Pro Scouts Fear Future Ramifications Of Full-Time, Remote Video Scouting
With professional baseball shut down since March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, scouts of all stripes have spent much of the last four months at home. The restrictions on amateur scouts were eased on June 15, the Monday following the draft, and now a team can send up to three scouts to events around the country.
Scouts who typically spend their springs and summers scouring the minor leagues for prospects, however, were still shut down. The battle between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association was still hot and heavy, and there were no games for those scouts to watch anyway.
With Opening Day a little more than two weeks away, however, pro scouts haven’t been given any sort of clarity on what they’ll be allowed to do once the season begins. If they’re left at home—a possibility that seems increasingly likely—any work they do this season will have to be done via video analysis.
That won’t be particularly new for a lot of scouts. Some organizations had moved to video-only scouting for Triple-A and the major leagues even before the pandemic sent everyone home. Pro scouts across the industry have been assigned a fair amount of video work during the shutdown.
During a pandemic, when conditions are still very dicey in large swaths of the country, scouting solely via video might be understandable, though many pro scouts are wondering why they might be stuck at home while their colleagues on the amateur side are allowed to do their jobs as close to normal as possible.
But it does raise an immediate red flag in a lot of scouts’ minds.
If teams prove they can make remote scouting work during the shutdown, why can’t they operate the same way once things return to normal? It’s no secret that, with revenue streams severely limited this year by the prospect of games without fans, teams are looking to save as much money as possible.
“This video scouting, I can see it happening in the future too, doing it off of TV games a lot,” one scout said. “There’s clubs that had already been doing it.”
There are, admittedly, benefits to video scouting beyond the modest cost savings motivation for clubs. It allows a scout to view all angles of a player without having to bounce up and down from their seat at the park, and it allows them to view a much bigger sample of the player, rather than just their look from a few games, when they go to write a report.
Here’s the thing, though: Those elements would be there for them regardless. Scouts can watch a pitcher have the game of his life in person one night, then go back to their hotel and look at the video to see if that performance was an outlier or part of a trend. They can look at how a player’s body has changed year over year throughout his career.
Video can be a supplement, but scouts do not see it as a full substitute.
A robust and skilled pro scouting department can give a team a competitive edge through a combination of experience and depth of coverage. Keeping scouts at home might nullify that edge. It also might force teams to make hard decisions about which, and how many, scouts they employ.
“For video, everyone’s on a level playing field," a second scout said. "It just takes the competition out of it. I guess when we’re at the ballpark we have the same data set, but it’s really about how you interpret it.
"Two guys might be BSing and totally miss something important. They might miss a guy throw, and with the video everyone has the exact same stuff. I feel like so much of the competition gets lost.”
Then there is the disparity in video quantity and quality across the minor leagues. There is no universal hub where all MiLB video gets deposited every night. Teams broker agreements with one another to trade videos so they can be better equipped to deal with other teams. That’s especially useful at the complex league levels, where video is scarce and there are no MiLB.TV broadcasts.
Even at levels where MiLB.TV is present, the quality of the feed can make it incredibly difficult for scouts to get a handle on a player.
“The video that you get in the minor leagues, it’s focused on pitcher-catcher relationship," the first scout said. "That’s basically what you get on most of the video. Pitcher-catcher-hitter relationship. You don’t see where the outfielders are standing. It’s not like TV, where you can see it all. There’s some god awful video in the minor leagues.
“It’s hard to get running times. There’s no perfect scenario, and you don’t know if he ran hard or not because usually somewhere in there you lose the runner and then you kind of have to guess when he might get to first base.”
Defense can also be incredibly difficult to scout solely through video. You can’t tell what kind of jumps outfielders get. You don’t see what kinds of shifts teams might be playing. Without a stellar video crew, usually found at Double-A and Triple-A parks, it’s very tricky to get a handle on a player’s value in the field.
“For defense, (I'm) pretty uncomfortable unless a guy is clearly really twitchy and athletic or he’s clearly a lumbering oaf,” the second scout said. “Even then, it can still be a little hard to tell, range-wise. Hands-wise, you can see. Defense is really tough unless you’re seeing dudes make ridiculous plays. But otherwise it’s really tough.”
There’s one element that’s even tougher than defense to scout on video: Makeup.
The ability to figure out a player’s character can separate good scouts from great scouts, and doing so takes a lot of hard work before games, after games and in between innings. A player’s makeup goes far beyond what happens for three hours between the lines, and the ability to figure it out is forged through far more than what can be seen through a series of lenses.
“So much of what we do is from being at the ballpark and having relationships and forming relationships,” the second scout said. “Baseball is about people. ... It’s not about analyzing video. It’s about people and relationships and talking to players and people who are more experienced than you and have more of a history with that specific organization who can help steer you in a direction.”
Even if it goes on as planned, this season will lack a lot of the familiarities of a regular year. There will be no fans in the stands, at least at the outset. There will be 102 fewer games. There will be no coast-to-coast road trips.
But there will be a trade deadline. There’s already been one deal (the Padres acquired Jorge Mateo from the A’s for a player to be named later), and there could be plenty more over the five weeks between Opening Day and this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline.
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If scouts are not allowed in major league parks or the alternate training sites where many teams have some of their best prospects, then a team’s return in a trade might have to be a player to be named much later, possibly after players can return to some sort of instructional league or the souped-up Arizona Fall League that has been discussed. Or, the players will have to have been solely evaluated via video, analytics and old scouting reports.
Without scouts on the ground to get the most up to date information possible, teams acquiring prospects won’t get the whole picture of a player, to say nothing of how complicated getting medical information could be for a player who has been at home for more than four months, which could lead to decisions made with incomplete data.
“You don’t feel nearly as convicted," the first scout said. "Like when we’re doing these reports on some of these guys in the orgs where I’ve seen them and you feel more convicted when you do the video stuff. You’ve seen them live, you know what it looks like. But some of these guys, you can get fooled on the video. They look better than they are or they look worse than they are.”
Even before the pandemic, scouts were worried about being replaced by cameras and analytics, which can certainly complement the way teams evaluate players. Without question, those two elements give teams more information with which to make decisions that will affect the future of their franchise.
In 2020, those tools may have to take a more prominent role as pro scouts anxiously await instructions. If they’re not allowed to be int he ballpark and forced to continue to use video exclusively for the duration of 2020, they’ll be frustrated. They still are seeking answers why their jobs are being deliberated over for much longer than their amateur scout colleagues, who are out looking at prospects for the 2021 draft. But the bigger fear is what this could mean for the future of the industry.
If teams use the pandemic as a cudgel to drastically change the role of pro scouting, they’d be limiting the vast amount of experience many scouts have acquired through years of playing, teaching and watching the game. And in doing so, they’d be giving up on the source of one of the sport’s most fundamental advantages.