State Of Scouting: More MLB Teams Opt To Downsize Scouting Departments In 2021
One of the biggest trade wins in recent memory plays shortstop in San Diego.
Almost from his first day in the Padres organization, Fernando Tatis Jr. had the makings of a star. He crushed every level of the minor leagues, then made the big leagues out of spring training in 2019 and finished third in National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
At the time he was traded in 2016, Tatis had yet to play an official game for his signing franchise. The White Sox had inked him out of the Dominican Republic in a 2015 international signing class that also included Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto.
The process the Padres went through to acquire Tatis as the second piece—along with lefthander Erik Johnson—in the deal that sent James Shields to Chicago was extensive. Four of the team’s scouts with decades of combined experience saw Tatis on the back fields in Arizona before recommending that he be included in the trade.
The Padres have one of the most robust professional scouting staffs in baseball, with 15 scouts tasked to cover the major and minor leagues. That’s tied with the Rays, Pirates and Marlins and ranks behind just the Yankees (19), D-backs (17) and Mets (16).
These teams’ scouting staffs stand in contrast with current trends. More and more teams have opted to downsize their scouting departments across all levels.
Entering the 2019 season, per information listed in media guides and the annual Baseball America Directory, teams employed a combined 1,909 full-time scouting directors, assistant directors, special assistants, special assignment scouts, amateur, professional and international scouts. This season, that number is down to 1,756, for a difference of 153 fewer scouts. That’s an average of 5.1 fewer scouts per team, but the losses were not evenly distributed. Four teams have more scouts and front office scouting personnel in 2021 than they had in 2019. Seven teams’ departments lost 10 or more scouts from 2019 to 2021.
|Year||Directors/Assistant Directors||Special Assistants/Special Assignment||Pro Scouts||Amateur Scouts||International Scouts||Total Scouts|
The financial losses teams have sustained throughout the course of the pandemic exacerbated the trend, but teams were eschewing in-person scouting in favor of analytics and video scouting before Covid-19 became a part of our collective vocabulary.
“I think Covid, obviously you could say this for probably anything,” one scout said, “but I think it happened at a really bad time for scouting.”
Simply put, some teams have looked at their books for places to save money and have come to the conclusion that scouts are expendable and player evaluation can be done just as effectively—and more efficiently—either through analytics or via video.
The technology around the game has exploded in the last decade, to the point where nearly everything is measurable, and a great deal of that information is public or will be in the near future. Any big league pitcher’s velocity or spin rate is available with a few clicks of a mouse. The same goes for a player’s exit velocity or sprint speed or even catchers’ pop times.
The public data isn’t particularly plentiful in the minor leagues yet—some teams do tweet about exit velocities every now and again—but most of the sport is available to stream via MiLB.TV. Some minor league teams even have broadcast TV deals.
The quality of the minor league streams, especially at the upper levels, is so good—and is slated to get much better because of Major League Baseball’s new broadcast requirements—that some clubs have decided to stop in-person scouting of Triple-A and the big leagues.
In one former scout’s opinion, this could ultimately hurt scouts’ development. The most respected voices in the room have put in decades at all levels. They’ve likely seen every level of the minor leagues, as well as plenty of amateur baseball both domestically and internationally. All that is usually in addition to a playing career. No matter the path, these scouts have shaped their perspective over years on every type of ballfield imaginable.
“I think what you’ll lose in doing that is the development of scouts. There’s some really, really stinking good scouts out there. Really good scouts with a phenomenal feel for players,” one former scout said. “What they say matters, and even the most analytical organizations listen to these types of guys. You’re going to miss out on the development of those types of guys, and they’ll be gone in the game if you continue to neglect Triple-A and Double-A.
“Why? Because you need to have scouts learn what a guy looks like at 18, 19, 20, 21 and in A-ball and all the different demographics. The college kid, the old college kid in A-ball, the Dominican kid, the Venezuelan. There’s so many subsets of players with so many different backgrounds that you have to see them all, and then you have to track their development—and then you have to evaluate how well you did evaluating. That’s how you get good at it.”
That proliferation of data and video has, for some teams, led them to employ fewer scouts. Instead of having, say, 15 scouts for the big leagues through the lowest levels, they can have 10 scouts do in-person games for Double-A through Rookie ball, while also doing six upper-level teams on video.
For now, this affects pro scouts more acutely than it does scouts in amateur or international departments, though amateur departments were significantly slashed from 2019 to 2021 as well. There are still thousands of players at high schools and colleges where data is not easily captured. Without that data, teams can’t easily use forecasting models to come up with predictions for their career paths. Thus, more eyes are still needed to adequately cover those levels.
For pro scouts, that means more in-person looks than ever are focused on players at Class A and below. That’s where a keen scout might be able to clue his team into a player who has made great changes in the offseason, or the player on the back fields whose name hasn’t reached the mainstream.
“It’s just a constant trickle-down of focusing on the levels of baseball that we have the least amount of information, the least TrackMan data, the least video,” the first scout said, “and using that to prioritize our in-person looks.”
But while it remains true that the players at the lowest levels are the ones for whom the least data is available, that doesn’t mean that scouting the upper levels and the big leagues lack value. The top players are likely to continue being the top players—and probably aren’t going to be available in trade or free agency in the near future—but the fringe or second-tier big leaguers, the ones who might fill out a roster the next season, could yield big results for a smart team.
“We know who the best players are in the big leagues. Do you need me to tell you that Mike Trout is good at baseball? No, you do not need me to tell you that,” the first scout said. “However, there’s going to be guys that play in the big leagues this year who don’t play well in the big leagues, don’t perform well, and they end up going on waivers or signing as a free agent, and they’re going to end up playing well down the road.”
Nearly all pro scouting in 2020 was done via video because of the pandemic, and scouts are fearful that the practice—despite its flaws—could become more commonplace because it is much cheaper.
And while that’s undeniably true, video scouting does not allow for the finer points of the scouting profession. While a scout can see a great number of games on video, and analytics can help illuminate some aspects not visible to the naked eye, there are more elements to scouting beyond evaluating the player in front of you.
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One aspect is simply about making relationships with other people throughout the game. Scouts spend hundreds of nights on the road at games, often seeing the same people from city to city, ballpark to ballpark.
Over those years, people grow into new roles in the game. Players become coaches and coaches become scouts and executives, and a good scout can get to know some of those people along the way and gain wisdom in the process. That information can sometimes be used to paint an even fuller picture of a player.
“That’s so much of what our job is about,” a second scout said, “just treating people the right way and being a human being and getting to know people and managing relationships. That’s how you find so much out, because of your relationships.”
Another factor to be considered when looking at the scouting cutbacks is which scouts and executives are losing their jobs. In a lot of cases, it’s senior members of teams who have accumulated decades in the game, as well as the corresponding salaries and titles.
“It’s what’s been going on forever, and now we’ve replaced wisdom with information,” a third scout said. “But there’s not a lot of gray-haired guys working anymore. And if you want to say the gray-haired guys are narrow-minded and they don’t take to change, that’s not true.
“That’s an easy way to get what you want, which is all of your buddies who think the exact same way you think in, and get those (gray-haired) guys out.”
A decade ago, the narrative was roughly the same as it is now. Back then, it was framed as stats versus scouts. Now, it’s analytics versus scouts, in some sort of overblown battle of extremes with one method incontrovertibly superior.
Neither case has been true, and every scout Baseball America spoke to for this story agreed that analytics and video provide valuable sources of information that help them do their job better.
To make it even clearer: Scouts do not reject analytics. They use the data they provide in order to make their reports better. Analytics and data are a complement—not a substitute–for in-person scouting.
“It’s the difference between scouting the pitch and scouting the pitcher,” the third scout said. “TrackMan or Rapsodo, all that stuff, it can scout the pitch, but the pitch doesn’t win games—the pitcher wins games . . . Scouting the pitch that he throws is important, but you scout the pitcher.
“I’m not saying we go there and we can look inside people’s souls, but it’s all part of it—and it’s what’s been going on forever. And now we’ve replaced wisdom with information.”
While teams like the Braves, Astros and Orioles have made the decisions to get rid of all or nearly all of their pro scouts, other clubs—like the Brewers and Mariners—have gone in a different direction. They’ve decided to combine their departments and have their scouts responsible for covering a mix of professional, amateur and international baseball.
“On a Tuesday, I might be at Texas A&M seeing whoever’s pitching on Tuesday. And then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I might be in the (former) Midwest League,” said one scout whose organization is considering such a move. “Then Saturday, I might be in the Dominican Republic.”
On its face, that doesn’t seem like the worst thing. Getting a wider range of eyes on players helps add perspective to the final picture. The Phillies bringing Charlie Manuel—and his decades of experience in the game—in to watch a top draft target or possible trade acquisition adds an element of perspective to the final decision.
However, this practice has often led to scouts getting let go, which means fewer eyes on more players.
“You can only streamline so much,” the first scout said. “It’s hard to polish a turd at some point.”
Another kind of streamlining hurt scouting as well. When the minor leagues were reorganized and 40 teams were eliminated, that left fewer teams to scout, which in turn led to the downsizing in departments the sport saw in the offseason.
Beyond the layoffs and firings, there’s a general sentiment that MLB views scouts, especially on the pro side, as second-class citizens. While their peers in amateur departments were allowed to scout in-person last summer, pro scouts were limited to video work during the MLB regular season and postseason.
It wasn’t until instructional league in the fall that scouts were allowed to pack their radar guns and stopwatches and head for Arizona or Florida for their first in-person looks at players since the baseball world shut down in March 2020.
The aspect that really gets stuck in the craw of scouts is the lack of communication from the MLB league office. Before spring training began this season, scouts weren’t 100% sure whether they would be let back into ballparks. There was optimism, but not certainty. Eventually, MLB gave the go-ahead for scouts to attend spring training games.
A month later, when minor league spring training began, teams were left in the same position of having to repeatedly ask for a blanket policy about what their scouts were and were not allowed to do at teams’ complexes in Arizona and Florida.
This time, MLB left it up to individual clubs to decide, in much the same way they did for instructional league last fall.
In both cases, the rule was simple: Teams could deny opposing scouts entry into their complexes, but doing so meant their scouts would be barred from attending other teams’ games. This led to some pro scouts continuing to sit on the bench while their peers went back to work.
“(MLB is) not (friendly toward) scouting. They don’t seem to care much about us,” the third scout said. “The perfect example is that they’ve created uniform Covid protocols for everything, and we’re waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. And then a week before (they say), ‘Yeah, we don’t want to do this. You (teams) figure it out on your own.’
“That should tell you all you need to know about what MLB thinks about us. We were the one group of people who were not important enough for them to drill down for a day and create proper protocols and distribute them to each club. Instead, each team was left (on its own).”
Analytics and data are not going anywhere. Scouts know this, and they are willing to use any tools they have at their disposal to help them get better at their jobs. Ultimately, that will help their team win. After all, the grizzled baseball lifer and the fresh-faced analyst both want the same thing: to be sized for a World Series ring at the end of the season.
All the scouting industry is asking is that teams not use analytics as a cudgel in the name of cost savings to get rid of people who have years of experience identifying winning players.
Scouts can’t always see things at the same granular level as TrackMan or Hawkeye or Rapsodo, but none of those tracking services can quantify mental toughness or work ethic or develop relationships throughout the sport to get the key piece of information that might lead to a franchise-altering acquisition.
One of the simplest descriptions of a scout’s job is to paint the picture and dream. This offseason, teams got rid of a whole lot of dreamers.