16 December 2011

O's Scouting: Shake-up and fall-out

UPDATE -- 1:40pm -- I received word that the scouts being shifted to the amateur side were responsible for Minor League coverage as well as MLB advance work. If this is true than the impact is even worse for Baltimore. While statistical analysis can work wonders on the advance level, and more broadly when evaluating Major League players with track records, it is limited in usefulness at the Minor League level. Certain statistical work can aid in evaluating and projecting developing Minor Leaguers, but eyes-on scouting is still an intregal aspect of the process. Gutting that side of your scouting department would be a highly questionable move. Hopefully, the initial reports are true and the evaluators removed were limited to pro scouts at the MLB level, only.

UPDATE -- 2:05 -- More word that Minor League scouting is tied into the pro scout gutting. We will have a reaction to that news in a second piece later this evening. The main takeaways are 1) Baltimore is seriously hindering its ability to maximize value in trades, and 2) scouts from other organization, if ever asked to come over to Baltimore, will note the timing of these moves and the manner in which they were handled.

The shake-up
Jen Royle passed along word of unrest in the Orioles' scouting department this morning via Twitter:

Consensus amongst sources is that #Orioles scouts are not happy with new assignments. Another source: "They thought it was a joke." -@Jen_Royle

Fox Sport's Ken Rosenthal shed further light on the situation with a morning snippet explaining the nature of the "new assignments":

[Dan] Duquette, the team’s new general manager, essentially dissolved the Orioles’ professional scouting department Thursday, reassigning six pro scouts to the amateur side.

Dave Engle and Bruce Kison will remain major-league scouts, and the Orioles will make greater use of video and statistical analysis in scouting the majors, Duquette said.

Rosenthal went on to provide a quote from Duquette, explaining the shift:

It’s a more efficient way to structure the Orioles, better for identifying talent and utilizing people’s strengths to help the team.

So what is the fallout, here? Is this something that should excite Orioles fans? Well, there is some good and some bad...

The fallout: Good
For an organization who has put limited resources into staffing its scouting department, it's odd to think that six of the professional scout positions were being utilized for advance scouting.

As Duquette touches on in his comments, technology has limited the utility of advance scouts. Statistical analysis has matured to the point that batter and pitcher data is available and accessible such that managers can be armed with an iPad full of splits to access for nearly every in-game situation you can think of. Further, anyone with $119 and a computer, PlayStation 3, tablet or smart phone can watch every inning of MLB baseball, including archived games, in HD quality. In short, stats can tell you most of what you need to know about MLB players you will be facing. For everything else, there's HD video.

That's not to say that there is no need for advance scouting. But for an organization who has utilized a limited fund for scouting endeavors, there is little need for an abundance of advance scouts. The thinning of these ranks is probably something that should have occurred much sooner, which segues us to "the bad".

The fallout: Bad
This move, and particularly the timing, should have Orioles fans concerned in that it removes scouts from an area in which they are familiar and comfortable and drops them into an area from which they are years removed and in which they will be operating at a severe disadvantage.

Talent is talent, and there is little reason to believe that a pro scout is not capable of evaluating amateur talent. That is, the former advance scouts turned amateur scouts, I'm sure, have the evaluative tools to do the job of an amateur scout. However, the process itself is different for an amateur scout than it is for a pro scout.

Amateur scouts are tasked with two goals: 1) identify the current talent of an amateur talent (someone who has yet to sign with a MLB organization), and 2) accurately project the type of player that this amateur will be at the Major League level. To achieve these goals, amateur scouts must weigh numerous factors, including physical aspects of the player, athleticism, baseball tools, baseball skills, coachability, dedication to the game, as well as the player's interest in and willingness to make baseball the sole focus of his life.

Pro scouts looking at Minor League players are in a similar situation to amateur scouts in that they are appraising a player now, projecting him, and determining whether his organization should try and acquire him, though much of the static in evaluation has been removed with the Minor League players more refined and closer to the Majors than are the amateur kids.

Pro scouts doing advance work are concerned with one thing: how does my team beat this player when we face him. They will be consulted in trade and free agent situations, and may be assigned to watch a player considered to be a trade target, but much of the projection element has been removed by that time, as the player generally "is what he is".

The switch from pro to amateur scouting will require the O's evaluators to rewire their thinking some, and it requires them to do this while operating at a competitive disadvantage.

It is late in the game for amateur scouts. Most, if not all, organizations have completed compilation of their follow lists for each region, noting (and in some form ranking) the various talents in each area that need to be seen during the spring. Area scouts, since last June, have spent time at high school travel team tournaments, showcases, workouts, college summer league games, and college fall workouts, enjoying multiple looks at the players eligible for the June Draft.

Multiple looks are particularly important at the amateur level, as players at this stage of development can log erratic performances from day-to-day. The more looks you can get of a kid, the more confident you can be in your appraisal. This group of converted amateur scouts will likely be getting their first looks at players in their region, starting this January and February, while their competition is checking-in for a fourth, fifth or sixth look. Further, while the converted amateur scouts are potentially hustling to get eyes on the top talents in the area, their competition, already comfortable in their appraisal of those talents, will be able to focus elsewhere. For example, a scout from a competing organization might skip his fourth look at an arm in order to check in on the projectable righty that was only 86-89 mph in October, but might be sitting 88-91 mph now six months later.

The converted scouts will also need to familiarize themselves with a landscape that is likely now foreign to them. While many may have started as amateur evaluators, these scouts will need to revist their process and slide back into the day-to-day frame of mind of an amateur evaluator. Which factors are most important to projecting out this particular player's skillset? Who does he remind me of and was that player successful? What's the best way to go about scheduling my spring to make sure I can hit all the players I need to see? Can I catch the power arm at XYZ University during a mid-week game, or does Coach ABC prefer to limit his workload to relief on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays?

That final question touches on another issue -- these converted scouts don't have the network that established area scouts can tap into. As important as evaluation itself is, it's sometimes even more important to have that JuCo coach that texts you about the arm his team faced today, or the high school coach that sends you the scheduled start dates for a pitcher in which you are interested. These are relationships that can take some time to grow, and the converted scouts will likely be operating without them for now.

Finally, no matter how Baltimore spins it, it is a demotion for these guys. Moving from watching elite-level MLB baseball each night and having a place at the table in discussing strategy at the MLB team level is a better gig than traveling all over your region, watching mostly bad baseball and sending a player report up the ladder. Amateur scouting is a wonderful experience, and a personal passion, but taking someone with the more regimented, and more comfortable, job of pro scouting and thrusting them into the world of lots of travel, lots of uncertainty and little prestige is quite simply a big ask.

End game
Most fans might say, "Suck it up and deal with it -- at least you have a job in baseball." To a certain extent, that's true. The utility of advance scouts has changed over the last five years, and it is understandable that the organization might want to reshuffle their scouting assets to adjust to these changes. But one has to wonder if the timing of this move makes sense. Regardless of how talented these evaluators are, are you going to be getting the most you can out of them by dropping them into a job in which they aren't mentally or emotionally invested? By making the move now, you've essentially taken away from them the opportunity to consider work elsewhere, as Major League teams tend to fill their scouting positions in October and November. Is a discontented evaluator the guy you want chiming-in on your draft targets?

The big picture says the move indicates that the Baltimore front office is attempting to be proactive and adjusting to a more efficient model for its scouting department. A closer look reveals that Baltimore might be alienating their evaluators and setting them up for failure -- at least in 2012 -- essentially pushing them out the door once they have the opportunity next fall. It seems like a gradual shift, involving periodic assignments to cross-check on the amateur side and at the Minor League level, could have accomplished the same thing by this time next year, without alienating the evaluators involved in the process. In short, there is relatively little gained in Baltimore making this move right now and in this manner, and it could likely cause them to lose these evaluators to other orgs. Time will tell if such a loss is impactful.


Jake said...

Ugh... Whenever the inner workings of the Orioles front office leaks out I cringe. What, oh what, did we do to deserve such ineptitude?? These moves make so little sense it makes my head hurt. The only plus is cutting some spending on advance scouts - and there's no way they're THAT expensive. I have no idea what Duquette is thinking, but I get the feeling the guys who write for this site could do a better job managing the O's than any of the front office guys we've had could. And I know that comes off as a backhanded compliment, but I mean it in all honesty - you guys do great work and it makes me upset to see the lack of vision the club has.

sarasotosfan said...

Sooner or later, this had to happen. The bridge had to be crossed and the winners will thrive.

Imagine trying to do a deal on the basis of consensus with, at a minimum, eight MLB scouts in the room? I've seen this happen, or, more precisely, not happen with a room full of vice presidents.

In the end, some deals will work out and some will not, but when nothing is done, nothing can possibly improve when self preservation becomes the overriding interest.

3RunHomer said...

It seems to me that Duquette is encouraging the demoted scouts to quit. He probably wants to hire his own guys and for whatever reason doesn't have the authority to fire the scouts (maybe because two of them are McPhail and Thrift). I'm glad to see Duquette attempting to clear out the dead wood.

W. Blake Gray said...

This is a smart post but misses the bigger picture, which is really pretty simple.

What the Orioles have been doing, with these scouts in place, hasn't worked.

As you point out, major league scouts aren't much needed anymore.

Re minor league scouting: The Orioles haven't done well at identifying other teams' best prospects to acquire in trades (Josh Bell) or in which prospects of their own not to get rid of (Justin Turner).

And they really need amateur scouts. They've drafted decently at the top of the first round, but that isn't hard: Sitting in my living room, I wanted them to take Manny Machado. They haven't done well in drafting players after the first 7 picks.

I'm not completely drinking the Kool-Ade on Duquette. But if he's shaking up the scouting system, great.

Nick J Faleris said...

Thanks for your thoughts, all. I posted a follow-up piece today that closes some holes up in the evaluation: http://camdendepot.blogspot.com/2011/12/o_19.html

Jake, thanks for your kind words. I think it is worth seeing how the future scout hirings shake out before digging in too deeply in opposition, but I agree there is cause for atleast some concern.

Sarasoto, with eight pro scouts it would be the job of the pro scouting director to take in info and present to the GM. Also, many organizations utilize a system whereby write-ups are centrally located and the front office pulls what they need based on scout strengths, weighted readings of the reports, and the like. In my research, and personal experience, the Orioles' pro scouting department was not oversized or unmanageable.

3RunHomer, today's piece shows that the organization is making an attempt to make the reassignment workable for the six scouts. They are all assigned regions close to home, and from what I've heard their salary stays the same.

W. Blake, I tend to agree that a shakeup is not by definition a bad thing, but it's tough to find merit in the idea that fewer evaluators is the best way to improve that. As I mention above, I think the organization deserves some time to hire as needed and shape the department, but I think it's possible these series of moves could have been handled in a slightly different manner with a lesser negative impact on the pro scouting side and similar positive impact on the amateur scouting side. I fully agree the organization should have more area scouts in place.