The Past, Present, and Future of International Scouting

“I was at dinner with our scout in Japan and he made a comment that even truck drivers throw 95 over here,” said Oakland’s Assistant General Manager Dan Feinstein. “That caught my attention. I said, ‘If that’s true, maybe we should be trying out some of these truck drivers.'”

Feinstein soon decided to run an experiment. Oakland advertised an open tryout for pitchers and invited players with a college pedigree to send video to the A’s scouting department. From there, the team invited 60 of them to throw in front of scouts. One of them, right-hander Shohei Tomioka, bumped 95 on the gun, which impressed Oakland enough to offer him a contract then and there. “We call it the truck driver tryout,” Feinstein said with a chuckle.

Tomioka’s story was only possible because of a brilliant combination of scouting and technology, with a dash of luck mixed in. His signing is also an indication that the international talent market is laden with players just waiting to be discovered. See, Tomioka wasn’t simply a truck driver with a live arm. He was an experienced pitcher, a graduate of one of Tokyo’s top baseball programs — he was just never seen at the right time by the right people. By the time Oakland discovered him, he was loitering in a small local league. “There’s a lot of independent ball over there,” Feinstein says, “and he had been pitching in one of these kind of obscure leagues. He was free to try out and was throwing 95 so we signed him.”

For anyone lamenting the rise of big tech in baseball or the demise of the scout, Tomioka is living proof that, for good and for ill, an element of the unpredictable remains in the game. His signing demonstrates the value of having a robust international department, while also highlighting how fertile the international market is today, and how teams that invest abroad now stand to reap a competitive advantage in the years to come. To get a better sense of how that might develop, let’s take a deeper dive into how teams scout internationally today.

Latin America

The most important part of any team’s international scouting operation is its Latin America group. The vast majority of each club’s international bonus money will be spent there, and in a region where scouting remains more art than science, having talented evaluators is of utmost importance. The number of international scouts varies from team to team, but every organization has a significant presence. The last holdouts — most notably the Orioles and White Sox — paid a steep price for their lack of investment in the region earlier this century.

Most clubs, even the ones that slashed their domestic scouting staffs in recent years, have a few area scouts in both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic; if there’s an average, it’s around five in the D.R. and four in Venezuela, but the numbers fluctuate between organizations. Similar to how they work in the United States, these people are responsible for all of the talent in a particular region of the country. As in the U.S., they report to crosscheckers, and director-level evaluators will fly in regularly as well. When the A’s signed Pedro Pineda and Robert Puason, for instance, Feinstein estimated that at least 25 club officials had watched each of them play and that he’d seen each in person a dozen or so times as well.

Other countries in the region are scouted regularly, if less heavily. Several organizations have a full-time scout in Colombia, which is a bit of a special case. While the quality of baseball in the nation is good and improving, part of the appeal is that it’s also a place where scouts can evaluate Venezuelan players without actually needing to travel into Venezuela. That’s a big advantage, particularly as the country’s unstable and deteriorating geopolitical situation has made scouting more challenging in recent years.

“It’s difficult for really anyone outside of Venezuela to get into Venezuela to see those players,” Feinstein says. “And there are more and more of them finding their way to Cartagena and Medellín. So we’re traveling to Colombia quite often to see those kids.”

For some teams, it doesn’t stop there. A handful have a full-time evaluator in Mexico; this person often does a combination of professional and amateur work. It’s also not unheard of for teams to have a full-timer in Curaçao, Nicaragua, Panama, or the Bahamas as well.

Scouts are particularly important in this part of the world because they’re evaluating players at a much younger age than their American counterparts. While stateside amateurs can’t be drafted and signed until they graduate high school, top Latin American talents put pen to paper at age 16. The guys getting the biggest bonuses have often been evaluated since they were 13 or 14, and it’s one of baseball’s worst-kept secrets that they usually have agreements with teams well before they’re actually eligible to sign.

All of that means that scouts in Latin America have to do far more projecting on tools and physicality than their colleagues around the world. Modern technology is still part of the evaluation process — major tournaments will have Trackman units and scouts have the players they’re watching use Blast sensors as well — but the ability to evaluate tendencies, physical projection, and makeup is particularly important in a region where players haven’t reached physical maturity.

Perhaps even more important than the scouting itself is the value of relationships. Scouts and crosscheckers in Latin America must regularly be in contact with the coaches and trainers who work with the region’s elite players. The stronger these relationships, the more they learn, both about players already under the microscope and those in the next wave of talent. Remember, these players are very young: Someone totally off the radar one year could emerge as a real prospect the next, and well-positioned scouts and crosscheckers are best able to act on this information.

Feinstein is quick to acknowledge the importance of the club’s crosscheckers, including Raymond Abreu, who has been with the club since Oakland first started scouting in the Dominican Republic back in the 1990s: “Those guys have intimate relationships with these trainers and really, the closer you are with those guys, the more information you can get and the more looks you’re able to get at all these players.”

Unfortunately, there’s a seedy side to the international scouting scene, particularly in Latin America. The trainers (buscones, as they’re called in the region) often act as agents for players who, particularly in the Dominican Republic, are young and under-educated. These teenagers are ripe for exploitation, and many a trainer has walked away from contract negotiations with a significant chunk of a kid’s signing bonus.

There’s plenty of bad behavior and corruption on the team side as well. It’s no rare thing for a club to stiff someone on a handshake deal, and there are even cases where club officials have skimmed money off of the bonuses of recently signed players. The range of abuses is well-chronicled, perhaps most notably in Pelotero, a documentary that covered Miguel Sanó’s signing and highlighted many of the shady practices endemic in scouting in Latin America. In more recent times, MLB banned former Atlanta Braves GM John Coppolella for life after uncovering a litany of violations of the signing rules during his tenure with the club.

One big question in the industry is how a future international draft will change the landscape in Latin America. Seen by many within the game as a matter of when and not if, the draft will inevitably limit the amount of money flowing from billionaires to poor teenagers. That in and of itself is a bad thing (drafts are lousy), even if it might also help curtail some of the corruption in the region and better incentivize teams to scout players when they’re a bit older.

Asia

The situation in Asia is much different than in Latin America. While each team signs several players from the Caribbean nations annually, some franchises may go years without signing anyone in Asia. Amateur scouting is important, but in South Korea and Taiwan in particular, evaluating the professional leagues is a huge part of the job. Where teams are often signing baseball protoplasm in Latin America, signings in Asia tend to be more targeted, and designed to address a direct area of need.

Another dissimilarity? Not every team regularly has a presence on the ground in Asia. A few teams, including the A’s, Phillies, and Red Sox, have a dedicated crosschecker and multiple full-time scouts located there. Others, including the Angels and Astros, don’t have a full-time presence at all.

In Japan, Korea, and to a lesser extent Taiwan, scouts face an additional obstacle beyond the other 29 major league clubs: domestic professional leagues. Japan’s NPB and Korea’s KBO are competitive circuits, with a quality of play that resembles Triple- and Double-A respectively. Players, once drafted and signed by a team in their domestic league, have a long path to free agency (one that is additionally complicated by mandatory military service for all South Koreans, unless they medal in an international tournament). East Asian players must either be signed as amateurs, or once they’re fully developed veterans.

In each case, big league teams have several hurdles to navigate when they want to sign an amateur. In Japan, no player has ever gone directly from high school to a major league team. Teams can’t ignore that population entirely — the Dodgers nearly signed Shohei Ohtani out of high school, for instance — but in Japan, NPB is a bigger focus. In South Korea and Taiwan, players can sign as amateurs, though most don’t for a variety of reasons.

For one, there’s a language and cultural barrier. Just as importantly, there’s a much quicker path to NPB or the KBO than to the big leagues. Early picks often jump straight from college or high school to the highest level, where rookies make more money than they would toiling in the minors. Not surprisingly, many of the best players stay home: For every Ji-Man Choi and Jen-Ho Tseng who come stateside, there are a bunch of talented youngsters trying their luck in NPB, the CPBL or the KBO.

If there’s a similarity to the Latin American scene, it’s in the value of relationships. Once again, knowledge is power. For Matt Slater, St. Louis’s Special Assistant to the GM focusing on Player Procurement, those relationships helped the Cardinals sign impact players like Seunghwan Oh and Kwang Hyun Kim.

“With Kim, his agent and I are very close friends, which allowed us to get to know him even better at an earlier time [than other teams]. We had intel that other clubs didn’t have.”

Not surprisingly, the teams that invest significant resources on the international side have an advantage over those that don’t. Slater brings up Oh as an example. “The key with Oh is that we had every outing of his on video. Back at that point, teams weren’t doing that in Asia.” With a pitcher like Oh, whose stuff waxed and waned in his final years in Asia, the additional insight St. Louis had made the club more comfortable acquiring a player who would eventually save 40 games for the Redbirds.

“We knew he had good stuff because we saw every outing,” Slater said.

The competitive advantage Slater describes is shrinking. Nowadays, every team has access to Trackman data from the top domestic leagues, and more organizations are involved in scouting in Asia than ever before.

“Two years ago, there were eight players from NPB and the KBO that signed major league contracts,” Slater said. “It just shows the importance of that market, and to get eight, nine quality major league players like that… that doesn’t necessarily happen in the first round of an amateur draft each year.”

What’s Next

When discussing the international scouting scene, the conversation inevitably shifts toward the future. Apart from the possibility of a draft, there’s another big question: Where will the next great baseball hotbed be?

There are already a few candidates. Perhaps the most obvious one is Europe, which has produced several big leaguers over the last decade. While the domestic leagues around the continent are tiny, the sport itself is slowly but steadily growing. One source was excited about the prospect of a super league, a sort of Champions League of baseball that would pit top teams from various countries against each other, as a sign of the game’s burgeoning interest and competitiveness in Europe. A small handful of teams already have full-time scouts in Europe, and I suspect that more will be on the ground in the next 10 years.

Brazil is another candidate. The world’s sixth biggest country, there’s certainly plenty of athletic talent available if the sport gains more of a foothold. Even though it’s only played by a small minority of the population, six Brazilians made their big league debut in the last decade, and more will be coming. For now, few teams have a regular presence there.

The wild card is China. Talent in the country lags behind Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, but there too the game is growing. And in a nation of more than one billion people, it only takes one gifted athlete in the right place at the right time to make an impression and inspire a generation to take interest in the game.

Slater is well aware of the value and excitement a Chinese player could bring to the sport. He notes that the talent level in China is well behind the three main baseball powers in the region, but that club and league executives alike are dreaming big: “We have some people in my foreign office who come to me and say, ‘Hey, we should just get anybody out of there and teach them to knuckleball,’ just to get somebody into the big leagues from China.”

Competitive advantages never last forever. But in a realm like international scouting, where early labors take years to bear fruit, a big head start could endure for a while. Whether in China, Brazil, Europe, Colombia, or even traditional strongholds like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, there’s a lot of talent out there. Regardless of where the next advantage lies, the value of getting in first is clear to Slater. Speaking about China, he said: “I do think there could be talent there. It’s going to take a long time for it to develop, but if somebody did come out of there, it would be a goldmine.”





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Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Interesting article:

1. Latin American players typically sign at age 16. Is that true for all players in the region, or only the best? A lot of boys need more time to develop physically. If a Dominican boy is unsigned at age 16, is it game over? When is it game over?

2. Some teams have a dedicated scout in Curacao? That is a small island with 155,000 people. Seems like a cushy job. More likely, one scout covers all three ABC islands, which is still way less stressful than covering all of Mexico (which would probably only be Northern Mexico).

3. I asked a Brazilian guy about baseball in his country. He says it is nonexistent. When I told him there is a small but growing group of Brazilians in the big leagues, he was shocked.

4. Teaching a Chinese player the knuckleball just to get a guy in the big leagues: If the guy totally flops, or is super marginal, I wonder how much that would matter. Yao Ming was huge for the NBA in China. He was a great player. What if instead of Yao Ming, there was a super marginal Chinese player riding the bench on a ten day contract? I wonder how much of an impact a Chinese player like that would have in China? If an American goes to England and plays cricket or Finland and plays bandy, how much of an impact will that have in the US? If the player is awesome, good looking, and charismatic, perhaps a bit. If he is marginal and boring, probably nil.

mattzach27
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mattzach27

On that last point, I know he was riding on Yao’s very large coattails, but Jeremy Lin has had a pretty big impact. Obv there was Linsanity, but for the most part he’s been little more than a role player.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Jeremy Lin was not riding on Yao Ming’s coattails. To ride on one’s coattails means you got your opportunity, or even your entire career, because someone else created that opportunity. Lin struggled to get a college scholarship, and went to Harvard which does not award athletic scholarships. He was undrafted and had to claw his way into the NBA, and into an NBA rotation.

The existence of Yao Ming did not open any doors for Jeremy Lin.

Yao Ming is from China. Jeremy Lin is from California. Jeremy Lin is Asian American.

I don’t think anyone was that surprised that China could produce a 7’6″ dominant center. A lot of people were very surprised that an 6’3″ Asian American point guard could have the success that Lin had.