How Scouting Departments Are Handling Life Without Baseball
In a typical year in the middle of March, scouting departments are in midseason form. Area scouts are working down preference lists and running out to get extra looks on players who have taken a step forward, or keeping an eye on a few players they have under the radar.
Regional crosscheckers are picking off the high-end prospects in each of their areas, giving additional feedback on the players who are going to be signing multi-million dollar deals. In a typical year, supervisors and assistant scouting directors are constantly on the phone with their entire team, making sure schedules are accurate, the right players are getting seen and reports are coming in.
At the top level—in a typical year—scouting directors are trying to identify the group of players they’ll be picking from with their first few selections and putting eyes in person on their primary draft targets.
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But 2020 has been anything but a typical year and now, in the middle of March, scouts are doing … Well they’re not doing much.
“It feels crazy,” said one National League area scout. “I feel like, (expletive), I’m supposed to be doing something and then I sit back and I’m like, 'No I’m not.' I’m sitting in long store lines, but there’s nothing to do. I’m just sitting here.
“I don’t like doing this, with nothing to do—you kind of feel like a loser a little bit.”
With the novel coronavirus halting baseball throughout the entire country, MLB recently released an order for all teams to shut down scouting operations, both domestically and internationally. No watching games—if you were somehow in an area where games are still happening—no meetings with players, no showcases, bullpens, workouts. No anything.
“We’re just kind of waiting to see what the direction is that’s provided to us,” said one National League crosschecker. “I had a couple extra reports to finish up, got those down and now just kind of playing the waiting game at this point. Seeing what’s going to unfold.
“For myself, being a supervisor and having some guys underneath me, I’m kind of afraid to give them direction and have them do something that ends up serving no value. Especially taking them away from their family right now. What if there is a worst-case scenario where there is no draft? Or if a lot of these guys get removed from the draft. I don’t know. There’s a lot of working parts for all of us, whether it’s what the NCAA is going to do, what we’re going to do draft-wise—I mean there has to be a draft.”
MLB made the right call, of course. Almost everyone agrees: It’s better to prioritize health and public safety than push for some marginal competitive advantage. But at the same time, a draft will happen and teams need to prepare for it.
So how do scouting departments evaluate the 2020 class when MLB has specifically told them not to scout?
“I’m sure I’ll be echoing a lot of the things that many (others have said), which is a lot of this is going to turn video-based,” said an American League scouting director. “We are operating under the assumption that no games are going to be played, no workouts are going to take place until the draft. I think that’s how you have to operate. Because everything above that will obviously be easier for us to handle.”
Some teams have already begun doing that. While in-person scouting is explicitly banned at the moment, there’s no reason why scouts for every club couldn’t simply sit at their lonely quarantined desks at home, pull up video from other areas and write video reports or notes on other players.
It’s not gathering any new information, per se, but it is refining the information and data points that are currently available for teams. The challenge now will be figuring out how much to value a video report vs. a traditional, in-person report.
“What we’re going to have to gauge, and it’s probably the same exercise that a lot of other teams are going through, is how do you weight a video report relative to a live report?” said the AL director. “It’ll be tricky … It’s tough for me to actually pass judgement on it because we’ve never gone through something like this before.”
With all the uncertainty of the spring, perhaps more weight shifts back to last summer when scouts were able to get longer in-person looks. While every team has that information, along with follow reports of players prior to their draft-eligible seasons, the teams that were able to bear down the most early in the process could stand to benefit the most now.
“Oh there were teams Cadillacing,” said the NL area scout. “There were teams who weren’t paying attention, who didn’t take it serious and didn’t turn in a lot of follow reports and thought it was OK ... Some people are in a panic mode. They probably feel like they didn’t get to see everybody, they don’t have looks on people. And then some people will feel confident with the job their area scouts did.
“So now it just depends on those scouting directors, how comfortable they feel. Because this is something that has never happened before and they have to make adjustments on the fly.”
Additionally, the work that’s done to find out who a player is as a person—like assessment of player makeup, work ethic and personality—can’t be done by watching Edgertronic video. If a team doesn’t have that now, they might not ever have it.
"Not being able to do the in-home visits if people hadn’t gotten in there early or didn’t really know guys really well, to me that’s going to be one of the things that really separates (teams),” said an American League area scout. “Obviously with all the data and video and stuff nowadays you can analyze swings and deliveries and all that sort of stuff. But if you don’t have a feel on what kind of makeup a guy has, sometimes that doesn’t reveal itself until the pressure is on in the spring."
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Adjustments will have to be made, particularly with analytical models that increasingly help teams line up their draft boards and make selections. With an entire season basically wiped away, the models will either have to be tweaked, or relied upon less.
“The error bars will be wider, I guess that’s the easiest way to say it,” said the scouting director. “But in some respects not so much … How comfortable we’re going to be with our decisions generally goes hand in hand with the sample size we have. If we have a really small sample size of performance and that performance is maybe against competition we’re not really used to scouting for over the long run there’s inherently more risk in there.
“You can almost think of it like a scouting look. If you go and see a kid for four plate appearances in some high school in Alabama and you write up a report and then you see, let’s just say in a different universe, you saw that kid for 45 plate appearances over the summer, there’s obviously inherently more risk in the former example.”
But in a draft year where every pick will be more risky across the board, there are still a few demographics that could be affected more than others. High school players in the northern part of the country who had barely gotten onto the field—or never did at all—come to mind. Preps who pop up late in the process, like Rays second-rounder David Mercado back in 2017, won’t have the chance to do that this year.
College performers who benefit from their long track record of statistical success but lack the tools to make scouts drool won’t have a lengthy body of work to show. College relievers who are always more difficult for crosscheckers and directors to get looks on haven’t been seen.
In a typical year all of these problems would be easy to deal with. Just bide your team and the players will pop up. Eventually, the reliever will take the mound when the right eyes are at the field. After four months of baseball, the computer in the office will print out a detailed statistical assessment of every player you’re considering taking. Unfortunately, 2020 has turned out to be far from typical.
The one bright spot for teams? Everyone else is in the same boat.
“By and large most teams are going to be on equal playing fields. If the draft date doesn’t end up changing I don’t think it’s the biggest deal in the world," said the American League scouting director. "Obviously it’ll make our jobs a little bit tougher … We’re confident that we’ll be able to do a really good job.
“We understand that every other team is facing the same issue. We’re all facing an even playing field.”