Draft Q&A: Tommy Tanous

We took last week off with the Draft Q&As because of all the NHSI coverage. This week we return, not with a player, but with Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous to talk about the ins and outs of the scouting industry . . . 

First off, we're out here in North Carolina, and we've been covering the USA Baseball National High School Invitational. As a scouting director, what are your overall thoughts on the event, and how important or how big is the event on the scouting calendar?

Having been there several years in a row now, it's something I personally don't want to miss. Whenever you can get that much talent in one area, as a scout that just saves you so many days, and we run out of days in the draft season. So, for me, it's a can't-miss event to be able to see the high-caliber talent and the teams that have been going in there, I think it saves me so many days. It's an event I would not want to miss.

It just seems like it's pretty unique in terms of having that many good teams from all over the country in one place at the same time.

Yeah, it's a nice blend of West Coast and East Coast talent. One of the things in scouting, especially at the high school level, that's very hard to see sometimes, is the quality of play. And you get a chance to see pitching prospects playing against hitters, and you get to see the very best playing against each other. That's a huge thing when you're evaluating players.

Can you tell everyone how you first got into scouting?

I was a junior college coach at the Community College of Rhode Island, and we had some success with players getting drafted, and I would run into some scouts--area scouts--and it was something that I was very interested in doing. One of those area scouts happened to be J.P. Ricciardi. J.P. kind of was the catalyst to get me started into professional baseball and went out of his way to get me an interview with the Milwaukee Brewers, and Ken Califano, the scouting director at the time for the Brewers, was nice enough to give me my first chance. That's how I started, back in 1996.

How long were you with the Brewers?

I was with the Brewers seven years. My first four years were under Ken Califano, and my last three were with Jack Zduriencik.

Yeah, there's quite a few scouting directors now who worked under Jack.

Yeah, it's quite a tree. Jack had myself, he had Bruce Seid (Brewers scouting director), he had Bobby Heck (former Astros scouting director), Tommy Allison (former Diamondbacks scouting director), Ric Wilson (Angels scouting director). Ray Montgomery (Diamondbacks scouting director) came after I left, but Tom McNamara (Mariners scouting director) and I worked together. It was kind of a scouting director mini school, I guess.

What is it about Jack that has all those guys linked to him?

I think, for one, he had the ability of assembling a very good staff. And I can say this: When you work for Jack, there were no stones unturned. He was an excellent evaluator, and he was an excellent person to pay attention to details. You dotted your "I's" and crossed your "T's," and the entire staff worked that way, so it was really good training. He also brought in Larry Doughty, a man with general manager experience, a scouting director himself, an excellent teacher of scouts, so it really was a nice blend of people he had there.

What was that first year as an area scout like, and how have things changed in the industry since then? tommy-tanous-2013

Oh, the first year, I think all area guys will say the same thing--the first year is the toughest. Not only the evaluating, and you're not quite used to seeing a player and having to make a call that quickly on a player, but also the slotting of a player--where this young player goes in the draft. I tell our young scouts all the time, the only way you're going to get better at where a guy goes in the draft is by experience. Nobody can just tell you, it doesn't come naturally, you have to have players in your area, have players on your list, see where they go in the draft, and then it builds your library. And then you have a library of players like, 'Hey, I saw this guy, it's a shortstop, he's a plus defender, he can swing the bat, this guy goes in the second round . . . this guy goes in the first round.' And you remember those type of players. They may not be in your area--I was covering the Cape Cod League and that was probably the best experience I could have had as a young scout because I saw players like Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, Troy Glaus--they still stick in my mind.

How have things changed in the industry since then?

Well, I think a lot has changed as far as the area guy. When I started in the '90s, as an area scout, you were the first person to see the player in your area. You saw the player, you reported on the player, your supervisor or crosschecker would come and see the player and it would move up the chain that way. Nowadays, it's almost the opposite effect. With the advent of all the showcases, a lot of times the scouting director and the crosscheckers see the players before the area guys do, or at least have seen them as much as the area guys, and it kind of filters from the top down a little bit more so than it did in the past.

Yeah, that's interesting. Do you think that's mostly because of the showcases, or some combination of the fact that there's more showcases, and the money has increased?

I think the money increase is more geared where GMs have become involved more so than in the past, and ownership in some cases. When I first started, it was mostly the scouting director and his staff, and the GM was kind of updated on the process of the draft and what was going on. I'm sure there were certainly GMs that were more actively involved then too, but now it seems like it's more that the entire organization is involved, and I believe that's because of the money. But, for the most part, I think the showcases had the big thing to do with your crosscheckers and your senior management seeing these players earlier.

Sure, that makes sense. Another thing that's changed over the past 10-20 years is technology. I mean, we've seen advancement and improvements to things like GPS, the internet, video cameras, radar guns; what changes do you envision over the next 10 years?

I think you hit it on the head. I remember my first five years scouting, I scouted without a cell phone. Every time you'd pass a pay phone, you'd call into your voice mail. You'd dial an 800 number and you'd see if there was a message left for you, and during the scouting season you'd do it about five or six times a day. And then the video cameras came in. I think people were hesitant to use them. Some of the more veteran scouts were hesitant to use them, but I think now it's an integral part of scouting. I see scouts now videotaping and taking the video back to their room to help break down a swing, to help break down pitching mechanics, and I think it's great. I think it's tremendous. I think it gives you a great advantage to be able to slow the game down, and I do think it makes you a better scout. Where in years past, it may have been looked down upon, but I just think it's tremendous. Now more people in the organization can see a player. Nothing is as good as seeing a player live, but I think the more eyes you have on a player, the more accurate you're going to be. What the future holds? I'm not sure. Certainly statistics and analysis are always playing a part of it and getting better each year, and that's now starting to filter down to the amateur level, as well.

I was going to say statistics, but maybe also things like TrackMan or PITCHf/x gaining more traction at the amateur levels?

It is. I know some teams are using those, and you see them certainly at the Area Codes and the other events, too. Seeing how hard the ball comes off the bat, velocity, spin rates, I think it's just starting now with these companies, and I think it's going to take a few years--like anything new--I think it'll take a few years before teams have total confidence in it. Just like the video camera took a few years, but I think it'll eventually get there, and there'll be a system that's probably used more than others, and a system that teams probably feel more comfortable with.

With regard to video, have player comparisons become less important now that you have access to players' videos and you can pull up any player you want to see, almost instantly on your laptop?

I do like player comparisons, and I ask our staff to keep working at comparisons. It just helps fill in that image of that player, of what he's going to be, of who he reminds you of. But, to a certain extent, it is a little less important now, because now you can watch them instead of trying to 'paint that picture,' as they used to tell us to do as we were writing our reports. But, I still like the way guys describe a player and the way he plays the game. 'This guy plays like a Kirk Gibson-type. Athletic, but plays with some effort.' Things like that. I don't think that picture ever gets totally filled in, so by saying who that player reminds you of only helps.

There's a handful of guys out there, but you're one of the few scouting directors without experience as a professional player. What advantages would you say a guy who played pro ball has, and what advantages does someone have if they didn't play pro ball?

You know, I think the advantage of playing professional baseball immediately gives you more contacts within the professional game. When you've not played professional baseball, you have to work on getting those contacts a little bit more. But, as far as playing professionally, or how good of a player you were, I'm not sure that has much to do with evaluating. Otherwise, the best players in the game would be the best scouts, and that's certainly not true. But I do think it has advantages. As an area scout, going into a home, and parents and players asking you, 'What is it like to play pro ball?' I think you have some first-hand knowledge there and it adds a little validity to what you're trying to tell the player about professional baseball. As far as not playing professional baseball, because I was recruiting, I always felt comfortable going into a home and describing what our organization was about. I think that was an advantage of being a college coach.

What's the biggest adjustment or the biggest thing you've had to learn as you've transitioned into the role of scouting director?

Answer your phone non-stop? I was lucky, I really was, as far as the people I've worked with--not only the scouting directors, but the player personnel people I worked with--currently Paul DePodesta, Tony LaCava, J.P. Ricciardi, Grady Fuson. These were some great examples of good baseball people, knew how to treat people, had a process, they stuck to their process of what their beliefs were and are, and they were really good role models for me. I don't try to be any one of those, but I have taken from each of those, what I think were really good things that they did, said, and some of their processes. The adjustment wasn't all that big, because I did have an idea, and I was fortunate enough to have seen it first-hand with these men. But the biggest adjustment, it is just communication that never stops, that's the biggest adjustment.

Yeah, I did an article last year about the role of the scouting director, and the biggest thing I learned from talking to a bunch of guys was just that, when you're an area scout, and even when you're a crosschecker, evaluation is No. 1, but when you get moved up to scouting director, it almost becomes more about your ability to manage information and manage people.

I would agree with that. When I was doing the national job, it was: Get to the game, give your evaluation, possibly call your scouting director, and then move on to the next game. Now, it is: Get to the game, try and direct some traffic to where we need to be the next couple of weeks, listen to your crosscheckers--if somebody's playing really well, we're going to have to get back in there--there's a lot of planning, and it's not your own planning. Forget just trying to get to your hotel and make your plane arrangements and your own schedule. You're looking ahead at, 'Geez, we don't have enough looks on this guy, and this guy's a consideration for us, where we pick, and now I have to move some people around to get in there.' You're worried about the whole staff more so than just yourself.

How far out do you like to plan your schedule in advance?

Well, I don't like to go further than two weeks. Too many things happen when you start planning any further than that, weather always comes into play. I can plan a great schedule for two weeks, and on day two of that schedule, I've got rain somewhere and it destroys the entire schedule. When I was younger, crosschecking, I would plan out a whole month, and at about day four, that whole month would get blown up. So, I don't go too far ahead, but I do want to be aware of what's going on, possibly get this team matching up against another team. You can't just go one week ahead--you do have to look further down, because you could be missing some great matchups that would make your life a lot easier.

Scouting is based on opinions, and it's always said that you can't properly evaluate the success of a draft until about five years down the road. So, how do you go about evaluating yourself as a scout, and evaluating the job that your staff is doing?

Nobody knows who has the best draft, until these players actually start playing and start getting deeper into their career. I judge our draft, and our staff, and my own performance by, did we follow our process? There are a lot of different ways of skinning a cat. There are some teams that are stuff-oriented with a pitcher, they want guys with great stuff. There are others who obviously want great stuff, but they're more concerned about arm action. They're both right in a way, but what is your process, what is your philosophy, and did you, as a staff, stick to it? I think that's how you judge yourself as a staff. Because, if your process is solid, and your philosophy is solid--and there can be many different philosophies--but if you stick to them, I think you have the best chance of having success. I think you can get in trouble if you have one philosophy one year, a totally different philosophy another year, and you're constantly changing. If you have a philosophy you believe in, certainly you're going to make some small adjustments as the year goes by, but if you have your beliefs and you stick to them, and your staff believes in them, I think that's the way you have your best drafts.

So, it sounds like the harder part is evaluating to make sure you have the right philosophies in place.

Yeah, each team is going to be a little bit different. I've worked for quite a few teams, and quite a few of those teams had very successful drafts with totally different philosophies. But, they did one thing all the same: They had a staff that got the game plan, and that staff believed in the game plan. At certain points, it was more high school-oriented with staffs I was on, and with others it was more college-oriented, and both had success. That's it--can you, as a scouting director, get your staff on the right track, believing in what you believe in, and believing what the organization believes in?

How much communication is there between the scouting staff and the player development staff to make sure that there are cohesive beliefs and procedures going on, from what you're looking for to what they're looking for?

Well with us, it's constant communication because Paul DePodesta oversees both, and that's one of the benefits of the system we have here. He oversees player development and he oversees amateur scouting, and international. So, he goes hand-in-hand. When we draft a player, Paul knows exactly who we drafted, most likely has seen the player, especially in the higher rounds, and then can easily make a plan for that player. So, for us, there is no communication issue or problem. It really is one in the same.

Yeah, that's huge. How many players would you say Paul gets out to see every year, in terms of the amateur draft?

Oh, I would say Paul sees probably over 100 players. He gets out quite a bit. I would say he comes close to seeing as many as I do.

Scouting is obviously a subjective business. But it's important to remain objective, too. I did a feature a couple years ago called "Scouts On Scouting," where I interviewed scouts about their jobs, and one thing a guy told me that really stuck out to me, that I really thought was neat, is a thing he does when he does pro coverage. The first day he gets there for BP, he takes all his notes without getting a roster, so that he's not influenced by the names or the statistics. Are there any tricks like that, that you use yourself, or little things you try to teach new scouts?

Well, they call that scouting with your eyes. It's nice when you do that, and then at the end of your series, or in the middle of your series, you pick up the stats and the guys you circled, that you feel are prospects, are all having good years. Then it makes you feel better as an evaluator. The main thing I'll try and stress upon all our scouts--our crosscheckers and our area supervisors--is this: You evaluate with a checklist, whatever that checklist may be. Whatever you feel is important--and obviously I'm not going to go into the New York Mets' checklist--but we have certain things we like in a pitcher, and certain things we like in a hitter. When you evaluate a player in February, you go down that checklist. He does this, this, this, this, this that we like; he doesn't do this so well. Well, February turns into April, and we want that same checklist. We want that player being graded on the same criteria he was graded two months earlier on. Otherwise, I've seen too many scouts, they'll go in in February, and they'll have a certain criteria of what they like. By May, that criteria has changed, and really it's like having two different scouts at the game. You're not being consistent, and you're not being true to the list, or to the player. That's probably the best advice I can give a young scout. Keep changing, keep getting better--look, my criteria for what I look for now, in 2013, is much different than it was in 1996, because I've matured and have more experience, and now I've seen certain things that make me feel more comfortable with a hitter. But, I try and have the same process when I go to the game everyday. Therefore, I'm giving it more of a consistent opinion.

Just so I'm clear--you're not talking about tools. These are more specific things you're looking for on the checklist?

Well, some will be tools. I don't think I'm giving away any secrets by saying it's nice to see bat speed in a hitter, and things like that. But, yeah, it may be something with how the player loads, what his triggers are as a hitter, what his setup is. So, whatever that scout's checklist is, I think you want to grade that player the same way throughout the year, even though it's different players. So, we're seeing Player A in February and we're going to use that checklist, and then we're seeing Player B in May, we're going to use the same one.

OK, now I have a few fun questions for you. Obviously with all of your travels, what would you say is the best airport in the country?

Tampa. I can get my car right there. I do not like shuttles, that's the whole key.

What about the best restaurant? Are there any restaurants you seek out when you're on the road?

Oh boy, there's been a lot. Let me see . . . it's Little Italy in L.A.

What about the nicest college stadium in the country?

It's gotta be South Carolina. Although, let me say this, the second is Pepperdine for the view. I love going to Pepperdine.

What about the nicest high school facility? 

Cathedral Catholic in Southern California--the San Diego area, where (Stephen) Gonsalves is from. Oh, it's gorgeous. It looks like a college campus. Beautiful. Great facility.

In all your years as an amateur and pro scout, who has been the best player you've ever scouted?

Probably Bryce Harper. Rocco Baldelli was a big influence when I saw him. He was in my area, so that was pretty good. Stephen Strasburg was pretty special to see. There's been so many . . . and then having the Cape all those years and getting to see Troy Glaus, Pat Burrell, Brandon Inge, there were just so many guys--Ben Sheets--that was fun, too.