Stats and Scouting
A few months ago, Pat Dillon asked me if I’d be willing to write one of the articles for the Everett Aquasox programs this year. Since Pat’s the coolest guy on earth and a big friend of the blog, I readily agreed, and he’s also given the go ahead for me to publish the article here on USSM. So, what you will find below will also be available in print form in the Aquasox program this summer, which you should all purchase when you go to Everett Memorial Stadium. In fact, buy three. Give them out to friends. They’ll make great stocking stuffers.
Anyways, the topic of the column is the balance of statistical analysis and traditional tools scouting. It is clearly written to people attending Aquasox games, but the topic is certainly relevant here, especially since we’re viewed as mostly statgeeks. Hope you enjoy.
World history and literature abound with stories of conflict. Whether it is the French fighting the English, the Hatfields feuding with the McCoys, or the Capulets despising the Montegues, dramatic conflicts are at the center of almost every culture. The baseball universe is no exception, as we see each summer with the Yankees and Red Sox. Loyalties to race, religion or laundryÃ¢â‚¬â€as is the case in baseballÃ¢â‚¬â€lead to polarized societies who take up arms over their disagreements. Human beings argue. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just what we do. If you still have not been convinced, flip on any random reality television program when you get home. Conflict is everywhere.
Over the past few seasons, a new conflict has arisen in the baseball culture, and one that has sent fans into separate camps regardless of what organization they root for. The traditional methods of baseball analysis, and in particular talent evaluation, have been challenged as less than optimal for many years. Bill James was selling thousands of copies of his Baseball Abstracts in the 1980s, writing critically from an outsiderÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s point of view, often pulling no punches in his opinions of those making decisions in the front offices of major league organizations. So while the movement for new analytical methods is not new, the growth of the internet has allowed a convergence of likeminded individuals who are bringing their protests to the mainstream.
The most notable baseball publication of the past decade is arguably the bestselling book Moneyball, penned by well renowned author Michael Lewis as a story of the success of the Oakland Athletics, the perennial underdog turned division champion. Lewis was inspired to find out how a team with annual payrolls that were a fraction of the upper echelon teams in baseball could sustain such a high level of performance on the field, and spent a year documenting the organizational philosophies of AÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s general manager Billy Beane and his staff. The Athletics have been using many of these same new analytical methods that the outsiders have been pushing, and have become the model franchise for statistical analysis and a move away from traditional evaluation techniques. As Moneyball climbed the charts, the movement of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“statheadsÃ¢â‚¬Â, Ã¢â‚¬Å“performance analystsÃ¢â‚¬Â, or Ã¢â‚¬Å“computer geeksÃ¢â‚¬Â, depending on your point of view, gained national prominence.
LewisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ tone in parts of Moneyball can be described nicely as arrogant, or more realistically, as out and out rude to those whom he finds do not agree with the philosophies espoused in his book. He refers to a veteran talent evaluator in the Athletics organization as Ã¢â‚¬Å“the fat scoutÃ¢â‚¬Â and paints extremely negative caricatures of the supposed old school mindset. The book reads as an entertaining piece of propaganda, though something that has a clear partisan preference. In and of itself, it was not a piece of balanced baseball analysis, but rather an exaggerated story of conflict between characters that just happened to be employed by major league organizations.
Not surprisingly, those who associated with the Ã¢â‚¬Å“old schoolÃ¢â‚¬Â traditional mindset were not amused. The backlash to Moneyball was strong and widespread. Many of the most prominent names in the game took public swipes at the book, the author, and the game theory that was presented as gospel. Scouts who had given their lives to the game resented the implication that their analysis was inferior to what a kid with an MBA could produce through a computer database. Those who supported the methods mocked in LewisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ prose pointed to the lack of playoff success by the AÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, and wondered why a team that hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t won a World Series title in over a decade was being held up as the model franchise. People who were portrayed as keepers of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“old boyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s networkÃ¢â‚¬Â were offended by the way they were characterized, and the divide between the two schools of thought turned into a battle. The line had been drawn in the sand: Stats or Scouts, Objective or Subjective, Old School or New School. Depending on whether fans valued small ball or the three run homer, they were labeled and sent to join the ranks of those on their side.
As is usually the case in conflict, rationality was left at the door. If you evaluated players with the traditional 20 to 80 scouting scale on their physical tools, you could not also believe in the value of on base percentage or any of these other Ã¢â‚¬Å“advanced statisticsÃ¢â‚¬Â being presented by the new wave of analysts. Likewise, if you had ever run a series of numbers through a database, you clearly lacked the understanding of how to evaluate talent with your own eyes, and were unable to fully value those things that do not appear in a box score. You were either Stats or Scouts, but you certainly werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t both.
The reality, however, is that both objective evaluations of a playerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s performance and expert breakdown of his fundamental skills are vital in the accurate assessment of a playerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true talent level. Without either one, we have incomplete analysis and are prone to making tremendous errors in judgment. We need both.
A look back through the AquaSox All-Time Roster offers some caution in attempting to make too many assertions based solely on either statistical evaluations or traditional tools scouting. For instance, in 1997, the Mariners selected a young second baseman named Jermaine Clark out of the University of San Francisco in the fifth round of the amateur draft. He made his professional debut in Everett that summer and was one of the premier players in the league that season. He compiled a .337 batting average in 199 at-bats, stole 22 bases, drew more walks than he had strikeouts, and posted a .436 on base percentage. At age 20, he was even younger than most of the other players in the league, and history suggests that players who can excel against older players are often going to develop well.
Clark moved up the organizational ladder one level at a time each of the next three years, continuing to perform well, if not quite matching his early excellence. By 2000, he had compiled a career total of 133 steals and an on base percentage north of .400 in four seasons, making him a very valuable part of each team he had been with. He was perhaps the most valuable player on the 2000 New Haven club that captured the Double-A Eastern League championship.
However, scouts across baseball, including those in the Mariners organization, were not sold on ClarkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s abilities to translate his performance to the major leagues. They were concerned about his lack of power and how he would adjust to major league fastballs on a regular basis. They also pointed out below average bat speed and remained skeptical of ClarkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s physical capabilities. Staring straight into the teeth of 1,600 professional at-bats of tremendous performance, the scouts stood their ground and projected that Clark would not hit well enough to be a major league player.
The next year, Jermaine Clark made his Triple-A debut with Tacoma and hit a career low .250 and watched his on base percentage plummet to .338 as veteran pitchers challenged him inside and exploited his lack of power, exactly as the scouts had predicted. Since then, Clark has been a regular in Triple-A and even earned a few short trips to the major leagues, where he has managed to hit just .154 in 78 at-bats. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s spent time in four organizations in the last five years, and at age 28, the statistical analysts have long since agreed that the scouts nailed this one on the head. Despite impressive performances over a long track record, Jermaine Clark simply lacked the physical skills to perform as a major league player.
However, the opposite has held true on many occasions as well. In 1996, the Mariners selected a left-handed pitcher named Brian Fuentes in the 25th round of the draft. He also began his professional career in Everett at age 20 and showed some promise, though he wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the dominating star that Clark would be a year later. However, as Fuentes moved up the ladder, he began striking out batters at ridiculous rates. He posted 153 strikeouts in just 118 innings for Wisconsin in 1997, making Midwest League hitters look foolish on many occasions. Despite raw stuff that couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t light up a radar gun, Fuentes was getting hitters out on a regular basis.
By 2001, Fuentes had joined Clark in Triple-A Tacoma and was one of the best relievers on the team. He posted a 2.95 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 52 innings of work and even made his major league debut with the Mariners that summer. However, by traditional evaluation methods, Fuentes didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t score particularly well, grading out as average or worse in velocity, command, and control. The Mariners decided he was an expendable part and shipped him to Colorado in the now infamous trade to acquire Jeff Cirillo.
After joining the Rockies organization, he earned another promotion to the major leagues in 2002 and continued to rack up strikeouts at the major league level just as he had in the minors. His strikeout rate actually went up after getting called up to the National League! Fuentes then made the major league roster out of spring training in 2003 and was one of the most valuable relief pitchers in the National League. Despite spending half of his games in the hitter-friendly mile-high altitude of Colorado, Fuentes posted a 2.75 ERA in 75 innings, striking out 82 batters and allowing just 7 home runs. By showing some faith in his minor league performance and going against traditional scouting reports, the Rockies were able to acquire a left-handed pitcher who has become one of the main cogs of their bullpen. And they even dumped Jeff Cirillo on the Mariners in the process.
These are just two examples, but the annals of baseball are littered with similar stories. Many players manage to play well above their physical capabilities, maximizing their strengths with hard work, and eventually outperform all expectations that were placed on them because of their perceived skills. Evaluating a player by how he performs will allow us to take an objective view of his abilities and reward players who have earned a chance to prove themselves at the highest level. However, scouts have been finding talent successfully for years without the benefit of evaluating during game situations, and ignoring their abilities to project future stars at a young age will severely limit the types of talent an organization is able to acquire.
So, as you watch the 2005 AquaSox compete in Northwest League action this summer, keep in mind that their performance might be a sign of things to come in the future, but donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget those guys behind the plate with the radar guns. The best organizations have found ways to utilize both the scout and the statgeek, so keep a healthy respect for the opinions of both. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t settle for choosing between tools and performance. Like 2003 AquaSox phenom Felix Hernandez, you can have both.