After Years Of Cutting Scouts, Astros Pivot To Hiring Them
When James Click took over as Astros general manager before the 2020 season, one of his first tasks was to assess the state of the organization.
Very quickly, Click came to a realization. After years of cutting scouts under previous GM Jeff Luhnow, the Astros did not have enough personnel to sufficiently evaluate amateur players.
“The Astros organization has done a lot over the last decade to push things forward in baseball and to add new information and new ways of evaluating players,” Click said. “But at the end of the day, the scout being in the ballpark, being in the house, being able to get a feel for the person and not just the data on the field, is something that we place a lot of value on.
“And in my assessment, when I came in, I think the staff had gotten a little too lean. So we decided to add some people to make sure that we could get all that critical information that we need before we select a player.”
Once known as the organization at the forefront of replacing scouts with video and data, the Astros are pivoting and hiring scouts at a rate faster than any other franchise. The Astros increased their number of scouts from 27 to 38 in the offseason, an increase of 41%. They hired six new domestic amateur scouts, increasing their amateur staff by more than a third, as well as five new international scouts.
The Astros still don’t have any pro scouts, and their scouting department remains one of the smallest of the 30 teams. Still, their growth is notable. The Astros’ addition of 11 scouting positions was the largest increase of any team from a year ago.
“I think we’ve learned to keep the draft population as big as we can and scout as many as we can, and you never know what you’ll uncover and find,” Astros scouting director Kris Gross said. “It’s been very welcome this year to have a full staff. It’s already paid dividends.
“We already had a few guys pop up and we were able to be on top of it early. Little things like that allow us to be in on certain players that maybe we were a little slow to be on in previous years.”
The Astros were lauded for their use of data en route to winning the 2017 World Series and three American League pennants in five years, but the core of those teams was built through the draft with a fully-staffed scouting department.
The Astros maintained a department of between 45-60 total scouts—including at least 22 domestic amateur scouts—every year from 2010-17, on par with industry standard.
Those were the years in which the Astros drafted franchise cornerstones Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Lance McCullers Jr., as well as longtime future big leaguers Mike Foltynewicz, Vince Velasquez, J.D. Davis, Adrian Houser, Abraham Toro and Tony Kemp. It was also in those years they drafted late-round finds Ramon Laureano, Patrick Sandoval, Myles Straw, Jake Meyers, Chas McCormick, Tyler White, Josh Rojas and Ryan Thompson and uncovered lightly-regarded pitchers Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier on the international market.
While data played a role in the Astros’ assessments during those years, in-person evaluations were central to their scouting processes.
It was not until after the 2017 draft, with their championship core already in place and their farm system already flush with talent, that the Astros began cutting scouts.
As part of an initiative spearheaded by Luhnow and then-director of baseball operations Brandon Taubman to make the organization’s scouting more video- and data-based, the Astros eliminated or reassigned 10 pro scouting positions and either eliminated, reassigned, left unfilled or did not renew the contracts of 15 scouting positions in the amateur and international departments between 2017 and 2018. Their total number of scouts was halved from 50 to 25, according to team media guides.
Another group of scouts left the organization following scouting director Mike Elias’ departure after the 2018 season to become the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager. At the start of the 2019 season, the Astros had just 19 total scouts—just over one-third of what they had three years earlier.
“It was tough. I’m not going to lie,” Gross said, “Some of those guys were a big part of the organization.”
Those who remained faced immense difficulties. Area scouts were assigned to cover territories normally covered by three scouts. Crosscheckers were asked to perform area scout functions in addition to their crosschecker duties.
One scout’s territory stretched from Los Angeles to the Canadian border. Another’s stretched from Dallas to the Dakotas. Having territories so vast made it impossible to stay in one place long enough to get in-depth looks at any one player. It also meant scouts were often multiple states away from players who popped up in their territory, forcing whichever crosschecker who happened to be in the area to drop what he was doing and go see that player.
“The hardest part was just chasing down guys who were fringe prospects that were maybe going to be a draft guy, where as a crosschecker, (normally) I wouldn’t have to chase those guys down,” said Astros special assignment scout Gavin Dickey, who previously worked as an area scout and crosschecker for the organization.
“And that’s what made it difficult time-wise. My time could have much better been spent seeing a prospect, like a real pro prospect, (rather) than chasing someone down who was like a fringe prospect. An area guy normally would have had much more time to get deeper into looks.”
Another byproduct was the Astros rarely had adequate time to gather makeup information about a player. In one instance, the organization was unaware of widely known behavior concerns about a draft prospect because it did not have an area scout dedicated to the region. The team only learned of the concerns after they drafted the player, when scouts from other teams texted their Astros counterparts incredulously asking them what they were doing.
“There was just not enough hours in the day, not enough manpower to get deep into the background and learn who the kids are (and) do home visits,” Dickey said. “We just didn’t have the manpower to be able to pull that off.
“We were lucky we were able to get to some of those guys at the top part of the draft. As the later the draft went on, the more and more picks went on, we were just going strictly off talent and ability alone. That was a little bit scary and super risky, obviously.”
Taubman, who rose to assistant GM, was fired in October 2019 after he issued an explicit tirade at three female reporters following the Astros’ victory in the AL Championship Series. Luhnow was fired in January 2020 following an MLB investigation that found the Astros cheated using a camera-based sign-stealing system during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
To replace Luhnow, the Astros hired Click, who was previously the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations. Like the Astros, the Rays have long been lauded for their use of data in player evaluation. However, the Rays also employ one of the largest scouting staffs at all levels—amateur, pro and international—and blend their data with copious amounts of in-person evaluations.
“That’s the balance, right?” Click said. “We need to make sure that we don’t just grab data or don’t send people out just to go through the motions, (and) at the same time don’t set ourselves in a position where we are lacking information that we need when we are making these decisions which are critical to the farm system, which is the lifeblood of the organization.”
The coronavirus pandemic delayed Click’s plan to assess the organization during the 2020 season, but momentum toward building the scouting staff back up began in 2021. Gross emphasized the urgent need for more scouts with Click, and after seeing the challenges of operating under their current structure throughout the year, Click moved swiftly to bulk up the scouting department for 2022.
“When James came on it was one of the first things I brought to his attention,” Gross said. “(I was) like look: We could really benefit by growing. He was very open-minded about it and pushed it through very quickly. What we have now, I’m ecstatic just to have a real, full-time area scout doing Florida and one doing Georgia and Florida. It’s nice to be fully equipped with a full fleet now.”
Added Click: “With some of the territories (as big as they were), you worry about some of these guys spending more time at airports and on airplanes than they actually do at the ballpark. The additional scouts have already paid dividends for us this year. We are much more nimble and much more reactive to the ever-changing landscape of amateur baseball.
“Anybody who’s been out there knows how often games get canceled or rained out or the starting pitcher gets changed and you have to pivot and go someplace else. Or a player pops up from a bird dog scout or they pop up from somebody watching video or watching data. We need to be able to react and get actual human eyeballs on that player in order to make the right decision.”
Under Click, that human evaluation is once again a critical part of the scouting process for the Astros. Video, data and other technologies remain a significant part of the equation, but they are used to complement or assist, not replace, scouts on the ground.
“So much of the game over the past 10-15 years has been quantified by the new technology that is coming on board,” Click said. “Our scouts have shown an amazing ability to use that information and take it into their reports and their assessment of the player, and so in some sense what we want them to do is help us interpret a lot of that information that we get from the new technologies.
"But at the same time we don’t have technology that can figure out what is in a kid’s work ethic (or) what is in his makeup. Is this the kind of kid who gets out there to the low minors and can work his way through it, grind his way through? Making sure that we understand the person who we’re drafting and how they react to pro baseball and how they will carry themselves as a professional representative of the Houston Astros organization is a huge focus for our guys.”
The timing of the scouting hires dovetails with the Astros regaining first- and second-round picks after they were stripped of them in 2020 and 2021 as part of the punishment for their sign-stealing. Click insists the organization would have hired more scouts regardless of when the club regained those top picks.
Regardless of the timing, the effect of simply having more bodies has greatly boosted the Astros’ ability to see players this spring and, as a byproduct, substantially improved staff morale.
“Obviously it feels like a huge morale booster to get our numbers back to where they should be,” Dickey said. “I think it shows a good sign of we tried, we went down that road where we had less scouts, it wasn’t comfortable, we didn’t feel great there, we realized the mistakes and we pivoted and we’re back to a full staff.
“We feel much better about our ability to layer looks and get deeper into the draft because that’s where you’re getting the advantage, right? In the draft, everybody is going to have the same prospects at the top. But you gain your advantages the later you get in the draft when you can find that 18th-, 20th-round pick who gets to the big leagues.”
There may still be more growth to come. Even with the additions, the Astros’ scouting staff is still only about 70% of what it was before the reductions. Given the benefits the organization is seeing so far, both Click and Gross expressed interest in hiring more scouts in the coming years.
After years of being the team at the forefront of cutting scouts, the Astros are now leading the charge of hiring them back.
“Seeing the benefits it has produced so far,” Gross said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we kept at least researching and thinking about adding more. More evaluations, seeing the players more, obviously has its benefits.
“Being more in-depth with everything we do, I think that has been the biggest benefit.”
Astros Scouting Department Numbers
Source: Astros Media Guides, 2010-22