Okay, so everyone here who had 'Randy Flores' written at the top of the list they had compiled in their heads of who would most likely be the Cardinals' next scouting director, please raise your hands.
Okay, now everyone who doesn't have their hands raised, I want you to look at those who do. Take a good, long look at them. Memorize their faces.
Those people are liars, and not to be trusted. So commit them to memory, and if they're every trying to sell you a bridge somewhere, run in the other direction.
Now that we have that squared away, and know who among us are the most dishonest, let's talk about this rather...unexpected hiring, shall we?
First things first, yes, it appears the Cardinals are serious about Randy Flores being their new scouting director. Second, yes, it is the Randy Flores you're thinking of. There isn't a guy in the Rangers' front office who just happens to be named Randy Flores, causing constant confusion whenever he meets someone who remembers that other Randy Flores, the one who used to be a LOOGY. Nope, the one who used to be a LOOGY and the one who will now be deciding where and how the Cardinals will allocate their draft and international signing pool dollars are one and the same.
Okay, he said, clapping his hands together in a satisfied way, I feel like we're making some headway. We've got some facts on the table now, he further said, attempting to appear confident and in charge in order to mask his own confusion at the subject of which he was speaking.
So we know the who. What we really need to know is the why.
Randy Flores represents a fascinating hire for this organisation, in that he actually brings something to the table quite different from what you might expect to see. Last Sunday, I wrote a column examining the situation of Ben Cherington, the now-former GM of the Boston Red Sox and a longtime scouting/development-side mainstay for what is, by most accounts, a very smart and currently talent-laden organisation, in spite of the big club's recent struggles, and asked whether he might be a fit for the Cards' current vacancy at the head of the scouting table. Cherington is a guy who has been on the scouting side of the game for a lot of years, has experience working within a very analytical front office framework, and would bring to the job an ability to manage and assimilate a large amount of information from a variety of sources within his dominion. If Cherington wasn't the guy, he was still very much the kind of guy I expected to see the Cardinals tab. I thought it would be a guy with a long scouting history, as well as an analytical background. In short, a guy much like Dan Kantrovitz, or Chris Correa.
Instead, the Cardinals went with an individual whose main qualification for the job, other than being available to throw left-handed slider practice to Jason Heyward occasionally, is that he founded his own company, called OnDeck Digital, which does video analysis for players and organisations. He doesn't have a ton of scouting experience, only really coached briefly at the college level, and has some experience, I'm sure, with information assimilation, but not to the extent you might think from a longtime high-ranking member of an MLB scouting department.
Ah, but there's the thing. The Cardinals seem to have people with lots of experience doing that stuff. What the Cardinals hired was a guy whose background is largely in video. And that's really, really intriguing.
I say that as someone who, as part of my twin obsessions of breaking down pitching mechanics and producing reams of text related to the amateur draft, probably watches a couple hundred hours of scouting video per year, pretty much year-round at this point. If you asked me the last time I went one whole day without watching some sort of baseball-related video -- and I'm actually not even including the games themselves in that -- I honestly wouldn't be able to answer you. I have no idea. And so the notion of the Cardinals hiring an individual whose most recent endeavour was to start up a company that produces high-quality video footage and analysis for players and organisations to use is, to me, downright fascinating.
I also say that in the context of what the Cardinals did in this most recent draft. For quite a while now, the Redbirds have taken a fairly analytical approach to drafting players. They developed analytical tools under Jeff Luhnow that allowed them to scrape college numbers and project future success. Then they moved on to the junior college level, and came away with a Matt Adams from Slippery Rock for their trouble. We haven't heard much about it, but I'm sure they have some sort of algorithm that utilises high school numbers as well, though I'm sure we all understand implicitly how limited the usefulness of such numbers are. In this most recent draft, however, there was a notable trend in the Cards' picks, at least among enough of the players taken that we can squint really hard and pretend it's a pattern.
Namely, there seemed to be a real focus this past year on things like bat speed and, one would assume, exit velocity. These granular statistical indicators are all the rage amongst the baseball cogniscenti at the moment, as we all wait for StatCast data to get to the point where it actually means something, when Perceived Velocity and Launch Angle turn into useful tools to know and apply, rather than simple curiosities cited occasionally by broadcasters who have been instructed to push the product, and find it less frightening and worthy of scorn than FIP, which is the baseball equivalent of the imaginary number concept from Calc I, useful in certain situations but still tough to comprehend and, frankly, just not real, or BABIP, which frankly sounds like a frog and a rabbit got super drunk one Saturday night and made a decision that fucked up their friendship, big time.
Now, it's possible the Cardinals' picks this year were not, in fact, joined in any way by a focus on things like bat speed as an indicator of future value, and it's purely the perception and narrative biases of those of us looking at the picks. But, I kind of don't think so. I tend to think there was at least some emphasis placed on some of these very granular bits of scouting data, such that players like Bryce Denton, Harrison Bader, and Paul DeJong all graded out as having well above-average bat speed. Nick Plummer, the Cards' first-round pick, had fairly notable bat speed himself, but was also a pure scouting pick based on what appears to be an almost unprecedented level of patience and discipline at the plate, at least for a player coming out of high school, in a cold weather state, who also happened to play in a league with an automatic 1-1 count for everyone, which is still one of the stranger things I think I've ever heard of.
So why would a focus on bat speed or other such advanced, granular data points matter when it comes to the hiring of Randy Flores? After all, I can hear you asking, aren't bat speed or exit velocity or any of those other things just data, same as any other? Shouldn't those numbers fall under the purview of analytics, which would again suggest someone with a much different background from Flores?
The answer is this: those numbers, no matter how granular, can still really only tell you the end result of the thing that happened. We often bemoan the curse of results-based analysis, and try to focus on the how and why of the thing that happened, attempting to determine if the thing that happened is likely to continue happening, based on the inputs.
But even then, we're still really only focusing on the things that occurred, doing results-based analysis; we're just focusing on different results. We hope they are more meaningful results, and it appears most of the time they are, but they are still results all the same. When a commentator throws a win-loss stat at us as proof of a pitcher's quality, we scoff, citing the fact so many things go into whether a pitcher 'wins' or 'loses' a game that the whole concept is an exercise in futility. When that same commentator throws ERA at us, we scoff only slightly less loudly, as we note that ERA has so many things going on, from defensive performance to quality of opposition to simply old-fashioned luck, that it's nearly useless itself, even if it's miles more meaningful than double yous and ells.
But then again, when we go with FIP, we're really only measuring outcomes, namely walks and strikeouts and home runs. K rate, useful as it is, is a measure of a result, expressed as a percentage of total results. We know certain pitchers strike out lots of hitters, and those pitchers tend to be good at pitching, but not always. And more importantly, we still only have the barest notion of why pitchers strike out hitters to begin with. Or rather, only the barest notion of why certain pitchers strike out more hitters than other pitchers, and the how of what they're doing.
And that's where the game is headed right now. We are measuring things like exit velocity, which is still a result, yes, but the most objective and individually meaningless result we can get to as of yet. Something like exit velocity tells us only one thing, and we then have to plug that into a context to determine how it contributed to the overall event that took place. Bat speed is even one step further back, telling us how the player did a thing he was entirely in control of, independent of the pitch thrown or even whether he succeeded or failed, which may not be useful in getting to the answer of how good a player is, but definitely gets us closer to the answer of how the player is getting to wherever it is he falls on the spectrum of good or not good. And those are the questions being asked right now.
And that, dear friends, is where something like video analysis comes in. At the absolute bottom level, the most basic possible point from which to begin, we have observation of an action. In other words, video. We observe the thing that is being done, and then watch what that action results in. We watch a player swing a bat, and we measure the speed of the bat, and we measure the speed the bat transfers to the ball, and we measure the angle at which the speed is imparted from the bat to the ball, and we measure the distance the ball travels having been struck at a given angle with a bat traveling a specific, measurable, known speed, and we calculate the value of a ball hit a certain distance as a result of being struck at angle x by a bat weighing y ounces traveling a z miles per hour, expressed as a number assigned to the frequency with which a player is able to replicate the chain of events which led to the occurrence of the event we are measuring. But at the very simplest level, we must first observe the thing. And that's why we have Randy Flores as the new scouting director of the St. Louis Cardinals. Because Randy Flores's background is not in analytics of the mathematical sort, necessarily, but rather in the specific attempt to observe the action that causes all the results that follow and create the picture of what a player is and might become.
I find it fascinating that the man the Cardinals just hired to head up their scouting department is not an MBA from Harvard who can calculate risk profiles in his head or an MIT grad who can run SQL like Les Claypool plays slap bass. Rather, this particular hire is of a person who has gone about the business of watching and recording the base-level events of the game, trying to get beyond even the most granular data we currently have, to the thing which makes all the things happen.
I can't say what this means, exactly, for the future of the Cardinals' drafts. I can't even say if there will be any kind of noticeable focus on anything we can see, necessarily. I wish I could; I think it would be fascinating if I knew the Cardinals were focusing on the mechanics of the game in the Michael Witte or Brent Strom fashion, if only because then there would always be additional tea leaves to read for every decision. But that may not be the case, either because the focus isn't there at all, or because that focus is only one input in a chain of them so long and complex we can never hope to tease out what individual things are being measured and accounted for at all.
I can, however, say this: the St. Louis Cardinals, in attempting to replace their previous scouting director in the most efficient and successful way possible, have turned to someone who would not, on first glance, appear to have anything approaching the kind of qualifications you would look for in a candidate for that job. Rather, they turned to someone who does, in fact, have organisational ties, but more intriguingly, appears primarily concerned with not the what, but the how and the why. And as someone who watches hundreds of hours of video of various baseball players at all levels doing a variety of things in his own attempt to spot the hows and whys of the whats, I can tell you I find this hire completely, almost singularly, remarkable.
Then again, maybe Flores just came cheap and has good personal hygiene. And is not a computer hacker. In which case, I'm completely full of shit. But for a Sunday morning contemplation, I think Randy Flores the baseball video entrepreneur is a more-than-fascinating-enough subject.