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What I learned in Scout School

October 18, 2010

It’s not very often that I would go so far as to dedicate a column on this website to discuss something I would prefer not to discuss in public: myself. But for the benefit of the readers and the overall credibility of this site, it’s time to make a rare exception to the rule.

I have recently returned from two weeks in Arizona, having completed the Major League Baseball Scout Development Program, or in street slang, “Scout School.”

Not everyone can get in and not everyone does get in. You need a strong reference from inside the industry. In my case, I had several, far beyond the area scout level. Some might think that I write this site by the seat of my pants. These people have never walked where I have in this game. Those who I have built great relationships with, in part because of this site, know how dedicated I am to doing this right. One thing you have to understand about scouting is that no two methodologies for collecting information are exactly alike and no two opinions are always alike. The reason is that there are no two baseball players exactly alike.

What has to be in common is a strong grounding in the basics, but it is my opinion that in the baseball industry as whole, there are those who make this much harder than it is. The scout school tries to get it back to basics, and for that, they’ve got my respect.

The most frequent question anyone asks a scout, myself included, is what do you look for in a player. The scout school teaches something I have long adhered too – you want to like players. Part of this, I believe, is that you have to respect how difficult this game is. That means if the guy is fringe, you’ve got to like him for what he is. If I say fringe to a young player, chances are he’ll think I’m ripping him, when the reality is that five years down the road he might find out that being fringy isn’t easy and you can still make money in the process.

The scout school does pay attention to deciding what role that player fills, and I think that’s important also. Too much, especially with young players, it is about ‘This Guy Will Be a Star.’ The reality is that most players will not be stars, but there is nothing wrong with being a solid pro. We had 10 former big leaguers in my class. Some were All-Stars and most were not. Some played for 20 years and spent a fraction of that in the big leagues. I have a long history with a lot of ballplayers. You’ll never get me to say a guy was horseshit because he played for 10 years and spent 10 days in the big leagues. Not now, not ever.

The players you scout today are the players you befriend tomorrow. In our clinic, we saw two catchers. I liked one and my instructor liked the other. He wanted his guy because he liked his flexibility and low targets. He thought he had a more compact swing. I wanted my guy because I thought he had strong hands to catch velocity and set very quiet targets. They threw the same. My guy was also a left-handed bat. Both these guys, we agree, are back-up types. Most of your big league backup catchers have one tool – the defense – and it’s what gets them and keeps them there. We have two different opinions, but we agree on the role. And notice who we were debating here – a backup catcher! Not if this guy will be Yogi Berra or Mike Piazza. We’re saying what we like about two fringe guys, we’re not trashing him for being fringe, and we’re seeing a role for him in the major leagues. One of us will be right and maybe we’ll both be right. It doesn’t really matter other than for sportsmanship and war stories. As I say about players, ‘They will tell us who they are going to be.’

I think one of the general public’s misconceptions about scouting is that somehow all we do is watch good players. Trust me, this is not the case. Real scouting is about taking the majority of the baseball playing population who can actually play and rather than simply sorting them into groups, to find those guys who profile as major league contributors. As a general rule of thumb, another Baseball Beginnings scouting-ism, “The younger the player, the harder he is to predict.”

The scouting school teaches something I’ve long known here at Beginnings: The better the player, the easier he is to write up. Now, take a look at your baseball scouting media. Then go into the real baseball world. There is a disconnect between the way baseball is and the way people who cover baseball scouting think it is. It’s always been one of my goals for Beginnings to be the bridge between the way it is and the way it’s seen.

This leads me to another point. The scouting school preached a number of things that I agreed with in terms of scouting protocol. In short – make up your own mind and stick to it. Nothing makes people more scared than scouting. It’s true. George Genovese taught me that if you make a mistake, let it be your mistake. You can put 65 guys in a room and tell them to pick the best two guys on the field and you might get 35 different answers. Today, with modern young scouts running in blue-jeans clad packs, carpooling, clinging to each other, gossiping, guys with absolutely no clue how to conduct themselves at an amateur baseball game, the desire for conformity strikes me as a form of peer pressure. It’s not supposed to be about safety in numbers. It’s supposed to be about having the guts to believe in your guy – and keeping your mouth shut about it in the process. But I’m not sure enough teams feel the same way I do anymore.

I was sitting on a bus coming back from one of our games. The guy next to me asked me a question about a player. I told him, sorry, can’t help. He said, “I wasn’t going to cheat.” I told him, sorry. Call me old school. If you want to be a consensus thinker in baseball, you can do it, but not with me. Bob Zuk taught me a long time ago that loose lips sink ships.

Bad evaluations also sink careers, but it is dangerous to be so reclusive that one doesn’t study other aspects. The scout school is here to teach basic grading mechanics, and in this, I think they are excellent. The basic principal is that this is all about comparative judgment. I have long since been working with grades passed down to me from within the business. What I learned is that I am absolutely correct in the way I look at players. I did pick up some fine-tuning devices. Boiling the guy down to 140 characters is an art form. A modern scouting report is a molecular-level look at the guy. You can always learn something new, and yes, I did find some new things to put in my tool bag even after years and years of going to games. For that I am thankful.

I think the biggest problem baseball faces today is that everything has to be defined by a number. You can grade out a guy’s OFP and he’s not always that guy. Likewise, you can take a guy with great statistics in some league or other and he is not that guy either. So what do we have here?

Yes, the war between scouts and stats still exists. I think there is fault in blind devotion to both sides, and I say that as someone who believes in the observable first. Million dollar mistakes are made in baseball because they are made too quickly – one might assume a player has less value than he really has by reaching a statistical conclusion just as one might give up on an infielder’s arm before that last throw across the diamond. Trust me, mistakes are made on ballplayers all the time, and it’s because people stop looking for anything beyond the obvious.

The scout school’s purpose is not to fan those flames, but you know where their loyalty lies. Likewise, there were many people in my group who I am sure have never sniffed a high school or junior college game. Your palm pilot-blackberry-iphone-droid-what-is-it-called-this-week can’t teach you how to walk up to the coach, crack a smile and drop an f-bomb, tell the guy his field looks nice, and ask for his lineup card. Likewise, no scouting school can teach you to drift off to the side cages to see the soft-toss swings before the game. If there’s no BP, don’t you think you want to see the swings? I did. My classmates took cover under the sun. Not me. I wear boots and 50-proof sunscreen for a reason.

I saw one guy with a swing I liked but he didn’t start. He got in the game later and hit a double to straightaway center field in his only at-bat. Winner: boots and sunscreen.

Nothing teaches you that except passion and attention to detail, as anyone who thinks baseball success is built by waiting for it to happen will not have success in any aspect of this game. You have to go to baseball. It may find you, but you have to go to it.

I give the scout school credit. They tell you from day one that they can’t teach you all you need to know in two weeks. Dirt scouts know it takes time. I respect them for that. Look at me. I’m an author with a degree in anthropology and yet I can’t get enough of this. Why? Every day teaches me something new. The baseball industry is about corporate conformity and the cookie cutter – everything has to look the same and it has to be the same. It is run by billionaires who couldn’t find a ballplayer if you locked them in a room with Willie Mays. They want numbers and data, and the more this game tries to weed out the human element, the more mistakes it makes.

The legend sitting in the back of the classroom always used to teach that you should get up and say today is the day you find a big leaguer. He hung up his tweed sports coat a few years ago, but he’s right. If you can’t learn something new every day, then you can’t find big leaguers when they are kids. His fleet of dirt baseball scouts work hard for 50 weeks out of the year, then gather for two weeks in a controlled environment to teach many people who will never dig for a living the way they have. Some area scouts will never like them because they don’t have to sign players, but that’s just old scouting fear, the grim reaper looking over the shoulder. That, too, is part of scouting. Find me a scout who isn’t scared for his job and I’ll show you a liar every time.

I mentioned earlier that jobs are lost over first-round picks. This is true. The scout school doesn’t offer a glimpse into the dark side, and I know this is by design, because they care about their profession and they know they will always be under appreciated. They did, albeit inadvertently, show you how one gets a player shoved down one’s throat. There’s no way they meant for this to be malicious, but consider: in one exercise you are asked to pick a corner and a middle infielder to report on. What happens when the best corner is playing up the middle?

So the guy you should write up as the corner becomes the middle, and you have to write him up, because if you don’t turn him in, you look like an idiot. So that takes the true middle infielders out of it and you get left with a bunch of slow-bodied corners. So if given the choice between slow bodied former college corners who might have showed better than live-bodied high school corners who might not have showed but are playing pro ball at an age when the other guys I can pick from were begging for college fall ball at-bats, who do you think I’m going to take? I’ll take the 18-year old who can’t make contact over the 22-year old who can’t make contact. Thank you very much. If I had my choice, I’d have taken the corner playing in the middle and the best middle of the middles.

It wasn’t the scout school’s fault and I’m not mad, but this is what happens in the real world. The scout wants one player and the organization says, no, you have to take another. The scout school was not being a bully here, they needed some framework, and I got that. Let me give you an example of what they don’t teach and what goes on in the real world. This is the stuff that is too hardcore for them to teach, and I don’t blame them for not touching it.

A scout’s team has a top ten pick and has seen a college pitcher he wants numerous times. They have all the medicals, they have seen 6 or 7 starts, they have a vast scouting history back to the previous summer, and the kid checks out. The boss comes in, sees three innings, then goes to see a guy throw hard for one inning in another part of the country and says he wants the guy who threw hard for one inning.

The scout fights for his guy and gets shot down. Had the guy who wanted the pitcher who threw hard for one inning been willing to read the diligent reports from the area guys, he’d know that the guy has had medicals since he was 17. But no! Why should you listen to others when you have power, and that’s how baseball mistakes are made. As a wise baseball man likes to tell me, “John, there are a lot of horses asses in this game!”

The real injustice is when the scout gets fired for picking the player he was made to pick, not for the player he wanted to pick who turned out to be the better player. This happens all the time – scouts often take the bullet for someone else’s mistake, which is not to say scouts are flawless. They are humans guessing on kids. It’s a tough racket.

All of this leads me back to the original question: What do I look for in a player?

Scouting school simplifies it. Tools. Yes, I agree. But…

I look for that which I cannot give him. I cannot give him soft hands, I cannot give him a fast and loose arm, I cannot give him strong hands, I cannot give him coordination, I cannot give him great speed, I cannot give him athletic ability. If he has these things, I can also not give him passion and desire. I cannot give him patience and conviction. I cannot give him the aptitude to learn and adjust. I cannot give him the heart to use his tools. Sometimes talent overcomes these shortcomings, but for 99.99 percent of ballplayers, it won’t.

So what do I look for? What I cannot give him.

John Klima was a member of the 24th class of the Major League Scouting Bureau Scouting Development Program in Fall, 2010.


One Response to “What I learned in Scout School”

  1. Buford says:

    As a fan who enjoys prospect analysis, congratulations on an exceptional article. I’ve enjoyed reading your reports for over a year. There is a depth and breadth to your analysis which translates into respect. Others in your profession lack this.

    I believe the prospect “experts” from the more well-known websites are merely brokers of information – professional scouting reports. They then add a few quotes and catch phases and it evolves into their own “analysis.”

    I hope your work receives a forum like the MLB Network. When talented people receive more focus, the imposters receive less focus. Plus raising the bar never hurts any profession. In the meantime, continue the fine work.

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