We're a couple days removed now from finding out that Ichiro Suzuki had been traded from the Mariners to the Yankees. The initial reaction, I think from pretty much everybody, was complete and utter shock. There were no whispers, no rumors leading up, and it's long been impossible to imagine the Mariners without Ichiro in right field. It still kind of is.
Nothing is ever as shocking as it is at first, though, and as more time has passed, more attention has been paid to what Ichiro might be able to do for the Yankees down the stretch. That's an important matter, right? For the Mariners, trading Ichiro wasn't about the prospects; it was about making the coming offseason less complicated. But for the Yankees, trading for Ichiro was about trading for help. The Yankees aren't in the business of feel-good stories. The Yankees are in the business of trying to win world championships, and they must figure that Ichiro could be of service.
On the matter of what Ichiro has left, then, journalists have turned to relevant connections. Here's a Buster Olney tweet that caused something of a stir:
Talked with rival evaluators today who love the NYY trade for Ichiro; they believe he is still one of best OFers b/c of overall skill set.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 24, 2012
What a positive message that is. Olney talked to baseball officials who think that Ichiro has a lot left to give. But there's a problem here, and it's what's being left out. What about the opinions of the other baseball officials? Presumably not every single baseball official that Olney talked to shared the same opinion. Where are their words? In a way, you could say that Olney misled his audience.
Let's turn to someone who got and reported opinions from both sides. George A. King III in the New York Post:
"He is a perfect fit for that club,'' a evaluator said. "He will be energized.''
Another longtime Ichiro-watcher wasn't so sure.
"He has lost a step and a half,'' he said. "He has a tendency to stay away from walls. He could have trouble fitting in with those guys.''
This is magical, to me. We have one evaluator asserting that Ichiro will be a great fit with the Yankees. We have another evaluator wondering if Ichiro will be a poor fit with the Yankees. Beyond that, I'm certain that neither evaluator has spoken at length with Ichiro on the topic, and that each evaluator is guessing. Educated-guessing, perhaps, but guessing nonetheless.
The Post example is an important one, as it's an example that you can usually find at least one baseball person to say anything. Turns out there aren't really that many consensus opinions throughout the baseball universe. People disagree all the time, because so much of talent evaluation is subjective, or based on feel. Even with, say, Mike Trout, everybody will agree that he's incredibly talented, but they'll disagree on just how talented. A well-sourced reporter could track down a baseball person who's bullish on his power potential. He could also track down a baseball person who's bearish on, I don't know, how well Trout's speed will keep up. Even where there's agreement, there's disagreement.
This is why it drives me absolutely insane when reporters or journalists pass along opinions from one or two scouts or officials, usually on Twitter. It's important to have those officials, in order to build a wide network, but their individual opinions have limited value. There are baseball people who will say almost anything, and even with opinions we need to worry about small sample sizes. What one scout thinks is a hell of a lot less meaningful than what 10 or 20 scouts think, even if what they think is mixed.
Even more dangerous is when opinions are selected. Consider three hypothetical writers, who have the same three hypothetical scouts on speed dial. Say the writers ask those scouts about a hypothetical player.
Scout 1: I think he's very good.
Scout 2: I think he has the potential to be good.
Scout 3: I think he is not very good.
Now let's say those writers take to Twitter. Here's how that could go:
Writer 1: Talked to a scout who is very, very high on the player.
Writer 2: Talked to a scout who doesn't think the player will pan out.
Writer 3: Talked to a few scouts on the player and opinions are mixed.
Only the last writer would've been doing the responsible thing. Writer 1 and Writer 2 wouldn't have been lying, but they would've been conveying the wrong impression. It doesn't add anything to pass along one opinion and sit on a handful of others. If anything, it subtracts, or warps. I'm not accusing anybody specific of anything specific, but that has to be something that happens, based on what I've observed on Twitter, and I really wish that it wouldn't. If you know the opinion of one official, be careful with it. If you know the opinions of several officials, don't pass along one and pretend like the others don't exist.
There are circumstances where it's helpful to know what individual evaluators think. For example, if a pitcher seems to be struggling with his mechanics, those evaluators might have keen eyes, and they might be able to pinpoint the problem. Most of the time, though, I'd just as soon never read a single individual's opinion. Especially when it's basically anonymous. There just isn't value in knowing what one scout thinks about one player. What one scout thinks about Ichiro joining the Yankees. As King demonstrated, what one scout thinks can be the very opposite of what the next scout thinks. So what's the point? Where's the substance?
In my Internet utopia, which for some reason still has national baseball journalists active on Twitter, nobody ever passes along individual opinions. People pass along poll results, where they ask as many baseball officials a question as they can and then summarize the answers. It's the wisdom-of-crowds approach, and I'd like to know how 25 or 40 officials feel about a player or a transaction. There's substance there. There isn't substance in what we tend to get instead. As with so many things.