WASHINGTON -- Mike Rizzo was worried about this before the season began.
He pointedly lamented the fact media members would be allowed into ballparks during the pandemic-stricken 2020 season, but scouts would not be. Those are the men Rizzo trusts to verify what word-of-mouth says, what the video shows, and, crucially, what the video does not.
“We lean heavily on our scouts at the trade deadline,” Rizzo said recently.
And, at all times. For the draft. For advance work. For tidbits not on a spreadsheet. Rizzo developed the Nationals’ analytics department after settling the scouting group. His past remains a large pull in his belief of how to predict the future. Once a scout, always a scout.
Not being in the park this season complicates things. The Nationals scouts are stuck at home, watching video, making calls, going through prior reports. They are trying to build accurate profiles without being able to maximize what they rely on most: their eyes.
Which makes Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline yet another oddity in this season filled with wackiness. The trade deadline comes five weeks into the season, though it also arrives at the season’s midpoint. Everything about the deadline is framed by how much teams think this 60-game season is actually worth. Front office executives and players have talked about how important they believe pursuing the World Series is this year. Rizzo repeated as much when talking last weekend about how they expect to treat the deadline the same as past ones. The truth will come out by Monday.
If there are few moves, it will indicate how much teams are looking to next season when the game possibly returns to normal. If an organization makes a significant deal, it will exist as a sign of their 2020 ambition. The Nationals will be an interesting case study. They are 11-17, in last place in the National League East Division, and are besting only the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates in winning percentage. In short, they’re in a downturn and can use help.
The hunt for that help is taking a different form with the scouts at home. What are they missing from the confines of their couch? Davey Martinez explains what he looks for in-person versus on tape.
“When I'm watching a video, I'm specifically watching one thing that I want to see,” Martinez said. “So when I'm watching a game on TV, it's hard for me to see what's going on on a broader spectrum. When I'm actually in the game and managing I get to see so many different other things and you put yourself in a situation ... for me, every day, I'm scouting. I'm looking at different things, watching different players, not only our players but other players on other teams and what they do.
“A lot of times, when you're watching the video, you don't get to see that and you don't get to see what's happening other than that person but there's something else that you might be able to pick up when you're watching it live and seeing it in person and really watching it as it progresses and how it goes on and see how the guys interact or how the guys act cause that's a big part of it. Not only do we look for the best players we could possibly get, we also look for character and how they fit in and their chemistry. When you do that, scouts are watching them in the dugout, they are watching how they run into the field after a strikeout. Sometimes that stuff all gets cut off when you're watching on TV or on video. I think it's important that you have scouts in the seats and watching these things."
So, two things they want to see, and normally would, but are lacking now: instinct and demeanor. Did the shortstop move himself in the middle of the game? Did someone get a good break or read on a fly ball? Did they walk off and sulk after striking out? Or did they talk with their teammate about what the pitcher is doing?
“That's part of what we do and how we analyze players that can actually help us,” Martinez said. “You look at all these things — who fits in, what good player will fit in with what we're trying to do and our chemistry. That's a big part of it. Those guys can't see that, all they're seeing is them playing.
“For me, I know what kind of hitters or what kind of pitcher a pitcher is, but what does he do outside of that? Now it's basically they're on the phone, they're calling people that might have known this player or seen this player or interacted with this player. So you're going by word of mouth a lot with other people, and not being able to put eyes on the player and see how he really is throughout the whole game, or two or three games. A lot of times we sit on players for a week or 10 days to see how he acts or see how he reacts to different things."
That’s all gone this year. In the next four days, the Nationals will rely on what they learned in the past and can cull from current video. Chats with colleagues, old coaches, friends and family will take place. It’s not the real thing, but it will have to do, much like the rest of this season.