06/08/11 12:20 AM ET
Scouting or stats? Blend is essential
Smartest teams make use of both philosophies during Draft
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Drafting in 2011 is not about college versus high school. It's not about scouting or stats. The smart teams do it all. They're willing to take a high school pitcher or a college hitter if that's the right pick at the time. They glean as much information as they can from the statistical models at their disposal, and they also listen to the area scouts and cross-checkers who see the players in person.
A smart team looks at every single piece of information at its disposal, then goes to great lengths to synthesize that information and figure out what's relevant and what's not. Then it drafts the best player available and spends the money to pay that player.
Dayn Perry, then of Baseball Prospectus, summed up the so-called divide several years ago better than anyone has since, or is likely to in the future. Referring to the false decision between stats and scouting, Perry wrote:
"My answer is the same it would be if someone asked me: 'Beer or tacos?' Both, you fool."
This is the issue in a nutshell. Scouts, even good ones, miss sometimes. Statistical models, even advanced ones, can't foresee everything. There's no reason at all to create a dichotomy. The challenge is not picking one of the other. The challenge is bringing the two sets of information together.
In recent years, the St. Louis Cardinals have gotten serious about that particular task, and the results are evident. A team derided for its Draft picks for much of the first half of the last decade is riding a winning streak. Analysts still haven't upgraded the Cards' farm system to the top half of the Majors, but that's in large part due to a talent drain from a series of trades.
The Cardinals are drafting better, and it's not an accident. They're spending on scouting. They're spending on analytics. And they're working to make it all work together. Scouting director Jeff Luhnow said Monday that what the club is working to do is to build a bridge between what its analytical models suggest and what its scouts on the ground see every day.
"That's exactly right," Luhnow said. "And I think the other thing we're doing is really figuring out a way to combine divergent points of view. Because not everybody's in agreement on every player or every ranking. You have to get comfortable with the fact that this is the Cardinals' answer. It's not Jeff Luhnow's answer. It's not Roger Smith's answer. ... I think our scouts have gotten comfortable with that fact. Our analytic group has gotten comfortable with that fact. Nobody gets [exactly] what they want, and we get what's best for the Cardinals."
The key is that takes money. We often think of the need to spend on talent, and that's as true as it's ever been. The investment in a top Draft pick is a good one, certainly relative to the cost of acquiring high-end talent by other means. It's not just the payroll cost, though.
What the Cardinals have done is to commit to financing the whole operation. They've built their scouting staff back up and added a variety of resources, human and otherwise, to their Draft group.
"We've got a lot of resources," Luhnow said. "I think back to the 2004 Draft, and we had fewer area scouts. We didn't have a lot of supervisory level. We didn't have any of the analytic engine. We didn't do a lot of the [psychological] stuff. So now Mo and Bill [general manager John Mozeliak and principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr.] have committed a lot of resources to this department so that we don't make mistakes, and it's working."
Being dogmatic simply doesn't work. Sometimes the best pick will not fit into a tidy box like "low-risk college pitcher" or "high-upside high school hitter." It's just as silly to dismiss an entire category of players as it is to stick to a single category. Smart drafting is collaborative, open-minded drafting.
And it's absolutely essential.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.