Stats and Scouts: Friends, Not Foes

Matthew GoodmanAnalyst IJuly 26, 2008

I didn't expect to hit such a nerve in my recent article about Alexei Ramirez here at the Bleacher Report.  It seems that many harbor some antipathy for statistical analysis and believe that it is for "eggheads."  The true measure of a player, they say, is in the eye of the beholder or, at the very least, in the eyes of the scouts.

This isn't a new discussion.  Tension between more "old school" approaches to player evaluation and newer methods of player analysis utilizing statistics has been simmering for years.  But I don't see what the problem is.

Both scouting and statistics have the same goal: to learn more about the game of baseball.  That's it, end of story.  Scouts use their eyes (and radar guns) to give an impression of a player's current and future ability.  They can often find nuances in a player's game that elude the casual observer.  That's how people like Albert Pujols go drafted in the 13th round as the 402nd overall pick.  One experienced scout saw major league potential and convinced the Cardinals to take a leap of faith.

But sometimes, scouting is flat out wrong.  There is a huge list of once-touted prospects with impressive physical gifts that flamed out early.  Mark Prior is Exhibit A.  A tall, impressive looking man, he looked and talked and walked the part of a pitcher.  Scouts raved about his stuff, his makeup, and his mechanics.  But as it turns out, he was brittle.  His mechanics eventually turned into a mess, resulting in injury after injury.  The scouts' golden boy went from ace to rehab-warrior in what seemed to be a heartbeat.

That doesn't mean that scouting is useless; rather, that scouting is useful but has its limitations, just like pretty much everything else.

Statistical analysis is similar.  At its best, it can find diamonds in the rough and reveal truths that are not apparent.  At its worst, it can be flat out wrong.  It can also answer questions that have plagued baseball thinkers for years (Are veterans more likely to succeed down the stretch?  Is there a Home Run Derby curse?  Why do teams sign Juan Uribe?).  The revolution ushered in by Bill James and others was not meant to push scouting to obsolescence.  They are outsider observers pushing and prodding conventional wisdom to see if it's true.  They are truth seekers, just like scouts.

That's why scouting and statistical analysis work well in concert.  Scouting can tell you who has the tools and makeup to succeed.  It can reveal nuances about a player's game that may lead to future success and failure.  Statistical analysis can tell you if a player's performance is fluky or sustainable, if conventional wisdom is actually wisdom, and if what we see with our eyes is true or needs further examination.

Putting the two at cross purposes misses the point and robs us of the potential for increasing our knowledge of baseball.  There's no need for this argument, because stats and scouts are friends, not foes.