Could Scouting Use a Pivot to the Pacific?

The signing of Eric Thames and the projections subsequently produced for him represent two of the more interesting, if lower-profile, developments of the offseason. Since Thames took his quick left-handed swing across the Pacific, he’s become one of the top sluggers in the hitter-friendly Korea Baseball Organization.

If you have 30 free minutes you can watch all 47 of his 2015 home runs thanks to YouTube:

Despite having already played in the majors, Thames is something of a mystery, a curiosity, in transitioning from a foreign professional league. If the projections are accurate, however – and his Davenport translations are pretty close to other, former international unknowns like Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Jung Ho Kang – then the Brewers have themselves a steal.

In the cases both of Cespedes and Kang, who played in foreign leagues that draw fewer scouts, analytics played a considerable role in the decision to sign them. Analytics and projections also played a significant part in the Thames signing, as Brewers GM David Stearns told David Laurila in the latter’s Sunday notes this weekend.

Kang was the first KBO hitter to make the jump directly to the majors. There were no direct comparisons. But plenty of South Korean stars had played in the Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization, so the Pirates looked at their production in Japan and then studied the more sizable sample of NPB position players who have played in the majors.

Back in 2013, the A’s were also creative in projecting Cespedes, then a trailblazing Cuban defector, as detailed by Ben Reiter in Sports Illustrated.

“[Farhan] Zaidi built a model that analyzed not just the grades the scouts had given to Cespedes on the usual eight-point scale, but also the scouts themselves. Say three guys have a six power on him, three guys have seven power on him. What kind of minor leaguers or major leaguers do those guys have those grades on?”

The A’s did not miss a chance to scout Cespedes when access was available. The Pirates did send scouts over to evaluate Kang in addition to video analysis (though Kang’s off-the-field issues were apparently not discovered). Still, recent success stories of players signed from foreign pro leagues are analytics-heavy because they’ve had to be. There are few scouting resources committed to South Korea and Japan. Cuba has been difficult to scout due to political reasons.

But what are MLB clubs missing at the professional and amateur levels by not having more of a scouting presence in places like South Korea? And why are such areas not heavily staffed?

***

Daniel Kim, a KBO analyst for KBSN TV in South Korea and former major-league scout, said he knows of only three major-league teams – the Padres, Red Sox and Twins – that have full-time scouts in South Korea.

“The rest are part-timers,” Kim said.

For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals take an approach in Asia similar to many MLB teams, according to Jenifer Langosch’s report last season on the signing of Seung Hwan Oh.

Wrote Langosch:

“The nuance of scouting in Asia is one of the reasons it took the Cardinals several years of behind-the-scenes work before jumping into the market. Their research concluded that about half of all Major League teams have an organizational scout living in Asia. Slater said that while this may be an investment the Cardinals consider down the road, the organization does not yet believe it to be necessary.

“Instead, the Cardinals rely heavily on Slater (and) Jeff Ishii, a California-based pro scout who… travels to Asia once a year for about 10-12 days.”

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of scouting interest is an allocation-of-resources issue. According to a diversity study by Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida, only 1.2% of major-league players hailed from Asia, while 29.3% of major leaguers were from Latin America. In Latin America, teams have their own academies and scouting directors charged with overseeing a network of scouts.

Clubs, it seems, are acting rationally in how they allocate scouting resources.

But perhaps those population demographics will begin to shift in coming years and decades. Could teams be well served by getting out ahead of trends?

Baseball is South Korea’s sporting passion, according to Kim — something he suggests the upcoming World Baseball Classic will illustrate. It’s a country of 50 million people, equivalent to the combined population of California, Nevada and Arizona. Kim said the only time baseball is not the country’s sporting focus is during World Cup soccer.

South Korea has an organized amateur system. High schools and universities sponsor baseball, Kim said, and it is from that system which the KBO is stocked. South Korean players are renowned for their work ethic, and Kim cited that many of the coaches at powerhouse programs are trending younger.

“I think what is happening at the high-school level is coaches are getting younger. I think they are going to get smarter,” Kim said. “A lot of high-school pitchers have gotten hurt just like in the states. I think it is [improving].”

While major-league teams must wait until KBO and NPB players are posted or become free agents to acquire them, while video is available of every KBO and NPB game and analytics have proven to make accurate projections, perhaps it’s at the amateur level where opportunities resides.

“In order to keep an eye on amateur talent, you need a full-time guy here,” Kim said. “And there are only three full-time guys here.”

While Kang was the first KBO position player to jump to the majors, South Korean native Shin-Soo Choo had long established himself as a quality major-league hitter by the time Kang arrived. Choo was signed to a $1.35 million bonus as an amateur out of South Korea after he was named the MVP of the 2000 World Junior Baseball Championship.

Why have more players not taken Choo’s path to the majors?

***

The Minnesota Twins are one team that has a full-time scouting presence in South Korea.

One reason the Twins were so aggressive in bidding on Byung-ho Park
is because their relationship with Park went back 10 years. The Twins attempted to sign him as an amateur. While Park has to answer questions about whether he’ll hit – he posted a .191/.275/.409 slash line as a rookie – the power is real, and the Twins believe Park has the makeup to succeed in the majors.

The Twins employ video and analytics in scouting like most clubs, but the Twins also employ a full-time scout, David Kim, in South Korea. Twins vice president for player personnel Mike Radcliff said there is “no substitute” for putting “eyes on the player.” Radcliff estimates there are four other teams with a similar presence in South Korea.

“With [prospects] from Cuba, South Korea or Japan… The transition is something that goes beyond drafting a high-school guy out of California or Florida,” Radcliff said. “To have that look, to have that confidence of multiple looks, it does create a better chance to have a full picture on a player.

“That goes to the basics of scouting.”

In the U.S. amateur draft, there are no secrets. The top amateur players are known. In South Korea, outside of a top handful of amateur players, there is so much unknown. Radcliff said there’s no equivalent to Baseball America’s top-500 draft-prospects list in places like South Korea.

“I don’t think many teams have that type of depth,” Radcliff said. “It’s fairly easy to know who the [elite] guys are [through international tournaments]… But when you have an actual scout that lives in the country, that goes town to town, you acquire a lot more information.”

Radcliff suspects the number of MLB-caliber players produced by South Korea, and other emerging markets, will increase. But Radcliff said part of the issue in extracting amateur talent from South Korea and Japan is the pressure on players to remain in their native countries. As an amateur, Park reached an initial agreement with the Twins but elected to play in the KBO.

“It’s difficult to get guys to sign from Japan and South Korea,” Radcliff said. “They have their own leagues… It’s a unique culture. It’s not like the U.S. The high-school coach ends up making a lot of decisions for players. Right now the mindset set is they should play in their own country.”

Daniel Kim said major-league teams are predominately interested in scouting KBO talent. He said that represents a pivot in how major-league teams approach South Korea.

“When Chan Ho Park came over, the focus was on the amateur market: sign players and develop them through the minor-league system,” Kim said. “That was the route. Teams didn’t even scout the KBO. What happened initially is a lot of amateur players did sign… and they got stuck at Triple-A and Double-A.”

Moreover, KBO bonuses improved, incentivizing South Korean amateur talent to stay home. Kim said top amateur talent receives bonuses ranging between $500,000 and $800,000 from KBO teams.

But another barrier has perhaps been lessened through the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which includes new caps on international spending. The restrictions should level the playing field between small- and large-market clubs.

“Teams that do have a guy [in Asia], we’ll see if the new cap allows us to be ahead of our competition… since we’re all on a level playing field,” Radcliff said. “We’ll see if our knowledge base gives us any type of advantage.”





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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JimmieFoXX
5 years ago

“Kim said top amateur talent receives bonuses ranging between $500,000 and $800,000 from KBO teams.”

Followed by this:

“But another barrier has perhaps been lessened through the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which includes new caps on international spending.”

Those caps are so low the reality is MLB teams are financially competing on a one-to-one basis with KBO teams. Unless a Korean Shohei Otani shows up no MLB team is going to want to unload half their cap to sign a South Korean teenager.

Shohei Otani was supposedly offered three million by the Red Sox and that wasn’t enough, so where is the money going to come from with the new caps?

John Autin
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Exactly. Why would prospects care about a level playing field for MLB teams relative to one another? They care about the $$ offered to them by MLB versus other options.

Would the new hard cap on international signing hold up in court if MLB were subject to EEOC regulations? It almost seems designed to increase the population of U.S.-born players in MLB.

soaktherichmember
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

I think the point is that given the low cap in the new CBA, teams will need more intensive scouting of younger Korean players in order to identify the teenage Otani and sign him before he signs with a local team and becomes the monster that he is at 22. The cap allows for bonuses larger than what Korean teams pay but not by much. [Of course, Otani is Japanese — do they offer similar bonuses?]
On the other hand, if the players you’re signing are only worth a million or so dollars, do you really want to sink the up front money that a full-time scout costs if you’re only getting back a few million dollar players? If you think that there are more future double-digit career-WAR kids out there like Otani, the answer may be ‘yes.’