Not Stats vs. Scouts Again, but...
I made my way down to Atlanta Friday night, home of the infamous scout selected team known as the Braves. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. I'm not about to start the Stats vs. Scouts war again. I know better now, that even when I try to point out that a good front office should combine in-depth on site scouting with supplemental statistical analysis, I am somehow upsetting the masses who think I am not giving the Moneyball methodology its due. Nevertheless, I can't help but divulge a few thoughts that came to mind this Friday evening as I watched the Braves defeat the Reds at Turner Field.
Recently, no matter what message board I read, someone always has something negative to say about the Braves latest star, Jeff Francoeur. He doesn't walk enough. He'll never succeed if he can't increase his on base percentage. Just watch, he'll crash. It's hard to determine if people really feel this way or if they're just jealous of the young Francoeur. For the sake of our discussion, let's say these critics are serious, in an analytical kind of way.
I admit it. I am biased toward Francoeur. I've got to know him and learn about him. I've interviewed him and watched him extensively. So yes, I do feel very strongly about his ability to perform now and in the future.
Had I not got to know Jeff Francoeur, would I feel this way about him? Probably not. But that's precisely the point of this discussion. On the other hand, if I got to know Jeff but he hit .210 consistently with no power, would I think highly of him? Well I probably would think he was still a good person, but I doubt I'd go watch him play baseball.
So just how do teams distinguish the best of the best when they look to sign players that will ultimately make up a successful ballclub? I would argue that teams certainly need to review statistical histories, but only as a basis for where they should begin their scouting. Do they want to spend time on a perennial .240 high school hitter? Of course not. But how are they going to determine which of the 3000 college hitters, who hit .500, they should draft or sign?
Well you know the answer already. Scouting, of course. But here's the problem we run into when we talk about scouting. Most of us, and that includes me, really don't understand what a scout does. Going to watch a game or two doesn't make a person a scout. Recently, I read a "scouting report" that described two, yes two, at bats which lead to a sweeping generalization about the player's ability:
"(He) looked very good. He will become too pull-conscious at times, but he makes
quick adjustments: in one at-bat, he got himself out by trying to pull an outside fastball. The next time up, the pitcher threw the same pitch and (he) took it to right-center field for a long home run."
Now what if he tried to pull that same pitch in the next game that this "scout" didn't see? Would he suddenly be unable to make adjustments? You get the point.
We're just not trained to make those assessments. The people that are considered true scouts are in the field day after day. They see all kinds of players. They talk to the players. They talk to the players' parents. They know what they eat. They know where they sleep. They know where they hang out. And most of all, they know their tendencies to pull pitches, spray hits, take pitches, work the count, etc.
Because we, the general public, are not qualified to be professional scouts, and we don't get to watch players live (and up close) day in and day out, we look for an alternative way to evaluate players that makes sense to most of us. We want to be knowledgeable. We want to feel close to the game we love and have been fooled to believe we can predict a player's performance. We feel that if Bill James or Billy Beane can use stats to evaluate performance, then we can too. Stats empower us to be "scouts in our own mind."
This reliance on stats can cause a few problems. First of all, because we can understand stats, it's very easy to fall into the "stats are God" trap. Stats are extremely important in measuring performance and they are a tool at the disposal of all. But stats alone don't tell the whole story. We are dealing with humans here, not robots or computer simulations. Players, just like other people, have real life emotions. They get sick, hurt, and have bad days. That's life.
It's easy to say a rookie may never adjust to the major leagues if he's mired in a 0-for-41 slump. After all, the performance indicators suggest such a presumption, right? But what if that player is having off the field problems? Maybe he's going through a divorce or having mental difficulties (a la Billy Beane) during his first season of play. Or maybe he's just going through growing pains and learning on the fly.
Robin Ventura, one of the best third basemen of the past 25 years, did indeed go 0-for-41 in 1990. Should we have written him off because his stats indicated he couldn't play with the big boys? Sure, he was a great college hitter but that was against inferior pitching, and he used an aluminum bat! College statistics do not promote strong performance indicators. Even Bill James has yet to be able to predict future major league performances based on collegiate stats. Well, it turns out that Robin Ventura was not only a great hitter, but one of the hardest working individuals in baseball. Day after day, the then 23 year-old Ventura would take extra batting practice and instruction from his coaches, most notably, Walt Hriniak. The White Sox stuck with Ventura and he quickly turned things around on his way to having an outstanding career.
I've seen it written that stats should be the basis for decision making and that scouting should supplement statistics. Maybe that's true from a very broad starting point. No, I'm not going to invest my time in getting to know the .200 hitter at South Shore High School when the hitter at North Shore is hitting .400. But if the hitter at South Shore is hitting .350 and the hitter at North Shore is hitting .400, then the statistics pretty much go out the window.
To some, though, that is not the case. They will decide that the .400 hitter is clearly the better selection, plain and simple. It goes back, again, to what is familiar and comfortable. People can identify with statistics because they're black and white. They're quantifiable. The problem is that life is not black and white. Baseball players have a lot of grey in them. The average fan won't have the opportunity to get to know a professional baseball player so therefore, the only means of evaluating such athletes are through what they know...statistics.
Like I said before, statistics are an important tool in evaluating talent. Makeup, however, is just as important. I sit here, looking at the Braves, and it's clearly evident to me that this is a true team in every sense of the word. If I were building my fantasy baseball team, maybe I would pick Delmon Young over Jeff Francoeur. But if I were starting a major league baseball team, I'd take Francoeur every time. And having spent time with both individuals, it's not even a difficult decision.