We like to pretend that we know most of what's happening on and around baseball, but the fact is that we don't. Not really. We know nearly nothing of baseball in the 1800s, we make educated guesses at baseball before the advent of television, and even today, with our newfangled hickeymajigs, our defensive ratings are woefully inaccurate. Now though, we have been given the briefest and tiniest of glimpses into the world of the baseball scout, that unsung hero who, as Kevin Goldstein reminded us during the Up and In podcast days, spends much of his time pooping in McDonald's restrooms.
The Baseball Hall of Fame, when they weren't funding unnecessary steroid research, put together the greatest database of baseball scouting reports ever seen. In the past, these were rarely released, and so people have gone (justifiably) crazy for the Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr, and Chipper Jones reports that are full of glowing phrases like Monster of Mash, Mayhem, and Moxie. However, there is so much more to be unearthed. Because while any scout worth employing could look at those players and see greatness, it's the other players, the mid-rotation guys, the utility infielders, that required someone to take a leap of faith. And these scouting reports document that.
There is David Eckstein's which, in the first sentence of his summary, refers to him as a "gutty gamer." This is perhaps the first published occurrence of the phrase being used on him, it's a historical landmark. Or there's the report filed with the Chicago White Sox that called Tim Wakefield a non-prospect because he lacked a fastball and his splitter should be thrown harder. Then there are the ones like Jim Abbott's where he's proclaimed a "WINNER" all in caps, and dammit, that's fine with me. Jim Abbott, playing and succeeding at Major League Baseball with one arm, is a winner.
And that's part of the beauty and charm of these documents. These scouting reports are entirely the human element of the game. Ron Karkovice's 1982 scouting report by Joe Branzell breaks him down, saying he looks like an "oldtime 'country' ballplayer,' before discussing his ability to turn on a curveball, not bothering with a transition before delving into how Karkovice was playing high school ball and didn't know where his birth parents lived.
The language is simple and to the point, phrases like "enuf" are typed in to save time, whereas others like Chris Sabo's 1990 report, are barely legible save for a quickly scrawled "hustles" and recommendation to "acquire," him, circled to emphasis the importance.
There is a feeling of stumbling upon something you shouldn't, like a grandparent's diary while stumbling around the attic to these documents. For good or ill, these papers are what dictated the history of Major League Baseball–who should be signed, traded, released, every good acquisition that lead to a World Series and every horrible draft day call is buried somewhere in the database. Chili Davis, who would hit 350 home runs in his career, was called a waste of talent, a dog. Kris Benson was pegged as being worth the top pick in the draft with his long, slender fingers and "flat rear" (though, to be fair, even then the scout was worried about the kind of workload he was taking on.) And still others were spot on. Turk Wendell, he of the shark tooth necklace, was called "one of a kind."
And this is all just from the players I could think to search for. While there are plenty of gaps and no information from the recent past because people want to keep their jobs, it's the perfect complement to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Because after spending half a work day looking up statistics for utility players of the early 90s, you can now head over to the database and figure out just how they put those numbers together. So thanks, Baseball Hall of Fame. Now I'll never leave the Internet.