The Debate: Scouts vs. Stats

A battle now buried deep in the fabric of the game of baseball, the scouts versus statistics debate began behind the scenes, as a part of the underground. Today, that battle is waged in plain view of everyone, out in the open, with nowhere to hide.

The statistics revolution in baseball began to gain momentum in the 1980s with the emergence of the now famous Bill James. James' frequent writings and theories provided a published voice for the sabermetric ideal, allowing the debate to reach its current stage. On the other hand, scouting has always been intertwined with the game of baseball, allowing the methods and beliefs to become a part of baseball tradition, rooted deep in the heart of America's past time.

Taking a look at each side of the issue can often provide a more sound understanding of the debate in its entirety. Unfortunately, those on either side of the scouts vs. stats discussion are often reluctant to acknowledge the merits of the opposing viewpoint. With that in mind, let's break down both sides of the issue; presenting each case and the general views associated with it, culminating in this writer's belief of what is the best overall approach to evaluating players and building teams.

Starting with what is often considered part of the tradition of baseball, the scouting perspective has been trusted and used without question for decades. At the basis of the scouting methods are projections, comparisons, potential, gut feelings, and an evaluation of "tools." Each scouted player is compared to those before him, Major League superstars and busts alike, and in the end, the scouts establish a projection for the ceiling they feel a player can reach. Years in the game and a perceived "good eye for talent" are often all that are required to become a professional scout.

A scouts gut feeling, and subsequent determination of potential are primarily based on the evaluation of the basic components that comprise a baseball player, his "tools." Elite players or prospects are often described as being five-tool talents. Those five tools are speed, the ability to hit for power, the ability to hit for average, throwing arm, and fielding prowess. Only the highest level of prospects are considered five-tool players; the kind of player who could have an enormous impact at the Major League level. Each tool is graded on the 20-80 scouting scale. A grade of 80 on any given tool means that skill is considered premier, nearly unmatched throughout baseball. On the other hand, a grade of 20 indicates the bottom of the barrel for that particular skill. In addition to grading a player on their current tools, a large part of scouting involves looking at body types and projecting how a player will continue to develop as time passes.

Using the systems, qualifications, and ideals outlined above, scouts and those that follow them believe they can determine all they need to about a given player. These methods of evaluation factor heavily into the decision making process of draft day, trades, and free agent signings. As a whole, the perception of a player's tools, their projected ceiling, and the reliance on instincts encompass the basis for the scouting argument.

Breaking down the newer entrant into the baseball community, the statistics side of the debate (often generalized as sabermetrics) has its basis in analysis of historical statistics, trends, and comparisons to player's predecessors. Many of baseballs new talent evaluators are not baseball lifers, but rather graduates of many of America's most prestigious universities, having completed degrees in statistics, mathematics, and even the sciences and engineering. These new decision makers are becoming more prevalent throughout the league, and are continuing to elevate in stature as their methods gain credibility.

The statistics community has spent years determining what numbers provide better indications of future performance, allowing evaluators to make what they believe are sound projections, sometimes without ever seeing a player in person. Narrowing down the statistics of concern to categories like walk rates for hitters and pitchers, OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), and isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) for hitters; strikeout and homerun rates for pitchers, allows for a methodical evaluation of a players track record, and a future projection with a solid base. After generating a statistical model for a player, an organization can compare them to players past and present in an attempt to determine what the future may hold.

Not only does statistical analysis provide a means to evaluate an individual player, but they also provide an avenue for the leaders of an organization to determine the overall process by which they want to assemble their team. Effectively using a players statistics and logically projecting a players future, enables decision makers to build their team based on their statistical ideals of preference. Overall, the evaluation of a player based primarily on statistics is part of the new age of the great American game, and becomes stronger as time passes.

At their roots, the two sides of the argument really are not that different. Both scouts and stats are using their individual backgrounds to come to the same conclusions; how will this player perform down the line? Despite similar goals, the means to that end vary greatly, establishing the basis for the disagreement. In light of the continuing debate, what exactly is the best way to evaluate a player?

In my own opinion, a delicate balance between statistical analysis and scouting information must be struck. To this point, few teams have incorporated both stats and scouts with any aplomb. Many of the best and most successful organizations in baseball are among that small minority that continually delves into both sides of the debate. Evaluating players with the experienced scouting eye, and through statistical models can provide the most complete picture of a player's future. There are many questions one side of the debate cannot answer without help from the other. Does a player have the physical tools or ability to maintain his performance as he ages? Has a player produced numbers commensurate with what his tools suggest? Is a player so far to one extreme that it is difficult to come to an accurate concept of how their skills will relate to the professional game? These questions cannot be answered without help from both sides.

In my dreams, I picture an organization run with scouts and statisticians sitting down in one room with a list of players; both sides having evaluated each player by whatever means they desire. Decisions on players would be based on sensible discussion, and a group determination that all signs point toward future success. Of course, to date, this ideal circumstance has not been realized. When, and if this situation plays out, we could see the emergence of an organization so well balanced that roster management and player decisions become systematic, and successful evaluation of players reaches an all-time high.

The stats vs. scouts debate has continued to gain steam as traditionalists hold fast in their belief of scouting, and the new statistical methods become more widely accepted. The debate that used to exist underground, is now uncovered and being discussed in the public eye. The future of this debate presents some exciting possibilities for the advancement of the game we all love so much.

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