Far too often, the concept of Moneyball is misperceived as solely the pursuit of baseball players who take walks and post good on-base percentages. Although this was part of the recipe of success for the Oakland Athletics during the early 2000s, it was never so much about finding guys that took walks and posted good OBPs, as much as it was simply, cost-effectively capitalizing on something(s) undervalued; which for the A's, were particularly overlooked skillsets, that very few else were paying much attention to - that's what Moneyball is.
After the success of the A's, for those paying attention, compounded by the publication of Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball, it didn't take long for the rest of Major League Baseball to begin catch on. More teams began delving into the world of statistics, beyond "traditional" stats. Billy Beane's subordinates, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi were lured away by other organizations. If they couldn't take Beane's people, they were hiring their own prestigiously-educated, efficient thinkers. But most noticeably, other teams were taking Oakland's Moneyball ideas, and doing what the A's couldn't ever do - applying money to them.
Nowadays, on-base percentage is hardly an undervalued skill, along with handfuls of statistics and acronyms that weren't even fathomed just ten years ago. Practically every player in the major leagues, minor leagues, and even in independent and overseas leagues can be dissected down to their ability's strengths and weaknesses, due to the wealth of numbers and statistics that are observed, recorded and available to other teams and enthusiastic fans alike. The worth of a player can be fairly estimated and theorized based on statistics like Wins Above Replacement (player(WAR)), which factors in a vast myriad of statistics and formulas. The way the game is looked at has changed drastically in recent years, and with most everyone taking a piece of the pie, or borrowing parts of the Oakland recipe, so have the fortunes of the Athletics, who are finishing up their fifth straight year of a non-winning record.
With every statistic and number being scrutinized and analyzed these days, it's difficult to say if there ever will be another Moneyball formula like the Oakland Athletics'. So with that in mind, who says that a particular statistic or a skillset are the only things that can go undervalued? In fact, who says the next Moneyball has to even come from the product on the field or the resulting statistics at all?
Scouting, ladies and gentlemen.
Scouting is where the next Moneyball could possibly be unearthed from.
Do you know what the league minimum salary is, in Major League Baseball?
$414,000; give or take a little bit, depending on various circumstances.
This is what Freddie Freeman is making as he's hoping to win Rookie of the Year. This is what Brandon Beachy is making while piling up strikeout numbers not necessarily reminiscent of a rookie. This is also what Brandon Hicks makes while spending 95% of the game on the bench, waiting for Chipper Jones to get on base in late innings so he can pinch-run. This is also more than enough to pay off my house, and my car, and maybe even the remainder of my parents' house loan too. Needless to say, for sounding like the equivalent of compensation for working the drive-thru window at Taco Bell, $414,000 is a pretty significant amount of money.
Do you know what the mean annual salary for baseball scouts is?
$60,000. And that's just the mean annual salary; on the high-end of the spectrum are scouting directors, and other scouts with superlatives to describe their tenure and seniority in observing prospective baseball talent, and they can make just over $100,000 a year. And they probably have an office.
On the other side of the spectrum, you'll find many more junior/entry-level scouts; younger guys tasked with more arduous travel, fewer benefits, less respect, less trust in their judgment. Depending on whom you ask, you'll discover that these guys make anywhere in the neighborhood of $30,000-45,000. And their offices? The same sunbaked seats at the ballpark, that you and I might enjoy on any given day during the baseball season. Or their car, or in discount roadside lodging, but very seldom, their own homes.
There aren't a ton of resources out there for me to confirm a lot of what I'm writing; a lot of this is based on things I've read from a myriad of sources, stories I've heard from other fans, and even a few words I've had myself with some random scouts while being at minor league games. Perhaps that's all kind of metaphorical to where the state of scouting is; discreet, relatively unknown, primarily behind the scenes and certainly not something easily researchable. Yet the art of scouting is still something paramount to the life of baseball. Sounds like something that might be... undervalued?
For something as important as scouting is to the world of baseball, it sounds like scouting, could possibly be a little bit undervalued. And capitalizing on undervalued resources, is what Moneyball is all about.
Do the math - basically, for the cost of one J.C. Boscan, Brandon Hicks, Brett Hayes, Lars Anderson, Robert Andino or Pete Orr, a team could employ four more senior-level scouting directors, or twelve additional junior scouts, or any combination of varying leveled scouts that equal the MLB minimum salary. Or they could apply such funds towards improving work benefits for scouts; whereas the players themselves, aside from making way more than a scout would ever see, are entitled to guaranteed money and union-protected benefits; scouts seldom see such benefits in their own field. In a perfect world, the theory is that happy employees are productive employees. And productivity in the field of scouting would theoretically bear more promising fruit.
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For simplicity's sake, I'll explain my theory through example. Team X is coming off of a losing season, and things don't really look to be any better in 2012, or even 2013. For starters, Team X unloads a relief pitcher the equivalent of Pedro Feliciano, for the next year, with plans to replace him with a AAA-level pitcher who will make league minimum, and is now absolved of the equivalent of eight league minimums in the move.
Taking a portion of such freed payroll, Team X embarks on a scout hiring spree for 2012, hiring handfuls of scouts at varying levels of career, and locations in their respective minor league territories. With more scouts, Team X is theoretically capable of more in-depth analysis of their own organization's players. With more scouts in varying areas, no more will one scout be responsible for driving to see the Rookie team in Tuscaloosa on Monday, then to New Orleans to see AA on Tuesday, and then back to Columbus on Wednesday to see the Low-A squad; every one of these territories will already have a scout or several scouts already designated to cover such assignments. Scouts remain better rested, possibly more relaxed, and apt to be more efficient and effective in their own regional scouting assignments, and less disgruntled about their jobs, less chance of employee burnout.
With more scouts in place, it is theoretically possible for Team X to get a greater understanding of their organization's strengths, weaknesses, places of need and places of excess. If it turns out that the numerous scouts are clamoring about a particular kid's poise, maturity, but more importantly his plate discipline and slugging ability in Low-A, they might be on to something. An increased number of scouting directors, with their collective experience, could then collaborate and possibly better judge if what they hear is true. This kid could become a legitimate prospect for the organization's rebuild, or an invaluable chip to trade for an important component for the future. In a perfect world, multiple opinions couldn't hurt.
And all of this is just the approach for theoretically capitalizing on the scouting situation, internally. Hire more scouts to scout the teams of the opposition, see if there are minor leaguers in other organizations with desirable skill sets are toiling away in obscurity, begging to be plucked away at a low cost. Hire more scouts to scour the international leagues of South America, Australia, Europe and Southeast Asia, seeking out exotic gems in the rough.
If Team X is in rebuilding mode anyway, why bother paying a Pedro Feliciano or two several millions of dollars, for guys who will impact an eventual losing season by anywhere of just 2-3 games? Why not unload such salaries for cheap place-holders, while using the freed up payroll to hiring more scouts to increase the organization's chances at finding the future?
If the theory is that you won't find gold if you don't dig, why not hire more equipped miners to dig for you, especially if the reward in gold is worth way more than the cost of the tools?
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One of the most infamous stories of scouting failure is the story of Albert Pujols. In short, the Tampa Bay Rays dropped the ball in not drafting Pujols, dismissing him as a fat third baseman with little discipline. More notoriously, was the complete whiff on the part of the Kansas City Royals, who somehow didn't take seriously this guy living IN KANSAS CITY, who was destroying baseballs with no mercy in high school and community college. Both the book The Extra 2% and sportswriter Joe Posnanski go way more in-depth on this topic.
The bottom line is that whether it was a poor sell by a lower-level scout, or perhaps the stubborn unwillingness to listen by a senior-level scout, here are two teams that completely whiffed at the opportunity to draft the best baseball player in current times, when he was available.
Could better scouts possibly have altered history? Perhaps. Could more scouts have made it harder for a more reputable decision-maker to ignore? Maybe.
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More than ever, thanks to the reputation of Moneyball, the value of baseball scouting in general is probably lower than it used to be, due to the increasing reliance of numbers and statistics, which are great at painting a picture of what kind of baseball player a baseball player is, but not so much to what kind of person a baseball player is. The portrayal of scouts in the movie, as old-thinking, old-fashioned, old men doesn't help either. What good is an outfielder sent to Cleveland who slugs .522, but is easily overwhelmed by the cold weather in April and September? What if there was a Venezuelan third baseman that gets on base at a .402 clip, but it turns out he's uncomfortable with little or few Spanish-speaking teammates, and it begins to affect his performance? Numbers don't tell you any of those details; scouts do.
Numbers paint only part of the picture, and no matter how much it may be undervalued, good scouting can easily paint the rest. And quite possibly, having more scouts could make painting the picture a little more efficient. Especially if it can be done cheaply. This is not meant to spark the rhetorical stats vs. scouts debate; as good as many scouts may be able to paint a picture, the cold hard numbers still never lie. In a perfect world, both approaches exist in harmony and compliment each other, not oppose.
Obviously, this theory is full of gaping holes and wildly unpredictable variables. The payoffs won't be necessarily instantaneous as a 102-win season and a division title, for starters. Also, what if there just aren't that many scouts out there, even if this module were to be tried? What if the increased number of scouts hired doesn't ever get along or see eye-to-eye? What if in attempting to make happier scouts, instead more complacent scouts are the result and Team X ends up in a worse position than before they started? I'll be the first to admit that it's not a perfect theory. But it's a theory that goes to show that inequities in the game exist in more places than just on the field, and the front office.
Taking a risk in hiring a boatload of scouts isn't that different from the risk of compiling a roster of castaways, and hoping that they'll deliver their career OBP numbers. Given the vast contrast in the salaries between players and scouts, it could be a risk that could end up being a whole lot cheaper, too.
And if somehow Pedro Feliciano gets unloaded for salary relief, anytime soon, and the Yankees hire a ton of scouts, I'm sorry Pedro.