Sunday, December 04, 2005

Book Review - Scout's Honor

I just finished reading Bill Shanks' book, Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team. Touted as a as the defense of traditional scouting, a counterpoint to Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, Shanks' book was poorly crafted and disappointing. Instead of providing the reader with insight into the methodology behind the incredible success of the Atlanta Braves and their remarkable player development, Shanks spends 346 pages providing anecdotes about players in the Braves system (players/management/scouts) repeatedly using the word "makeup" without explaining it. There was only a few nuggets of value I found in the book. First, in trades, the Braves are inclined to ask for the inclusion of some sort of minor league pitcher (regardless of value). The thought is to focus on quality from quantity. Second, how Braves Executive VP and GM John Schuerholz was influenced by his first bosses, Harry Dalton and Lou Gorman. Gorman explains that the two aspects of scouting a player, things you can/cannot see with the eye. More specifically:

Things you can see with your eyes

  • Pitchers: arm strength, fastball, curve ball, slidder, other pitch, and control
  • Infielders/Outfielders: arm strength, use of arm, speed, quickness, agility, hands, fielding, range, hitting and power
  • Catchers: arm strength, use of arm, receiving, hands, hitting, power, and speed

Things you cannot see with your eyes (roughly, Shanks' definition of makeup)

  • Attitude, desire, drive, willingness, hunger, ambition, aggressiveness, mental intelligence, baseball sense, teachability, coachability, knowledge of the game, personality, improvement, consistency, maturity, adjustment, stability, temperment, disposition, background, family, habits, "is he a winner?", "does he have stomach?", "does he have heart?", "does he have pride?", "does he have confidence?", and "is he a competitor?"

Unfortunately for Shanks, he doesn't provide this until more than halfway through the book. This reduces much of the value in the previous anecdotes and their ability to demonstrate the Braves' philosophy.

When he finally gets around to the nuts and bolts of the Braves' philosophy (on page 347), a grand total of 13 pages are offered as explanation. The quick summary:

  1. MAKEUP: Passion, integrity, and intelligence are all necessary to ensure the greatest chance of success. It cannot be quantified, only perceived.
  2. DON'T DISCOUNT STATS, BUT...: Stats are a tool to be used as part of the whole picture (stats + tools + body + makeup).
  3. TRUST YOUR SCOUTS: Delegate responsibility down and trust your scout's judgement.
  4. COLLEGE VERSUS HIGH SCHOOL: There is no concrete evidence that college players drafted are more successful in the majors than high school drafted. The Braves prefer high school players before they develop bad habits.
  5. SYNERGY BETWEEN SCOUTING AND PLAYER DEVELOPMENT: The scouts and player development staff need to be on the same page.
  6. PATIENCE: Allow the player to fully develop, his play on the field will tell you when he's ready.
  7. THE STRENGTH OF THE DRAFT DICTATES PICKS: Nothing is more dangerous than going against the strength of the draft.
  8. PROTECTING PICKS: Don't waste a draft spot on a player focused on dollars or without the desire to play, signability is a key. Talk to the players before the draft to see if they want to be a Brave. Additionally, be honest and upfront with what a player can be paid, if the player scoffs, move on.
  9. PITCHING, PITCHING, PITCHING: Treat pitchers like thoroughbred racehorses; wins are not important in the minors; do not overuse pitchers in the minors.
  10. DEVELOP TALENT FOR TRADES: The ability to produce talent to trade is equally as important as developing talent for your own use. Build depth so trades don't weaken you at any position.
  11. REPLACEMENT VALUE: The system must develop players that can be promoted in the case of injury/need. It's important to reinvigorate your team with youth and enthusiasm.
  12. SCOUTING YOUR OWN PLAYERS: One of the most overlooked necessities of a strong farm system. Spend time analyzing the existing talent in your own farm system in order to determine who are: (1) legitimate prospects; (2) fringe prospects; and (3) roster filler. Know who to keep/who can be sacrificed in deals, if necessary. Ensure the proper evaluation of players.
  13. FOLLOW THE PLAN: Consistency is important between people and philosophy.
  14. MAKING IMPACT ON THE PLAYERS: Scouts, mangers, coaches, and executives are in charge, but you must create a sense of family working towards a common goal.

The final chapter is spent deriding Michael Lewis and Moneyball as a fad along the lines of "the Atkins Diet." Shanks refutes the Moneyball philosophy, completely missing the forest for the trees. In my opinion, Moneyball is about taking advantage of maket inefficiencies, not focusing on college players an on-base percentage. I will grant Shanks his point on Lewis' negative portrayal of "traditional scouts." But Shanks falls into a similar trap that most traditionalists do, he allows Lewis' story to overshadow the theory. What Billy Beane did so well was identify a skill set that was affordable and offered him the greatest opportunity to succeed. Shanks is too concerned with discrediting Lewis, Beane, OBP, and the drafting college players over high schoolers.

All in all, Shanks' book is not worth the investment of $22.95 (thankfully, I found it in the library). He missed a tremendous opportunity to give the average baseball fan a peek into the world of scouting and player development. Instead, he spent over 300 pages offering little more than back of the baseball card player information and whining about his misconception of Moneyball.

I'd pass.


El Gran Color Naranja said...

I think most people realize that a combination of the camps works best, but I guess that doesn't sell books. Why show the argument as one of priority or percentage, when you can show it as an all or nothing Civil War?

Are there any good "scout" books out there?

Brian said...

The USS Mariner site recommended an out of print book that I just bought on eBay called "Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting" by Kevin Kerrane. I'll let you know if it's worth the time.