One day last season I showed up early for a Royals game and ran into a couple of scouts. You can usually spot a baseball scout because he’ll have a suntan that would make George Hamilton envious and wear a championship ring the size of a ping pong ball.
One of the scouts was just starting out and the other scout had been in the business a long time — neither scout worked for the Royals.
Scouts get paid to watch baseball because they see things the rest of us miss, so I try to learn what I can from them. That day the conversation ranged all over the place, and what follows are some of the highlights.
Trust your eyes
If you’re there to watch a particular player, it’s probably because he’s put up good numbers. But don’t let those numbers sway you into disbelieving what you’re seeing.
The radar gun might say a guy’s got a terrific fastball, but if the hitters are squaring him up there’s a problem. Advanced metrics might say the guy’s a bad defender, but if you’re seeing him make outstanding plays, disregard the metrics.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore says he has scouts to confirm what the numbers guys tell him and numbers guys to confirm what the scouts observe — both points of view are necessary.
Look for stuff that won’t show up in the numbers
Between innings, does the player watch the game or is he wearing his hat sideways and spitting sunflower seeds?
If he’s a catcher, is he talking to his pitcher and pitching coach between innings? When the player’s on deck, does he focus on the pitcher, or is he chatting with fans in the stands? Is this a focused player or someone whose mind is wandering all over the place?
If you think this stuff doesn’t matter, you clearly haven’t tried to coach a player with no attention span.
Has the player developed his skill-set?
It’s fairly rare to put a rookie in the 3-hole even though that’s where he might eventually wind up.
So even though a guy is killing it in amateur ball or the minors, he still needs to learn to bunt, hit and run and move runners, because that’s what he’ll be doing (at least for a while) in the big leagues.
Both scouts thought a player could get away with undeveloped tools if he played in another system, but because the Royals play a more complete game — bunting, moving runners and stealing bases — a minor-leaguer who hadn’t worked on those skills will get exposed in Kansas City.
Both scouts also thought high-level amateur ball emphasized putting up impressive numbers so the players would get noticed but often ignored developing the baseball skills that would be required in the pros.
Watch for control vs. command
Control is the ability to throw strikes; command is the ability to hit the quadrants of the zone (up and in, down and away, down and in, up and away). In the minors it’s enough to throw strikes; in the big leagues you have to hit spots. Watch the catcher’s mitt and how much it moves in order to receive a pitch.
Pay attention to a young player who’s hitting doubles
If a guy just out of high school or college is hitting doubles, those doubles might turn into home runs after he spends time growing up and working out.
And as the player gets more experience, he’ll also develop a better idea of what pitches he can do damage on; that means he’s more likely to homer when he gets a good pitch to hit.
I haven’t met a single person in baseball that ignores the numbers; these guys are in the business of winning ball games and they want any information that can help.
But I also haven’t met a single person in baseball who accepts every number without question; they find some numbers useful and ignore others.
The scouts did not have a lot of faith in what they called “boutique” stats like wins above replacement. As one of them pointed out, when folks keep tinkering with a stat, the stat has problems.
What does a pitcher do 0-2?
Does the pitcher have a “put-away pitch” or “chase pitch” he can throw in an 0-2 count?
If the pitcher gets the hitter in a two-strike count and can’t get a swing-and-miss, that might mean the pitcher doesn’t have punchout stuff and he’s a guy who needs to pitch to contact and quit trying for the strikeout.
What does a pitcher do 2-0?
When a pitcher falls behind in the count 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1, what pitch does he throw? Does he have a secondary pitch he can throw for a strike, or does he have to throw a fastball and hope for the best?
For example …
At the time of this conversation, the Royals were playing the White Sox. One of the scouts said the Chicago bullpen threw hard but had a tough time throwing its secondary pitches for strikes.
He predicted that once the games went to the bullpens, the Royals would have an advantage.
That night — Friday, May 27 — the White Sox bullpen allowed the Royals to come back after being down 5-1. The Sox relievers threw a total of 42 pitches; eight were secondary pitches for strikes.
The next day — Saturday, May 28 — the Royals were down 7-1 in the bottom of the ninth and scored seven runs to win. David Robertson started the ninth for Chicago and threw 29 pitches. Two were seconday pitches for strikes, the rest were cutters. A cutter is somewhere between a slider and a fastball, but Robertson’s cutter was in the low 90s so the Royals didn’t have to worry about off-speed pitches.
Tommy Kahnle replaced Robertson and also relied heavily on his fastball; he threw 22 pitches — including two intentional walks — but only one secondary pitch for a strike.
The following day — Sunday, May 29 — the Sox pen blew yet another lead and allowed the Royals to come back for a 5-4 win. The Chicago relievers threw 40 pitches and only two were secondary pitches for strikes.
It was a horrible series for the White Sox bullpen, and things didn’t get much better for Chicago as 2016 went on. Last year, the Royals went 14-5 against the White Sox. I was smart enough to listen to the scouts, but not smart enough to place a bet.
Learn to watch baseball like a scout because, like I said at the beginning, they see things the rest of us miss.