Historically, I believe it would be fair to say that baseball has held true to the basic fundamentals of the game. That is to say – it’s still three outs in an inning, 60’6″ to home plate, a two base hit still counts as a double, and so on. But along the way, the game has also been tweaked with a human hand. Divisions, Wild Card Teams, the DH, the Rule 5 Draft, etc. have made their way into the game and for the most part are entrenched whether we like it or not.
But some of these changes are more subtle and they kind of sneak their way into the game with hardly anyone noticing until a facet of the game becomes virtually extinct. One trend that we should be taking a closer look at is the seeming disappearance of the major league scout who is being replaced in deference to the rising tide of what we’ll call for now “baseball analytics”……….or this generation’s fulfillment of a belief that technology is the panacea for solutions to all problems and situations that present themselves in the 21st Century………
Granted, it’s only a small ripple in the pond but still it deserves our attention simply because it reflects a change in baseball away from human input on the game……… And in the same way that (conceivably) the need for umpires could be eliminated and replaced by robots…….baseball needs to be mindful of this change with an eye towards halting it before it spreads even further …… And here’s why……..
It was only a few weeks ago that I published an article titled Unsung Heroes In Baseball – The Major League Scout that openly advocated the contributions of baseball scouts to the game over the years. Now, it is being brought to light that many teams are drastically reducing their scouting staff and relying on digital and video analysis of a player’s skills – from the initial public offering or draft of a player up to and including the time they spend in the big leagues.
In one article that appeared in The New York Daily News written by John Harper, he cites Bob Johnson, an advance scout for the Washington Nationals who puts it this way, “The job is disappearing,” Johnson said. “Only about a half-dozen teams still use an advance scout. Most teams use video and analytics instead. That’s the trend, and it’s fine — unless you’re trying to win.”
If you believe as I do that Yogi Berra was absolutely correct when he said (as only Yogi could) “Ninety percent of the game is mental, the other half is physical ” then…… Never mind Yogi’s math proficiency, the mental part of the game – especially with regard to young players you might be thinking of drafting – and thereby investing a good amount of time and money into their development – then the salient point is that only a (human) scout can assess these qualities in a player.
Yes, the snapshot shown on ESPN or MLB-TV will prove beyond any doubt (we assume) that a outfielder had a 90% efficiency rating in chasing down a line drive holding the runner to a double. Pretty good, we might say. But only the scout in the stands can tell us (for example) that the same player was 0 for 3 with three strikeouts and he was seen pounding his glove in frustration prior to the pitch – and he should have had a better jump on the ball if his MIND was where it should have been and his “score” should have been higher.
Same thing with a college pitcher who’s video feedback to central office shows a moving fastball at 95-97 with a sharp breaking slider at 89-91 along with a 2 to one strikeout to walk ratio…….sign ’em up, right. Not so fast maybe because your scout in the field has talked to his teachers and they say he is two weeks behind in homework due and has abundant absences from school. Buyers beware? I would hope so but the problem is that most teams might never know until their bonus baby displays less than a professional approach to the game. What are your choices then?
Or, what about the value of a human being (I.e. scout) sitting down with a potential first round draft pick with his parents present and discussing the complications and roadblocks that may lie ahead……….only to find out that the parents are only interested in the “bottom line” and not necessarily their son. Can analytics tell a team that?
Teams will do what they want to do and more often than not they will make decisions based on the impact to their overall budget. Clearly, it is much easier to assemble (read cost efficient) video and analytics these days than paying scouts who operate in the field accumulating travel expenses as well as a salary.
But how much is being lost in the exchange……… And will teams come to rue a day when they could have put more and wiser “skin in the game”………