Many inexplicable things happen in this crazy world. Take the Houston Texans, one of the most innovative offensive teams in the NFL right now. They only have one offensive player named to the Pro Bowl team. Doesn't that seem crazy?
These logic-defying situations seem to pop up for me all the time, but one of the first happened way back in 2002 when I first read Moneyball. The arguments in the book seemed sound; I mean, the whole point of it was that a general manager was exploiting an inefficiency in the market. Getting on base is a fundamental part of baseball, but teams were not paying guys who possessed that skill. Yet, for some reason, this set off a firestorm of "stats vs. scouting" debates around baseball that still lingers to this day. Why is that?
Dave Cameron does an excellent job of showing how scouting and statistics have started dovetailing with the "Moneyball" concepts lately. His point about how defense is undervalued in the market has a point. It's also interesting to note that one of the points Billy Beane hints at in Moneyball is that defense is the Undiscovered Country of statistics and that was where he was focusing his energy at the time.
Now, there are all sorts of statistics to measure defense. Not all of them work, but there are plenty of smart people working on it. More than any time this decade, there are plenty of concrete, statistical ways to determine who's a good defensive player and who is a bad one, with a fair degree of accuracy.
Before, you had to be a scout to understand why Derek Jeter wasn't a good shortstop. With new fielding metrics, you can see how limited his range was on balls hit to his left. There are numbers and charts for this specific purpose. So why can't you, dear reader, be a Major League Baseball scout?
That's my ultimate question for this post. What makes a scout any different than the hardcore baseball fans that come to this site? Is it experience with the game? Is it knowledge of mechanics behind plays? Is it something more nebulous like a 'feel for the game'?
That's where I have a problem. Think about how many hours you've watched the Astros in your lifetime. Over the past 15 years, it's safe to say I've watched about 81 complete games per season, or roughly 1,200 total baseball games. That's adding up all the partial games, all the highlights, from my younger years to the MLB Network making its debut in my home. It's a pretty conservative estimate, but I didn't want to shoot too high for this purpose. Taking into account the average baseball game lasts about three hours, that means I've watched 3,600 hours of baseball just in the past 15 years.
Assuming you agree with Malcolm Gladwell that it takes at least 10,000 hours of doing a specific skill to master it, I'm over a third of the way there at the tender age of 27. Of course, that doesn't take into account the hour or so a day I spend reading, pondering and analyzing baseball related stats and articles. Since I've done this 300 days a year for at least the past six years, it's safe to say that I'm halfway to mastering a specific skillset. Does this mean I'm just as qualified to scout for a major league team as someone who has worked as a scout for 3-4 years? Or someone who played baseball at a higher level than Little League?
So what differentiates a professional scout and all the experts we have around SBNation talking baseball every day?
Scouts spend their entire working lives living and breathing baseball. They still only get to watch maybe 2-3 hours of games a day and can't see more than 150 games in one season, which means it'd take a full-time scout at least around seven years to master their skill set. Since the "non-SABR" scouting community basically admitted they don't use advanced metrics, that means they don't spend a lot of time outside the office reading blogs like this one.
Going further than that, how many scouts do you think would spend the time to get a medical background, reading guys like Will Carroll or the boys at Driveline Mechanics? How do they gain the knowledge on what makes some mechanics bad and others good? For some, it's all institutional knowledge and experience.
What I'm suggesting to you is that by being here on this blog right now, you have the same potential skill set to be a successful big league scout as the actual scouts. You watch baseball, right? You know who's good and who's not, right? If you are here instead of reading Harold Reynold's newsletters, you know how important things like OPS and OBP are, right? You could guess that line drives are indicative of a good hitter, i.e. the more line drives, the better the hitter?
The difference may be in specialization. MLB has an academy of sorts every fall during the Arizona Fall League called Scouting School. They even have a dedicated office for scouting, employing upwards of 30 scouts to give teams an objective opinion on amateur players across the country. I really want to attend this school, if for no other reason than to understand how to grade players. Honestly, though, if you can look through Pitch F/X data and can use the videos out there to determine what good mechanics look like and what are indicators of trouble, you can scout pretty well on your own.
Take speed data. Project Prospect published their speed timings from the AFL, grading players based on up to three trips to first base. The highest graded player got to first in just under 4 seconds. Extrapolating this out, if I'm watching video on MLB.com of a guy the Astros just drafted, and he happens to be shown getting down the line in 4.0 seconds, I can safely assume he grades highly on the speed side, right?
That's all scouting is. Use the data in front of you to observe and form opinions. There has never been more data out there on all aspects of the game. If this Game F/X plan goes into effect, making every batted ball plotted and measured in the field of play, then anyone can be a great scout if they take the time to understand what they're seeing. Maybe that's the real change since Moneyball hit. More people are being hired as scouts that can think outside of the batter's box on analyzing players. Certainly, the Cardinals and Mariners seem to be moving in this direction.
Should there be a logical difference between scouting and sabermetrics? Not really. With the amount of data available now, you can almost view it as an extension of scouting. In fact, if I were starting a new MLB front office, I'd...well, I'd better save that for tomorrow's story. It's going to be good, trust me.