Technology Threatens Scouts, Could Also Set Them Free by Travis Sawchik September 18, 2017 After the Houston Astros elected to part ways with eight scouts last month, I wrote a piece on whether scouts and Statcast could coexist following the move by Jeffrey Luhnow. (Luhnow said the vacancies would ultimately be filled.) Carson Cistulli was also interested in this idea of redundancy, asking both Dave Cameron and Eric Longenhagen about it on different episodes of FanGraphs Audio. Dave was optimistic about the future role of scouts, while Longenhagen reported on some of the anxiety in the scouting community — anxiety with which I’m also familiar to some degree. Ken Rosenthal then wrote an excellent deep dive for The Athletic in which he spoke to a number of executives about the subject. From Ken’s piece: The Brewers, under GM David Stearns – Luhnow’s former assistant with the Astros – employ about 12 pro scouts and do not cover major league games until September, sources said, a rarity. The team’s pro scouts work in the minors until the final month and also help out on international and amateur coverage. The Brewers, like the Astros, believe strongly in video scouting, sources said. They also believe that information on a player’s makeup – information many teams consider vital – is more valuable at the lower levels of the minors, where performance data is limited. To others, however, the video and data offer only so much. *** The Diamondbacks recently let go of two full-time and two part-time pro scouts, but will hire a new pro scouting director and increase the size of their staff, according to general manager Mike Hazen. “I look at pro scouting as one of our most important departments, if not our most important,” Hazen said. “When you get into making trades, the pro scouting department is your most important department. They are the guys who are out there seeing these players, gathering every bit of critical information that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s the contacts, and the relationships and the critical makeup information that otherwise you don’t have access to.” How scouts and technology are integrated — whether by way of a peaceful, complementary process or one subject to conflict and infighting — has the potential to emerge as a significant story over the course of the next decade. I belong to the camp that believes there’s a place for both, that a $10 billion industry should have space for robust scouting departments. But I’m also not a business owner. I’m a journalist/blogger susceptible to romantic ideas. I asked Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels in July if he anticipated conflict or collaboration in the near future. He saw more of the latter. Daniels noted that technology should free scouts, allowing them to gather more intelligence on makeup, the human element, etc. But I wanted to follow up with a more specific sense of how technology might complement the game’s talent evaluators. More recently, I asked Pirates general manager Neal Huntington — who worked as an advance scout before becoming one of baseball’s more forward-thinking general managers — about how scouts and Statcast might get along. Huntington suggested that Statcast would likely free scouts to better fulfill the main duty of the profession for as long it’s existed: to watch games. This seems like the most basic of job requirements, but it can actually be a problem. As Dave noted on the podcast, scouts have essentially been glorified data-entry personnel for years, recording radar-gun readings, pop times, run times, etc. The lack of technology has too often forced scouts to divert their eyes from the field. It’s a problem with which I, as a former beat reporter, can relate. There’s a similar, but reverse, problem in press boxes across the country. The need both to interact on social media and also to post game stories immediately after the final pitch has often taken reporters’ eyes off the field — perhaps too often. My experience in the press box has suggested that, too often, reporters are compelled to look more at their laptops and phones rather than toward the action. I was guilty of this myself while working for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. My friend and fellow baseball scribe Dave Manel of Bucs Dugout would occasionally joke (or, half-joke) that we were at a baseball game, but not really watching it. Reporters have become prisoners to technology. Technology might also threaten scouts. That said, it also offers freedom to better do their jobs. “Instead of having to write, our guys are able to watch,” Huntington said regarding the influence of player-tracking systems on the organization’s scouts. “If you are charting the game, your head is going down.” That seems like the most basic of problems, but it has existed for decades. Huntington recalled how, as an advance scout in Cleveland, he would debate about whether to chart the game in person during the live event or wait and go back to his hotel room and use the nascent MLB.com video to replay the game and chart afterward. “I served as an advance scout and charted every pitch,” Huntington said. “There were times when I had to fight ‘Did I want to wait and chart the game after and just watch the game?’” It’s what scouts miss, it’s what reporters miss when their heads are down, when distracted, that has come to be so important: the details. And what can be inferred from the details? To what question will the details lead? Huntington cited PITCHf/x as proof scouts and player-tacking systems can coexist in harmony. “When we got the pitch-tracking data… it didn’t eliminate scouts. It freed scouts form having to chart pitches and grind through the data to find trends,” Huntington said. “Now much more is automated. But a scout that sees the pitcher’s tells, a scout that recognizes patterns — patterns that a computer won’t even recognize — there’s still incredible value in that scout that is in the stands… They’re able to watch the pitcher, his mannerisms, his action, his body language. The small things, instead of writing down, ‘It was a fastball down and away and hit to second base.’ “From an advance standpoint, it’s been an incredible advantage… Instead of worrying about the [stop]watch and getting that contact-to-contact, we are able to watch the game. We are able to watch the second baseman not move on a play where he should have moved. That catches our attention. Where are his defensive instincts? Where is his energy? Where is his love and drive for the game? Or does he just like to hit? There will be some other things, perhaps some better things, for our guys to focus on: the intangibles. They’re not [engaged in] glorified data entry.” For the Pirates’ scouts, the radar gun is still a tool in the bag, but now it’s something of a tool to be used to perhaps verify readings, not as a crutch. Statcast offers the promise of putting down the stopwatch and eliminating play-by-play cataloging. “They don’t have to put spray charts down by hand,” Huntington said. “It will free our scouts to maybe not even get run times because they will be able to watch the gait, they will be able to watch the defenders and their reactions. They will get a better feel for defensive instincts. It’s one thing to say, ‘The route was efficient, the jump was X, the max speed was Y.’ It’s another thing to understand defensive instincts. How engaged he away from the ball? Is he a spectator or a participant? “They are able to just watch.” That might seem like a simple thing, just to watch, but for so long scout’s haven’t been able to give their full attention to the game. Statcast can allow them to travel to the ballpark with a full focus on the game. It is perhaps the most powerful evidence suggesting that the technology and the scout can peacefully coexist. Technology is perhaps not a threat to scouts, it is perhaps an advancement to set them free.