In this era of all things analytics, the Royals last season reminded everyone how valuable good scouting can be, applying detailed observations about the Blue Jays and then the Mets in ways that proved crucial to winning both the ALCS and the World Series.
In particular, their scouting reports helped them take advantage of:
— Jose Bautista’s habit of throwing to the wrong base, which led to Lorenzo Cain scoring a decisive run from first on a single in the final game of the ALCS.
— David Price’s reluctance to throw over to first base to hold a runner close, which allowed them to steal second against him in a key situation in that series.
— David Wright’s late-season habit of flipping throws to first base practically underhanded, which helped convince Eric Hosmer to make his run-scoring dash from third Game 5 of the World Series.
— Patterns that Mets pitchers had developed in how they held runners on base, which played a role in the Royals going 6-for-6 in stolen bases.
Most of that intel came from their own scouts, including Paul Gibson, the ex-Mets pitcher and Long Island native, but before the World Series the Royals also reached out to Nationals advance scout Bob Johnson, who provided them with his observations on the Mets.
“I helped give them a read on some things the Mets did,” Johnson says. “Their pitchers had gotten into some real patterns that made it easier to run on them. It allowed the Kansas City runners to break on first move.”
Normally Johnson wouldn’t have been willing to tell me this, he was saying by phone on Friday, but he is no longer employed by the Nationals, having been let go during the offseason, and he hasn’t been hired elsewhere yet either.
Johnson, a former high school baseball coach in New Jersey who has scouted for several organizations, including the Mets, says he is optimistic about getting another job, but is pretty sure it won’t be in his long-time role as an advance scout.
“The job is disappearing,” Johnson said. “Only about a half-dozen teams still use an advance scout. Most teams use video and analytics instead. That’s the trend, and it’s fine — unless you’re trying to win.”
Yes, Johnson naturally has strong feelings about the importance of the advance scout, someone who spends practically the entire season on the road, staying a series or two ahead of his own club, compiling a report on an upcoming opponent.
“Video is great but there is a lot it doesn’t tell you,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t show how the defense, how outfielders react to the ball off the bat, or why a hitter isn’t handling a certain pitch because he has a thumb injury.
“There are a lot of things you pick up by being at the ballpark. You watch the catcher’s feet. Last year there was a catcher who tipped every pitch by the way he set up with his feet — a good advance scout sees that and reports it.”
Johnson doesn’t mind telling you that he was good at his job, or that it’s not for everybody. He has been an advance scout for some 20 years, spending what he estimates was 150 nights a season in hotels.
He advanced for the A’s, Rangers, Mets, Braves and Nationals, usually moving on for better opportunities. But after last season, he says, he was told the Nationals were “going in a different direction” in their preparation.
“I’m being replaced by three computer guys,” Johnson said. “Two of them I worked with last year. I gave them the eyes on the field to go with computer statistics and analytics stuff.
“I had a passion for it. I would study the video and stats myself and apply it to what I saw on the field. I felt the Nationals were as prepared as any team in the league because of all that.”
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