With the rise of quantitative analysis in baseball and the prominence of Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball (which, contrary to the ruminations of Joe Morgan, was not written by Oakland GM Billy Beane) there has been cultivated a turf rivalry of sorts between traditional scouting types and their propeller-head assailants. It’s my position (and the position of probably all of my colleagues here at Baseball Prospectus) that this rivalry is silly, unnecessary, and ultimately counterproductive. That’s because as organizations begin to recalibrate their approach to making player personnel decisions, they don’t need to be asking: which method do we choose? Instead, it should be: how do we integrate both approaches?
You see, there’s no need to replace traditional scouting with performance scouting (a term sometimes used to describe what we do here at Baseball Prospectus), and there’s no need to ignore the latter completely in blind preference to the former. In a column I wrote last year, I made a “beer and tacos” metaphor out of the dilemma. It’s a little like asking the question: “Which do you want, beer or tacos?” The answer, of course, is: “Both. Now, please.”
I’ll leave it to your druthers to decide whether beer or tacos is equated with traditional or performance dilemma, but the point is the decision to be made is one of degrees rather than one of relentless adherence to one or the other. Some organizations have cut back on their scouting staffs. While this has sent some members of the media into a moral panic, it’s merely a market correction going on throughout the game. For most of baseball history, performance scouting has lurked behind the industry’s dusty potted palm in the corner–devoid of influence and recognition. That’s changing–and for the better, I might add. Organizations like the Red Sox, A’s, Blue Jays and, now, Dodgers rely or will soon rely heavily on performance scouting. Others like the Padres, Yankees, Indians and Mets have struck more of a balance between the two. Then there are those like the D-Rays who seem to depend primarily on treasure maps, divining rods and magic beans.
It’s perhaps useful to think of the two approaches as inputs in outputs. Traditional scouting, by focusing on things like arm strength; swing mechanics; movement on pitches; pop times; foot, bat and pitch speed and other physical tools, homes in on the ingredients of performance. Performance analysis tells you, on a micro level, what a player is doing with those skills and tools–how well he’s bringing it all to bear on the field of play. Is that work-of-art swing actually producing an adequate number of runs? Is that jaw-dropping fastball creating enough outs? Is that fat, lumbering guy with no position quietly one of the best hitters in his circuit? Those are the kinds of things we can tell you, with advanced–yet easily absorbed–measures you won’t find on any Topps card. Tools aren’t worth anything unless they translate into performance on the field. Baseball is unlike many other major sports in that it requires a distinct set of athletic abilities. Plodding endomorphs like John Kruk and Cecil Fielder can become quality players at the highest level, while an athlete nonpareil like Deion Sanders flails about as a highly paid novelty act.
Things don’t really get interesting when the two approaches are in agreement. Take a seasoned scout and Keith Woolner, put them in a room and tell them to discuss, say, Vlad Guerrero. What you’ll get is verbal bouquet upon verbal bouquet from both perspectives. What about when the two approaches don’t agree? Well, either school of thought can point to a number of overlooked or over-hyped talents in both camps. What’s different is that the performance analyst, when evaluating a certain player, is always adding to the dossier. If the tools remain the same, but the performance changes suddenly, what are we to make of this? Fluke or new level of ability? By peering deeply into the statistical record, even as it grows daily, the performance analyst can offer insight into just what’s happening to a player.
Both approaches have value and are being incorporated by the most successful organizations. Which one’s more useful? We no doubt have our own subjective opinions about that, but there’s little doubt that the performance-analytics end of the continuum has been long neglected in baseball. That’s changing, and it’s changing fast. If you’re fellow traveler, you already know this. If you’re not, well, how about some beer to go with those tacos?