19 December 2011

O's Scouting: Shake-up and fallout, follow-up

On Friday we discussed news of Baltimore gutting its pro scouting department. As not much information was available at the time the story broke, we wanted to make sure we followed-up Friday's discussion in order 1) to fairly portray the moves that were made, and 2) to provide a useful commentary on the impact of these moves. That is what we will do this morning. If you have not read Friday's piece, it might make sense to do so before diving into this piece. It contains a couple of longer threads regarding the shift from pro to amateur scouting that are not rehashed here, and it also touches on a couple of assumptions (both here at the Depot and in the media at large) that have proven incorrect with further digging.

What has changed?
Entering 2011, Baltimore's roster of non-amateur scouts included one advance scout (scouting future Orioles opponents), two Major League scouts (primarily responsible for evaluation of talent on other Major League teams), and seven pro scouts (primarily responsible for evaluation of talent in the Minor Leagues). These evaluators were not limited to their primary scouting responsibilities, and might be assigned to assist in other areas as needed. Because the primary amateur scouting season runs February through May, leading up to the draft (spring training through the first third of the season on the pro side), it is generally uncommon for pro scouts to regularly participate on the amateur side.

Upon Dan Duquette's taking over as President of Baseball Operations this November, filling the office vacated by Andy MacPhail, the Orioles began an overhaul of the pro scouting department. Late November, the Director of pro scouting (Lee MacPhail IV) was demoted to pro scout, with the position of "Director" rumored to be removed altogether. At the end of last week, word came down that the Orioles were reassigning five pro scouts and their MLB advance scout to the amateur side. The specifics are as follows:

Advance scout, Jim Thrift (new assignment, area scout in western Fla.)
Pro scout, Lee MacPhail IV (new assignment, area scout in Mich./Ohio/W.V.)
Pro scout, Jim Howard (new assignment, area scout in N.Y./N.J./Penn.)
Pro scout, Ted Lekas (new assignment, area scout in New England)
Pro scout, James Keller (new assignment, rover/area scout in California)
Pro scout, Todd Frohwirth (new assignment, area scout in Wisc./Minn./N.D./S.D.)

By my count, this leaves the remaining pro scouting department as follows:

MLB scout, Dave Engle
MLB scout, Bruce Kison
Pro scout, Chris Bourjos (based out of Arizona)
Pro scout, Gary Roenicke (based out of California)
Pro scout, Fred Uhlman, St. (based out of Baltimore)

Brady Anderson will apparently be joining the organization in some official capacity, though it is unclear what his role will be.

Argument for restructuring
The removal of a full-time advance scout is probably fine. Statistical analysis is highly effective at the Major League level, due to the relative stability in year-to-year output and overall predictability of player performance. That is not to say that the advanced metrics used by front offices (versions of which can be found at sites like BaseballProspectus.com, BillJamesOnline.com, TangoTiger.com, and Fangraphs.com) are infallible. But for the most part you can get a good idea of players' relative strengths and weaknesses in various situations by giving the right numbers to the right people and letting them go to work. Additionally, HD video is publicly available for every inning of every game, so to the extent you need to see game tape, it's there. It isn't perfect, but if you want to rely on stats and video at the Major League level when it comes to advance scouting, you can probably get by.

The number of MLB scouts has not changed, it is around the typical number of evaluators that you will see an organization devote primarily to the MLB-level. Many organizations do not have an official "advance scout" position, instead opting to divide the duties of an advance scout between the MLB scouts on payroll and perhaps a pro scout or two, depending on timing.

Argument against restructuring
The biggest argument against the restructuring is that Baltimore is gutting the group of scouts listed as "pro scouts", which are primarily responsible for Minor League evaluation. Stats and video are much less useful tools when evaluating players from other organizations at the Minor League level, and become increasingly less useful the further away you get from the Majors. Totaling three pro scouts at this point, the Orioles would be significant outgunned in this department should they opt to proceed without filling the void with new hires. Toronto and New York (A), for example, each boasted double-digit pro scouting positions in 2011. Tampa had fewer listed pro scouts in 2011, but also mix-in "special assignment" scouts and one or two dual role international/pro scouts.

The loss of manpower means fewer eyes on Minor Leaguers and less information for the front office when trade talks take place. As free agent bargains become fewer and fewer, and with modifications to the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLBPA removing teams' ability to spend without ramification on amateur talent, the trade market is quickly becoming one of the most important avenues for talent acquisition. Accordingly, Baltimore needs to be a leading organization in talent evaluation to maximize their efforts on the trade front.

One of the largest questions currently facing the Orioles is whether or not they will extend Adam Jones. If they elect, instead, to trade him, it will likely be for a package of players. Making sure Baltimore gets the most out of that package is of the utmost importance. Will the three remaining pro scouts have enough opportunity to cover five or six levels of Minor League baseball such that the Orioles will be able to not only accurately gauge the value of a proposed package of players, but to also compare that package against other possible packages in order to determine which of two or three deals is preferable? Perhaps more important, will Baltimore be able to spot that struggling prospect that an organization might undervalue and add as a piece to close a deal?

In a world where knowledge is power, it makes little sense to limit your avenues of information gathering. No stat line/video combination will tell you what you need to know about an Advanced-A arm when trying to project whether he will be able to improve his command, or whether he will work hard enough on his change-up to make it the third Major League average-or-better offering he needs to stick in a rotation long term. You need eyes on the field before the game and after the game. You need to be able to talk up the people at the field and around the team. A player's make-up is an important factor in determining whether he will be able to weather the challenges of rising through the Minors and transitioning to playing the game at the highest level in the world. While not tangible, make-up is real, it is important, and it needs to be evaluated.

The importance of timing
This issue was touched on in last week's post, but should be reiterated. There is negligible positive value for Baltimore in adding these five evaluators to the amateur side, as they are starting out a good deal behind their competitors when it comes to identifying the draft-eligible follows and getting multiple looks at those talents. Additionally, these evaluators will need to make inroads in creating contacts with the high school, JuCo, 4-year college, travel team and showcase coaches and personnel in order to stay on top of pop-up talents (e.g. arms that see a big bump in velocity during the spring). It is simply a large ask and places these evaluators in a difficult spot when trying to make judgments on volatile assets such as amateur players, and doing so with limited views and potentially limited access to info from third party coaches and evaluators.

There is some danger that shuffling scouts around outside of the general "hiring/firing/assignment" period for scouts -- generally the fall -- will make outside evaluators wary of joining the Orioles organization for fear that a similar restructuring could take place in the future. Baltimore can explain some of this away by pointing to the late hiring of Duquette, and the accordingly late ripple of moves in restructuring the scouting department. One evaluator from another organization commented, "Definitely weird [timing to shuffle things up]; somewhat understandable with [the late GM hiring]."

Unfortunately, while this reasoning makes sense it still reflects poorly on the organization as a whole. The fact that Andy MacPhail was unlikely to stay after October was the worst kept secret in Baltimore, starting around early-July. The long hiring process for MacPhail's replacement, highlighted by a handful of very public rejections from would-be candidates, did not sit well with those watching from afar in other organizations, and reinforced a stereotype that the Orioles, as an organization, lack focus and professionalism.

The fact that issues at the top have rippled down to effectuate reassignment of scouts well after they could reasonably be expected to find work elsewhere is not the end of the world, but it is another reminder to the industry that Baltimore continues to struggle putting together any sort of coherent plan for the future. Now, with Duquette apparently set to turnover larger chunks of the organization over the next ten months, some of the talented up-and-comers throughout the ranks of Major League baseball may be more inclined to wait out the upheaval to see what the organization looks like before signing-on as part of the rebuild.

Ultimately, the restructuring is not a huge deal, provided that Baltimore brings in additional evaluators at the pro ranks to help more thoroughly cover the Minors. Assuming that is the case, the Orioles have still weakened their pro scouting for at least four or five months (some of the area scouts can assist in pro scouting post-draft, based on several other variables which we can discuss in another post if the reader interest in there) and will be getting additional help at the amateur level, though the evaluators will be operating at a handicap.

One has to question the wisdom behind removing these evaluators from positions in which they were comfortable, and thrusting them into a world in which they will (at least initially) be out of their depth. The addition of amateur scouts is a great strategy, and one already employed by the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, each of whom outmanned Baltimore in this department. Baltimore also handled the assignment well, placing each of Frohworth, MacPhail, Howard, Lekas and Keller in areas tied to their home, cutting down some on travel. As luck would have it, the addition of scouting eyes in California, Florida and Ohio will be useful in at least cross-checking some of the top talents in this year's draft, with each state boasting multiple early-round talents (and potentially multiple first round talents in each state).

While the ultimate goal of more amateur scouts and less in-person focus on MLB advance scouting is potentially a solid direction for the organization, doing so at the expense of Minor League scouting is dangerous. Further, while their pay may remain the same (word is that it will), it's tough to not view this as a demotion when you are moving from covering pro ball to covering high school and college ball -- the general "starting point" for many evaluators in the game and a job that usually requires a great deal more travel and inconvenience.

Baltimore could have lessened the immediate impact on Minor League scouting, and potentially avoided any hard feelings on the part of the evaluators, had they opted to rename the position as "special assignment" scout, or even allow the evaluators to keep their titles and simply asked them to chip in on the amateur side for the February to June time period. It's a small point, but one that other evaluators in other organizations have noticed. No one expects that these former pro scouts are going to jump in and be able to operate as seasoned area scouts right off the bat, so their utility is limited for 2012 already. By allowing them to cover their region on the pro side, while dipping over to cross-check the amateurs in their region, all parties would have gotten what they wanted out of the situation.

Finally, and delving into the world of conjecture, it is slightly troubling to hear that the position of Director of Pro Scouting might not be filled -- particularly if the organization is not planning on hiring more pro scouts and, instead, decides to pull eyes from the amateur side as needed. For organizations that opt to assign their area scouts to pro coverage periodically throughout the year, the task of coming up with those assignments is a difficult one. The organization must consider the responsibilities of the area scout in covering their draft-and-follows (players selected and then watched over the summer before deciding upon a signing bonus offer), covering amateur showcases, tournaments and summer leagues in their area, and the distribution of talent across Minor League levels and the teams at those levels. Almost every Major League team has a Director of Pro Scouting, and there is a reason for it -- there is simply a lot to keep track of and a strong need for the creation and implementation of an organization-wide plan.

The situation is not as dire as it appeared on Friday, but the decision to unnecessarily forfeit short-term gains in pro scouting for minimum benefits of handicapped additional eyes on the amateur side is a head-scratcher. If those pro vacancies are not filled in the coming months, the whole issue can be summed up with a very simple question: For an organization struggling to keep pace with the four other organizations in the American League East, what is the likelihood that the key to bridging that gap is putting fewer assets into the evaluation and acquisition of talent at any level?


Anonymous said...

For all the complaints over the lack of talent, depth and development isn't this the change you wanted? The Os simply haven't had the system to develop major league players so why wait another year to shake things up? The GM search showed what everyone thought of our current product.

Jon Shepherd said...

Change in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. I would contend there is good change and bad change.

For instance if I wanted a new job, scooping up after elephants at the zoo would not be a better change even though it would be a change.