Imperfect Harmony Times Have Changed, and Information Analysis Now Rivals Scouting When Evaluating Players

By Miles, Bruce | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

Imperfect Harmony Times Have Changed, and Information Analysis Now Rivals Scouting When Evaluating Players


Miles, Bruce, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Bruce Miles Daily Herald Sports Writer

MESA, Ariz. -The wise old baseball scout unfolds his lawn chair, dabs some sunscreen on his nose and gets ready to use his experienced eyes to watch some whippet-fast high school phenom.

The well-scrubbed Harvard grad checks messages on his BlackBerry, fidgets with his calculator and flips open his fresh copy of "Baseball Prospectus."

They're both after the same thing: helping their respective organizations obtain the best baseball players.

The young guns have spawned an information revolution in the grand old game.

It's a revolution that champions the cause of objective analysis over what the eyes can see on the field.

It's a revolution that has toppled those back-of-the-baseball- card statistics such as batting average and RBI in favor of such categories as OBP and OPS.

And like most revolutions, it has not been bloodless. Jobs have been lost where new ones have been created. Loyalists on both sides take to name-calling and stereotyping.

But, hey, it's only a game. Can't we all get along?

The answer appears to be yes, even though it's taking time.

"It's a false division," said Will Carroll, an author of "Baseball Prospectus," the new bible of baseball statistical analysis.

"At BP, we call it beer versus tacos. Why not both?" said Carroll, responding to our questions via e-mail. "There's information that's better suited to performance analysis, and there's things we don't know from numbers, like work ethic, what coaches think, and how he deals with teammates. There's room for both sides to get better."

Getting better is what every major-league team strives for at the majors and minors. Over the years, however, it has become a costly and inefficient proposition, with astronomical player salaries at the major-league level and high washout rates among prospects in the minors (some insiders estimate that only 4-6 percent of players drafted make it to the majors).

Baseball's stats revolution began a couple decades ago, when Bill James published his "Baseball Abstract." More recently, the low-budget Oakland Athletics gained national acclaim for their reliance on statistical information over scouting in Michael Lewis' best-selling book "Moneyball."

Other organizations, even rich ones such as the Boston Red Sox, acted quickly to copy Oakland's style, particularly in their procurement of players prone to high on-base percentages. Others, such as the Cubs, place more value on scouting, even as they acknowledge the value of crunching numbers.

"I think both sides realize that there's something there," said Gary Hughes, a special assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and a man cited by Baseball America as one of the top 10 scouts of the 20th Century. "The fear of the unknown is very real in anything. If you don't know what the other group is doing, there is a fear of, 'What the heck are they doing? Is this going to cost me a job?'

"The work that these (stats) guys have done with the numbers is phenomenal. There's certainly something there. But to say that's the way to do it and (scouting) isn't is wrong. There has to be a mesh in the beginning where you get something from both sides."

That's precisely what the Cubs say they're trying to do.

They point to catcher Michael Barrett and pitcher Glendon Rusch as the type of players the stat-heads deride but scouts like. The Cubs picked up each last year, and both enjoyed nice seasons. It also must be pointed out that the Cubs gave up on infielder Mark Bellhorn in 2003 (as did the "Moneyball" Athletics before the Cubs). Bellhorn, a darling of the analytical crowd, helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004.

Hendry insists he would never go entirely on what scouts say. Last year, the Cubs moved media-relations man Chuck Wasserstrom into the job of manager of baseball information. …

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