Scout School Molds Next Generation Of Scouts
For the past four years, Alan Matthews has traveled across the country covering amateur baseball, specifically high school players, for Baseball America. This fall, he enrolled in the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau's annual scout development program, which was held in Phoenix. The two-week "scout school" features a comprehensive curriculum that includes classroom lectures, film sessions and daily trips to nearby ballparks, where students train their eye to identify and evaluate amateur and professional players.
PHOENIX--Practically everyone has a job. And whether you serve your country or serve dinner, read minds or read music, pour coffee or pour concrete, you want to be the best at what you do.
When discussing the many jobs that make up a major league organization, scouting is the cog of the baseball operation. Identifying and evaluating talent is the backbone of the game. Talent wins championships, and the organization that most effectively acquires talent--either through the draft, foreign and free agent signings, or trades--gives itself the best chance of winning games. Scouts do the work in the field, as they like to say, to put their team in position to succeed on it.
This fall, 55 ambitious individuals gathered in Phoenix to see if they have what it takes to become part of that foundation. Some of them had already been hired to manage a scouting area for one of 30 major league teams, while others work in player development or some other part of a major league front office. Regardless of their eventual roles, a major league club invested its time and money in them, encouraging them to learn as much as possible about the art of scouting.
This year's class was the largest in the program's 18-year history. The Major League Scouting Bureau and director Frank Marcos begin fielding applications for the program months, and in some cases even years in advance. And as Marcos put it, "Our clubs continue to show interest, and I just don't have what it takes to say no."
Marcos considers each request, taking into account the individual's experience and ultimate career ambition. Teams sponsor individuals that are either already work for them, or that they are considering hiring. Once the course has been completed, any student who doesn't accept a position with a sponsoring club can begin fielding inquiries from other teams.
And the evaluation during scout school isn't limited to players. The bureau ranks each student and provides feedback to all 30 teams. More than 70 percent of the approximately 700 students who have graduated from the program have gone on to work in professional baseball, and the list of alumni is distinguished. General manager Kenny Williams (White Sox), current and former assistant GMs Oneri Fleita (Cubs), Muzzy Jackson (Royals) Donny Rowland and John Mozeliak (Cardinals), scouting directors Jon Lalonde (Blue Jays) and Jason McLeod (Red Sox) and farm director Ricky Bennett (Astros) are just a few of the executives who gained experience and perspective by going through the program.
The background of this year's students ran the gamut. More than two-thirds of the class had some previous playing experience, with Ken Griffey Sr. being the most noteworthy former big leaguer. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Cardinals statistic specialist Sig Mejdal, a UC Davis graduate in mathematical modeling whose first gig out of college was in satellite communications at Lockheed Martin.
Regardless of the amount and type of baseball experience the students brought with them to scout school, one sentiment was universally shared during the two-week course: Scouting is no easy business.
Don Pries, the bureau's director from 1985-98 and current coordinator of instruction for the scout development program, spent much of the first two days talking about the philosophical approach to scouting. He discussed the importance of discipline, conviction, organization and judgment. He has extraordinary passion for what he does, which is evident in his delivery and carefully chosen phrases while preparing the class for its task.
Pries and Marcos are assisted by 13 instructors, all of whom manage specific territories as scouts for the bureau. The instructors took turns breaking down specific facets of evaluating players and provided the class with detailed interpretations of the five basic tools of the game, as well as baseball's nuances.
Baseball America readers are likely familiar with the five tools--hitting, hitting for power, throwing, fielding and running--and perhaps the most important prerequisite to accurately identifying and evaluating players is to understand each tool and recognize a player's present and future ability in each area.
The class watched video of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Troy Glaus, Joe Mauer, Frank Thomas, Josh Beckett and others as amateurs, as the instructors pointed out how obvious it was these players, even as teenagers, possessed the tools that are so integral to a player's ability to reach the major leagues and prosper there.
The tools of those players were easy to identify, but as the class prepared to head out to the back fields of minor league complexes to scout instructional league games as well as high school and junior college contests, we knew tougher tests were ahead.Difficult Field Trips
Field trips in grammar school always seemed to include bag lunches and sun screen, and to that end the class' first trip to the field felt familiar. But if fifth-grade assignments were this tough, most of us would probably still be there.
Each afternoon the class shuffled off the bus and received the name and jersey number of two players. After breaking into groups of four along with an instructor, we picked a seat and began trying to scout.
Immediately you must begin asking yourself questions about the player. The first task is to decide what type of muscle structure and frame the subject has. Begin with the most descriptive, specific adjectives that come to mind to draw a word picture of his physical features.
The bureau's bible, a 200-page manual filled with more than 50 years of scouting information, tips and philosophies, concentrates on scouting tools, not performance. The manual reads, "It is very difficult for a major league player to be a productive, everyday performer if the player does not have at least two tools that are average or better."
And tools typically come in the form of physical attributes. Big guys don't usually run well, little guys don't typically hit for power, and scouts are trained to judge how a player's physical attributes translate into tools now, as well three, five or even 10 years down the road. This is integral to the player's value. You must try to determine not only how good he is now, but how good he could become, and his body type is the most tangible indicator to pass such judgments.
Once the students have made those determinations, it's time to watch the player play. During infield or outfield practice you're charged with evaluating throwing motion, arm strength, footwork, range and hands. The group bears down during the games picking out hitting and pitching mechanics. How does the hitter set up in the batter's box? Where are his feet positioned? His hands? How does he gather, or load, his bat to begin his swing? Does he recognize curveballs as they dart to the dirt? Is he balanced when he unleashes a cut on a 2-0 fastball that comes up empty?
So much of evaluating talent comes from understanding the game. Part of what makes scouting so difficult is that without understanding how the body must behave to perform certain actions on the field, you don't have much of a chance to accurately assess the player. Every student in the class has watched countless baseball games at all levels. But now we're learning how to scout the game. We're no longer just watching it.Experience Is What Matters
Veteran scouts might scoff at the notion of learning their trade by reading a manual and watching two weeks worth of games. And there's no disputing that in this field, experience is paramount.
While the instructors drill home the importance of tools and a scouts' ability to evaluate those tools, they also ask over and over if the student likes the player, ensuring that each of us understands that scouting is subjective. As much as you try to quantify what you're seeing with numbers, grades and phrases, the best scouts aren't that much different from the best players. They must have instincts, trust those instincts and be willing to put their job on the line for them.
I had the benefit of being in the same work group as Griffey, and his willingness to share his opinion on what the group was seeing each day at the park was a significant bonus. It helped tie together the things we learned in the classroom with the gut feelings scouts are supposed to develop. None of the other students in our group played in the majors, and being able to pick Griffey's brain and hear him explain many of the nuances of the game--things others in the class would ordinarily never consider--was invaluable.
"Just because the guy didn't go with that pitch doesn't mean he's strictly a pull hitter," Griffey explained one day when a lefthanded hitter grounded out to second base. "For me, I usually had one job. Get Pete over. All Pete (Rose) hit was singles and doubles, and I had Morgan, Bench and Foster hitting behind me, so I always zoned pitchers. Looked middle-in and tried to get him over.
"There's a lot that goes on in this game that influences how certain guys play it."
And so went Griffey's insight--not only intelligent, but logical and helpful in our pursuit to stop watching games and begin scouting them. It's not hard to imagine four relatively young, impressionable students immersing themselves in each anecdote that rolled off his lips, and each time he spoke, we listened closely.
But even someone with the playing experience of Griffey--a career .296 hitter in 19 seasons in the big leagues--has something to gain by attending scout school. He and many other former players were here to learn how to quantify what they saw on the field. An area scout's ability to accurately articulate to his scouting director what he likes or doesn't like about a player is crucial. And one of the program's major benefits is learning how to write more concise, clear scouting reports. To put what you already see into words that help others in your organization understand exactly what type of player they're reading about.
"The report writing has been the greatest benefit to me," said Jayson Durocher, a former minor and major league pitcher who was sponsored by the Devil Rays in this year's class. "There are a lot of things I can see already on the field, based on my experience playing. But I have really learned a lot about how to get that on to paper."
Trey Forkerway's playing career ended in 1999. He enrolled in the program that fall following six years in the Cubs farm system with the objective of figuring out which direction to take his career, now that his playing days were over.
"Coming straight from playing, it was good for me to see things from a totally different perspective than I ever had," Forkerway said. "I knew how to teach someone to do something but never to evaluate or project."
After he spent seven years managing and coaching in the Cubs system, Forkerway decided to accept a position as an area scout in Texas. His experience from scout school, combined with that as a player and in player development, provides him with an impressive resume and an unmatched perspective to carry into the field.
"It was an eye-opener for me," Forkerway said. "The first report that I wrote, it was amazing to see what it takes to project. If I saw something about a player that didn't jump out at me, you had to learn how to look at an 18-year-old kid and be able to say down the road that they were going to be a different player and how."
Lalonde, who graduated from the program in 2001, quickly grasped the concepts taught in scout school. He took over as Toronto's scouting director three years later, and believes what he took out of the two-week session accelerated his career.
"I was pretty green when I went there," he said. "The program gives you a real good advantage going into the field for the first time. You don't feel naked. You are going out with some tools to compete with the guys who have significantly more experience."
Lalonde acknowledges that there are certain elements to scouting that simply can't be taught in this, or any other, setting. Things Demetrius Figgins hopes to soon learn.
Figgins was hired as an area scout to mine the Pacific Northwest for the Angels. The older brother of Los Angeles utilityman Chone, Demetrius has been around the game as long as he can remember, but this is his first scouting job. He spent last summer working as an associate scout under Tom Kotchman, who covers part of Florida for the Angels, including Figgins' hometown near Tampa.
Despite his playing experience and opportunity to learn under Kotchman, a respected evaluator, Figgins didn't stroll out of scout school with an ability to easily pinpoint future major leaguers.
"Demetrius knows what a 90 mph fastball looks like," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said. "And now we're going to have to show him there are 10 different types of 90 mph fastballs, and he has to find that one guy that is going to be able to use that 90 mph fastball to pitch in the big leagues.
"You just have a feeling on a player. It's that crazy world of instincts and gut feelings. What is it that separates? You have to dig in to figure that out. Some of it is learned, but some of it you just have to have a feel for. There are a lot of five-tool guys that are going to be in Mobile or Little Rock for a long time."
Far from scientific and anything but elementary, scouting is both ambiguous and exact.
It all comes with the job.