I’ve got a special treat for readers today. My buddy and recently graduated Sewanee pitcher James Hall sent me this interview with retired baseball scout Dennis Meeks. Mr. Meeks lives in Sewanee, and was kind enough to allow James to interview him for Sabernomics. James, who recently completed Rob Neyer’s Baseball General Manager and Scouting Course, asks some good questions and Mr. Meeks has some interesting answers.
The credit for this interview goes entirely to James and Mr. Meeks. I am only reporting here. If you have any comments like “nice interview” remember to direct them to James or Mr. Meeks. I hope you enjoy it, I sure did.
How did you start your career in baseball and how did it lead you to scouting?
I played high school baseball and played football in college, yet always was a baseball fan. It was only once I retired from my real estate job that I considered going into scouting.
I read in the newspaper that a man named Lou Fitzgerald of Cleveland, TN left the Braves and joined the Marlins after they were awarded a franchise (1991). I cold called him and was granted an interview, after which Lou sent me down to spring training to meet Calvin Boles, a national cross-checker for Florida. Calvin notified me that they were not hiring anyone at this time. I Refused to take no for an answer and was incredibly persistent. I called and sent letters often, making sure that the Marlins would not forget that I was still very interested. After the 1992 season, the Marlins called to notify me that I was offered an associate scout position. From there I worked much harder than expected of associate scouts with hopes of becoming a full time guy.
In 1995 I called Owen Freeman, the Marlins scouting director, asking for promotion to a paid position, and was denied. I then called a friend who was a cross checker with Baltimore, who referred me to Jeff Kahn, an area scout with Montreal. The Expos had an opening and offered me a part-time, paid, position sharing Tennessee with one other guy. After the 1995 season the other guy was transferred and I was called by the scouting director out of the blue and drilled with questions. I must have answered them well, because I was soon promoted to area scout for Tennessee and North Georgia. After doing that for a year I was asked to send some reports to the scouting director for Texas, and was then asked to interview with them. I soon was offered and accepted a full time position as an area scout for the Rangers, covering Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Southern Illinois for my last five years.
Did you do more professional or amateur scouting, and which did you prefer?
In the summers I did professional scouting. I scouted the prospects in the Carolina League and Gulf Coast League, and when I had time would report on the Chattanooga Lookouts, and West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. My springs were spent catching as many high school games as possible. The pro level was preferred because it is much easier to get settled into a city and catch a full series. Also, you can always find out who is pitching when, and there are fewer cancelled games.
What are your thoughts on the Moneyball philosophy of scouting based on statistics rather than tools?
Sabermetrics is useful for scouting minor leaguers, but you cannot draft just based on stats. The tools simply cannot be ignored. I saw David Beck (the pitcher known as “The Creature” in Moneyball whom Oakland signed sight unseen) pitch for Cumberland, and would never have drafted him, his fastball was well below MLB average and he didn’t have the arm speed needed to generate sharp breaking stuff. He was released the next year after getting knocked around, as he should have been based on how poor his stuff was. There is a lot of good work being done using sabermetrics, but I think it should be used to enhance the job of the scout…not replace him.
Do you prefer college or high school players?
I always wanted to get the college guys, but this is more of an organizational question really. Some organizations prefer college players because the risk is lower, yet others prefer high school players with higher ceilings. I personally prefer college guys because of the track record against better competition. Given two comparable players, I would take the college guy.
What are some of the specific things you look for in hitters and pitchers, and more specifically, what are some of the things you look for in a hitter to gauge how well he’ll make the switch from a metal bat to a wood one?
With a hitter, the first thing you look at is his approach to hitting. You have to see his stance in the box, how well he loads up, and if he has a good trigger to start his hands. Most importantly though is whether his lower half get him going, and how well does he rotate the hips and drive off the back foot. Last night I went to watch a HS player who was a strong kid, but has a stiff lower half…unless he makes some significant changes to his swing, he will never hit good pitching. You cannot hit professional pitching without generating power from your legs.
Scouts are always afraid of the “front foot hitter” — one who has trouble staying back and jumps at the ball. I had a kid I really wanted from University of Louisville (Adam Haley) when I was with Texas, but the scouting director wouldn’t take him because he was too much of a front foot hitter who the organization feared would never hit good breaking stuff. He obviously has made the adjustment, as he is hitting .400 now in AA ball. 10th rd pick. You can tell a good hitter by listening to the sound of the ball off the bat. Hitting is the most difficult tool to evaluate. It is hard to project whether a college kid can hit well with wood, and whether they stay back and use their lower half is the best indicator. The front foot hitter will be fooled by a good pro breaking ball. The best way to determine how well a hitter will adjust to the wood bat is, again, how well he uses his lower half. It is possible to generate power by just using the upper body if swinging an aluminum bat. However, in order to have a powerful wood bat swing, the hitter must drive through the ball with his legs.
Pitching — The number one tool you have to evaluate is his arm strength. Radar gun isn’t really necessary after you’ve become an experienced scout. I could tell within 1 or 2 mph of his velocity. Number two is the fluidity and effortless of throwing mechanics. The more fluid the throwing motion and arm action, the more likely he is to remain healthy in the long run. Pitchers more than any other position have to be projectable. You want to draft a guy who will have the strength and stamina, combined with the good arm action, that it takes to pitch 200 innings in a season.
What are some of the things about scouting people may not know about?
The amount of travel that is involved is amazing. Also, people assume we make good money…and we don’t. The lifestyle is similar to that of a truck driver. We are on the road, sleeping in a different bed every night. You must really love baseball to be a scout. If you want to go into scouting because you think it is glamorous to work for a MLB team, you have a rude awakening ahead of you. Scouting is fun, but it requires a tremendous commitment and a willingness to basically change your entire lifestyle.
If you could make any changes to baseball today, what would they be?
The DH rule should be eliminated. It takes away from the way the game is meant to be played. Also, I would eliminate all the armor that the power hitters wear today. Pitchers need to reclaim the inside part of the plate if they are going to get these modern power hitters out. Also, it would be tough economically, but I would really like to see all levels of baseball use the wooden bat. It would return the game to the way it used to be played.
Given your experience, what are some tips for those out there who are thinking about trying to get into scouting?
When you start scouting and write a report, you need to come up with comps to help the organization visualize the player. Compare his body, swing, or mechanics to those of a major leaguer. It helps the organization tremendously.
Also, ignore the outcome of the game when scouting a player. Who wins and loses is insignificant. You focus on the player by watching his every move: from how he interacts with his teammates, to the way he carries himself both on and off the field. You must also be able to project and determine, not what a player looks like now, but what he will look like in five years. It is also very important to watch a lot of professional baseball to get a good idea of how good average major league players really are. You might see a guy who looks great relative to his competition in college, but unless you have seen enough pro ball, you really won’t know how talented MLB players are. I remember when Rondell White was in AA with Chicago, it was like night and day watching him take BP compared to the other minor leaguers…and he is a 4th outfielder at the big league level. Also, one great tool is not enough to make it to the major leagues.
What current big leaguers did you scout?
I saw Michael Young play for the Knoxville Smokies in the minors and recommended Texas acquire him…5 days later they got him. I scouted Dewon Brazelton, Aaron Heilman of Notre Dame, and Chris Burke, and Texas was going to take them all, but they didn’t last long enough for us to pick them. I visited Burke in his home and really got to know him and his family well. He’s a great kid who’s going to be a great major leaguer. I scouted Javy Herrera closely (catcher at Tennessee…also one of the minor leaguers caught using steroids). He was a good catch and throw guy but not much with the bat. I got to know Austin Kearns really well; it was between him and Carlos Pena to be our first round pick in 1998. Cincinnati took Kearns with the 8th overall pick, so we got Pena at the ten spot. Sometimes you misjudge players too. We watched Brandon Webb pitch all the time at Kentucky, but didn’t really like his mechanics at the time. Five years later, he has a career ERA in the low threes, and is 3-0 this year already.
One of the more difficult parts is the contract negotiations after the draft. You work so hard at getting to know the player, and really becoming friends he and his family. Now you have to come in and negotiate a contract, operating within the budget of the organization. The dynamics of the relationship change significantly after the draft.
Closing note: Thanks to James and Mr. Meeks for an excellent interview. James, good luck in your new job in Nationals country, and congratulations on your graduation.