Scouting is one of those words that has lost so much meaning in recent years. While the action itself has definitely not lost any importance, the use and perception of the word has been diluted.
What is actually one of the most revered positions in sports, has (in a weird way) become synonymous with outdated practices and frequently misleading/incorrect conclusions.
Obviously, we know that nothing can be further from the truth. Scouting is as useful now as it has ever been (look at the Cubs’ big addition this week), but perhaps we just don’t know enough about it.
At the Athletic, General Manager Jed Hoyer, President Theo Epstein, and Pro Scouting Director Jared Porter talked to Sahadev Sharma about this very topic, suggesting that fans seem to have a great understanding of amateur scouting (the “mystery man with a baseball cap, a clipboard and maybe a radar gun” at some high school game), but almost no understanding of professional scouting, how it differs, and how incredibly valuable it can be.
If you’re curious about what you might be missing (you should be), then Sharma’s article is a great place to start. [Brett: The article is circa the Trade Deadline, but I missed it back then, its relevance hasn’t changed since then, and so I asked Michael to give it a look. It’s really good.]
The value of scouting, to both Hoyer and Epstein, is not limited to the incalculable actions of a player on the field. Obviously, seeing a player play firsthand can provide an enormous amount of detail and information that stats cannot, but it goes beyond that. “A scout in the ballpark can see everything a player does from the time he steps on the field to stretch to the time he walks off the field after the game,” Epstein said, via Sharma. Epstein added that professional scouts break players down physically, fundamentally, and mentally to provide any insight into potential trends (positive or negative), adjustments, or expectations: “Not everything shows up on TV because the camera is not always on the player. The scout is breaking the player down physically, fundamentally and mentally, looking for anything that might give us insight into which way the player is trending or perhaps an adjustment that can unlock some hidden value. Body language, how a player is interacting with teammates, extra work done hours before the game – all these things are important. Scouts in the park also pick up information you don’t always get in the office, working their relationships and keeping their ears open.”
While amateur scouts may be looking for the next big thing, professional scouting is a bit more nuanced. According to Hoyer, even the smallest detail can make the difference between whether a team (like the Cubs) targets a player or not (in this case, he was referencing the upcoming trade deadline, but the application goes much more broadly). Scouts frequently talk to coaches, trainers, teammates, other scouts, beat writers and anyone in between to learn this type of information, and front offices – even ones as analytically aligned as the Chicago Cubs – values it tremendously.
And when you think about it, of course they do.
Being a progressive front office doesn’t mean relying solely on the numbers, and making cold, analytical decisions. It means using all of the information available to make the best possible decision. Scouting, whether we understand it or not, is a huge part of that.
There are plenty of other stories, quotes, and lessons, so take some time out of your day while you wait for tonight’s game and check out Sharma’s piece. After all, there’s plenty more to learn and you wouldn’t want to make up your mind before that, would you?