Bill “Chief” Gayton has spent 18 years in the scouting profession, working for the White Sox, Athletics, Yankees, Rockies, and Padres, and enters his third full season as the Director of Scouting in San Diego. BP correspondent Craig Elsten recently sat down with Gayton at the Peoria Sports Complex, while watching many of the Padres’ top minor leaguers play on a back field in a Double-A game against Texas. Elsten asked Gayton about the effects of technology on scouting, the challenge of evaluating high school talent, and balancing performance analysis and scouting principles.
Baseball Prospectus: What do you enjoy the most about your job on a day-to-day basis?
Bill Gayton: You know, you get a lot of satisfaction in different ways. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of making everything come together. The easiest thing we do is go and evaluate talent; the difficult part of the job is (logistics). Making the schedule work, making the airline reservations, the hotels, the rental car…just getting from point A to point B. Even though, with modern technology, the ability to communicate is so much greater, it’s frustrating when we can’t make some of our plans come together. But in terms of coming out to the ballpark–hey, it’s 75 degrees out here, the sun’s out, and we get to watch a baseball game, maybe several different baseball games. That’s what’s fun.
BP: How many different people do you oversee?
BG: Between the full-time scouts, the part-time scouts, the cross-checkers, and two full-time assistants in the front office, there are over 30 people involved in the amateur free-agent scouting department. Now, we also have a professional scouting department and an international scouting department, but I don’t oversee either of those groups.
BP: How has technology changed the scouting profession since you first broke in?
BG: It was a lot easier before! (laughing) Now, when you go in to see a player, by the end of that night, everybody in the organization knows about him. You go back to your hotel room, you type up your report, you replicate it, and between voicemail and e-mail, everybody has the numbers right away. When I first started scouting, you would go see a player, then you hand-wrote your reports, saved them for a couple of days, and sent in about five for the week. Now, you know on a daily basis what is happening. I can go into the office and see that we have 30 reports written on a particular date. In terms of being able to communicate and see what’s happening around the country, it’s pretty immediate now. It takes some of the fun away, actually.
BP: Scouts often sit together during a ballgame, with everybody watching the same player. They are also talking with each other all the time, sharing their thoughts and beliefs. How do you stay true to your own evaluations when so many other scouts are whispering their opinions in your ears? Is it difficult not to have your opinions shaped by those around you?
BG: I believe in profiling, first of all. When you go out to scout a player, you scout his tools, abilities, and instincts, and you try to bring it all together. A player is a puzzle, and when you take the pieces apart and try to put it back together, then you see what you really have. We might be watching a kid who is a shortstop, and when you see him, he doesn’t profile as a shortstop. When you examine his athleticism, his foot quickness, his hands and his arm, he might wind up behind the plate when it’s all said and done. Other scouts might be watching the same player, but they’re looking at other things and forming a completely different opinion.
There’s nothing better than experience, and the longer you do this, the more experience you have. You try to learn from each individual you go in and evaluate. Maybe there was a guy you saw years ago and thought, “wow, I really like this guy,” and you turned in a positive report, and you turned out to be dead wrong. Ten years later, you see another guy who’s very similar, and you try and learn from your past mistakes. Scouts have to adjust, just like we expect players to adjust. If we can’t make adjustments, we’re not going to be a very good staff, and I’m not going to be able to lead our staff in the right direction. We learn from our experiences, and the more we have, the better we should be. You learn to rely on yourself and your past experiences.
BP: One of the most ballyhooed high school pitchers in the history of baseball was Todd Van Poppel, whom you signed while with the Oakland Athletics. While Todd has been around the big leagues for a while, he’s never blossomed into a big-time star. How difficult is it to evaluate high-school pitching talent?
BG: You know, we talk about Todd all the time. When he came up out of Arlington High School, he was the talk of baseball. Nobody had ever seen a kid with that type of ability. He’s actually had a very good career. It’s difficult to stay in the big leagues, and he’s had (a long run) in the majors. He didn’t end up the starter that we thought he would become, but he’s certainly figured out how to stay in the big leagues.
In terms of high school pitchers, we in the scouting profession certainly make a lot of mistakes. So much can go wrong from the time we sign them at 18 to the age of 21, when many of them come out of college. The level of competition alone makes it difficult to evaluate. We talk to our scouts, when they go in to see a high school kid, to pay close attention to factors other than pure performance. What is the quality of strikes being thrown, and what is the quality of the competition? It’s all part of the equation. You might see a kid out in the sticks who is lights out, but if he was competing in Southern California, or Houston, or Florida, he wouldn’t have the same success. More talented players in the more talented regions of our country won’t be chasing the same pitch as a kid from rural Minnesota, and you have to take this into account when evaluating at the lowest levels.
BP: The Padres, under your watch, have made a concerted effort to emphasize college players, and college position players in particular, in the first few rounds of the amateur draft. Do you feel a college player is more predictable in terms of future value?
BG: Sure. I think that successful college players have a legitimate chance to become successful professional ballplayers. You can look right now in our organization for examples. Tagg Bozied is having a great spring in the Padres’ major league camp; well, this is only his second year in pro ball. He was selected out of high school, and was selected again after his junior year at USF, but he stayed in school. Physically, mentally, and in terms of the level of competition, college players are in a better position to really take off and advance with the type of instruction they will receive at the professional level. Also, college players have a better understanding of their own bodies and their capabilities. Many of these guys get hurt in college, they’ve already had various surgeries or rehab, and they learn more about themselves, what they can and cannot do physically.
BP: The signability of a college player as opposed to a high school player is also a key issue, isn’t it?
BG: Not as much as you would think. We’re not afraid to go out and compete with other teams for high school talent. From a signability standpoint, it doesn’t save you that much money in the big picture. It’s just…when you’re talking about a major league GM, he doesn’t have the seven or eight years to watch a high school kid develop. He may not be around to see a high school draft pick make it to the majors. Very few GMs get that chance. They’re more interested in a mature kid, and I would guess when they field phone calls from other GMs while talking about trades, those GMs are more interested in college-aged players. Not to take away from high school kids, because some teams develop tremendous high school players. In the two drafts I’ve overseen, we’ve signed three high school players, and they’ve all had success so far.
BP: In San Diego, fans get upset because Kevin Towers has not gone out and spent millions of dollars on incoming free agents. What’s the impact of not signing free agents vs. say, the cost to an organization of failing to sign your high-round draft picks?
BG: It certainly impacts the organization. I’ve answered a lot of questions regarding last year’s second-round draft pick, for example, first baseman Michael Johnson from Clemson. We still retain his rights, and depending upon the outcome of their season, there should be a window where we have a chance to negotiate with him, but to lose a high pick like that hurts. There is also a hidden cost to signing major-league free agents. Sure, that guy might help the team in the short term, but you also often lose a top selection in the amateur draft as a result, and that can impact an organization for a couple of years.
BP: And as we were discussing earlier, a major-league GM may never see his first-round draft pick make the major league roster, so the temptation will always be there to allocate $2 million to Joe Reliever, rather than to an amateur draft pick.
BG: Right. It’s kind of twofold. We have to keep in mind that our organization needs to be competitive at the major league level, and there is no organization in baseball that doesn’t want to win right away. We all want to win. Everything that we do, we do for the major league level. If you have some injuries and some complications at the major-league level, the general manager has to go out and try to do something to improve the team. In our situation, we’re missing Hoffman, we’re missing Nevin, and we’re going to have other injuries. Kevin has to go out and put up a competitive team at the major-league level, even if that negatively impacts what’s happening in my department. Player development, scouting…we’re there for him, and for the betterment of the organization.
BP: As an example of this, the Padres recently made a trade for Rondell White, and in the process Towers had to give up his first-round draft pick from 2000, left-hander Mark Phillips. How much does it hurt from your perspective when you see a talented player such as this leave the organization?
BG: Sure, it always hurts, but not just for me. It hurts Kevin, it hurts Bruce Bochy, it hurts everyone in the organization. But, we have to do things that will allow us to be competitive. There are risks involved in every deal you make. Some of them are weighed in your favor, and other times it’s against you. Mark has a great arm, he was a first-rounder a couple of years ago, and sure, losing a guy like that has an effect. Still, if there’s one place where we have depth as an organization, it’s pitching. I’ve said in the past, having good pitching is like having gold chips in Vegas, you can never have enough. We happen to have a surplus of pitching right now, and ultimately, we have to be competitive on the major league level. Yes, it impacts us to lose a guy like Phillips, but if I’m doing my job, I would think I’ll be able to supply Kevin and the organization with more prospects so he can make even more moves.
BP: I’m still waiting for that first gold chip in Vegas, Chief.
BG: Yeah, me too! (laughing)
BP: Let’s switch gears a bit. How have sabermetrics impacted your profession?
BG: You’re seeing certain organizations embrace it: Oakland, Boston is leaning that way, and we use it in San Diego. From a scout’s perspective, I think you’ll see most of them balk at the directions some of the clubs are taking, but I think there’s a place for (sabermetrics). There’s legitimacy in the numbers, but somehow, we as a staff have to bring the two sides together. Numbers aren’t always the tell-all, but certainly, successful players will have good numbers. If we can take what we see from our scouting experiences and combine it with the statistics, we can use the information to our advantage. I think it will lead to a lot of success in the future.
BP: Let me put it to you in two ways: First, what can tools-oriented scouting tell you about a player that sabermetrics cannot?
BG: There are successful players at every level who put up terrific statistics, but are still never going to be everyday players at the major-league level. The numbers are an indication of certain abilities at certain levels, yet, as we’re sitting here right now…we’re watching Marcus Nettles, who’s one of the fastest players in baseball at any level. He can put up a .400 OBP in the low minors, but unless he cuts down on his strikeouts and improves his understanding of the strike zone and how to play the game mentally along with the pitcher, he’s never going to be a major-league leadoff hitter. If you are looking only at his statistics, you might think he is doing a good job of recognizing pitches, but when you come out and watch him in person, he’s striking out two or three times a game, and not striking out in a positive way. Look, right now, he’s facing a pitcher who’s ahead in the count 1 and 2. He just flinched at an up-and-in show-me fastball as if he was going to swing, when he should have known that the pitcher was just throwing it to set up the breaking ball. (Nettles then strikes out on an off-speed pitch low and away). See, that’s the oldest pattern in baseball. Hard in, soft away. Marcus might put up a high average or a decent OBP in the minors, but until he figures out what he needs to be doing at the plate, he’s not going to project to the major leagues. My scouting history tells me that in order for Marcus to succeed at the major leagues, he’s going to need to make more contact. When he does, his on-base average will rise, and he’ll be even more of a threat. He’ll have a chance to be a leadoff guy instead of somebody at the bottom of the order.
(Next up is Josh Barfield, the Lake Elsinore second baseman. He takes an outside fastball and rips it to right-center field for a solo homerun.) Now, here’s an example on the other side. Josh, you haven’t seen a lot of power from him yet in pro baseball, but he just took an outside fastball and hit a pea to the opposite field. Here’s a kid who’s only 19, and is growing into his body. If you’re watching from afar and just looking at statistics, you might think Barfield will continue to play as a second baseman, but when you come out and profile him, he might wind up being a successful first baseman for this organization, because he’s growing into his power and his body is changing. Statistics are nice, but you’ve got to have the whole picture to put it together. If the supporting cast isn’t there, so to speak, and if a guy doesn’t profile to his position, his statistics can be quite deceiving.
BP: OK, let’s flip it now. What can sabermetrics tell you in scouting that tools-oriented evaluation cannot?
BG: I think the statistics can serve as a gauge. If you go in and study the stats, there are going to be players on certain clubs who stick out, and that’s going to allow us to throw up the red flag and focus on a guy who we otherwise might have missed. Again, there are numbers within the numbers. A guy can have pretty good stats, but if the rest of the picture isn’t there, he’s not going to be a fit for your ballclub. If you can focus on the key ones, the OPS and the secondary power numbers as opposed to just the batting average, it should help you to figure out which kids you need to bear down, more than we might have in the past. Years ago, a leadoff guy with a .250 batting average, you weren’t so sure, but now, if you see he has a .400 OBP, that’s pretty interesting.
BP: When did you first see OBP and OPS come into scouting?
BG: I think it was when I was with Oakland, working under Sandy Alderson. Now, of course, it’s taken off, and OPS has become very important to our organization. I believe in all of that, because if you look at guys who have a low strikeout-AB ratio, or a high walk-AB ratio, those are kids that we see having patience, good hand-eye coordination, and a good idea of the strike zone. If we go in and like their tools and abilities, those (statistical) qualities will help us separate the good from the very good player.
BP: How does the organization account for normalizing statistics from different levels of competition?
BG: We take into account where the statistics are being produced. Stats can serve as indicators and separators, but you have to recognize that there are a number of false indicators as well. You can just look at the statistics from a particular college team and see nine players who have draftable stats, but when you take a closer look, you realize that particular college has never produced a pro player. One year, a team might play at a ballpark where the power alley is 360 feet from home plate, and then they never play there again. So, for one year, a guy looks like a big power hitter, but he’s never going to do that in the pros. In this organization, we try to focus on the larger college conferences, where the more talented players perform against one another. If somebody’s putting up big stats in the Pac-10, that counts a lot more to us than somebody who’s doing the same thing in one of the Northern schools.
BP: Doesn’t that make the evaluation process extremely difficult?
BG: It does, but we have ways to even things out and evaluate one player against another. We pay close attention to the Cape Cod League and Team USA statistics. When you’re in the draft room, you might have two different players you are thinking of drafting. They both had similar numbers, one played in Florida, and another played in the Midwest. The scouting reports on both are very similar as well, but both played in the Cape Cod League, where they use the wooden bat. We’ll take a look at those Cape Cod stats, and if one guy really flourished and the other struggled, that might be the difference maker right there. So, when we are evaluating from conference to conference or region to region, these types of stats can really serve as separators.
Craig Elsten works for KOGO Radio in San Diego as the pregame/postgame co-host for the Padres. He has also served as the Cactus League play-by-play voice of MLB Radio, and regularly beats Joe Sheehan in Strat-O-Matic baseball. You can reach him at email@example.com.