Scouts work to balance old and new methods
Numbers and feel both important when spotting young talent
MESA, Ariz. -- Not more than two weeks ago, Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch, who oversees the professional scouting department, had a dozen of his scouts at the team's Spring Training facility for a meeting before sending them to their assignments in Florida and Arizona.
At one point during a meeting, Hinch looked around the room, scanning the faces of each of the scouts.
He saw diversity, he saw experience. He saw a challenge.
"We're in a big room, we're going to rally the troops and go out and watch our morning workouts, and I'm sitting there and I look around and see [scouts with] one year [of] experience, two years' experience, 20 years' experience, 30 years' experience.
"I'm supposed to blend this together into one way of doing things? You try telling a scout who has been doing it one way for 20, 30 years that he now has to type this information into a computer and fill out a scouting report. You want him to balance [statistical] performance with tools and skills? Good luck."
It's not just the top level of today's front office that's leaning on the merits of quantitative analysis in building an optimal 25-man roster, but also those who make the initial observations on players, baseball's lifeblood -- the scouts themselves.
Hinch and Cubs director of professional scouting Joe Bohringer talked about the changing face of the scouting game Saturday during a morning panel at the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) analytics conference in Mesa.
Hinch and Bohringer talked about the challenges facing baseball's scouting department, as teams try to maintain traditional scouting measures while looking for ways to add predictive analysis to the equation. So what might sound like teaching an old dog new tricks is more the diversification of scouting departments to ensure each has a mix of the new and old.
This can often be a delicate dance for teams.
"That's something that's always a trick for us," Hinch said. "Factor that into a new scout you're hiring ... which way to do want him to go? Do you want him to lean on modern day analytics? That's a difficult question to answer."
One thing that hamstrings both scouts and front offices when it comes to evaluating amateur players in preparation for June's First-Year Player Draft is the amount of information they have in advance on the prospective players, especially from a quantitative analysis end. There's no pre-draft combine, meaning that sample-size is either too small, essentially non-existent or unreliable for amateurs.
"As far as we've come with the analytics that are available to us in baseball, trying to evaluate players is still is a battle between pure gut [instincts], pure look and trying to trust your instinct," Bohringer said.
One trend that Bohringer sees gaining traction as far as competitive advantage goes is to look for ways for teams to identify players with less of a track record -- drafting amateurs, signing players who come from the international market and even those players in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues.
"There was a point in time when it was a competitive advantage for teams if they were interpreting the available data better than the other 29 teams," Bohringer said. "Now, everyone is struggling to find the new competitive advantage ... find that metric no one else is using.
"If you need 2,000 plate appearances to feel comfortable about a player and I can do it in 1,000, while also augmenting it with scouts I trust, that's my competitive advantage. So in some respects, the new competitive advantage actually gets back to traditional scouting."
Or as Bohringer said, "It's not stats versus scouts. It's stats and scouts."
"I don't need a scouting report that's completely analytical. And I don't need a scouting report that says, 'He's going to be a Major League All-Star. Why? Because I said so.' We have to blend the two," Hinch said. "But you have to be very careful as you're building a pro scouting department not to polarize your department one way or the other."
Hinch is now asking his scouting staff to not only be tolerant of predictive analysis but to also utilize it with the understanding that a 'gut' feeling is still a vital piece to the puzzle.
"I know the scouts, who if you bring out a fancy [sabermetric] term, they are going to give you the stink eye," Hinch said. "I also know the guys where I have to tell them, 'Don't look down on your paper, look at the player.'
"You've got to describe the player. You're the only one in the ballpark. Don't recite what he's done. I can do that as well as you. Tell me what you see. We want opinions."