For some time, it seemed like the battle between analytics and scouts had died out.
The divide first surfaced in the public consciousness following the publication of Moneyball 14 years ago. Michael Lewis recounts in his book how some in the A’s front office contemplated a future in which scouts were redundant and no longer necessary — at least not in such numbers. It was an extreme view.
In the meantime, however, a sort of peace appeared to have been brokered. It was generally accepted that the best clubs, the model organizations — like the St. Louis Cardinals for much of the 2000s — successfully integrated both camps.
And then in 2015 something happened: Statcast was installed in every major-league stadium.
I remember, in the summer of 2015, meeting with several scouts for drinks after the conclusion of a game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. One scout in the group expressed his concern that Statcast was soon to make them redundant, as it promised to record data like exit velocity, pop times, lead distance, route efficiency, and first-step quickness, etc. — that is, much of the same data for which scouts were responsible.
The promises came true: now, a couple years after that conversation in Pittsburgh, Statcast can do all that. And whatever its flaws at the moment, its reliability is only likely to improve in the future.
It’s with that as background that I took interest in some news broken by Peter Gammons on Friday.
As a reward for their part in their successful season, the Houston Astros today fired eight scouts.
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) August 18, 2017
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow immediately told the Houston Chronicle that the move didn’t represent a reduction in the club’s scouting staff.
Luhnow insisted the Astros’ scouting department will remain roughly the same size in the future. The Astros are in the process of realigning their scouting departments, the GM said.
“This is not a cutback in scouting,” Luhnow said. “We are reconfiguring within and across the three scouting departments – international, domestic and pro.”
Luhnow declined to disclose details of the planned reconfiguration. Their realignment will consist of new hires, the GM said.
It will be interesting to see how, and with whom, the Astros restructure.
There are some in the scouting community threatened by Statcast, which can automate tasks their profession has performed with eyes, stopwatches, and radar guns for so long. Is technology threatening to disrupt this labor market like it has done with so many others this century? Is there a chance the size of the scouting workforce is reduced? FanGraphs’ request to speak with the Astros over the weekend was not immediately granted. But I had asked Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels recently about whether scouts are endangered by technology.
“I look at it the other way: it frees the scouts up,” Daniels told FanGraphs. “I do think scouts’ role has changed a little bit. We don’t need them to focus as much on the minutiae of the play by play. They can actually kind of sit back and watch the game a little bit more away from the ball. They can focus on some of the information gathering, the pregame stuff, the work that is being put in. The role has a chance to change here with the information we have.”
And what is it that player- and ball-tracking frees scouts up to do? It’s the human element, Daniels believes.
“I think context on a personal level,” Daniels said. “I think in general, when we talk about evaluating players, that is the piece [missing]… You’re not there everyday. And that includes myself… That’s becoming more and more the skill of the scouts; their top responsibility is to identify that context. Identify that personal piece… that is an element you cannot access unless you are on the ground. The best scouts are able to fill in that blank.”
Is there a good example of that amongst the current Rangers?
“Carlos Gomez,” Daniels said. “Whether it was traditional performance or a deeper dive, an analytical look, there weren’t a ton of exciting things there.”
Gomez posted a .594 OPS in Houston last season. He was released by the Astros on Aug. 18. 2016. Two days later, the Rangers signed him and he posted a .905 OPS the rest of the season. He’s posted a .795 OPS this season.
What did the Rangers’ scouts see?
“[A scout] knew he might respond to our environment and leadership both in regard to staff and teammates,” Daniels said. “Sometimes, for whatever reason, things don’t fit in certain environments. It wasn’t working for Carlos in Houston, and Sam Dyson with us. It wasn’t working here… Sometimes we lump it in with change of scenery, but there is a subtext to that where there are other elements going on. Our guys [evaluating] Carlos had done homework in the past, following him since Milwaukee, knowing the player, knowing the person. We felt he could thrive in our environment and it played out that way.
“The term makeup. Is it values? Boy scouts? What are the things you are looking for? You can’t send a scout in on a special assignment to uncover makeup. There is history, there are years, there are relationships. You wouldn’t hire a person for a position based upon one interview. You would want to know past performance, you want to check references, you want to know this person on a deeper level, and that is where having the history and scouting standpoint is enormous. I don’t how that would be replaced.”