How Many Scouts Played Pro Ball?

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On a recent Baseball America podcast (10/31/13), discussion turned to whom the hosts would like to see take over for Tim McCarver as the Fox network’s color commentator alongside Joe Buck. This was obviously before it was announced that it is likely to be Harold Reynolds.

As a quick side note, I love Reynolds. I may be biased since I have fond memories of my mom letting me skip school in third grade to instead go down to a local Denny’s, where the Mariners second baseman was signing autographs. I get the criticism of his analysis, but I can look past that because I really enjoy the passion, energy, and insight he brings to a broadcast.

Anyway, when they were talking about the subject, Managing Editor J.J. Cooper said he would be in favor of Orel Hershiser.

“I like pitchers in that role,” Cooper said. “Generally, I think they make very good color analysts. Because, as a hitter, you’ve got stories and all that, but the reality is that, unless you’re a catcher, there’s a lot of positions where you’re involved with your thing more. Where as a pitcher, I think you pick up some things that are more interesting to share.”

Editor in Chief John Manuel agreed with that sentiment and said he would choose Ron Darling.

“You have more time to watch the game,” Manuel added. “You watch more as a pitcher than you do as a hitter. I think that’s one part of it. I also think the other part of it—and I tend to agree with you—is that maybe the pitchers can discuss the game more. Also, it goes back to how we like to talk about evaluating prospects . . . there’s more to it with pitching. There is more subtlety and adjustments that can be made, where as hitters either hit or you don’t. You either have that natural timing or you don’t. That maxim carries over to broadcasting.”

These comments got me thinking: How many scouts played professionally? How many played in the big leagues? Of those who played professionally, how many were pitchers?

First, a few notes on the study: I looked at each team’s amateur scouting staff from the 2013 season. While I know there have been some changes since then, that was the most recent listing I had, thanks to the Baseball America 2013 Directory. That gave me 705 total scouts. I searched for each scout’s name on Baseball-Reference.com and didn’t give a scout credit for playing professionally if their only experience was in the independent leagues.

At first I was skeptical about how comprehensive Baseball-Reference’s minor league data was, but I checked with Sean Forman, who asked Ted Turocy, and this is what he said . . .

“Published league averages started containing all players from about 1965 onwards. Before that, it depends on the league and year you’re talking about; some published all players, some completely omitted less-thans below some threshold of activity. Generally, more recent years are probably more complete than older ones and higher-level leagues more complete than lower ones, but there are probably hundreds of exceptions to that pattern.

After 1965, the data we have is believed to be complete relative to what was published in league averages. It is of course always possible that those league averages omitted players, or that there were cases of mistaken identity where the activities of one player who appeared only briefly got assigned in the records to someone else. However, we’ve yet to be able to document conclusively that a single such instance has occurred, at least in the affiliated leagues — although plenty of people over the years have written to claim their stats are missing.  (The less-stable independent leagues are obviously another kettle of fish.)”

Could there still be errors in my data? It wouldn’t surprise me. The minor leagues are vast and data collection for those leagues hasn’t always been the greatest. Perhaps a couple guys slipped through the cracks or maybe I missed counting a guy because his Baseball-Reference first name is different than what he actually goes by. Either way, it wouldn’t impact the overall percentages too greatly. But, if we take the B-Ref guys for their word and the minor league data is complete from 1965 onward, then realistically everyone aged 65 and younger would be covered.

Let’s take a look at the results . . .

Of the 705 scouts, 368 (52 percent) have professional experience.

Honestly, that’s lower than I expected. I thought the number would be closer to two-thirds or even 70 percent.

Of those 368, 71 made it to the big leagues. So, about 10 percent of all scouts have big league experience of some kind. And that makes sense because, first of all, it is obviously extremely difficult to get to the big leagues. Secondly, playing in the big leagues is lucrative and if a guy has any success there, taking a low-paying scouting position and being away from his family even more probably doesn’t rank too highly on his retirement wish list.

Though my data set included scouts from the 2013 season, what about the current set of 30 scouting directors? A little more than half of them (18) played professionally to varying degrees, though the Diamondbacks’ Ray Montgomery and the Orioles’ Gary Rajsich are the only ones with big league playing experience.

Here is a breakdown of each team’s 2013 amateur scouting staff, sorted by percentage from highest to lowest . . .

TEAM SCOUTS SCOUTS WHO PLAYED
Astros 19 13
Yankees 24 16
Diamondbacks 20 13
Rangers 25 16
Athletics 22 14
Braves 24 15
Dodgers 24 15
Brewers 24 15
Red Sox 28 17
Cardinals 22 13
Angels 25 14
Pirates 24 13
Padres 24 13
Mets 21 11
Royals 23 12
White Sox 24 12
Tigers 24 12
Rays 22 11
Nationals 18 9
Orioles 25 12
Giants 25 12
Phillies 23 11
Reds 24 11
Twins 22 10
Cubs 29 13
Indians 24 10
Blue Jays 33 13
Mariners 24 9
Marlins 23 8
Rockies 17 5

Of the 368 scouts with professional playing experience, 130 of them (35 percent) were pitchers. In other words, probably a tick less than you would expect given current lineup construction.

Scouts who played professionally certainly have some advantages. When you’re looking for professional players, there’s no doubt that it helps to have been there, done that. They’ve been around the professional game longer. They’ve seen, first-hand, what it takes to succeed and what doesn’t work. They know how important makeup factors into the equation. They’ve been on those fields, in those clubhouses, on those long bus rides and in the crappy hotels. When they’re in a player’s home, they can talk about all those experiences and assure parents that their son is going to be okay. Because of that, they also likely have more contacts within the game.

On the flipside, those who didn’t have the fortune of playing professionally most likely at least played in college, and many coached at the college level before getting into scouting. Others grew up around the game because their fathers were involved somehow. So, while they can’t talk about what it’s like to have played professionally, they have still likely been around a lot of players who have gone on to play at the next level.

Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous is one of those without professional playing experience. I talked to him about it last spring . . .

“You know, I think the advantage of playing professional baseball immediately gives you more contacts within the professional game,” Tanous said. “When you’ve not played professional baseball, you have to work on getting those contacts a little bit more. But, as far as playing professionally, or how good of a player you were, I’m not sure that has much to do with evaluating. Otherwise, the best players in the game would be the best scouts, and that’s certainly not true. But I do think it has advantages. As an area scout, going into a home, and parents and players asking you, ‘What is it like to play pro ball?’ I think you have some first-hand knowledge there and it adds a little validity to what you’re trying to tell the player about professional baseball. As far as not playing professional baseball, because I was recruiting, I always felt comfortable going into a home and describing what our organization was about. I think that was an advantage of being a college coach.”

At the end of the day, everyone’s experiences are different and can have their own pros and cons. You don’t need to have a criminal background to be a good detective. You don’t have to be a master chef to know what good food tastes like. Evaluating players is the separator. If you can accurately evaluate players, judge talent and find diamonds in the rough, it doesn’t matter if you never even played in college. If you played in the big leagues, you may get a longer leash, but you’re not going to last long if you can’t get out there and find players for your organization.

One of my favorite pieces I did during my time at Baseball America was called “Scouts on Scouting,” where I interviewed many scouts about the ins and outs of their job. I asked scouts about what they considered the five tools of scouting and evaluation was always one of the first things they mentioned.

“I would say number one, first and foremost, is evaluation skills. You can be organized, you can look nice, you can wear nice clothes, you can be professional and all that crap—and it’s not crap, it’s part of the game. You can run around like a crazy man and put 80,000 miles a year on your car—you can do all that, but the bottom line is, you’ve got to know what the hell you’re looking at.”

It all comes down to judging talent, regardless of your background. Just look at some examples from other industries . . .

In football, just three of the 32 teams have directors of college scouting who played in the NFL—Eric Stokes with the Buccaneers, Scott Campbell with the Redskins and Scott Studwell with the Vikings.

Most of the famous music executives didn’t have successful careers as musicians. That’s true for John Hammond, a talent scout with Columbia Records, who is credited with discovering and/or signing Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holliday, Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.

Lorne Michaels wasn’t a famous comedian, but as the creator of Saturday Night Live he has put his stamp of approval on a huge percentage of the people responsible for laughs you’ve likely enjoyed over the years.

You get the point.