The Chicago Cubs’ scouting ranks had been thinning for years, at least in terms of the classic depiction of in-person scouts, particularly on the pro side (i.e., minor leagues and MLB). But according to the latest at The Athletic, the Cubs are moving even further in a non-traditional direction.
In a piece focusing on the massive job losses around MLB, and about how the pandemic drove losses that were potentially coming eventually in any case (possibly to the detriment of the sport), Even Drellich writes about the Cubs’ increasing move into video scouting:
Of course, it remains possible that a relatively full season could be played [in 2021]. Yet, even when normalcy returns, some positions will not. Multiple executives used the term “right-sizing.” Some owners were previously agreeable to (or at least ambivalent toward) keeping employees whom they might not consider vital. No longer, with revenues dropping — even though the owners raked in money in previous years.
A few teams have already moved toward different models in areas like pro scouting — switching from less in-person coverage to more video work — and now other teams are more likely to follow suit. Teams that have done so believe they’re not just saving money, but also becoming more effective because of ever-growing technological capabilities. The Astros were the first to make the switch a few years ago. The Orioles made the same change a year ago, and the Cubs are following suit.
“I think most will not get hired back,” said one hiring manager as to whether the positions would eventually re-appear.
I would add up front that the move is likely to video and, more broadly, digital/metric/data-based scouting. So it’s not just about watching video remotely, but also increasing reliance on technology.
The seeds for this move were arguably sewn a few years ago if you were paying attention to transitions here and there on the pro scouting side for the Cubs – indeed, it’s a position that’s been in transition for a lot of organizations over the last half-decade. After the departure of Jared Porter as the Director of Pro Scouting in 2017, the Cubs have had three different execs in the role the last few years (Kyle Evans, Jeff Greenberg, and Andrew Bassett), as each has been promoted up the ranks internally. The Cubs were not going outside the organization to bring in someone with a traditional, old-school scouting background, and instead were increasingly moving toward higher reliance on video for pro scouting. That was probably two parts philosophical, and one part technological (which is to say, the proliferation of high-quality video from more and more sources).
But, for Drellich’s piece to single out the Cubs, together with the Astros and Orioles – teams that fundamentally eschew traditional in-person scouting in favor of a heavy reliance on, and investment in, video – probably means something in addition to what we’ve already known.
It almost certainly means that many of the 100+ jobs that were cut this year with the Cubs were on the scouting side, and will not be returning. Frame it as efficiency or efficacy, it still sucks to have fewer eyes and ears and brains in your organization, and fewer humans participating in baseball at a professional level. I’m not saying it’s the owners’ duty to subsidize every long-time MLB employee, but there’s a part of me that wonders, long-term, if there is hidden value in it.
That said, we can’t know how much of this video-focused transition was coming for the Cubs in any case – baseball ops contracts run through October, and I’d imagine some on the scouting side were not going to be renewed even before the pandemic struck. The combination of data, tracking systems, computing systems, and video – and the way those things all work together now – probably SHOULD change your operations in fundamental ways if you want to stay at the fore of the industry. The Cubs, who started significantly reshaping their player scouting and development infrastructure over a year and a half ago, were probably in continued need of changes. I can’t speak to how much this report is actually about that already-ongoing-change stuff (as opposed to the post-2020-season-layoff stuff), but it’s probably a combination of a lot of things.
It probably won’t be any time soon that we can get a great grasp on what the Cubs’ scouting infrastructure looks and operates like now. And that’s not even considering the fact that, at the top of the org, we know there’s a transition happening as soon as this offseason, or, at the latest, next offseason.
Of note, the Astros were the first organization to make the heavy move into video scouting (insert sign-stealing joke), and the Orioles front office is comprised of Jeff-Luhnow-Astros progeny. That is to say, the Orioles likely just imported the approach the Astros took. The Cubs, who have no connections to the Astros front office, would be doing their own thing.