Scouts forced to rely more on data, analytics
Circumstances have forced this year's baseball draft to become an exercise in profiling and evaluating athletes from a distance.
The COVID-19 pandemic prevented scouts from the Royals and other clubs from doing much of the in-person and interpersonal information gathering that typically helps drive decision-making processes.
Reliance on quantitative data, video evaluations, statistical examination and analytical models had already gained momentum and become the modus operandi of many major-league organizations. Assuming the June 10 selection process goes off without a hitch, it's not crazy to surmise that this year's shortened draft — with a heavy reliance on technology and data — could serve as a tipping point.
Might this week's draft, the gateway for ushering new talent into MLB organizations in Kansas City and beyond, be the final push for baseball's decision-makers to jettison subjective and intangible analyses in favor of cold, hard data and mathematics?
When prodded during a recent phone interview with The Star, Lonnie Goldberg, the Royals' assistant general manager for amateur scouting, admitted that, while he understands the need for changes, particularly this year, he is "nervous" that the game will move decisively in that direction.
"I get the data and I understand that it's a part of it, and I think that it's an important part of it," Goldberg said. "To think that it's the end-all be-all and this is the direction we should go, I think it's awful for the game, personally.
"That's just me and how I feel, because here's the thing: Right now, there's nothing on a computer that can tell me the makeup of a player, that can tell me the competitiveness of a player, the will and the want-to and the type of teammate he is. If you don't have people that can live that and understand it and grade it out and know what 'good makeup' is versus 'bad makeup' — I think you need it all. I don't know why you wouldn't want to have it all."
Goldberg, who has spent 13 years with the Royals and the past 10 overseeing their amateur scouting, came up as an area scout and scouting supervisor.
He acknowledges that neither statistical analysis nor human scouting is infallible but insists both require a seat at the table when it comes time to evaluate a player.
"When you're someone who loves baseball, grows up in it, believes in all aspects of it, all you want to do is make sure that you keep it as good as it was, so that the next generation that get an opportunity to play it, coach it, scout it, be a part of it — that it thrives and it continues to get better," Goldberg said. "I don't believe that (relying solely on data) is going to make the game better."
While writing the book "Astroball: The New Way To Win It All" in 2018, Sports Illustrated reporter Ben Reiter spent significant time inside the walls and meeting rooms of the Houston Astros' front office under GM Jeff Luhnow, who came to baseball from the business world.
Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow, a former tech entrepreneur, this offseason after the electronic sign-stealing scandal, but the Astros teams Luhnow built won one World Series, went to another and advanced to an ALCS in the past three years.
Reiter described how Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer, pitched Luhnow that "applying statistical techniques" could double the club's success in the amateur draft — the idea being that using data from current players could help predict amateur players' future success.
Mejdal became one of Luhnow's top lieutenants and went with another former Astros executive, Mike Elias, to take over the Baltimore Orioles' baseball operations.
The rise of data has certainly extended to baseball's amateur ranks.
Popular high school showcase events frequented by MLB scouts now feature the latest in measurable analytic data via high-speed cameras, TrackMan, PITCHf/x and Blast Motion sensors. Many top college programs use the same sorts of resources in their own ballparks.
In a new book entitled "Future Value: The Battle for Baseball's Soul and How Teams will Find the Next Superstar," co-authors Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs.com and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN describe how certain clubs, such as the Astros, Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers and Cleveland Indians, "empower" their data-based draft models to drive decisions at the expense of scouting reports.
McDaniel has worked in the baseball operations departments of the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Orioles and New York Yankees in various roles, including as a scout and cross-checker.
This offseason, the Chicago Cubs hired a new head vice president of scouting in Dan Kantrovitz. He came from the Oakland Athletics, where his duties as assistant GM included implementing statistical analysis methods for evaluating amateurs as well as free agents.
"It's kind of just an art, trying to appropriately weigh all the different pieces of data that you have about players," Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said during MLB's GM meetings. "Some will be subjective. Some will be objective. Some will come from a scout's one look. Some will come from years of objective information that you're able to cull from a player. It's the process of trying to reverse-engineer the draft to figure out how to weigh each piece of information and make the right decisions."
Statcast is the brainchild ChyronHego — a company based in Melville, N.Y., which manufactures the camera array — and TrackMan, which developed a radarlike software for precision tracking of player movement relative to the ball.
Epstein comes from a background that includes an Ivy League education and data-driven approach that helped him find success as the architect for World Series-winning teams with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox.
But Epstein's comments echo Goldberg's, in many ways, especially in his desire for balance in evaluating amateur players.
Dr. Daniel Mack, the Royals' assistant GM for research and development, has a PhD in computer science and plays a pivotal role in finding that balance. For the past eight years, he's been the voice of analytics when Goldberg and his staff discuss and debate potential draft picks.
Goldberg must make the final decisions, but he does so with input from scouts, the team's medical experts, its behavioral science staff ... and the man known as "D-Mack."
If a player checks every one of those boxes? "Hallelujah," Goldberg said. More often, they're just striving for the best decision they can make.
Over time, Goldberg believes that Mack has realized he's viewed no differently than an area scout or a cross-checker in the group dynamic when discussions become heated.
"Daniel Mack is a stud," Goldberg said. "Not many of the analytic guys really get out and see players and see three, four games a day or go to Jupiter and spend time with the scouts. He did that. He did that for two reasons. I think he did that because he wanted to understand and learn and appreciate what the guys do on a daily basis.
"Then I also think he wanted to make sure he understood, from a scouting perspective, 'I went to a game and I saw this kid really perform, but my analytic data says I shouldn't like this kid very much.' So he understood both sides of it. We've had good discussions with regards to that and 'How do we balance out the two?'"
Goldberg said he loves to hear a regional supervisor like Keith Connolly tell him that he has already set up drills in coordination with Mack. In the early stages of Mack's tenure, Goldberg would have to orchestrate that sort of thing himself.
While the Royals have been cast as having an old-school front office because of the shared roots in traditional scouting among many of their top executives, Moore bristles at the notion that KC's scouting and analytics are framed as separate and competing entities.
Moore dismisses such narratives as "old and tired," because data and technology are tools to validate an individual's judgment.
"That's an old and tired debate because every scout that I've ever known in this game has used the technology that is available to him, whether that be a radar gun or a stopwatch, and used that information in innovative ways and ways that have tried to give him an edge," Moore said. "We just have more of it available to us today."