In the age of analytics, putting the focus back on scouting

Daymon Gardner for ESPN

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ON THIS JANUARY afternoon in New Orleans, the temperature is hovering in the 40s. The wind is raising whitecaps on Lake Pontchartrain. Baseball practice won't officially start for a week. But Tulane's team has gathered for a voluntary workout, so Mike Ruth is there to see it. "This is a good deal," says Ruth, the Minnesota Twins' Midwest scouting supervisor. "It's cold. It's miserable. Nobody's watching. Will these guys go after it or not?"

Ruth is tracking two juniors, potential picks in June's draft. Jake Rogers threw out a higher percentage of potential base stealers last season than any other Division I catcher. Shortstop Stephen Alemais scoops up grounders with a penchant for the spectacular that he developed on the dirt diamonds of the Bronx. But does Alemais, who calls Jay Z his adviser, have the consistency to go with his fancy footwork? Can Rogers, who batted .202 as a freshman and .227 as a sophomore, hit enough to make a lineup?

The stands are nearly deserted, just a few athletic department functionaries huddled in the chill. Then a man in black, hood pulled tight, emerges. Ruth recognizes a scout who almost certainly has come to see the same players. "Here it is," he says, laughing. "The small-market Twins and the small-market Pirates. Standing in the cold. Trying to figure something out."

IF YOU HAVEN'T paid attention to baseball scouts since Moneyball, you've missed the evolution of a craft. Michael Lewis' 2003 book, and the movie that followed it, portrayed scouts as impediments to progress: lazy, self-interested, backward, slaves to conventional wisdom. It was a cartoonish rendering but not an unrecognizable one. "There were a lot of myths in scouting," admits Ruth, 54. "The young, smart guys came in and said, 'Look at you, tobacco juice all over your shirt, barely graduated from high school. You're an idiot. I don't value anything that you know.'"

It's true: Baseball's player-evaluation system wasn't always identifying the best players. So small-market strivers such as Billy Beane's A's -- and other teams that didn't have a famous writer stalking them -- turned to predictive data modeling for an edge. "Moneyball was not about statistics or analysis," says Alex Anthopoulos, the former Toronto GM who moved to the Dodgers this past offseason. "It was about finding competitive advantage."

A decade on, the metrics they used -- WAR, FIP, BABIP -- are embedded in baseball vernacular. The push to mine their meaning has led to an information arms race, one that favors the biggest budgets. "The Yankees have every stat on every amateur player broken down like nothing I've seen," says Ruth, who knows many of their scouts. "I don't know what that costs, but it isn't cheap."

That leaves the value-oriented teams exactly where they started. Some of them -- the smarter ones, Ruth likes to think -- have circled back to scouting, though it's scouting as Moneyball's devotees would hardly know it. "We had to evolve," says Mike Radcliff, the Twins' vice president for player personnel and a former scouting director. "And it wasn't just analytics that drove the revolution. Some of us had to be even more creative."

In a world with too much data on the internet to ever crunch, intangibles have become the new proprietary metrics. "Learning about someone's background, knowing what makes him tick, assessing his drive," Anthopoulos says. Sure, scouts still sit behind home plate, training their radar guns and skeptical attitudes toward the field. But they're younger now and more diverse. The best of them function less like talent spotters than investigative reporters. "Most anyone can see the on-the-field stuff," says Ray Montgomery, the Brewers' VP of amateur scouting. "We want to identify the guy who can't be denied."

Even Beane, who engineered the original revolution away from scouting, is a believer. Oakland's scouting staff, he notes, is larger than it has ever been. "Everything we do is information-based, but there's some information you just can't get unless you're there," he says. "You learn something about a guy who does this or doesn't do that, and maybe based on that small sliver of information, you can help predict success or failure. That's an edge."

Ruth's Twins got off to a terrible start this season. Yet deep in the organization, the edge they get from scouting seems primed to reap rewards. Last year their farm system was ranked by ESPN's Keith Law as baseball's second best. This year they're right back up there at No. 3, no easy feat because top prospects routinely get called up to the big leagues. Two of those, center fielder Byron Buxton and right fielder Miguel Sano, are as exciting a pair of young players as you'll find on any team. Pitcher Jose Berrios, an undersized fireballer, has pushed himself into position to be Minnesota's top starter -- perhaps next year, perhaps sooner. All three have intangibles the Twins like as much as any data that can be spit out by a computer.

So when a Tulane assistant tells Ruth that Alemais recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic with the Mariners' Robinson Cano, a family friend, Ruth files it away. Later, when he meets Alemais, he'll ask about it. He'll hear Alemais discuss it with impressive candor, relating how he was outplayed by a slick-fielding 14-year-old. "I was arrogant," Alemais will admit.

But first, Ruth follows the team into the weight room and watches Alemais work through his routine, the prospect unaware that a scout is passing judgment from behind the Nautilus machine. "You see athleticism," he says as Alemais holds his body in the plank position for what seems like an eternity. "You see work ethic. You see competitiveness. It's only one one-hundredth of your judgment -- but it is one one-hundredth. More than you'll get sitting in your hotel."

NOBODY SETS OUT in life to be a baseball scout. It's a second-chance profession for those who've failed at something -- usually playing baseball, often coaching it too. Ruth, who is based in Lee's Summit, Missouri, and has a Midwestern twang and sense of absurdity reminiscent of David Letterman's, was an assistant coach at the University of Missouri. In 1988, the Twins offered to double his $10,000 salary. He called home to tell his wife that they'd struck it rich.

Scouting was different then. Knowing when teams were playing because you'd mailed away for schedules, locating a ballpark using a rudimentary map -- those were important pieces of a professional repertoire. "If you could do that," Ruth says, "you could work as an area scout. And probably be a pretty good one."

These days, each organization prioritizes information differently. Some want players whose path to eventual success can be seen with clarity in the numbers. Some watch videos and salivate over the physics of a curveball with a big league spin rate. Others analyze the habits of players in the dugout when it isn't their turn to hit. Success, it must be noted, can come from anywhere on the spectrum. The Rays, perhaps baseball's most analytically oriented team, ask their scouts to see a list of players they wouldn't care about based on conventional stats but who stand out either metrically or biomechanically.

Scouting provides a vital point of difference for clubs like the Twins, Royals, Indians, Pirates, Giants and Cardinals, to name half a dozen that usually come up in conversations on the topic. The Twins, who have employed only three GMs and three managers over the past 30 years, may put a higher premium on character than any other organization. They're looking for additions to the family, not a quick fling. "I'm not going to pretend that we're unique," says owner and CEO Jim Pohlad. "But the concept of trying to really know the player is important to us. The numbers on a piece of paper won't tell you about competitive desire. It's coming back around to where the subjective view of the scouts is more and more important."

The prototypical small-budget team, Minnesota can't throw money at problems. But its scouts, many of whom have been in the business for years, can see one more game, rate one more prospect, have one more conversation. "The Twins are notorious," says Jim Robinson, who scouts for Boston. "They grind. They grind the hell out of it. They never leave a stone unturned."

It pays off -- and not just with high-profile draftees such as Buxton, the second player chosen overall in 2012, or last year's first-round pick, University of Illinois pitcher Tyler Jay. When Kolton Kendrick, a high school slugger from Loranger, Louisiana, remained on the board into the eighth round last June, teams scrambled to find out how much money he'd need to pass up college. The Twins, who'd cultivated a relationship with his family, didn't need to ask. On the clock in the eighth round, they decided to draft Kendrick and landed him for slot money.

All that work for an eighth-rounder? The Twins believe it matters. In 2009, when information-gathering was still at a nascent stage, they liked a senior infielder from Southern Mississippi, Brian Dozier, though he never did well when their scouts were watching. "The guys who say, 'Well, the day I was there ...' that's a red flag for me," Ruth says. "You hear, 'The day I was there, he went 0-for-4.' I get that, but you look and he's hitting .350. So it clearly doesn't happen often."

With the Twins in the stands, Dozier would usually go hitless or not even play. "It wasn't like we had nine guys who saw him and thought he was great," Radcliff says. "But we had so much knowledge about him. We'd talked with so many people. We came to the conclusion that he was better than a lot of the other middle-infield candidates, even though we hadn't seen it."

The reports on Dozier were right. That eighth-round pick is the Twins' starting second baseman. Last year he was an American League All-Star.

AROUND THE 35TH or 36th round of the draft this year, when no one would blame a bleary-eyed scouting director for making his next selection by throwing a dart or picking the nephew of a team employee, Terry Ryan will come alive. The Twins' general manager is a former scout. He leaves nearly all the decision-making to his staff, which has seen and evaluated the players. But as the proceedings wind down, he'll exhort his troops to stay focused. "There are major leaguers left on that board," he'll say. "Let's figure out who they are."

That's exactly what Ruth has been trying to do since the Super Bowl. He's been scouting games and practices, interviewing players and their teammates, probing coaches about the standouts in their conference. In the final, frenzied weeks before the June 9 draft, he won't miss a day. He'll canvass his region from Green Bay to Dallas (a trip he once made directly, by car, in an epic attempt to see a potential pick one last time). He'll go as far as seeking out pastors, girlfriends, even math teachers in the search for that telling detail about a prospect that nobody else has unearthed.

Most of that effort -- the vast majority, it's safe to say -- will not result in a Twins draft pick. In the days before the draft, Radcliff and scouting director Deron Johnson will sift through the reports from all of their area scouts and the four regional coordinators, including Ruth. The execs will make judgments and see a few prospects themselves. After the draft, the Twins will end up with about 40 new farmhands from across the regions. The rest of the files will get stored somewhere.

Those files are thicker these days, and not only because of analytics and advanced stats. Many teams also include detailed information on what baseball people refer to as a player's makeup, his drive to succeed, gleaned from the countless interviews on the road. No makeup will mitigate a fastball that tops out in the mid-80s or a looping swing that takes too long to reach the plate. But it can provide information that will slide him up or down the draft board. To get it, you just keep asking questions.

If you do, you'll eventually find pitcher Andrew Lantrip. In his first two years at the University of Houston, Lantrip went 15 -- 3 with a 2.41 ERA. That said, there's nothing great about his body, and his fastball averages only 88 mph. If you haven't seen Lantrip pitch, you actually might like him better than if you have. But Ruth has been around long enough to know that one doesn't become the best pitcher on a top-25 team by happenstance. In Lantrip's case, Houston assistant coach Trip Couch explains over lunch one afternoon, success comes from work ethic, composure and a fear of failure that fuels his will to win. Ruth nods and makes a note in his mental report: "He's our kind of guy."

But here's why the Rays might end up as interested in Lantrip as the Twins: He'll also rank among the top 10 in the country in terms of analytics. Lantrip pitches on Fridays, against opponents' aces. He rarely walks anyone, 29 batters in his first two seasons, and strikes out five times as many. He goes deep into games. "If you look at him purely on that basis," says Couch, "the screen will light up like a pinball machine."

All of this -- the velocity, the WHIP, the attitude -- will show up in Ruth's file, sent off to Radcliff to peruse. "Used to be, the office wouldn't know about this guy," Ruth says later. "If you saw him and liked him, you'd have to walk your supervisor through the reasons. Now, because of the analytics, you'll get calls from the office saying you need to go see him. And maybe find a way to like him."

ONCE THE SEASON starts, scouts spend most of their time at games -- that's one aspect of the job that hasn't changed. But if you're a Twins scout, you'll arrive for an evening start at 2:45. You'll watch the home team wander out onto the field, stretch, take batting practice. Then you'll watch the visitors. That's what Ruth does for Tulane's opener against Illinois on Feb. 19. By the time the folding chairs behind home plate are filled with scouts, he's put in half a day's work.

Everyone is there for Illini pitcher Cody Sedlock. But having spent time with Alemais and Rogers, Ruth is curious to see how they perform. When you've spoken extensively with a player, when you understand where he's been and what he's working on, the importance of everything he does on the field gets amplified by this added context. "Makes the game a lot more interesting, don't you think?" Ruth says.

He wants the players he's following to play well, yet he learns more if they don't. How a player responds to failure is an indicator of how he'll handle the trudge through the minors. "The failure thing is the hardest to figure," Ruth says. "They've never failed, which is why you like them. And then they get to pro ball, and at some point they fail. Does that make a guy work harder? Or does it make him realize, 'Maybe I'm just not much good at this'?"

When Ruth saw Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson as a Missouri junior in 2009, Gibson got rocked. Ruth decided to stick around. "You go back on Saturday when the gates open, is he the first guy there? Can he still relax and focus? Will it carry over? Because that's a big thing," he says. "One bad outing can turn into two, two into four. So it becomes, 'I don't want to change my whole schedule, but I'm going to stay another day.'" It's one more data point, just another one one-hundredth. "But you've got to give yourself a chance to be a little bit more right," Ruth says.

Be a little more right. That's all it takes. The scouting world, Ruth included, pegged Albert Pujols as a chubby community-college hitter who was maybe worth a flier in the 15th round. The Cardinals didn't think differently; they just happened to grab him in the 13th. "I didn't need to be right about Pujols," Ruth says. "I just needed to be a little less wrong than everyone else. If I'd had a little more imagination, been a bit more willing to project, I might have said, 'Let's take him in the 12th.' And that changes the course of baseball history."

It's hard to imagine Alemais doing that. But the point is, you never know. In the top of the fourth, a batter hits a slow bouncer to short with two out and two on. Alemais comes in fast and vacuums it up. He seems ready to make a quick throw off his back leg, which might lead to a SportsCenter highlight ... or a ball skidding into foul territory. Then an internal clock kicks in and he realizes he has plenty of time. He passes up the spectacular play to set himself. He throws to first. The inning ends.

This routine grounder -- 6-3 on the scorecard -- is what Ruth has come to see. Alemais' growing maturity reveals itself on the field in a moment that, if you didn't know the background, you'd hardly even notice. It was only one play on a single day, the day Ruth happened to be there. Perhaps in the grand scheme it will account for nothing. "There's no one thing when you say, 'Ah, great, now I know everything,'" Ruth says.

Nevertheless, that ground ball will show up on a file card. Alemais' improvement, not physical but mental, has been noted. And eventually, all those hundredths of a judgment will add up to an inspired guess. What happens after that becomes a function of how much the Twins decide they like Alemais compared with how much everyone else likes him, and which players are left on the board, and what their farm system needs. That calculus will be done in advance. Then it will be done again, in real time, once the draft starts.

The odds of the Twins drafting Alemais, or any particular player, are long. Ruth gets that. A scout in the analytics age must be as dispassionate as a number cruncher. He's an academic, a researcher in a New Era cap and shades, and the diamonds and the dugouts are his libraries. "Ultimately, all analytics in some sense are objective facts," Beane says, "but those facts encompass all sorts of things. What people would consider an intuition decision, if a guy has seen a lot of players over the years, that becomes a fact-based decision."

So when Alemais pops up a bunt attempt but charges down the line and manages to beat the throw for a single, Ruth sifts the piece of information through what he already knows about the player, positive and negative, and gets a bit closer to an opinion. "That's scouting," he says, shrugging his shoulders. Then he turns back to the game.