One of the many interesting things about working in a big-league press box is the people you meet; you never know when you’re going to run into Bert Blyleven or Hawk Harrelson or Erin Andrews.
A while ago I got to talk to a couple of scouts, neither of whom work for the Royals.
The conversation went all over the place, but it started with amateur baseball and how it’s ruining the game.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth mentioning again; tournament teams often feature kids who think they have a future in pro ball and those kids want to get noticed. The kids do that by swinging for the fences and throwing a baseball as hard as they can. Those kids do not learn to become complete players; they don’t learn to throw a change-up or hit a ball to the right side or bunt or position themselves on defense.
And some fans (and GMs and owners) don’t seem to care. As long as the player racks up numbers in certain categories, the player can get away with holes in his game — until the player gets to a team like the Kansas City Royals.
If a team just swings for the fences, doesn’t bunt, steal or hit and run and doesn’t care what a player does on defense, the incomplete player might be OK. But if a team plays the whole game — if it steals bases, bunts, moves runners over and expects its players to play competent defense — the incomplete player will be exposed.
Both scouts liked the way the Royals play baseball; both scouts said you better know how to play the game if you expect to play it in Kansas City.
Analytics vs. the scouts
Both scouts loved their analytics departments. At times scouts have been portrayed as a bunch of tobacco-chewing dinosaurs, afraid of new information, but if you’re going to survive in a cutthroat business like professional baseball, a scout can’t afford to ignore anything helpful; if someone can provide knowable and useful information, scouts want to hear it.
When I asked what kind of information they were interested in, it was stuff like ground-ball ratio, swing-and-miss rates, pitches-per-at-bat, time between pitches and what pitch a pitcher uses to get back in the count. Both guys loved the new pitch-tracking technology; the scouts weren’t afraid of new information, but they wanted the information to be useful.
Does the pitcher have a secondary pitch he can throw for a strike when he’s behind in the count or does he have to throw a fastball down the middle and hope for the best? Can the pitcher get away with throwing his fastball in a 2-0 count? Can he add and subtract velocity on his fastball? Does he work both sides of the plate or is he mainly an arm-side guy or a glove-side guy? What’s his percentage pitch in a 1-1 count?
Stuff like that is both knowable and useful.
The scouts were less interested in the more esoteric stats like Wins Above Replacement; can anyone definitively say a player is worth 3.6 wins more than a fictional replacement player? One of them said WAR is not a stat they talk about and the other one said when people keep tinkering with a metric it’s a sign that metric has problems.
Be aware of the numbers but trust your eyes
You can visit various websites and see people try to attach a number to something that happened on the field and that number may or may not accurately reflect what happened. Being there to see what happened is helpful.
As one of the scouts pointed out, when you see Kelvin Herrera throw his new slider and it makes Evan Longoria swing-and-miss badly, your eyes have just told you something about that pitch. When Yordano Ventura has great stuff, but hitters are still taking good, balanced swings against him, your eyes are telling you something else.
Not everything worth knowing shows up in the box score.
When the catcher calls for an inside fastball to a right-handed hitter, do the third baseman and shortstop move to their right as the pitch is being delivered to home plate? Or do they wait until the ball is put in play before going into motion? When a single is hit to right field with nobody on, does the left fielder back up the throw to second base? Does the catcher hustle down the line on a ground-ball to back up the throw to first base?
There are things the numbers can tell you and there are things you have to see for yourself.
The human element and team chemistry
Nobody knows how to measure it, but both scouts thought team chemistry mattered. You can sign a bunch of guys with great individual numbers, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll play well as a team.
If a scout wants to learn something about a player’s makeup, he can watch the dugout; who’s talking and who are they talking to? Between innings is the catcher in constant conversation with his pitcher and the pitching coach? Is a starter getting a day off talking to the guy who’s replacing him? Are the guys on the bench locked in on the game or screwing around spitting sunflower seeds?
This is one of the reasons scouts show up at games; to see the stuff that doesn’t get measured.
Talking to the scouts was eye-opening; they were smart guys using those smarts to analyze a ballgame. The conversation gave me some new things to look for and I hope this blog does the same for you. All in all it was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had in the press box.