It is time for batting practice at Canal Park. It is the middle of summer, about 3:30 p.m. The Aeros players begin to trickle out of the air-conditioned clubhouse into the sweltering heat that’s settled over Northeast Ohio in mid-July.
This is typically a laid-back time for players, coaches and managers as they go about slowly getting ready mentally and physically for a Double-A game that will begin at 7:05 p.m.
Most people in the park at that time — members of the front office scurrying to their daily pregame duties, local media arriving, vendors setting up on the concourse — aren’t paying close attention to the players on the field.
But there are a handful of people who are often overlooked as they settle into seats high into the stands, watching intently as the players go about their business. They are baseball’s pro scouts and they’re already gleaning nonspoken information from a player’s daily ritual — well before the lights shine on that night’s game.
“You have to take advantage of anything you can to help you look beyond the numbers,” said a National League scout nearing his third decade in the business. “That’s why you have to scout. The statistics help, but the numbers never tell the full story.”
The Beacon Journal followed a scout through his routine but we are protecting his identity because his organization prohibits him from sharing any information he collects publicly.
The daily ritual
The day of a scout begins in the morning on most road trips, long before batting practice. It can be his first day on the road or Day 10 of 22.
“When I’m on the road, every work day starts at 8 a.m. and ends around 10 p.m.,” he said. “And that’s if there’s no rain delays or extra innings.”
After waking up, a scout will often grab his laptop computer or an iPad and head out of the hotel for breakfast or coffee in whatever city he is in. Once settled in, he’ll rely on the Internet to read stories about players he’s scouting or has scouted in the past, looking to pick up pieces of information about their personality.
“It helps to know not just about who they are as a player, but also about who they are as a person,” he said. “You can glean some of that by a story of the previous night’s game, especially if a player I’m looking at is quoted in it. Sometimes, you put a player’s name in a Google search and see what pops up on activities away from the field, anything to give you some insight on how they are. So much of scouting these days has become about the information business. We spend a lot of time in front of computers.”
Afterward, the scout heads back to his room, turns on the iPad again and watches a previous night’s game of either the major-league team he’s employed by or from a rival club whose players are in the area of coverage.
Then come the time-intensive reports.
Scouts from any level spend a chunk of their day typing out reports — the culmination of all the information they’ve gleaned from watching a player, usually over a couple of days.
“I type up the pitchers reports from the day before referring to the notes I took from the previous evening, pulling up various sites like Baseball Reference and others to check out the statistical aspect of it,” he said. “It’s very important to keep up with your reports on the starting pitchers, so you don’t fall behind. Then once you’re done with the pitchers, you start to chip away at the reports for your positional players as you go along.”
With starting pitchers, scouts typically only get one good look at them at a time, as they start every five days. However, scouts typically get to see position players perform throughout a whole series.
“Sometimes you see a player three games and you can write him up,” he said. “Some players, you want to give him a full five or six games to show what he can do. Unfortunately, the notes start to pile up, so you have to stay on top of it.”
The process begins by logging into the major-league team’s computer site, which has a section for the scouts to pull up a standard form to fill out and then send to the team’s scouting director and or general manager.
“In the beginning of the report, we’re grading the players on a 20 to 80 scale, with 50 being the major-league average,” he said, noting a report on each player takes an average of 10 to 15 minutes to fill out. “Then at the bottom there’s a section where we give a verbal description of the player and you want to describe him as physically as you can so your boss can visualize the player and the tools. But you don’t have a lot of room, so you try to be careful with your words to be succinct.”
Scouts also tend to use a lot of the same descriptive words and phrases when describing players, so that their opinions are somewhat uniform. Phrases like “below average fielder,” “above average runner,” “good pull power” are often sprinkled in their reports.
“The key to a report is to describe what the player is right now, what you think he’ll be in the future and whether you like him or not — is this a player you’d like to acquire? It’s like finding a partner, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The kind of guy we like may not necessarily be the kind of guy that say, the Yankees, like.
“It’s an inexact science because we all see players differently. It’s based on our experiences of watching and our experiences of seeing similar players perform. Usually, when you see a guy, you can relate them to another player you’ve seen in the past and that helps your boss visualize what he looks like and could be capable of doing.”
After hours of typing up reports and tagging them in the computer system to be sent to the bosses, most scouts are eager to get to the park.
“In batting practice, you’re watching to see how a player works,” he said. “He’s not going full out. But when you see a guy take BP three or four times over a course of time, you get a sense of which ones put good work in and which ones don’t. You see which ones are popular on the team and which ones aren’t.
“To others, it may look like they’re not really doing anything in batting practice, but we’re there for a reason. It’s a good time to watch a player’s mechanics. I’ll sit on one side of the field one day to see the swings of the left-handed hitters and go to the other side the next day to watch the right-handers swing. You look at players from all different angles, then you put the pieces together.”
A professional scout’s annual salary depends largely on the length of time he has had with a club and in the business overall, usually averaging anywhere between $50,000 to $120,000.
“When we’re in the stands, so many people come up to us and say, ‘Man, I’d love to have your job,’ ” he said. “They don’t know all that goes into it. But then again, we’re not willing to give it up, either. It’s a labor of love.”
A scout begins to set up his season’s coverage in late December and early January, cross-checking the teams he has to cover with where they’ll be playing. There’s no help from a travel agent, so that early planning includes scheduling flights, setting up hotels and selecting rental cars in advance.
“I basically work from the first of March through November,” he said. “After that, they don’t put a lot of demands on us. But there’s still clerical stuff like the reserved list, free agents that might want to sign, the Rule 5 draft.”
Last year, just for the heck of it, he counted it all up.
“I saw 200 games live and had 140 nights in hotel rooms — from spring training all the way through fall ball,” he said. “Sometimes that included catching a morning game in Akron, then driving over to Erie to catch one of their night games. Other places you can double up at are going to [Triple-A] Rochester and Buffalo.”
It’s always a bonus if a scout can go to one place and scout two of his teams playing each other. It doesn’t matter if a team is home or not, sometimes a scout will do his work at an opposing team’s stadium that is closer to where he lives.
“You try to have all your coverage done by July 1 so you can prepare for the July 31st trading deadline,” he said. “That’s the goal you look to at the beginning of a season. Having everything in your bosses’ hands so they can make informed decisions on players they’ve likely never seen when it comes down to the trading deadline.”
When the game starts, scouts typically have a radar gun in one hand to check a pitcher’s velocity and a pencil and an 8-by-11-inch light cardboard stock sheet of paper in the other on which to jot down the numbers and notes.
“That’s the easiest part of the job — watching the game,” he said. “It’s the most relaxing. The rest of the time you’re dealing with paperwork from the office — expenses, forms, reports.”
When a ground ball is hit to the Aeros shortstop during a game, most folks are looking to see if he fields the ball cleanly and throws it to first base in time to get a hustling runner up the line. Scouts look beyond that.
“We watch his hands and action,” he said. “We watch how he sets his feet. We watch the actions while others tend to focus on the end result.”
When another Aeros infielder comes to bat, the scout looks at the notes he has already made on him, adding a little thing here and there.
“He’s small and athletic, a quick strider and gives a good effort,” the written report already indicates. “In the field, [his throws] have a slight carry, he’s got an accurate arm, quick hands, quick feet, he’s good with the turn of the double play and he’s smooth and athletic.”
Next to the notes are a few numbers regarding the player’s range, indicating the scout considers him to be a 65 on the 80 scale. Next to that, the player’s season batting average is written down — .280, but in the time the scout has been there, he has seen him hit .250, going 4-for-20.
“That’s important to note in case I’m asked what I saw out of him when I was there,” he said. “Based on what I’ve seen, he didn’t have a lot of power, although he did hit one out to right field. But he mostly hit a bunch of soft ground balls.”
When the Aeros opposing pitcher takes the mound, the scout quickly starts jotting down some notes on a different colored pre-printed sheet to differentiate between the two teams.
“He’s got a pump delivery, he’s under control, has long arm action,” are a few of the phrases the scout notates.
Then the scout quickly changes his focus to the batter, taking a stopwatch out of his packet and timing how long it takes an Aeros player to run to first base from the first sound of contact off the bat.
“A lot of the action we focus on comes at the plate,” said the scout, who doesn’t mind talking to people between innings, but it’s a no-no during the action with so much to follow.
“Every pitch gives us an opportunity to evaluate something. How fast is the pitch? What kind of movement? What does the [pitcher’s] arm delivery look like? Then you look at the batter. How their bat looks though the zone, a guy’s hitting mechanics, the approach he takes. Then when the ball is hit, you’re looking at the third baseman to see his instincts when it comes to fielding. You’re looking at all this to see how each player’s abilities relate to playing at the big-league level.”
Not all scouts see players in the same light.
“The obvious talent always stands out for all of us,” he said. “But how we view that player may differ. There’s plenty of obviously talented players in the minors who never make it to the major leagues.”
Unlike most at the game, scouts don’t keep track of the game’s scoring and couldn’t care less about which team goes home a winner.
“Our job is to keep track of a player’s performance — that’s all that matters whether we’re scouting at a major-league game or here in Akron,” he said.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Aeros blog at http://www.ohio.com/aeros. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.