As baseball evolves, advance scouting largely turns to video
OAKLAND, Calif. — Baltimore manager Buck Showalter receives regular calls from veteran, out-of-work scouts looking for jobs.
Many are longtime baseball men who once hit the road to major league cities ahead of their clubs to offer detailed insight of upcoming opponents. Now, advance scouting for many teams has turned to technology: video from every angle and situation, and analytics.
“Advance scouting by humans is history,” said Bay Area-based Mets scout Shooty Babitt, who also works as an analyst on Oakland Athletics broadcasts. “Thank goodness I’m a scout who evaluates talent. Advance guys prepare strategy.”
Showalter’s Orioles don’t have an advance scout working in the ballpark. Same goes for World Series champion Houston, Minnesota, the Angels, Oakland and others.
“I’d like to know how many clubs have a human being advance anymore,” Showalter said.
With the push of a button, a hitter can watch video of every 2-2 breaking pitch Giants ace Madison Bumgarner has tossed, or flame-throwing Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman’s tendencies with a man on base, or any other specific scenario that requires a closer look. Instead of hoping a scout saw that type of situation in the pitcher’s recent outings, there it is on a screen — sometimes even up to the minute as teams do their own version of advance scouting during a game to gauge what a hitter might see in an upcoming at-bat.
Clubs like the A’s stopped using an advance scout on the road years ago as technology improved and so much data became readily available. While the cost savings might not be as significant as it would seem, many teams have used that money instead to invest in infrastructure, databases and other state-of-the-art systems to evaluate talent through strategic study.
Yet even with the trend toward video analysis, it doesn’t always provide a complete view of a player but rather glimpses of what he does.
“When I’m looking at a pitcher, I’m just looking at clips and pitches. I don’t see his body language in between, I don’t see if he wants to work really fast, we need to slow this guy down,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “There’s some little, subtle things that you may not see. … But we can get a lot done on video.”
San Diego’s advance scouting department works from video, staying in-house.
“We have advance scouts, not in the traditional sense,” Padres manager Andy Green said. “A lot (of teams) have migrated away from that traditional role. There’s so much video I can watch every single throw that every outfielder makes. There’s a camera angle on absolutely everything at this point in time. … You can see every single pitch from multiple camera angles, so you get a feel for a lot now that you didn’t used to be able to get a feel for. There was a point in time where that advance scout was sitting on signs trying to decipher what the signs were for other teams. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. You’re not finding them out that way.”
Still, certain organizations have stuck to traditional methods.
The Marlins use a combination, with president of baseball operations Michael Hill noting Miami has “a live advance scout to monitor things that the analytics don’t capture.”
Colorado manager Bud Black firmly believes in advance scouts and what they do to prepare a club — one working at San Francisco’s AT&T Park before the Rockies’ recent series.
“In this ballpark, in the stadium, in a seat, and maybe walking around different viewpoints, too,” Black said. “I love the input from advance scouts.”
Black appreciates the human element these scouts offer — “There’s some things that the television camera doesn’t pick up, right? And our guys keep an eye on that” — and recommended keeping advance scouts when he got the Colorado job before the 2017 season.
Some players sense a difference.
Giants right fielder Andrew McCutchen indicated they might feel devalued because there’s less information on a player without those on-site scouts.
“It’s all about what a computer can spit out and let you know. It makes the game a little more efficient and easier for people,” McCutchen said. “But in the midst of that, guys are losing an opportunity to be able to showcase what they’re capable of doing. It’s just the way it’s evolving in this game. It’s just baseball and, honestly, life in general. Technology is just what’s new, it’s what’s going on that matters right now.”
The NBA is still heavily reliant on the advance scout who hops from city to city at a frenetic pace, and it’s something champion Warriors coach Steve Kerr still counts on as he and his staff must immediately get ready after a game for another opponent as soon as the very next night — or on short notice, like this year leading into the first round of the playoffs when there were several potential opponents as the regular season concluded.
Many baseball managers see both sides of the argument over having a scout in the stadium seats versus studying from afar.
“I think it’s how advance scouting has changed,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Some are still in the stands, truly the traditional advance scouting where they’re in the stands following teams you’re about to play. Some are more behind the scenes, video and analysis. We’re on the latter side of that, so we don’t have a body in the stadium as much as we have an advance scouting department that’s evaluating our next opponent constantly.
“There’s a lot more information that’s applied, probably in addition to what your eyes can see is what the information and data will tell you. There’s certainly value in all of that — what your eyes can tell you and also what the information can tell you. Oftentimes it’s important to match those up to see if what your eyes are seeing is actually a reality, whether that be the spin on the breaking ball or whether that be someone’s first step, now we have Statcast, or whether it’s somebody’s angle in the outfield talking about their throws. We now have a way to measure all of that.”