“You have to understand, back in 1972 you didn’t want to be part of the bullpen…It was looked upon as a junk pile of starters who could no longer start. But I feel fortunate to have been part of the entire evolution and the pioneering of relief pitching. Going to the bullpen was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I can’t even fathom having a career as a starter as I did as a reliever. For one thing, I didn’t like the four days off (between starts) and I loved the opportunity to come to the ballpark to pitch every night.”
(Bill Madden, N.Y. Daily News)
I was talking about the relationship between art and science in sports the other day with a friend of mine, a dynamic, or tension, that I find fascinating. For instance, I understand why the role of the closer is over-stated. On the other hand, I firmly believe that some pitchers have the emotional and psychological temperament to close games while others don’t. Or, that some pitchers are better suited as starters.
The debate between traditional scouting methods and a more emperical approach was sparked by Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball a few years ago. While the distance between the two is said to be exaggerated, the pull between the old and new has existed for a long time in the game.
Jim McLaughlin, the first scouting director for the Baltimore Orioles (he later ran the scouting operations for the Cincinnati Reds), believed in a scientific approach to scouting way back in the ’50s. McLaughlin devised a chart called “The Whole Ball Player.” The chart consisted of a cirlce that was split in two. The top half of the chart reads:
Can Be Seen with Eye
Pitcher: arm strength, fast ball, curve ball, slider, other pitch, control
Infieder-Outfielder: arm strength, use of arm, speed, hands, fielding, range, hitting, power
Catcher: arm strength, use of arm, hands, receiving, hitting, power, speed
General for all Players: stamina, durability, anticipation, hustle, reflexes, size, coordination, agility, poise, instinct base running, eyesight
The bottom of the chart reads:
Can Not Be Seen with Eye
Attitude: desire, drive, willingness, hunger ambition, aggressiveness
Mental: intelligence, baseball sense, teachability, knowledge of game
Personality: improvement, consistency, maturity, adjustment, stability, temperament, disposition
Winner: stomach, heart, competitiveness, pride, confidence
Background: family, habit.
“When Fred Hoffman scouted Brooks Robinson, he saw the whole ballplayer. Brooks was just an average runner, he didn’t have a great arm, his frame was still kind of frail, his hitting was still a question mark, and he was playing second base. But Fred visualized him as a third baseman. He said, ‘This boy’s quick even though he’s not fast, and he’s gonna be just like a vacuum cleaner in the infield.’ Fred saw the soft hands, the live body, the great reflexes that allow you to project hitters. He was able to break the player down into individual tools, and he was also able to see the masterpiece in its entirety. Not just the total coordination in that body, but the total coordination in that person—beyond what could be seen with the eye.
“…I think I went a lot further than other people in taking the scientific viewpoint on acquiring talent. And that’s another reason I wasn’t a real baseball man. Baseball men are like a tribe. And if you don’t think they way the tribe thinks, if you think on your own and ignore the conventional wisdom, then you spend half your time bucking complaints from scouts who say, ‘That’s not the way I learned it,’ or ‘You never played a day of pro baseball in your life.’
“I used to hear scouts talk about ‘the good face’—as if they could tell about a kids’ makeup just by looking at him, instead of taking the trouble to get to know him, or studying the results of a psychological test. I used to hear those ‘good face’ stories and they’d drive me up the wall. Scouts can be so damn unscientific! At one time it was the conventional wisdom that a black kid couldn’t become a successful big-league pitcher, because he wouldn’t have any guts when he walked out to the mound, because he’d be only sixty feet, six inches from home plate. There was no basis for that. It was just prejudice—or fantasy, or myth, or whatever you want to call it. I was the scouting director and I had to listen to this bullshit. I said, ‘I don’t’ have the time to reeducate you guys diplomatically.’ I was dictatorial. I was opinionated. I said, ‘This is the way it’s gonna be.’ I wanted to inculcate basic principles, like with that chart. I wanted rationality. I wanted science.
McLaughlin wanted his scouts to be more than just baseball men. He ran seminars with guest speakers ranging from psychologists to F.B.I. agents to insurance salesmen. He staged mock-drafts and began employing cross-checkers in 1955, ten years before the draft.
“In one way all of that was picking up where Branch Rickey left off…even though I never liked Rickey. I thought he was an ethical fraud, the way he manipulated people and then made those pious speeches. There was no substance. I couldn’t have worked for him two minutes, because of my Jesuit education. I could see through him. But when it came to producing talent, the man had real intelligence, real imagination, because he could change his thinking—like a good novelist who doesn’t just keep repeating himself after the first novel. And near the end of his career, he was ready for scientific scouting.
“Up to that time, see, Rickey was a Darwinist. ‘Quality out of quantity’ is really a version of natural selection. The other baseball men didn’t even know who the hell Darwin was, so Rickey could operate like one of these companies that gets a monopoly on the market. Then, when farm systems got too expensive, and when bonuses went sky-high, Rickey changed. He went after quality only, to the extent that he could. He was trying conscious selection—even though the tools were very precise. But if he were alive today, he’d be experimenting with new tools: tests, special equipment, computers. He wouldn’t be bound by the conventional wisdom, because he was the guy who invented the conventional wisdom.
Good food for thought, right? Whatta ya think?
p.s. If you’ve never heard the Goose’s legendary locker room rant, the one where he calls George Steinbrenner, “the fat man,” well go here, and scroll down to the bottom section “Aww, Nutzo” and click on “Goose.”