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August 19, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Dumbing-Down of Scouting

by Frankie Piliere

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Frankie Piliere is currently the National Baseball Expert for FOX Sports/Scout.com, and his analysis and scouting reports can be found at ScoutingBaseball.com. He previously filled the same role for AOL FanHouse. His work has also appeared in USA Today. Prior to that, he worked as a scout in the Texas Rangers’ pro scouting department. Frankie lives in Cape Cod, Mass. and is the only resident who moved there not for the beaches but for the baseball. You can find him on twitter @FrankiePiliere.

This may come as a shock, but the 1994 movie The Scout is not a spot-on portrayal of a modern baseball talent evaluator. Of course I’m being sarcastic, right? Yes, the majority of the baseball-following public understands the complex nature of player evaluation and that portrayals of scouts like that film’s are nothing more than something to chuckle about.

Most people don’t go as far as thinking scouts wander aimlessly around Mexico seeking 110-mph fastballs and carrying nothing but a scorecard, but some careless misconceptions continue to linger. Some are comical enough, but some perpetuate poor baseball philosophies. It’s often the media that is responsible for the dumbing-down of what scouting is all about. It’s at that point that what scouting departments do every day is taken from a science to a simplified process that would make Al Percolo and Steve Nebraska proud.

Myth #1: Players of Small Stature Are Ignored
Tune in during a game where a player under 5-foot-11 is on the field, and you’re likely to hear a broadcaster talk about shorter players having a hard time getting noticed by scouts or how they beat the odds. Yes, there were evaluators who doubted Dustin Pedroia’s pro upside, but the same could be said about just about any prospect. You don’t have to look far for a scout who’s down on any given prospect. Pedroia was a second-round draft pick, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

There are scouts who probably put more stock in physical size than they should. As is the case in any profession, there are evaluators who are less competent than others. Still, the idea that teams will ignore a player for being undersized couldn’t be more false.

Myth #2: Comparisons Are Skin Deep
It is acceptable to compare an up-and-coming Brett Gardner to Kenny Lofton, and, every African-American, lefty-swinging slugger isn’t necessarily comparable to Ryan Howard. It’s clearly a gut reaction for people to compare players to current or former big leaguers merely because they resemble each other, and quite often it starts with race. It’s not done intentionally, but it’s done time and time again. Members of the media, particularly when they are less familiar with the player, are as guilty of this as anyone.

I get asked on a daily basis to give comparisons for prospects. The surprise for many people is that there isn’t always an obvious one. They’re surprised because for the longest time they’ve been the fed the idea that every prospect has to compare closely to a past or present big leaguer. Because of that, comparisons have become increasingly lazy.

When I was filing reports for the Rangers, sometimes comparisons were included in the summations, and sometimes they weren’t. Often there would be a comparison that referred to one aspect of a player’s game, but rarely would there be a perfect fit. The need to give the casual fan a visual of what a young player could become is not lost on me, and making a comparison to a big leaguer that they know is a quick and easy way of accomplishing that.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that fans are smart enough to accept a comparison of two players who don’t have the same skin tone. Every white center fielder is not Mickey Mantle, just as every hard-throwing, African-American right-hander is not Dwight Gooden. Some of you may laugh at this, but these examples are ones I’ve heard too many times to count.

Myth #3: Scouts Are Slaves to the Radar Gun
Most of us have probably heard the stories at some point. There’s a pitcher in a big-league game with less than a plus fastball, and we’re told by a broadcaster that scouts nowadays barely look at guys who don’t throw hard. We also hear that some of the pitchers of days gone by, like Whitey Ford, would have been overlooked because of a lack of velocity.

Well, allow me to come to the defense of scouts everywhere on this. Simply because a scout carries a radar gun doesn’t mean he loses all ability to evaluate other aspects of a pitcher’s game. Radar guns are used in the first few innings of a game and then again in the final inning or so when scouting a starting pitcher. The rest of the evaluation is done from different angles around the field. Obviously, velocity is taken into account, but it is far from the last word in scouting a pitcher, and there are plenty of pitchers in the big leagues averaging under 90 mph to prove this. These players didn’t just materialize. They were evaluated by scouts.

Myth #4: A Strong Consensus Exists
Scouts don’t agree all the time. You will find scouts right now who don’t like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. They’re out there, and it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad scouts. There are also scouts who were high on Brett Gardner, while many others argued he’d never be a big-league regular. I had more than a handful of scouts tell me they believed Gerrit Cole, this year’s first overall pick, would be a bust.

The media likes a consensus. It’s neat, and it helps make the desired point. It’s our job to make top prospect lists for entertainment purposes, but the reality is you’d have a wide variety of names showing up on these lists if you began asking scouts to make their own. After years of being fed lists, particularly leading up to the draft, by people like myself, there is a strong belief among fans that if a team deviates from this perceived consensus, then they’ve done a subpar job.

Like clockwork, the backlash for a team’s draft class seems to come every year. Most of that backlash comes from what we in the media have said. While I’m the last one to complain about readers trusting my opinion, it always fascinates me that a fan is far more inclined to side with the media over the people paid to evaluate the players involved on a daily basis.

Frankie Piliere is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Frankie's other articles. You can contact Frankie by clicking here

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