One of the worst parts about getting older is the no-Santa kind of realization that scouting isn't a glamourous job. It should be, dang it. Watching baseball game after baseball game in short-sleeve shirts, wielding a radar gun, and divining the secrets of the sport with a well-trained eye. Sounds pretty sweet. The reality is an unbelievable amount of travel and little pay.
And in the digital age, when scores of videos of every single player in baseball can be streamed to every iPad in a clubhouse, it would seem like there's a little bit of overlap between what scouts and the IT department can provide. The Baltimore Orioles took a bold step on Friday, according to Ken Rosenthal, reassigning six of their eight pro scouts to the amateur scouting department.
"As you get more video and statistical analysis on a player, the longer they’re in professional baseball, it’s not as vital to have them seen by eyes, professional eyes," (Orioles GM Dan) Duquette said. "Players establish a record of their work."
It sounds like something that someone on rec.sport.baseball would have proposed in 1998 -- "Why do we even need scouts?" -- but it's not like Duquette is a radical new GM who is going to use only stats in his analysis. For one thing, those GMs don't exist. For another, Duquette has been in baseball since 1980, when he was a scouting assistant with the Milwaukee Brewers. He came up in scouting. This likely wasn't a decision he or the Orioles took lightly.
It's always amusing to read that teams are scouting players like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran at the trading deadline. As if there's a scout behind home plate writing, "Say, this guy is good!" while underlining "good" three times. But they've traditionally looked for things like mechanical flaws and quirks that stats might not pick up -- the loop in a swing that might be the difference between a player crushing 88-m.p.h. fastballs in AAA and not catching up to faster offerings in the majors.
That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but once the sabermetric pendulum swung back from one extreme, it became somewhat of a truism that scouts can pick up what the stats can't catch, and there was an Inherit the Wind-kind of meshing of the two.
The Orioles are gambling, though, that two scouts are all they'll need. And it's not like this is for the major-league advance scouts -- this is mostly for their minor-league scouting, according to Rosenthal. If the Orioles decide to put Nick Markakis on the trading block, for example, they'll have to rely a lot on video and stats to sift through potential packages of minor-league players.
It's, as Keith Law has been tweeting, essentially a demotion for the six reassigned scouts. I have no idea what kind of widespread video access professional organizations have access to -- can Dan Duquette get a high-quality video of a Montgomery Biscuits game with just a couple hours' notice? Can he at least get me a hat? C'mon, Dan, I want a Biscuits hat.
If he can get that kind of media quickly, it's still a bold move, even if only because it's such a drastic chance. If he can't get that kind of media quickly, it's an even bolder move -- something completely against the orthodoxy of The Church of Baseball.
Here's the true test of whether or not this works: Will the Orioles be good in 2012? If not, it was probably the lack of scouting that was to blame. Watch vigilantly for this.
Sarcasm aside, it's going to be hard to quantify the effects of this. Time will tell if the Orioles are ahead of the curve, or if they're being shortsighted and overconfident in the technology of 2012.