Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Book Review: "Scout's Honor"

As a Braves fan and Moneyball devotee, I was more than a little curious to read Bill Shanks' Scout's Honor. The dustjacket quotes throw themselves down in "we're not worthy" genuflection to the book as a worthy foil to the "Moneyballers," but frankly I was disappointed. The author constructs flimsy strawmen and then does a ham-handed job refuting them. The prose is clunky and inelegant, and the manuscript could sorely use a good editor. For instance, the author repeatedly constructs sentences around such gaffes as, "He wanted to be apart of a winning organization." Clearly we all want to distance ourselves from the success and lofty expectations that accompany a winning organization. Goes without saying.

But those critiques are for the book itself. The ideology that informs it deserves a more serious pounding. Scouting baseball players is a lot like reading tea leaves. You can put your faith in all kinds of intangibles like "makeup" and "desire," etc., but all that truly matters is whether the guy can play. Since no objective way to measure intangibles exists, the scout relies on little more than instinct and guesswork when projecting a prospect's development and career trajectory. That's not too scientific considering the millions invested in player development.

I couldn't help but relate the lessons of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink to Scout's Honor. Scouts may be able to "thin-slice" most baseball talent but many will inevitably be seduced by Gladwell's "Warren Harding Error:" a prospect may look like a ballplayer, but it's worth learning if his appearance is supported by his numbers. And to draw another parallel with Blink, consider this SAT-style analogy: females are to symphony orchestra maestros as ballplayers are to scouts. Sometimes a veil is needed to shield the senses against prejudice and preconceived notions. This analogy befuddles like the "Teletubbies" if you've not read both books; my apologies to the nonplussed.

Shanks further disappoints in the way he treats his subjects with starry-eyed fanboy reverence. Atlanta's success has been impressive but Shanks never examines the shortcomings. For example:
  • The scouting approach hasn't helped Atlanta win a World Series in 10 years.
  • The scouting approach hasn't prevented some truly terrible free agent signings. Rico Brogna, Albie Lopez, Vinny Castilla, Raul Mondesi, I'm looking at you...
The Moneyball philosophy is about efficiently employing limited resources as much as building a baseball team. Given that Oakland's achievements since 2000 have paralleled Atlanta's at a fraction (literally around 56%) of the cost, seems the Braves could benefit from a holistic approach that more fully integrates objective analysis. To believe (as Shanks seems to) that the Braves can learn nothing from Oakland's success is sheer hubris.

Too bad Bill Shanks aimed to discredit Moneyball using the Braves as counterpoint. His uncritical approach left the curious reader wanting more. A compelling book on the Moneyball vs. scouting issue could still be written.

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