Analytics killing scouts...

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T15D23
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Analytics killing scouts...

Postby T15D23 » Fri Feb 22, 2019 10:13 am

‘I’m really, really concerned’: No one has been hit harder by the analytics movement than pro and advance scouts
Mark Saxon

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JUPITER,​ Fla. –​ I​ got​ a call the​ other day from a scout​ I’ve​ known for nearly​ 20 years.​ His name​​ is Bob Johnson and, like many people in his industry and others, he is a victim of a changing job market spurred by technological advances — and the 72-year-old said he would work for free if the St. Louis Cardinals would hire him as their advance scout.

“I’ve got money, lifetime medical. I just want to work,” Johnson said. “I’m in a unique situation of being old. I have my social security and baseball pension. I don’t need a classic salary.”

For all the talk of what analytics has done to free-agent baseball players in two straight sluggish offseasons, no group of people in the game has been impacted more than scouts. They once filled press-box dining rooms and clustered in the expensive seats behind home plate toting their radar guns. Nowadays, you might run into one or two at a game, but only if you know where to look.

Is it just a matter of teams cutting costs, tasking computers with the jobs humans used to do? Many veterans in the industry think so.

“If you look at the kind of money they were spending, forget about the salary, but just to send a scout around the country for an entire year ahead of the team with hotel and meal money, it’s enormous,” said longtime major league pitching coach Rick Peterson, the son of former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Pete Peterson. “That’s probably the same cost as hiring three analytics people from MIT they can bring in as interns.”

Teams counter that while many scouts have lost their jobs in the past decade or so, the job losses are concentrated on just a few teams and in just a couple of areas: pro scouting and advance scouting. Official budgetary information is hard to come by, but some executives say they’re spending more on scouting than ever.

It’s simplistic to say that scouts are disappearing due to the rise of analytics. It’s more accurate to say that baseball operations staffs have grown considerably over the years, but that certain segments have been hit hard. Amateur scouting and international scouting are static in numbers, or even growing in some cases.

According to Baseball America, the average front office in 1989 had 30 employees listed in scouting. By 2018, that number had grown to 62 and will be roughly the same entering 2019. Meanwhile, analytics departments grow every year. The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris learned that the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves all employ at least 15 analysts.

Baseball America reported that 60 scouts lost their jobs in 2018, and after the Astros dropped eight scouts late in the 2017 season and the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau went under at about the same time, “alarms went off throughout the scouting fraternity.”

“I’m really, really concerned,” Giants executive – and longtime scout – J.P. Ricciardi told the magazine. “I’m very concerned about where it’s going.”

When I first started covering baseball in 1998, virtually every team had at least one scout writing reports on teams their clubs were about to play. I got to know Johnson around that time.

He was a high-school history teacher and baseball coach in New Jersey when he got his first part-time scouting job with the Pirates. It would become his passion and his paycheck for the next 44 years. That’s why he called me, a reporter with no particular influence, to try to find work again.

Predictably, it went nowhere. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said the team is satisfied with how it scouts opposing lineups and pitchers, through video study and Statcast data.

“We feel like you miss a lot more when you’re trying to do it in person, plus that’s a very tough job,” Mozeliak said.

Only about half a dozen teams continue to employ traveling advance scouts for regular-season games. Johnson would dearly love to make it seven and is cautiously optimistic he can make in-roads with a team like the Atlanta Braves, who have shown some interest this spring.

From a fan’s perspective, the question is what teams lose when they get rid of the human beings and rely on numbers and game video. That depends upon who you ask. Baseball executives seem to think it works just fine for scouting their upcoming opponents.

“Statcast data offers so much information on major league players and major league teams,” Oakland A’s general manager David Forst said. “Our baseball operations staff and coaching staff do a really good job of translating that for our players.”

Forst began his career with the A’s shortly before the writer Michael Lewis began following the team while researching what would become the New York Times best-seller “Moneyball.” The book would prompt an Oscar-nominated movie and would help accelerate the spread of analytics. Interestingly, the A’s now have a reputation for blending scouting opinions and analytics opinions in roughly equal measure. Some teams, such as the Astros, have virtually eliminated professional scouting while relying almost entirely on data.

“In our draft-room conversations, we’ve been consistent in that scouts absolutely have input in player acquisitions, especially the further away from the big leagues a player is,” Forst said. “That’s when you need more subjective information from scouts. If we take it to extremes and you’re talking about a 14-year-old kid, you entirely need to rely on a scout’s opinion. In Double-A and Triple-A, we have some metrics, but we don’t have Statcast, so we need to supplement.

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A’s GM David Forst is still a big believer in the usefulness of scouts. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

“The best guys out there are the ones who can look at a 14-year old and project what he might become.”

The Cardinals, too, have a reputation for listening to their scouts, which is why Johnson zeroed in on them. Mozeliak said his scouting department has grown from 18 when he arrived in 1996 to 24 now and has forked from one department into three. The international scouting department used to be one guy in the Dominican Republic, and now it’s a robust group on par with the other two.

“I definitely think when you think about using performance data to make decisions, obviously the more data you have on a player at the major league level, the more confidence you have on making decisions. But doing that solely and not having some complementary piece from a scout, in our minds, is not a good model,” Mozeliak said. “So, we do it.”

The dying lifestyle of the advance scout involves a blur of airports, hotels and ballparks. At his peak, Johnson said he had 1.9 million loyalty miles with United Airlines and 5.5 million rewards points with Marriott Hotels. He also sometimes would hit on information that proved to be gold for the team that employed him.

Peterson, who read Johnson’s reports when both men worked for the A’s, said Johnson sometimes relayed crucial bits of information the team otherwise wouldn’t have had. He recalled one time when Johnson discovered that a prominent hitter had jammed his wrist sliding into second base. It had never been reported in the local newspapers. After reading Johnson’s notes, the A’s changed their pitching plan and busted the hitter with fastballs on the inner half of the plate. He didn’t do much in that series.

“He knew so many people, he would get a lot of insight,” Peterson said. “That’s the kind of stuff you only get if you have somebody like Bob Johnson. He was one of a kind, or one of five or so, because he had so many of those kinds of relationships. You know, you meet somebody in a bar and get information.”

Peterson is far from a proponent of baseball’s old-school past. He was, in fact, one of the pioneers in biomechanical analysis, something that is garnering a lot of attention around camps this spring.

Through his friendships with Ricciardi and Billy Beane, Johnson got himself hired as the A’s advance scout in 1997. His specialty was focusing on a hitter’s hands and feet and trying to determine if he was skittish about being hit by a pitch.

“Back then, you could still throw inside and not get in trouble for it, so guys who have fear, obviously we would pound them inside,” Johnson said. “The example I always use is Willie Mays. He would have probably had a career .400 batting average if he weren’t afraid of getting hit in the head by pitches. There are big leaguers who didn’t like the ball in on their thumbs. If I told Tim Hudson you could beat a guy by throwing at his fingernails, it got there in a hurry.”

Johnson looks back most fondly on a report he wrote heading into an American League Division Series vs. the Boston Red Sox in 2003. He considers it the best advanced report he has ever written.

On the first page of his report, Johnson noted that on close plays at the plate, catcher Jason Varitek tried to trip runners if he could. He advised that, if the A’s had a chance, they should run over Varitek rather than try to elude his tag. In those days, of course, running over a catcher standing near the base line was legal.

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(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Sure enough, Eric Byrnes had a chance to score, but as he approached home plate, Varitek clipped him and he went flying over the plate in pain. The catcher retrieved the ball and tagged him out. It turned into a double play when Miguel Tejada was thrown out at third. Johnson says he later found out that Oakland’s manager, Ken Macha, had thrown away his advance report, telling people he already knew the opponent well enough to prepare for the series. The Byrnes play squandered a rare scoring chance for the A’s in Game 3. The Red Sox got a two-run walk-off homer by Trot Nixon in the 11th inning to win Game 3, then won the final two games of the five-game series to advance.

“We would have swept them,” Johnson insists. “Those are the little things that advance guys can do.”
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