Imagine you were a scout for a major league team last winter and your general manager calls you to ask about Josh Towers. Your team has a chance to trade for Towers and the GM wants to know what you think. You say Towers is a #5 pitcher and he is not even guaranteed a rotation spot with the Jays in 2005, you suggest to the GM that he should turn down the deal. Next day the GM is back on the phone, the Jays have sweetened the deal and now they are ready to give up Alex Rios. You tell the GM to jump at the deal, you saw Rios at New Haven in 2003 and you think he is primed for a breakout season. Fast forward to today, do you still have a job?
If you want to be a scout you better have an opinion and you better be right more than you are wrong or you could be facing the wrath of your GM, if you are still working for him.
Amateur scouts have been immortalized in film and in books. Dollar Sign On The Muscle, a history of amateur scouting, is one of the better baseball books ever written. Moneyball talked about amateur scouts and their contribution, or lack thereof, to the draft. Albert Brooks stared in “The Scout”, a movie about an amateur scout. Each draft day the amateur scouts are praised for their work in finding excellent prospects for their team. Batters Box reviewed the Blue Jays amateur scouting organization as a follow up to our 2005 draft review.
Professional scouts are the undercover cops of the scouting world, we know they are out there, we know they contribute to the success of our favourite team, but we don’t know who they are or what they do. If you go to games at minor league parks you can find the scouts behind home plate, busily managing their radar guns and their notebooks, but most of us have never talked to them. Kimball Crossley is one of them, a professional scout for the Blue Jays, and he recently sat down with me to explain the job of a professional scout.
Crossley followed an unusual path to scouting as a career. Crossley grew up in New York City and majored in broadcast journalism (at North Carolina, home of the national champions, he tells me) and became a journalist. Among his classmates were such well known journalists as S. L. Price of Sports Illustrated, Tim Crothers, formerly of SI and Jim Surowiecki who writes for the New Yorker and authored a recent best-seller, “The Wisdom of Crowds”. Crossley’s path to a job in scouting was unusual as most scouts are former professional players. In addition scouting is a tough business to break into, who you know is as important as what you know.
After college Crossley was working as a sports reporter for the Providence Journal, covering the baseball beat. Rather than sit in the press box, Crossley sat with the scouts in the stands, picking scouts brains and over the years learned how to scout players. After five to seven years of learning the ropes, scouts began asking him if he wanted to get into scouting. As Kimball notes, “I was never a writer because I loved to write, I just wanted to get answers to my questions.” Crossley was also open to the works of Bill James who gave him a different insight into player performance. That interest led to Crossley’s first job for the baseball establishment.
“My first break was when Dan Duquette had me chart some stats for Mike Gimbel, but that never led to anything.” Mike Gimbel was one of the first sabermetricians to be hired by a baseball team. Gimbel worked for the Red Sox from 1994 until 1997, but Gimbel’s desire for publicity caused his downfall with the Sox and once Gimbel was gone Crossley was no longer affiliated with a major league team. Crossley got another break when Fred Claire had a part-time job for him. Claire himself had moved from the newspaper ranks to a major league team. In 1969 Claire was working as a beat writer and was hired as the publicity director for the Dodgers. Claire stayed with the Dodgers for thirty years eventually rising to be General Manager of the team. “Fred Claire gave me a break as a part time scout mainly to keep track of Brian Rose and Carl Pavano, but he did sponsor me to go to scout school. I had to pay my own way but I did well there which empowered me to think I can do this. About a year later I got offers from San Diego and Houston, which was not out of the blue those were connections I had been building for five or ten years. It was karma, or right place, right time.”
Crossley accepted the Houston offer and started scouting on the east coast for the Astros. Over the years of reporting and scouting Crossley had often sat beside JP Ricciardi, remember JP started as a scout also. In 2004 Crossley joined the Blue Jays and moved to Phoenix. The Blue Jays have five pro scouts, most of whom cover six major league organizations. The five scouts are each assigned a division, with the American League West being split among five scouts. In 2005 Crossley covered the five National League West teams plus the Oakland A’s. The scouts cover each teams major league, AAA, and AA teams, that adds to a total of 18 teams and approximately 450 players.
I started by conversation with Kimball by asking him how pro scouting differs from amateur scouting.
“Professional scouting is not that different from amateur scouting, amateur scouts are often seeing one game sets, maybe two, maybe a doubleheader, whereas when you are a pro scout you get to go sit on a team for five days so you can see a full five man rotation, and sometimes you try to follow one of those teams so you see them for another five games, but it doesn’t always work that way. So as a pro you get to sit in one place a little longer to get a better read on all the players. The other thing that’s different about amateur is that as an amateur scout you are often going to see “a” guy. I could be responsible for all Nebraska and there might be only one guy in Nebraska that I am looking at. As a pro scout I am responsible for all the guys on a team and I have to turn in a report on all of them even if you don’t like them. As an amateur you only have to turn in a report on guys you like. There might only be one player on a minor league team you like but you still have to turn in a report on them all, so there is more report writing in pro. I don’t have to turn in a report that day, but I can wait until a couple of days after the series, and when I see the team again later in the year I will update the reports if I need to. In the office they can call up any player from AA up and see what our scout thinks of that player. Some pro scouts have to cover 24 teams, when I was with the Astros I only had 12. Some teams want more coverage on fewer teams, and some less, I think 18 is about the perfect amount.”
Eighteen teams is a lot of teams to cover, I wondered if the Blue Jays have a specific target for each scout to see certain teams or players x number of times?
“We have no specific mandate, we are told to see them a good amount, at least twice a good amount, so that usually means a five game series early in the season and another five games series later in the year. If you see a team for five games you get a real good read on the position players and you have seen every starting pitcher make a start. You see the bullpen once or twice. You would like to see a starter more but when you see them for a full start you get a good idea, and once you have seen them twice or three times in a season you have a good read on the player. Most times we double up for convenience (scouting two teams at the same time), you would have to see twice as many games otherwise, its something we like to do although it makes each game harder. This year I didn’t double up so much, with the Astros I used to have the Eastern league so I was always doubling up. San Francisco’s AA team is in Norwich, there is no other team (I cover) in that league. Every time I saw Norwich I was seeing only Norwich, it was easier but it’s a little frustrating to see players you aren’t scouting. When Norwich played Binghamton I would watch Lastings Milledge closely even though I didn’t have to write a report on him. Some organizations say if you like him write him up, others say write up every pitcher you see, most of the time you just keep it in your mind so when we have conference calls you can say I saw him and I did or didn’t like him, or whatever. I think it is right that you don’t write him up because you don’t have the whole background on him, and when the club pulls up the report they want the full story, which means you have done a make-up check on him, and done an injury history.”
I thought it sounded odd that scouts could be writing reports on superstars like Barry Bonds or Vladimir Guerrero. How much more do we need to know? I can scout those guys, I think I know what their value is, but Kimball had the answer.
“Definitely, I have to turn in reports on Barry Bonds, and I had to cover Vladimir Guerrero last year when I had the Angels. It’s almost more important because those are the big money decisions, for example Brian Giles is a free agent, we can’t say as an organization that no-one has seen him for three years. I might not have seen him, JP might not have seen him, so we have to see him so we know what we are looking at. I saw Brian Giles play twelve times this year, he is 35 years old, can he still play? Is he worth $8 million, $10 million? Those are big money decisions.”
With 18 teams to cover it seems as though there is not too many nights off for the scouts. Eighteen teams times ten games each is 180 games to see, before reducing the number for double-ups. Does Kimball know how many games he saw last year?
“For each player you report number of games seen play on the report, so individually you can tell. In total I have a scorebook with 150 sheets and I thought that should be good and there were a couple of games I didn’t score because it was raining and I had seen both teams play several games, and I didn’t want to ruin my book, and I ran out before the fall league. I probably saw 20-25 fall games.” By my count that makes about 175 games seen by Kimball this year.
I wondered if scouts can watch games on television, we all scout a little at home, although you cannot see fielders positioning, or in some cases the baserunning, but you get a good read on the pitchers and the hitters.
“Some people do and some people swear by it. Some organizations look down on it, some are OK and some are “don’t ask don’t tell”. I know guys who told me I am tivoing the game because my kid has a little league game tomorrow night. I know one scout who will go see a game or two to see how the players look and their bodies, but then he gets a better read off TV. As long as he sees one or two games in person he will do the rest off TV, and he hasn’t been fired yet. I’ve never scouted off TV but I remember sitting in San Jose and they were showing a Giants game and I saw Brad Hennessy pitch, and I had seen him pitch in AAA, and I got a different perspective on him than when I saw him in person. A lot of front office people that’s all they see, what they see on TV.”
In addition to the regular routine teams often have a chance to pick up a player off waivers or make a trade during the season, does the scout get involved in that?
“A couple of times a year, I wish it happened more. Sometimes I am told to sit on a guy, and if it’s a pitcher you have to come back to that team every five days, so I have to leave the team I am scouting, fly there, see him pitch, and fly back. I remember when the Yankees were sitting on Randy Johnson they had a scout sit on the team, even when Randy wasn’t playing, for like fifteen straight home games, he couldn’t go anywhere else.
Last year I sat on a couple of upcoming free agents at the end of the year, I had done my coverage. I can say I like a player, say Troy Glaus, and JP might say “Do you like him $10 million?” and I say I don’t know, you get paid to make that call. But we are told not to play GM, you might verbalize an opinion but on your report you just grade the player. As well rule 5 and six year free agent scouting is a big part of what we do, we occasionally get a mailing to let us know who is a free agent or who might be rule 5, but usually you can figure it out from their history.”
For the Blue Jays amateur scouts report up through Jon Lalonde, but professional scouts are part of major league operations under Tony LaCava. Kimball mentioned conference calls earlier are they a big part of the job?
“I report to Tony LaCava, we have conference calls from time to time. Some teams have them weekly, some monthly, we are more irregular. We had one before the trade deadline and you get all the pro scouts on the line and JP’s there, the assistant GM is there, and Tony, and we go around to talk about what prospects the various minor league teams have and plan our coverage for the second half of the year. I also interact with Keith Law from time to time.”
Some scouts preach the value of seeing batting practice and infield. Personally I had never bought into that, even at the little league level you see players who are great hitting fastballs down the middle but who cannot hit an outside pitch, or a breaking ball. If you study major leaguers taking infield before an inning you wont learn much, half the time they are lobbing the ball to first while talking to a teammate.
“I am not a huge batting practice guy, if I am only going to see a team for a couple of games I will make sure I see BP, I think its much more important what you do in the game. Some scouts are big believers in it, I just think you learn more in five games. Infield is the same, again unless I am only seeing them for a couple of games because a shortstop might not have a ball hit to him in two games.”
I asked about the tools of the trade, radar guns and notebooks, and if you would note down if a player swung and missed at a 2-0 fastball right down the middle.
“Most parks have the speed readings on the scoreboard now so I use the laser gun less than I used to. You don’t need to know every pitch, all you need to know is the neighborhood of what the guy is throwing. There is always a team pitcher keeping score and charting speeds, so it can be an excuse to ask him a couple of questions and get inside his head a little bit. With regard to making notes, I think you would take a mental note of that (2-0 pitch down the middle), rather then write it down. I still recall Sean Burroughs, I know he has a left field approach, but you know the team wants you to drive the ball but you just took a 2-0 fastball down the middle, how could you do that? Either you took it, or you were late on it, how could you be late on that? I know he opened his stance at the end of the season, to do what the club wanted him to do, we’ll see how it works out.”
Scouts operate to a certain extent in a vacuum. They are away from the corporate offices, they send in their reports, they have minimal interaction with head office, and they have no idea if their reports are acted on. Often a scout might love a player and want the team to get him, but nothing happens.
“Scouts can get frustrated when they think the club doesn’t listen to their reports but its part of the business. I remember one time talking to Theo Epstein who said he couldn’t tell me how many times he had felt the same way. I had to tell him it was hard to sympathize with someone who went from scoreboard operator to GM in about four years.”
When you change careers, as Kimball did, you face a lot of internal pressure to perform, and fit in. That first year of being a full-time scout must have been a nerve racking experience.
“I look back on it and think I was such a bad scout back then, I didn’t see half of what I see now. But it wasn’t that tough, I was more insecure. But I remember Tim Thompson who had been in the game for years, he and I were debating Jamie Carroll that first year and he thought he was terrible and I thought he was OK, maybe a utility guy, and the next year, before Jamie became a utility guy, he had changed his tune. When that happened I said I might not be that bad after all.”
Kimball did tell me of a couple of players he liked this year, namely Conor Jackson and Dustin Nippert. This time next year we can grade Kimball on their success.
A big Batters Box thank you to Kimball Crossley for taking time to talk to us.