Royals' scouting catching up to the times
Advance scout Heath now working via video, no longer hitting road
KANSAS CITY -- The advance scout is a wise, somewhat battered baseball vagabond who bangs around the country, sizing up the opponent that his own team will play next. He's been a part of the game's fabric for decades.
Except, starting this year, the Royals don't have one.
"You don't need an advance scout anymore, in my opinion," manager Ned Yost said. "You've got everything at your fingertips. Everything I need or we need to see is on the video."
So that's why Kelly Heath, who had been "advancing" for the Royals since the 2007 season, has come home. Heath is still listed as the advance scout, but this year he's staying with the Royals, at Kauffman Stadium and on the road, and doing his sleuthing through video machines and computers.
The system has been in place for a full month now, and it gets a thumb's up from both Yost and Heath.
"After a while, you've just got to accept the fact that I've got more information at my fingertips right now," Heath said, "than I could ever get by jumping on a plane and checking in a hotel room and getting a taxi and working on three hours' sleep, and watching a guy in six at-bats or 10 at-bats and trying to make a decision after getting a limited view."
Yost is your basic old-school manager who likes hard-nosed play, a no-nonsense approach and basic baseball. But beneath that gruff exterior is a man who can play a computer keyboard with a dexterity that belies an old catcher's hands, and one who appreciates the immense value of the stadium's video room, where Mark Topping, aka "Topper," is presiding for the ninth year.
Heath acts as the liaison between the coaching staff and the video department.
"Topper did a real nice job with the technical stuff on the video, but he's not a baseball guy, so there was always lost time in there to get Topper to understand exactly what we want," Yost explained. "Kelly's a baseball guy, so our coaches can tell him exactly what they want and Kelly can go get it with the help of Topper. You have to have that, because you're doing so much homework on the video stuff that you need somebody to get everything set up for you so when you get there, you can do your homework. Kelly opens the books, so to speak, and has everything ready so when you get there, everything you asked for is there. You don't have to filter through it, you don't have to find it."
Years before, Heath might have spent last weekend in Chicago, watching the Baltimore Orioles play before opening a series in Kansas City and getting the goods on Nick Markakis and Derrek Lee and that bunch. Instead he was at Kauffman Stadium, not only helping Yost and his coaching staff sweep the Minnesota Twins, but getting his work together on the Orioles.
Before Tuesday's game, the Royals' players and staff will hold strategy meetings dealing with the Orioles, the information largely assembled by Heath and Topping, but dispensed by the coaches -- Kevin Seitzer to the hitters, Bob McClure to the pitchers, Eddie Rodriguez to the infielders, Doug Sisson to the outfielders and John Gibbons to the catchers. Heath walks a fine line, making sure he doesn't infringe on the coaches' areas of authority.
"These guys do a lot of things, and I just try to take a little bit of the load off of them and give them an extra set of eyes," he said.
A major factor is the info is based on a large sample of each player's performance, compared to the small slice that used to be gathered by the advance scout.
"When I'd go in to see a team play, I'd be lucky to get a four-game set," Heath said. "So I'm looking at maybe 15 at-bats at times, watching these guys play. And I can give you my best information based on 15 at-bats -- where we can defend this guy or what pitches he's not hitting -- but there are ways now to find out within 10 minutes in the guy's last 600 at-bats by using video and using other methods. I can get 1,000 at-bats in 10 minutes."
There's a long way to go in this season, but maybe there's something to all this. Just the other day, for example, Yost pointed out that the Royals are leading the American League in assists, indicating that the infielders are being positioned in advantageous spots against individual hitters.
Also, as of Monday, the Royals topped AL teams in batting average (.274) and stolen bases (35), indicating that the scoop on enemy pitching is helping. The Royals also were second in runs scored (145), just one behind the hot Cleveland Indians. The pitching figures? Not many highlights at this point. But the team, rather unexpectedly, has a winning record.
"I give them basic information about the teams, every player, every arm strength, every running grade, a generalization of everything they're going to see when they face the next team -- the starting pitchers, how they're going to use the bullpen, how they're going to use the bench. Just kind of refresh them before we get to the next team," Heath said. "They know most of this stuff already, but I also give them numbers as to batting average in a certain zone, whether the guy up there is a breaking ball hitter or a slider hitter or better curveball hitter than a changeup hitter. Just try to give us an edge."
Heath makes liberal use of his MLB.TV subscription to analyze players. When, for example, the Twins called up outfielder Rene Tosoni prior last weekend's series, he delved into MLB.TV Spring Training tapes to find him in a Grapefruit League game.
"Anything I can do to get an eye on somebody," he said.
Anyway, Heath is no longer rushing through airports and charting games at ballparks. Staying with the Royals, he wears uniform No. 80 and hits fungoes during batting practice. He's a former infielder, drafted by the Royals in 1977 with virtually all his 14-year career spent in the Minor Leagues. In 1982, he spent 24 days with the Kansas City club and got one Major League at-bat, filling in for Frank White late in a game at second base.
"I lined out to center field. Hit it right on the button. It was a lot of fun," Heath recalled. "I got to learn from the some of the best. I was in big league camp with these guys for four years, so I got to learn from George [Brett] and Hal McRae about how to run bases. And Frank was working with me at second base every day. I learned a lot about baseball, and it kept me around for a while."
When a game starts, Heath is in his civilian clothes and sits in the stadium seats, watching for things about the opposing team that might have been missed, and could help in the future.
Now Heath, who once feared his job might be eliminated, finds himself riding a scouting wave that is gaining momentum in the Major Leagues. Some teams still use a traveling advance scout, some do not.
Yost, of course, champions the new wave and puts all this additional information to use while pretty much sticking to the book during a game.
"There are times when I gamble and go with the gut feeling, but most times you just play the odds," Yost said. "But you've got to do your homework. You've got to know what the odds are."
Once a game starts, Yost says he gets rather one-dimensional. To a point, anyway.
"Everything I think about from the first pitch on is our pitching," Yost said. "Because everything else is execution. I'm basically like a fan. I'm standing there, I can't control anything once that game starts. ... The only thing I can control is if we're in the right spot to play the percentages right, that the majority of the time the guy's going to hit the ball here, make sure everybody's in the right spot, and then handle the pitching staff. Every once in a while, throw in a hit-and-run or a bunt, try to increase your odds of winning."
It's a mysterious thing, this managing, isn't it, Mr. Yost?
"I don't want to give away all my secrets," he said, "but most of it's sitting there rooting for 'em like everybody else."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.