Times Change, But Scouting Remains The Same
Tim Wilken is the most respected scouting director in baseball. (We're not just saying that; we actually asked.)
When Wilken, 57, started as a scout with Toronto in 1979, the Blue Jays' current scouting director, Andrew Tinnish, was 2 years old.
As an area scout, Wilken signed Jimmy Key and Derek Bell. When he was the Blue Jays' national crosschecker, the team drafted Shawn Green, Shannon Stewart, Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. As the Jays' scouting director, he called out the names of Vernon Wells, Michael Young, Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez and Alex Rios. With the Rays, he drafted Jeremy Hellickson, and as scouting director for the Cubs (his current post) he drafted Jeff Samardzija and Darwin Barney.
As a scouting director, he has also drafted Pete Tucci, Mike Snyder, Miguel Negron, Wade Townsend and Chris Huseby.
And that's just a sampling of Wilken's many failures. That doesn't make him special. It makes him a scouting director.
|Baseball America posed this question to every amateur scout we could track down: Who is the best current scouting director? We allowed scouts to list up to three choices (in no particular order), and of the 276 votes we got back, here are the scouting directors who showed up on the most ballots:|
|32.6%||Tim Wilken, Cubs|
|29.7%||R.J. Harrison, Rays|
|26.8%||Stan Meek, Marlins|
|26.4%||Marti Wolever, Phillies|
|20.3%||Damon Oppenheimer, Yankees|
In a sport that famously considers three out of 10 successful, scouting directors rarely even approach that bar. The men charged with organizing a team's scouting efforts and calling out the names of the players that will shape the organization's future on draft day can consider their year's effort successful if they find one major league regular, or a player who can be used as a trade chip. If they find multiple players like that in the same draft, they become the stuff of baseball folklore.
Scouting directors toil in relative obscurity, spending more than half of the year away from their wives and children, with the hope that the players they choose in the draft will help their club in some way.
The job of scouting director requires an alchemy of managing people, developing a knack for administration, staying on top of technology and traveling—lots and lots of traveling. In many ways the job has changed radically in the last 20 years. At the end of the day, though, being a good scouting director comes down to having a knack for evaluating baseball talent. And that is not likely to change.
"I think you have more tools to evaluate with, but I think it still comes down to having a feel, recognizing the tools of a player and your gut instincts," Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said. "It's like everything else in society—whatever's new on the block, we tend to gravitate toward. But I think it always comes full circle back to having the ability to evaluate a player. That's very instinctual. You want as many tools as you possibly can in order to make a great decision and you want to have great people around you to help you do it."
Wilken is a big believer in that philosophy. He grew up around the game, and his father, Karl, played in the St. Louis Browns organization in the 1930s and '40s before becoming a scout in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois for the Phillies. He signed several major leaguers, most notably Hall of Famer Robin Roberts out of Michigan State. The family moved to Florida in 1967 and Karl scouted part-time for the Pirates, but he died in 1972, when Tim was 18.
"Unfortunately, I never got to be a scout when he was alive," Wilken said. "But some of the things he talked about liking with fielders was flexibility in their trunk, their lateral agility. How they moved side to side, he was really big on that. He was more of a pitching guy, so he probably taught me a lot about arm actions and body control in a pitcher. Those are the things I picked up the most."
Now, Wilken passes his depth of knowledge on to his scouts. Every scouting director works with his scouts differently and has his own methods for managing them, both in teaching them how to develop an eye for talent and managing them as employees.
"I try to keep things just right, and just right means not calling too much," Wilken said. "There's got to be a sense of being independent and letting people be able to work by themselves and not being over their shoulder and not micromanaging. It's a very simple approach that I've had, but it's just to treat people the way that you would like to be treated."
That's easier with a veteran scouting staff, which Wilken largely has with the Cubs. But he also has three first-year scouts, so he has spent more time with them to help them learn the ropes.
"He's made a point of being out with me and seeing my guys and talking with me about how things play out," said Tom Myers, who spent five years in the minor leagues and was a college coach before getting into scouting. "And then, as a person, he's always asking me questions. The interaction has been outstanding. Right from the get-go, he wanted to know about me. He wanted to learn my background and about my family. It's been nice that I can interact with him and feel comfortable, not just as my boss, but more like a teammate. I'm part of a team and he's been my teammate since day one."
That's a key point, because ultimately a scouting director is only as good as his scouts. They all need to know and share in the team's overarching philosophy, and they have to have a feeling of mutual trust. The scouting director will be the one making the final decisions on draft day and will ultimately be responsible for the picks, but he can't see everyone.
"As a scouting director I've got to pull the card, but I've listened to a lot of other people's evaluations," one National League scouting director said. "Managing people, not to get them to do what you want them to do, but getting them to want to do what you want them to do, that's the big key. Managing people is one of the biggest parts of this job and keeping people positive. Because it's a negative business. It's a failure business. A lot of things around you are negative—baseball is just set up that way. So keeping guys positive every day and still hustling is really big. It's a grind."
Scouting directors agree that being a good evaluator is a prerequisite for the job, but once you're in it, the ability to manage your people becomes at least as important as your ability to judge players.
"I mean, you're one person. So on the evaluation side of it, you're just one person in this big network of it," Indians scouting director Brad Grant said. "Your ability to manage people, manage the flow of information and manage the decision-making process is the biggest part to it. That's the part where, all of a sudden, you're constantly asked to make decisions on so many different things. It's not just making decisions on players. There's personnel decisions, there's decisions on signing players, it's just a constant process of making decisions."
The first step is to gain the trust and respect of the people working for you. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson said he always thinks about a mantra he learned from an older scout: "People want to know that you care before they care what you know."
The NL scouting director said he regularly e-mails his staff to help keep them motivated and on the same page. He also makes sure to compliment scouts when they do good work.
"Those good area men and crosscheckers are hard to find, so when you've got them you need to let them know that you appreciate what they do," he said. "They make me look good or bad, so I let them know how much I appreciate their work and their time away from their family and how much it means to the organization."
The baseball part of the job is sometimes the easiest part of the job. When you're managing people, you also have to deal with all the ups and downs that come along with them.
"Scouts have their cars break down, they get flat tires, they sit in the stands and rip their pants, they get sick on the road
. . . there's all kinds of things," a second NL scouting director said. "Being a scouting director, I've had guys get DUIs, I've had guys go through wicked divorces, you have a guy that's having psychological problems and you want to help them through that, you have guys who have a child or a wife that gets really sick and they have trouble focusing. It's a fun job, but there's so much that goes into it."
Managing people is only part of it, though. Rising to the level of scouting director means you're also managing the organization's money. There are salaries, travel budgets, and oh yes, the minor matter of the signing budget.
Teams typically set their yearly scouting budgets in the fall, and the last thing a scouting director ever wants to do is have to take a scout off the road because he underestimated costs. Most teams budget between $800,000-$900,000 for their scouts' hotels, airfare, rental cars and meals for the year.
Then come the salaries. Depending on experience, area scouts typically make $35,000-$70,000 a year. Regional crosscheckers make $65,000-$85,000 and national crosscheckers earn about $85,000-$125,000. Scouting directors make $125,000-$275,000.
The real explosion in spending has come in signing budgets, however. In 2011, 231 drafted players signed for more than Ken Griffey Jr. did when he was drafted first overall in 1987 ($160,000)—and 41 of those players were taken in the 11th round or later. In 1990, the average first-rounder signed for $252,577. The average topped $1 million for the first time in 1997, and last year the number reached an all-time high of $2,653,375. Teams spent a shade over $228 million to sign draft picks last year, with 10 teams spending more than $10 million.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement brings new draft rules this year, and with stricter limits on spending signability should again have a significant influence on whom a scouting director drafts.
Scouting directors are accustomed to change, though. Wilken has been scouting for 33 years and can remember when he had to find pay phones to check in with the front office, subscribe to newspapers from around the country to keep up with college players and navigate to remote fields or players' homes with unwieldy maps and dead reckoning. He has an old-school mentality, but he's also able to adapt. He has a new item in his bag this year, for example: A video camera that he stores in a Crown Royal pouch.
The Cubs are building a video library of the top high school and college players under the direction of new president Theo Epstein, something that would have been unwieldy 10 years ago and nearly impossible 20 years ago. Now scouts can film the video, watch it in their hotel rooms and upload it to the home office.
The changes have come fast and furious, particularly in the last 10 years. Radar guns have improved and become more portable. Scouts now generate their reports on computers (or even on their smartphones) and e-mail or upload them to their front office, and most organizations have databases set up to organize every player's biographical information, background, medical history, psychological tests, vision tests, scouting reports, statistical analysis and video.
Scouts use computers (and their phones) to find all the schedules for teams in their area on the Internet and stay on top of game cancellations via e-mail and Twitter.
"We have a lot of information at our fingertips," the first NL scouting director said. "The communication we have has made it a lot better as far as getting more stuff done. In the old days, guys would write out reports by hand and mail them in . . . That wasn't even that long ago, probably the '90s. Now guys just get on the computer and I'm seeing reports the same day."
Then there are the innovations that haven't changed the job of scouting but have improved the lifestyle; things like satellite radio for the long car rides and customer loyalty programs for airlines and hotels, allowing scouts to rack up points or miles during the season to use in the offseason.
"You've got travel agents on speed dial, and most of us try to only fly certain airlines because you get status on those airlines," the scouting director said. "You don't have to stand in long lines, you go right through and you get upgraded a lot. It sounds crazy, but a first-class seat on the plane is an absolute must, if you can get it. It may mean 30 minutes extra sleep in the morning because you don't have to be at the airport so early, and we don't get a ton of sleep in April and May. We're running fast and hard."
And that's one thing that hasn't changed: the travel. During a typical nine-day stretch in late April, Wilken went from his home in Dunedin, Fla., to Pensacola, Fla., Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Raleigh, Miami and then back home for a night before heading to Puerto Rico the following day. Over the nine days, Wilken was at 15 different airports and traveled more than 7,500 miles.
If anything, the travel has gotten worse because the scouting calendar has stretched out. Everyone knows about the hectic pace of the months leading up to the draft, beginning with the start of high school and college play in February. But after the draft in June, the Perfect Game National Showcase and USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars quickly follow with top prospects for future drafts. July now brings the signing deadline, not to mention summer college leagues, more showcases and the possibility of doing pro scouting to help evaluate in-house talent or potential trade targets. August brings more of the same, and September features organizational meetings and scouting director meetings, as well as instructional league. The end of baseball season brings personnel changes, and the scouting continues with the Arizona Fall League and several significant high school events—and there's always college fall ball if things get slow.
"The biggest thing that's changed is the length of the scouting director's year now," the second NL scouting director said. "Everybody gets up there for two weeks before the draft to put it together. Then you go home and you're not even home a week and the first showcase starts. Right away, we turn around and start the preparation for the following draft."
Add it all up and it's easy to see how scouting directors can spend 150-200 nights a year away from home. That's why Wilken considered it important to get home for that one-night break in the midst of his April globetrotting.
"My wife and I were celebrating 10 years of meeting each other and starting dating and then on into marriage," Wilken said. "So I was trying to figure a way where I could have some more time at home, so my wife wouldn't change . . . Just getting home that evening and having three or four hours with my wife and then taking Monday off, we had a lot of fun together. It's re-energizing and got me going for the next stint I went on."
Wilken speaks from experience, as he is on his third marriage. While scouting directors might disagree about a lot of things, they all agree that scouting can take a toll on personal lives. Whether it's for themselves or their scouts, they all try to find a way to balance a grueling work schedule with life away from baseball.
"This business is tough on families and marriages," the first NL scouting director said. "So I want guys to get home and spend time with their family. Spring is tough, but I don't want them to go to the point that they jeopardize anything with the family and children. You only get one shot at that. So I want to make sure to have a little balance."
"If you've been gone for 17 days, you need to go home and do laundry and catch up with the wife and kids, pay your bills, go to the dentist, get your taxes done," the second NL scouting director said. "Scouts aren't robots. We don't plug them in and recharge them every two weeks."
He believes a happy family life makes for a better scout, so he goes out of his way to help things along.
"Two or three times a year, we send gifts to the wives, usually with a little note," he said. "Valentine's Day, there's always a gift for the wives or girlfriends to show them how much we appreciate them. I was an area scout for a long time and I have a good wife that understands what I do, but it's very difficult on a scout's family."
Love For The Game
Still, there they are all spring, perched behind the backstops at high school and college ballparks across the nation—at least most of them. Wilken prefers to move around at the ballpark. He's usually hiding out down one of the lines, seeing things from a different angle. Being away from parents and fans also allows Wilken the freedom to grumble about college coaches misusing their bullpens or to criticize high school hitters who use metal bats at showcases, when every other player is using wood. He can't help it. His passion for the game comes out in everything he does.
Wilken and the other scouting directors interviewed for this story uniformly love their jobs. The administrative aspects of the job, the travel, the headaches, these things they tolerate.
"It's a process and I enjoy that," the second NL scouting director said. "I love the draft, as I'm sure the other 29 scouting directors do, but it's hard. It's hard."
The love stems from being at a field and seeing a player who grabs their attention. Wilken loves telling stories about players from years gone by, and it doesn't matter whether it's about seeing an otherworldly player like Bo Jackson in high school or a player more under the radar like Casey Blake, who Wilken drafted in the seventh round of the 1996 draft out of Wichita State. He remembers them all and loves passing down that knowledge to the next generation of scouts.
"He's given me a vision that's different from what I'm used to," said Myers, the new area scout. "I brought him out to see a pitcher in my area and I'm behind home plate with the gun on him. You could see right away that the kid has physical attributes and stuff.
"Well, Tim went off to the side and he comes back to me and he says, 'Did you see? There's something wrong with his ankle.' He was looking at something totally different than me right out of the chute, went over to the coach, talked to him and it turns out he had a blister on his foot. Myself and probably every other scout there didn't see what he was seeing. He comes to the field and he sees different things."
Even after all the bumpy plane rides, rainouts, nagging parents and late-night meals, it's all worth it, because tomorrow could be the day a scouting director sees the player that eventually helps his team win the World Series.
Wilken enjoys watching his coworkers earn promotions and loves when his area scouts find big leaguers in the later rounds of the draft.
"Naturally, you have your hardships and failures," Wilken said. "But what keeps everyone going is just that insatiable drive to get the next big leaguer."