Archive for Scouting

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.

An Interview with Farhan Zaidi of the Oakland A’s

Last week I posted James Hall’s interview with a baseball scout. Now, I have have an interview with a member of the A’s front office Farhan Zaidi. Who is Farhan Zaidi? Well, he’s the newest member of the A’s front office, and he has an interesting background of interest to me: he’s a PhD economist (from Cal). When I saw that Farhan had been hired, I sent him an e-mail requesting an interview. To my delight, he agreed to answer some questions once the season started. I sent him some questions just over a week ago, and he quickly got back to me. His answers are extremely fascinating, and I hope you will enjoy this conversation as much as I did. I learned quite a few things from his answers that I did not expect to hear, especially about what front offices really do. And if you are interested in working your way into a position like his, he has some interesting advice for you.

I would like to extend a special thank you to Farhan for taking the time to do the interview. This was an extremely nice gesture. I am grateful for your kindness.

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What exactly do you do for the A’s?

The job has evolved into a mix of a traditional baseball operations assistant position and an analyst position. I chart all our games and prepare advance reports for our coaching staff. Right now, I’m spending a lot of my time doing analysis for the draft, in particular flagging strong statistical performers that our scouts have not gotten a chance to see yet. Once the draft is done, I’ll probably spend more time doing the kind of analysis we’re used to seeing on Baseball Prospectus, Primer, and other related sites — efficient bullpen usage, things like that.

Economists tend to have two sets of skills that are good for working for an organization like the A’s: 1) Critical thinking, which we economists imperialistically call “the economic way of thinking” and 2) technical econometric skills. Which of these do you think is most important to your job? And is there another skill that I missed?

I would definitely say the first. There are steeply diminishing returns to using advanced econometric methods in this job. Time is of the essence, and even if time weren’t an issue, I would rather do a simple analysis that is easy to explain than a more econometrically-kosher analysis that no one’s going to understand. As it is, we’re usually dealing with such big sample sizes that the signal from the data is generally strong enough to be picked up even by the most basic econometric approaches.

I do think critical thinking is incredibly valuable in this job. Ultimately, baseball operations is all about finding the right distribution of resources across the organization, and evaluating tradeoffs. Having an economics background helps in framing every decision we have to make as a tradeoff — what does a move get us, and what are we giving up? I think framing those decisions the right way goes a long way towards making the right choices.

I know you’re a student of Matthew Rabin. Rabin’s known for his work in behavioral economics, challenging some elements of the standard neoclassical paradigm. My guess is that Michael Lewis is a big fan. Is Billy Beane tapping your brain in search of new inefficiencies that only a trained Rabin student could spot?

I don’t think Billy and David really set out to hire an economist — they were looking for someone with a quantitative background who had some knowledge of the game. We don’t sit around and specifically talk about what behavioral economics models might be useful in evaluating the markets we deal with.

That being said, I do think those markets are prone to the types biases and inefficiencies that are the focus of the behavioral economics field — confirmatory bias, overconfidence, present-biasedness, loss aversion, the list goes on and on. Not all of them can necessarily be profitably exploited, but I do think the background in the field gives me a different perspective on things.

Which did you find first, sabermetrics or economics? Is there an interesting story here?

I discovered sabermetrics when I bought my first Bill James abstract way back in 1985. Can’t say I was writing economics papers back then, so I guess sabermetrics came first. I didn’t really discover economics until my senior year in high school, but even then I never saw myself combining the two. I always just thought of myself as a baseball fan who was more interested in stats than the average fan; and at the same time someone with an interest in economics.

What has been your biggest thrill so far in the job? I heard you worked on the Juan Cruz arbitration. What is working on an arbitration case like? Why do you think you won?

Hopefully once we get on a hot streak, my biggest thrill will be something that takes place on the field, but so far I’d say it was winning the arbitration case. That was really the first thing I worked on after starting with the A’s so to win the case was very validating. It was a good first thing to work on because preparing a presentation was something I was familiar with from my management consulting days (I worked at the Boston Consulting Group from 1998-2000). It was a pretty intense process, and David Forst (the Assistant GM) and I had to work pretty diligently to build our case up, piece by piece. I think we ultimately won because we established precedent was on our side. That was the big surprise to me about the arbitration process — it’s all about establishing precedent. The weight given to precedent is pretty pervasive throughout the industry — from draft bonuses to arbitration cases to free agent signings — much more than I anticipated.

Why did the A’s want Charles Thomas from the Braves over Ryan Langerhans? I can’t believe Schuerholz would have allowed a player that can’t find playing time in the current Braves outfield to be a sticking point to the Hudson deal, so you guys must have wanted Thomas. Was it defense, or did you see something else? I was pretty shocked at how well he hit in the majors, and he didn’t project badly, despite his low walk rate, in my cornball projection system.

I wasn’t with the A’s when the trade was consummated, so I can’t really speak to Thomas vs. Langerhans. I don’t think it’s some big sabermetric secret that Charles Thomas is one of the best defensive outfielders in the league. He’s also a very good baserunner (if not base stealer) and he does have some pop. I can understand the question because his offense took a quantum leap in 2004 and it’s reasonable to be suspicious of that improvement. But I think he can be an above-average hitter at the major league level (2005 start notwithstanding) and he brings a lot to the table on defense and on the bases.

What’s it like working in MLB?

It’s amazing. I absolutely love my job and feel very fortunate to be in this position. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and lose perspective on things, so every once in a while I force myself to take a step back and appreciate the chance I’ve gotten to work for a baseball team.

That said, it is an incredibly intense and consuming position. The one thing about this job, and this industry as a whole, is that there is more information out there than any one single person could ever process. You have to accept that you can’t know everything all the time and learn to draw the line somewhere. The problem is, drawing the line is such a difficult thing to do because we all love the game so much and going through that information is generally fun and enjoyable.

What’s it like working for Billy Beane?

I feel fortunate to have the chance to seem him go about his business every day. Being a GM is an incredibly demanding job — they juggle more balls in the air than the average fan can imagine. It takes a pretty unique combination of an analytical mind, leadership quality, personality, and organization skills to be a GM. To be able to manage it all with the ease that Billy does is pretty amazing. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by all the “to-do’s” and responsibilities in my position, all I have to do is look to him as an example of someone who manages everything so effortlessly.

Are there any GMs on other teams that are just plain suckers?

Absolutely not. Working in baseball has given me a newfound respect for GM’s in baseball. It takes a lot to rise through the ranks of the industry to one of those 30 positions. Fans and media like to deride some GM’s as being clueless, but from what I’ve seen, being a clueless GM is an oxymoron of the highest order.

Who are the “Moneyball GMs” that we don’t know about?

I think whether a GM is a “Moneyball GM” or not is ultimately determined by the moves they make, which are, of course, open to public scrutiny. So your guess as to who those GM’s are is as good as mine. The one thing I have noticed is an increasing number of GM’s have some analytical resources at their disposal, be it a consultant or a full-time assistant. How much they actually use those resources is another matter altogether.

How are the A’s having such a collective hitting slump? It’s like the Great Depression happened to the A’s offense. I don’t think a single player is hitting up to what he should be. Is this something you plan to ride out or do you think something is really wrong? (It looks like bad luck to me).

Given the track records of the guys on our team, it’s hard to believe we’re as bad as we’ve collectively been so far. Eric Chavez is not a .213 hitter. We’re not a .669 OPS team.

This team has been built to have consistent threats 1-9 in the order, albeit without anyone at the level of a Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez. Even if things were going well, we’d probably still be leaving a lot of runners on base. The way things are going, with guys injured and slumping, we’ve been even more exposed. I’m not saying we wouldn’t love to have another power bat in the middle of the lineup, but if guys were doing what they were expected to do, our offense might even be a relative strength.

Do the A’s know how to quantify fielding as well as hitting and pitching?

The industry in general has gotten better at quantifying fielding value, through zone ratings and the like. The biggest issue is getting that kind of fielding data at the minor league and amateur levels. In those instances, we’re still fairly reliant on scouting assessments of fielding ability and potential.

Who is the best prospect in the A’s system that we haven’t heard of yet?

Given how high-profile our farm system is because of the book, that’s a tough one. I’ll just cite two guys who are off to spectacular starts in ’05 who were probably not on the radar before this season — Andre Ethier, an outfielder and ’03 draftee out of OSU, and Dallas Braden, a left-handed starting pitcher and ’04 draftee out of Texas Tech. Braden started the year in Stockton but was recently promoted up to Midland (whether Ethier has been all year).

What advice do you have for a young sabermetrician baseball fan for getting a job in a front office?

It would be a little presumptuous for me to give advice here, since that would imply that I had some sort of well thought-out plan that landed me here. The most accurate advice I could give would probably be, “get lucky.”

The one thing I’ll say is that, if an opportunity every presents itself, you have to treat it like it’s the last opportunity you’ll ever have, because it probably will be. When I found out I was going to interview with Billy and David, I spent the week before the interview preparing non-stop, for probably 18 hours a day. And I would say every last minute was worth it. So I suppose other than the somewhat facetious, “get lucky,” I would add, “be prepared.”

Interview with a Scout

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.

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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.