Earlier this week, Travis Sawchik wrote a fantastic article where he discusses the problem of how technology in baseball has advanced to the point that some question whether said technology and baseball scouts could coexist. The essential points here are that scouting jobs, in particular pro scouting jobs, are being shed at a high rate in part because the existence of Statcast and other forms of advanced data collection has made many of the traditional responsibilities given to scouts unnecessary. One doesn’t necessarily need a scout on hand at a game to chart pitches and at-bats or to operate a radar gun, due to the existence of so much information with just a few keystrokes and some clicks of a mouse.
Up until fairly recently, the Braves had not shown to be headed towards that path... at least not publicly. The scouting department has gotten rave reviews from all corners of late, in particular in regards to their work in recent drafts and international free agent signing periods. However, it looks as though there is a real overhaul coming as we speak.
Turnover in Atlanta continues: Sources say Braves fired a number of pro scouts today, including Leon Wurth, who signed Jorge Posada for NYY.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 22, 2017
Passan goes on in a series of tweets to explain, in very similar terms to Sawchik, the problems plaguing existing scouts, with particular emphasis on older scouts.
Some will argue that these moves are ignorant of important things like institutional memory and the human element of baseball. These are fair concerns, especially if these moves and others like them are strictly a downgrading of the number of scouts without any replacements. It is also worth mentioning that these were pro scout positions, and ones that I frankly know little about with regard to their overall performance in terms of evaluation. It is possible that these are positions where the Braves feel like they can get better outcomes from a different set of eyes, although in the context of scouting jobs in general... I am a bit skeptical.
All of that said, this is an incredibly important stage for the Braves organization in terms of the existing rebuild, as well as organizational health and sustainability overall. Every team is trying to figure out the best path forward with the existence of Statcast, proprietary computer analysis, and other technological advancements that we may not yet be aware of.
However, that does not mean that the Braves should lean less on scouts. If anything, they will be more important than ever.
I have been fairly open about my appreciation for advanced metrics and analytics. I ask our own analytics expert Ivan the Terrible all the time about them, I work hard to understand what they measure and what they don’t (we will get back to the “what they don’t” part later), and I find them to be more descriptive and helpful that things like batting average, ERA, and the like. That isn’t to say that I don’t look at more traditional stats, but I find things like WAR, FIP, wRC+, defensive runs saved, etc. to give me a better overall picture of what is actually going on. I thoroughly enjoy Statcast and how it lets us see exit velocity, launch angle, average slider velocity, and all of that stuff. These are descriptive and instructive numbers...anyone who says otherwise has an agenda and I have little time for such shenanigans (ok, maybe a little time for such shenanigans).
But these numbers do not tell us “The Why” in most cases and in the game of baseball which is a game of inches in numerous respects, that is where scouts are irreplaceable.
Scores of data could easily look at a pitcher in high school and tell you the average velocity of that guy’s fastball sits in the low to mid 90s, tell you the exact spin rate of his breaking ball, and where he located his changeup, but it won’t tell you how he conducts himself on the mound, how he interacts with his catcher, his makeup overall, and whether he carries frustration over a mistake to the next batter. In this example, this is the difference between finding Mike Soroka/Kolby Allard and finding a guy who struggles against middling college competition.
Data can tell us lots about route efficiency and range and translate that into visualizable numbers like defensive runs saved, dWAR, etc... but it doesn’t tell you anything about a player’s defensive instincts. It doesn’t measure effort or how a player moves off the ball. It doesn’t tell you when a player makes the hard plays look easy or tell you how much athleticism a guy has. (Ivan’s note: Though, you’d assume that with a big enough sample, all of those things would factor in and shake out, such that the better defenders with all those things considered would have the best defensive metrics... but of course, getting big samples of high-quality defensive data outside of major league parks is a huge challenge.) (Eric’s Note: You stop it with your well-reasoned and perfectly reasonable points)
As both Passan and Sawchik point out, it is possible, if not probable, that scouts and technology can coexist just fine. Scouts don’t have to input mindless data anymore, so perhaps they can use the saved time to dig a little deeper into a player’s swing or pay attention to how he sets his feet and/or hands when he is looking for a fastball in. Or maybe the extra time allows scouts to be able to hone in on how a pitcher’s demeanor or approach changes the second time through a batting order. Some would say this is a natural evolution of the scouting profession, others would call this view naive and overly optimistic regarding the future of scouts.
Baseball is incredibly hard both to play and to evaluate. In this day and age, it may be the hardest it has ever been because, due to the existence of so much information, there is less of a knowledge gap across teams and gaining edges in player evaluation is next to impossible. One place the Braves have seemingly had an edge is in the scouting department led by Brian Bridges, Marc Russo, Dixie Keller, and many, many others. While the name of the game may be changing and evolving, one hopes that these recent moves by the team are not indicative of a shift away from scouts. They are more important than they ever were.