Scout’s Honor: A Review

As I promised back in February, I have reviewed the anti-Moneyball themed Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build a Winning Team by Bill Shanks. You can read it over at The Hardball Times. Here’s a preview.

The Braves may have developed their on-field success in a way that was different from the A’s, but this does not prove that the Moneyball philosophy is flawed. In fact, quite the opposite is true. That a careful understanding and use of empirical methods based on sound statistical principles employed by a few intelligent men can achieve success similar to a very large organization of traditional scouts is proof of success, not failure. The success of the Braves is something Beane wanted to emulate, but it wasn’t feasible given the constraints imposed by his bosses. Beane had to find a way to win with less, and he did.

The A’s still use scouts; they just use fewer of them and may use them in different ways. This is something that is also clearly stated in Moneyball. The sabermetric method that the A’s employ is simply a new technology no different from the radar gun carried by the scouts Shanks loves so dearly. And just as the Luddites wished to destroy a new technology that threatened their livelihood, scouts have reason to feel threatened by the new knowledge brought forth by sabermetrics. Moneyball is not the fad that Shanks claims but a new technology. It’s superior to the old methods in some areas, but not all. It’s not going away. And while traditional scouting methods are an old part of the game, the process of technological innovation (sometimes known as creative destruction) is much older.

Thanks to the guys at The Hardball Times for publishing my review.

Addendum: A few people have commented on my review over at Baseball Primer. I thought the comments were mostly good, and there are a few from people who have actually read both books at the heart of the debate. I’m very much looking forward to Mike Emeigh’s review, and Tango Tiger just nails it (If you don’t know what it is, you’ll see.). Although one person ripped me, he/she admitted to never reading the book. ????? I’m glad I don’t have the guts to criticize people about things which I have no knowledge. It’s funny how ignorance and arrogance often correlate positively, but I guess it makes sense. The anonymity of the internet doesn’t help. There’s no real reputational cost to saying stupid things, so why not act like a complete idiot. And, of course, now someone’s going to get his/her feelings hurt and be all upset about what I said; but, if no one’s willing to stand up these losers then they’ll just keep clouding good debates with noise. The more noise, the more we need a filter. The problem is that a filter is a public good, which is under-provided. So, consider my response as an altruistic gesture… and I’m not kidding.

Also, thanks to those of you who sent me e-mails. I appreciate your comments, and I will try to get back to all of you.

7 Responses “Scout’s Honor: A Review”

  1. Aaron says:

    Top notch review. It’s extremely cogent, articulate, and well written.

    I love your point at the end, that “[t]he sabermetric method that the A’s employ is simply a new technology no different from the radar gun carried by the scouts Shanks loves so dearly. . . . It’s superior to the old methods in some areas, but not all.” It seems like the emphesis of statistics over scouting is a trade of precision for accuracy.

    Statistics give you mostly objective information with large sample sizes, but the information is very coarse. Scouting gives you very precise information, including information that can’t even be reasonably articulated yet (like “makeup”). However, scouting is subject to the whims of the observer, whatever kind of latent bias he holds, and it is subject to the inaccuracy of small sample sizes. If the kid just broke up with his girlfriend, his arm might not be what it is next week.

    It seems like scouting is still essential, but you might be able to direct it more with statistics. A team like the A’s, who can’t afford to watch a huge pool of prospects, can use the numbers to locate more specifically about whom they need to obtain more precise information.

    I also love what you say about the misrepresentation of “Moneyball”. Shanks’ view of the book is a common one. For example, I love the Braves announcers, but I cringe when I hear them giving opinions on a misinterpetation of the source material. They’d might as well start spouting political opinions based on what they see on Fox News. A superficial and, at worst, skewed understanding of the information undermines any attempt at criticism. It’s great that, in your review, you have a mastery of both publications at issue.

  2. Bell Curve says:

    One factual inaccuracy — DePodesta didn’t trade for Milton Bradley. Dan Evans did. Other than that, nicely done.

  3. JC says:

    Thanks BC, but in fact DePodesta did acquire Bradley. You scared me for a second, because DePo came on board only a few months prior to the trade.

    See here.

    General manager Paul DePodesta acquired the disgruntled Indians center fielder Sunday for organization minor league player of the year Franklin Gutierrez and a player to be named.

  4. Marc Schneider says:

    I’m always shocked at how people who make their living covering baseball (announcers, reporters, analysts) know so little about the sabermetric approach. There seems to be a tendency to denigrate the statistical approach, especially among ex-players, but I don’t understand why so-called professional journalists wouldn’t be at least conversant in the approach, in the same way that a science reporter would try to have some knowledge of the technologies he or she is covering.

  5. Bell Curve says:

    D’oh! Time flies, I guess.

  6. Adam says:

    Excellent review! I really enjoyed reading it.

  7. Steve Freeman says:

    Good review. I’ve not read Scout’s Honor, but I hope to eventually. I have read Moneyball, though, so I’ll just leave a couple comments.

    I do think that both sides make convincing arguments (scouts vs. statheads) and that on-base percentage can help. I don’t believe that it is the total equation for teams; if it were, the Colorado Rockies would have a winning record every year. I would say that ERA is more important, which is why the Rockies haven’t been winning, and ERA and pitching emphasis to me is where the Braves and the Athletics are the most similar, as they have been at the top in ERA almost every year they’ve been contending. They both have a few other similarities: they aren’t afraid to take risks and make trades to not settle for the status quo (Beane in Moneyball: “Change is always good. There can never be a status quo.”)they emphasize a great deal on minor league development, they have a consistent plan, and are a good judge of talent. Also, they have had two of the most respected pitching coaches in the game (Leo Mazzone and Rick Peterson, now with the Mets). This gets me to thinking that, if general managers are looking for cheaper ways to run a team and improve it, and if managers and coaches can be that much responsible for making the difference in a team, that they should focus more attention on trying to find the best managers and coaches, who are being paid less than the average major league player. Getting someone like Mazzone and Peterson would have an impact on an entire pitching staff, and be cheaper than whoever is the best free-agent pitcher on the market. I think this could be a way of exploiting inefficiencies in the market. I also wonder if anyone knows who the best prospective pitching coaches are, and whoever does would be ahead of the game, because I’m not sure if anyone knows who the best prospective ones are. The NFL’s best teams assistant coaches (like the Patriots) move on to head coaching jobs somewhere else seemingly yearly when it’s been proven that they’re methods work, but for some reason baseball does not seem to do it to the same extent.

    To sum it up, I think that the managers and coaches could be used to improve a team at a greater efficiency than simply throwing money around to two or three free agents.

    This was my first visit to the Sabernomics weblog, and I must say that I was extremely impressed and will come back to it.