We don't need to hear a different American Idol version before each game. The notes are already written down. And the strike zone is written in the rule book. Just be true to it."
The young scout's playing career had ended at age 20 when, as a pitcher without a plus fastball, he was cut from his college team. He became an insatiable reader, a serious student of history, and went on to earn a master's degree in sports management. After a series of baseball internships, and a couple of mind-opening trips to Latin America, he started as an associate scout and worked his way up. Had his experience as a pitcher helped him as a scout? Not really, he said. One of his early mentors had counseled him: "Take the failed baseball player in you, and remove it from your scouting." And what did he plan to be doing in five years? "Scouting," he said. "I want to stay with it. This job isn't a means to an end for me."
He loved hanging out with older scouts. A year earlier, at a spring training game, he was sitting next to a respected veteran, Billy Blitzer of the Cubs. One of Blitzer's signees had been Jamie Moyer, who proved—in a major-league career spanning 25 seasons—that velocity often matters less than control and brains (and being left-handed). One of the other scouts at the game received a text on his phone that Moyer, now 49 and trying to hang on for one more year, had just pitched five shutout innings for the Rockies. The recipient of the text turned to his colleagues and said: "Gee, it's too bad that the scout who signed that guy isn't alive to enjoy it." Billy Blitzer stood up to make an emphatic correction, and then to accept warm congratulations from the group. And the young scout thought: This is what I want to be part of.
When the game began, I stayed in the press area to get a bird's-eye view of the Mariners' starter, Jeremy Bonderman, already a journeyman even though he was a year younger than the young scout. In 2002 Bonderman had been the A's first-round draft choice and, in a scene reconstructed by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, Oakland GM Billy Beane was so incensed by this high-risk pick (a high-school pitcher) that he shattered a chair against his office wall. Bonderman never played for the A's. The year after he was drafted, Beane traded him to Detroit, where he toiled for eight seasons (67-77, with a 4.86 ERA) while dealing with arm problems, including a blood clot in his pitching shoulder. Then he was out of baseball for two full seasons, 2011-12, working through a rehab program, before the Mariners took a chance on him. On this Sunday afternoon Bonderman was facing his original organization, the A's, and he looked commanding on the mound: 6'0" and 220 with a chunky build, and big forearms heavily tattooed with snaky geometry.
For five innings Bonderman used a good low fastball to thread his way through the Oakland lineup. His breaking pitches were almost all out of the zone, diving low and away to right-handed hitters, but he moved the ball around, changing speeds and eye levels, and he carried a 3-0 lead into the sixth, thanks to two impressive home runs by Raul Ibañez. Before the game I had referred to Ibañez, just turned 41, as "the ancient Mariner," imagining that I was inventing a new sports cliché, but there was nothing creaky about his swing—and his second homer, off an ankle-high breaking ball from Jarrod Parker, looked like a beautiful seven-iron shot to the green.
Bonderman ran out of gas in the top of the sixth. With the bases loaded after three singles, another of his low-and-away sliders skipped past rookie catcher Mike Zunino for Oakland's first run. Bonderman walked Josh Donaldson to reload the bases, and then was taken out of the game. When I talked to the young scout later, he expressed admiration for Bonderman's guts and guile: "We saw a mature pitcher getting hitters out through craft instead of natural stuff, and so much of pitching is just doing that."
After Bonderman was lifted, I left the press area and watched the rest of the game from a seat in right-center, next to my wife, enjoying the action from a fan's perspective. Safeco Field is a truly pleasant park. This was Little League Day, with plenty of diversions between innings, and the game itself was a good one: 3-3 after nine. In the bottom of the tenth, with Seattle runners on second and third and only one out, Kendrys Morales came up as a pinch hitter. He was another hard-luck veteran. In May 2010 Morales, then with the Angels, had beaten the Mariners with a tenth-inning grand slam—and as he jumped on home plate amid the wild celebration, he landed awkwardly and fractured his lower left leg. Morales missed the rest of that season and all of the next one. When he made a decent comeback in 2012, mostly as a DH, the Mariners' pro scouts saw the chance to pick up a power switch-hitter, and Morales was acquired in an even-up deal for pitcher Jason Vargas. "It was a classic baseball trade," the young scout said. "One team needed pitching, the other needed hitting. And their contracts matched up pretty closely—which is often the way things are done these days."
Now Morales was batting left-handed against Grant Balfour, needing only a sac fly to win the game. Instead, he stepped into the first pitch and lofted a home run that landed twenty feet to my right. It didn't actually land: it was snagged by an old guy, gray hair in a ponytail, who was wearing a first baseman's mitt. The next day's newspaper said that Morales, after rounding the bases, parted the celebrants and touched home plate very gently.