Big League Life: Six Questions with… Baseball Scout Jim Thrift

Photo courtesy of Jim Thrift via LinkedIn.

This is the third piece in a series of posts centered on life inside professional baseball. While writing Big League Life, a novel about the people tethered to a fictionalized Major League ballclub (now available for pre-order; March 30 release), I worked hard to ensure a high degree of authenticity in the characters woven into each chapter and their experiences. I wanted this story to ring true; my hope was to create a world so realistic that, even as a work of fiction, it could offer readers a view into life in pro ball. To do this, I relied heavily on input and perspectives from many people within the game — people who make the “big league life” their life. In addition to players, front office executives, reporters, and many others inside the game, I spent quite a bit of time with scouts to better understand their duties. I’m pleased to share with you in today’s “Five Questions with…” post a snapshot of a recent conversation with professional scout, Jim Thrift. And because Jim shared such smart insights about the art of scouting, this week’s piece includes a bonus sixth question!

To say that Jim Thrift was born into baseball would be an understatement. The son of Syd Thrift, a former Pittsburgh Pirates GM and Baltimore Orioles manager, baseball was part of Jim’s life from the very start. That he also happened to possess immense talent for several aspects of the game only strengthened his foothold within the sport. Drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1984, injury put a premature end to on-field career after just 17 games played for the team’s Single-A affiliate. For Thrift, however, when one door closed, he quickly busted down the next and transitioned to a livelihood in baseball beyond the white lines rather than within them.

After his playing days were over, Thrift served as manager in the lower levels of the minor league hierarchy across five seasons, taking the Pittsfield Mets to the New York-Penn League Finals in 1991. He took on several other coaching assignments through the mid-1990s before transitioning again — this time into scouting. It was in this role that his ability to spot talent became highly coveted by Major League franchises, and he went on to hold several scouting roles for both the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, respectively, for more than two decades.

The life of a scout is a life lived out of a suitcase. Road trips and airline miles, hotels and rest stops. All with a singular aim: discovery. In some roles, Thrift’s mission was to find athletes with the skill and makeup to hack it in the big leagues. In other roles, the job centered on staying one series ahead of his employer on the Major League calendar, identifying and relaying the weaknesses of future opponents (advanced scouting). Today Jim balances a successful real estate career with continued pursuits in baseball. Presently, he serves as founder and CEO of a Florida-based baseball organization called Whole Ball Player, which gives college-aged players pro-level instruction and provides them with insight into what scouts are searching for in amateur ballplayers. If you or someone you know have aspirations of a life in professional baseball, I encourage you to take a closer look at Jim’s organization.

Scouting is a grueling pursuit — that much is undeniable. However, the output of the scout’s effort, whether manifesting as fruitful insights that help a big league club or as a hidden gem discovered somewhere on the dusty backfields across Small Town USA, can have a serious impact on so many. Below are a few highlights from a recent discussion I had with Jim about his experience in the game.

You’ve served in several capacities as a scout, including many years scouting on behalf of the Baltimore Orioles as well as the Cincinnati Reds. I’d love to hear more about that experience — can you share with me the mechanics of the scout/ballclub relationship? How is your region or game assignment determined and then how do you relay what you’ve learned? How did your assignments differ between those franchises?

It really depends on the level of scouting you’re doing. I’ve done amateur scouting, regional, state, minor league, which is called pro coverage, major league scouting, international, and so on. For Major League scouting, it breaks out by team or league — you take an entire division, for example. Or with Major League advance scouting, you’re going ahead of the team to cities on the schedule and scouting before an upcoming series. Assignments are given based on how the organization wants you to cover the league or know another organization top to bottom. And as a scout, you’re left to pull out all the schedules, look at the game slate, and map it out. I live in Florida, and we call it “scouting with the weather.” You start with Texas, Georgia, and Florida, and then progress north.

I was just given teams. If I had so many teams in the Florida State League (FSL), I’d start there and then finish off those guys. [Maybe if I’m done with the FSL] and it’s April or early May, I may move over to Triple-A Durham, but I’m not hitting Buffalo or Rochester until July. I’d move to Gwinnett, Charlotte… stay south until late spring. It’s a road trip: In any given trip, you’re away from home a minimum of 15 or 16 days.

When I was scouting for the Baltimore Orioles, I was responsible for the entire FSL. That was great because you’re inside a single state and it’s not that big. Then I’d be asked to cover Durham on a five-day minimum, focusing on a single team during that time to get a look at the entire rotation [note: a five-day minimum so the scout can watch a team’s entire starting rotation pitch]. When it comes to scouting teams, you just put your head down and pluck them off until you’re done. You try to pick the longest homestand so you can get the most information; the entire process is like layering schedules on top of schedules.

I’ve always been curious about what a scout sees when he watches a ballplayer play the game. What are you looking for when you’re on a scouting assignment?

It depends on the type of coverage you’re doing. On the amateur side, scouting a high school game, it’s going to be one player. You’re seeing everyone play, you’ve got the roster, but you’re watching one hitter and one pitcher. You’re taking in as much info as you can get. You have to get as much info out of it as you can.

On the college side of it, you may have 10 guys you need to see in a weekend. For a matchup like LSU vs. Florida, you’re only looking for draft-eligible players. You have to move around the park and get different angles. You have to be active.

Going to the pro side, you’re sitting there for a minimum of five days watching minor league games in a city like Charlotte. I can go to any minor or major park and know someone on the team — a player, a coach, a trainer, et cetera. Someone that, when I get to the minor league park, I can get a breakdown on the team. You need to have good information.

I was not trained to stare at a chart or a [radar] gun. My Father would not allow it. When I was little, I learned how to watch a game and memorize it. I’d watch and take my own notes. I find that most of the guys out there [scouting a game] are heads down while the game is going on. You sit behind home when the game starts, you see the whole field move. You’ve got a good idea of what the pitcher is doing after three or four innings, now what else are you going to get? You’ve got to move around.

The guys on the field will tell you if they can play or not based on what they’re doing.

At the Major League level, you’re looking for potential free agent acquisitions: is this guy up or down? Is he a frontline guy for us or is he a platoon guy? It’s an interesting transition when an amateur scout finishes the draft, and move on to the FSL, for example. He goes from watching one or two guys to 50. Writing a report might take as long as 45 minutes per player — and then you need to multiply that by 25. You’re collecting information over time. The best way to do this now is just give the scout an organization. The players will tell you who separates themselves from the rest. The guy that plays in the big leagues is head and shoulders above the rest because everything he does is quicker, faster.

You played in the early-1980s in the Oakland A’s system. How did you transition from the playing field to scouting? I’d love to understand that shift. How did you determine that you had a feel for analyzing and identifying talent?

I had no choice. I strained a ligament in my elbow and my world was over — there was no Tommy John surgery back then. I went back to school and became a normal student. When I graduated, my father [Syd Thrift] was the GM in Pittsburgh and he told me to come and coach. I love numbers — finance and math, not WAR and WHIP — but I said, “okay, I’ll come and help.” I got to Florida [for Spring Training], it was 5,000 degrees, and I thought it sucked. I just did what I grew up watching. Our farm director called and asked if I wanted to do it full-time and two years later, I’m managing.

The people in my environment were massively important — I was constantly in the game as a child through adulthood. I was around veteran scouts; I was curious about what they saw, what they did. I didn’t reinvent the wheel; I passed the message along. I spent 15 years on the field and then Bob Boone [Cincinnati Reds manager at the time] took me on to be an extra coach. At the time, I sat there thinking this coaching thing sucks because when the team is bad, they don’t fire the players — it’s always the manager. The GM said, “ok, go scout.” I cut my teeth very fast and the only thing I knew was what to look for: I knew what Major League players looked like, and so I looked for that.

In my 30-year tenure, I was never in one role more than four years. I had seven farm directors in the years I was in Cincinnati. The clubs you see win without buying everybody are the ones with the scouts that have been entrenched for 15 years. You can’t predict the game — it changes every year. As a scout, you’re no different than a lawyer or a doctor: you’re practicing. Scouts will come back a year or two later [after scouting a player] and say, “can you believe that guy was in the big leagues?” and I’d say, “yeah, but I didn’t know he’d hit 30 homeruns.”

You’re currently serving as founder and CEO of a scouting organization, Whole Ball Player. How does that experience differ from working directly with an MLB ball club?

I started Whole Ball Player because it allowed me to interact with parents across the country. There’s so much junk being fed to parents of ballplayers. You know those conversations: “Should I spent $400 on hitting lessons with this guy?” And the answer is no! So that’s the cool thing about it, I can help more parents.

We have 45–50 retired baseball people here in Sarasota, Fla. So, in 2019, we started the Florida Gulf Summer League. We had six teams at the time, then we grew to 12. We’re able to give players the complete experience of working with a staff with a combined 362 years in baseball. We pull players from everywhere because they know they’re going to get good instruction. We teach them like they’re pros. They come and play in these complexes with us for two months, they play in a championship game, and the winning team’s players get a ring. I have a ton of experience and it does no one any good in the file box; it [my experience] has to be given back. It has to be transferred forward. That’s how we do it, the guys get excited — it’s hands-on, real-life stuff.

We’re the only league that makes a statement that we’re a development college summer league. We’re a non-profit, we don’t sell anything. No concessions, no crowd; you’re on a backfield somewhere. They have to grind through.

What do you view as the tools of the trade? When you’re scouting at a ballgame, what mission-critical resources do you have with you?

When I scouted, I carried a stopwatch, and I had a radar gun just in case the one in the stadium was off. My critical resources were my eyes and my brain. It’s a game of comparables sometimes. You have to have separators — you’ll see a guy and remember seeing him earlier. And you can compare him to other players. You have to watch the game. Normally, when you’re scouting, you’re still watching games. I tried going to a game two years ago [for pleasure] and I left in the fifth inning. I’ve never been to a game that I haven’t worked. It’s a job; it’s critical that I be right.

What lessons have you taken from the game that you’d want to pass on to scouts just starting out in the field?

What you have to do is figure out what you can see and not see. The best thing is: what is the player made of? What is the desire, aptitude, perseverance? I know what I see, I have to go find the unseen. Major League guys who make it have a separate desire. If they know they’re good or think they can get there, they’re not stopping until they get there. I look for tools first. And if I like the tools, then I see what the guy is made of.

That’s a huge separator — those guys are never satisfied. Never comfortable because someone might take their job. [As they age] They may not be as sharp as before, so they have to keep working; they can’t ever be satisfied. That’s how it is. All those funky guys who don’t look like they should make it? It’s pure desire. People don’t realize how much time a person puts in when no one is around to see it.

Author, Diehards: Why Fans Care So Much About Sports - buy it here: http://amzn.to/1WOIT1F. Athletics / Phillies fan. @SABR member. Views are my own.