What Baseball Scouts Look for Today
We no longer need to wonder what the future of professional sports might look like with sabermetrics dictating personnel decisions. The practice of making data-driven evaluations is happening right now, across the board, for every professional sports franchise and in every professional sports league across the world. And it all started with baseball.
From the founding of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1971 — a group that included famed analytics guru Bill James — to Michael Lewis’ seminal book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," analytics went mainstream. For scouts, life was never the same after sabermetrics took over. Some adapted. Some did not.
One of the scouts who did adapt — and helped build a World Series-winning team in the process — talks about how scouting has changed over his three decades in the game, from the eye test to the analytics revolution.
Buddy Gouldsmith has spent the last three decades in baseball as a coach and pro scout.
He spent nine seasons as the head coach at UNLV, where he won back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles in 2004 and 2005.
He was a scout for the Kansas City Royals on their back-to-back American League championship teams in 2015 and 2016, and got a ring after their World Series win in 2016.
He spent 2017 and 2018 as the director of scouting for the University of New Mexico and now works for Prep Baseball Report as the director of scouting for Nevada.
A Whole New Set of Data
Major league teams want to break down everything a player does (or could potentially do) on and off the field. These evaluations are spread over 11 categories and subcategories.
The advent of sabermetrics introduced a whole new set of data into that process.
What didn’t change was what was being evaluated.
Scout's take: How I perceive players didn’t necessarily change because of sabemetrics. But it did make it so there was a lot more data I needed to track down. Some of that work can seem tedious, but it’s also incredibly specific to what teams want. And across the board, that’s hitting.
Scouts traditionally evaluate these categories:
Hitting with Power
With few exceptions, sabermetrics has brought a sea change to every category, in both implementation and importance.
Most scouts, like Gouldsmith, use the popular 20-80 rating scale when evaluating players — 20 is the lowest scouting grade, and 80 is the highest. (Some teams also use a 2-8 scale.)
20-30: Well below average
40: Below average
60: Above average
70-80: Well above average
The first number represents a player’s current rating, while the second number is the player’s "projected" future professional baseball rating. A grade of 65 or better means a player could be an impact major leaguer.
Scout's take: The only place I use a half or a "5" is on the 45 or 55. I do that because that’s where it comes down to just being a tick above or below average and that’s where the industry-wide standard is to whether a guy can possibly be a starter in the majors. You don’t have to sit on the fence from 40 down or from 60 up, because it’s obvious at that point. If a guy is a 40, they’re not going to make it out of the minor leagues.
The old way of scouting arm strength wasn’t exactly scientific: Watch infielders take ground balls, and watch outfielders take fly balls. On the throw, listen for that distinct, hissing noise followed by a sharp pop when it hits its target. Rinse, repeat.
Now, it’s a lot more complicated. Scouts aren’t necessarily looking for players with cannons for arms and hoping they can hit well. Hitting comes first.
Scout's take: If a guy can hit, you want to see if he’s got an arm that plays. The averages have definitely changed as far as evaluating a player on pure arm strength. You want to take all the measurables, sure, but you’re really trying to see if he can make the throws. Can he be accurate in hitting a target and not have to sacrifice too much arm strength? If a guy can hit, the arm just needs to play.
Evaluating speed on the diamond remains unique. How it’s evaluated hasn’t been influenced by sabermetrics, and it still has a prominent role in calculating a player’s potential.
In baseball, that means timing a player’s 60-yard dash and their speed to first base.
For the 60-yard dash, 6.9 seconds is considered the MLB average.
For running to first, it’s 4.3 seconds for right-handed hitters and 4.2 seconds for left-handed hitters.
Scout's take: It’s really just been keeping up with technology so we can be more accurate. Back in the day, just like other sports, you sat in the stands and waited for the jump and timed it yourself. Video and the ability to watch it in real time changed everything. The better video gets, the more accurate it gets. Not sure on the speed to first? Just start the video (of the at-bat) over again.
The things that typically have helped teams evaluate a player’s fielding ability are quick feet, range, soft hands and quick hands. But mention those things to an actual scout in today’s day and age, and you’ll be met with an eye roll.
The evaluation of fielding ability falls not far from how scouts now evaluate arm strength. Can he hit? Good.
Now let’s see if he can be at least an average fielder.
Scout's take: The eye test part used to be evaluating range, to begin with. I don’t think I ever did it that way, necessarily. I was always interested more in trying to figure out their internal clock, to see if they seemed like they were in a rhythm out there.
Now, with the advent of shifts, the range and glove contact don’t play as much of a part … because they’re putting you where they know the guy hits the ball. It’s not a skill that’s as important as it once was, and we play guys all the time with less range than ever before.
This used to be the most difficult skill to evaluate because scouts tried to figure out how players would do against the best pitching imaginable. It might still be the most difficult. It’s definitely the most time-consuming.
No more eye tests, no more trying to form some subjective take on how quick a player turns his wrist.
Data is king. Scouts now take singles, doubles, triples and home runs and then splice those up into categories teams deem important — as specific as if the games were played at day or night.
And the more data you accumulate, the better.
Scout's take: It’s the most important thing we evaluate, hands down. And you put a lot of work into evaluating a player as a hitter and tracking down that data for the teams. Then when you turn it over to the teams there’s a whole different process they go through. It’s become incredibly complex and it’s also become a lot more accurate. You can’t argue with the results.
Hitting With Power
The old way of gauging how a player hit for power started with making sure an aluminum bat power hitter also could hit for power with a wooden bat. It’s not a skill that translates on a consistent level.
The answer on the data end has been to try and track launch angles and exit velocity to figure out raw power, which can be a clunky way to try and figure out power hitting.
Scout's take: This is a category where I still do it the exact same way I always have. Everybody in the big leagues has pull-side power. Everybody. But if you see someone in regular batting practice that takes it to left -center, right-center, dead right field … they’re driving the ball. And that’s not late juice, that’s raw power. It’s just different. You see them grooving the baseball and moving it around the field, that will tell you something (about their power).
Evaluating pitching starts with velocity, which needs to be at around 85 miles per hour to get a scout’s interest. After that, things get a little murky because of sabermetrics.
Can they throw multiple pitches? Though pitch variety is worth noting, it's not as significant as how often they get people out.
The subcategory sabermetrics eliminated was evaluating delivery — an almost entirely subjective evaluation.
Scout's take: I don’t think we evaluate pure arm strength like we used to because of how rotations work now. The starter goes five innings, and four guys come in to finish it off who all throw around 95 (miles per hour) and all have one pitch that’s just filthy. Most guys just don’t have the pitch range to make it through the order three times, but if you can throw 95 and your control isn’t great, there is some room to work there. You can’t ignore that type of velocity.
Most amateur pitchers aren’t going to be able to accurately throw every pitch. But I do think they should have a certain type of pitch they’ve mastered. Another big thing I look for is spin rate. If it’s not spinning but it’s still playing, you hold out hope, and sometimes, those guys can really make the ball jump on you at the plate. But if it’s spinning and moving already, that’s great.
I certainly think delivery is something that can be developed, and unless they’re doing something super funky, where you think it might eventually cause injuries, you won’t walk away from a guy with good arm action because he’s got a delivery that’s not traditional. If you’re evaluating pitchers, what you really should be doing is talking to hitters. Find the guys they pitched against, and they’ll tell you who has what it takes and who doesn’t.
Catcher is the position where the old-school scouts and sabermetrics diverged the most.
The old way of scouting looked at catchers as players to build teams around.
The reality of analytics doesn’t dictate any one position to build around, and the lack of teams who use stolen bases as a weapon also lowers the value of catchers.
Scout's take: The old-school guys think the catcher is invaluable. But the new-age thinking and the more realistic approach is that the catcher has to hit and that arm strength is overrated.
Now, if you play catcher and you’re left-handed and can hit, the sky’s the limit. But the reality is, you’re going to ask a catcher to throw someone out, these days, once or twice a game.
The most important throw a catcher makes now is to first, when he drops the ball on the third strike. It’s a really tricky angle.
The old way of scouting infielders put a premium on arm strength and range, which have been rendered almost insignificant under sabermetrics.
Teams are willing to adjust their defenses more and more to accommodate an average infielder or outfielder who can hit.
What they’re not willing to do is keep an extra infielder or outfielder solely for his fielding ability.
Scout's take: The way it used to be was that you had certain positions you evaluated as a defensive premium. Shortstop, catcher and center field were all looked at as defense-first positions and a guy could make a team strictly for his defensive ability. Now, if a guy can field it decently within his cone, so to speak, and you think he can hit .270 (in the majors) one day … you get him out there.
Gone are the days when a player’s overall hitting abilities were quantified by things like how aggressive they looked when they came to the plate or exactly where they held their hands on the bat or, as famously documented in "Moneyball," whether a player had an attractive girlfriend or not.
Sabermetrics took evaluating hitters to a more refined, scientific level.
The results have been easy to see, because they usually show up on television in October.
Scout's take: Teams have certain metrics they want to get on hitters. And our job is to help them compile that data. (Scouts) don’t always know why the call comes, or when it’s going to come, but when they tell you to move on, it’s not some symbolic, emotional thing. It’s what the data told them, and they can make decisions mostly based off that.
This was where scouts used to really make their money by getting information on players that they would not otherwise normally volunteer.
They would talk to people — teachers, coaches, teammates, family members, and make an evaluation.
The data-driven approach now has players taking psychological tests similar to the Wonderlic tests given to players at the NFL combine.
Scout's take: This might be the biggest effect analytics has had on scouting. Every organization has its own psychological exam they give to potential draftees. And not all the kids agree to take them, but the test aims to target characteristics teams think successful players should have. Some of the questions might seem harmless, like where do you want to be standing in a line? But I guarantee you teams want the guys who say they want to be in the front.
From my perspective, a true scout will know his players in and out when it comes to their tools and what they can do in the field. What we want to know and what the test wants to know is what the game means to you. If you’ll quit when it gets tough, or if you have that drive to be the best.