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Tuesday, April 12, 2011
In-depth: Video over boots on ground

By Adam Rubin

Bob Johnson attended Monday’s Mets-Rockies game at Citi Field. But the former advance scout for the New York Mets was gathering information on his ex-employer. He was doing so on behalf of the Atlanta Braves, who now sign his paychecks.

Johnson’s replacement with the Mets? Technically, there is none.

Rather than have a dedicated scout watching upcoming Mets opponents on the road and collecting intelligence, the Mets have gone the high-tech route. Instead, baseball operations manager Adam Fisher dissects video and does computer analysis straight from a laptop without traveling to see the Mets’ upcoming opponents in person.

About half the teams in Major League Baseball have gone that route, eliminating the position of advance scout.

The advantages include less wasted time, since there’s no travel required, and obviously saved expenses.

The primary disadvantage: Just like with the CIA, there has to be some value in actual human intelligence in enemy territory.

“This year we decided to go the route of scouting off video,” assistant GM John Ricco said. “The main difference is you don’t have somebody live. There are advantages and disadvantages. We’re not the first club to go this way. This is something that a number of teams are doing around the league, and a couple of our guys had experience with it. Paul [DePodesta] did it, with Cleveland originally. It’s fairly common, probably about 50-50 [versus having an advance scout].”

Johnson bolted during the offseason, when incumbent scouts with the Mets were unsure about their futures as things transitioned to Sandy Alderson’s regime.

Would the Mets have gone this route anyway? Knowing their statistical orientation, you would imagine so, but Ricco noted: “Bob going there really gave us the opportunity to really look at it and say, ‘What do we want to do?’”

Studying hitters clearly can be done by video and stats, but things can be missed.

“They will miss little nagging injuries,” one advance scout told ESPNNewYork.com. “Guy’s got a bad wrist, you can pound it in on him.” The person added that he even knows players’ marital issues that can affect performance. And, he suggested, the statistical and video analysis might underweight the opposing pitcher’s most recent performance, whereas he would have seen it in person.

You also cannot always discern defensive positioning unless you’re actually at the upcoming opponents’ games.

“Some of the things you can’t get are the things that are off-camera, obviously,” Ricco acknowledged. “That can be that maybe a guy comes out on deck and then he gets pulled back, to managerial tendencies that he might not see. So anything that’s off-camera is something you can’t get.”

Still, these days, so much is available statistically in terms of an opposing managers’ and batters’ tendencies, clearly teams feel the cost savings counteract any advantages of boots on the ground. And teams still have professional scouts assigned to watch organizations that can supplement the video and statistical data even minus a formal advance scout.

Fisher technically never has to leave his desk at Citi Field to prepare reports, although he was in Philly for last week’s series at Citizens Bank Park. He supplemented his report with face-to-face time with Mets coaches in a room off the visitors’ clubhouse.

Johnson would file a report, then be available to the manager via phone, because he was always one or two cities ahead of the Mets.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to each way,” Ricco said. “The advantages are the advance scout is not spending time at airports. And clearly there’s a cost savings there too. [Fisher] can sit in a single environment, transmitting all the reports. It makes things a lot easier communicating with the staff. We’ll decide on a series-by-series basis where it’s best to have him, but he came in and prepped the team [in Philly]. One of the advantages to this, too, is you can, if you want to, have the guy with the club and be face-to-face, whereas Bob always had to be at that next place. Fish can go catch up with the video wherever.

“One reason teams have been able to do this is because the video is now so good that you can get everything you need without a problem.”

Still, the advance scout isn’t sold on the technological approach.

“It depends if you want to win or not,” he said about having an advance scout. “Clubs that have it tend to win.”

FRIENDLY ENEMIES: Ike Davis had a question last week in Philly when he could not find a familiar face: What happened to Davey Lopes?

Lopes had been the Phillies’ first base coach in 2010. And given Davis and Lopes were side-by-side for nine innings for 18 games last year when the Mets were in the field, the two inevitably had their share of conversations.

“Every game before the game you shake their hands and say, ‘Good luck,’” Davis said about first-base coaches. “When you play against the Phillies or Washington -- everyone in the division you play so many times -- you end up kind of knowing the guy. Eventually you’ll have conversations with them. I ran out there expecting to see him, and he wasn’t there. You start talking to the guy, and usually everyone’s a pretty good guy. It’s fun to see the same faces all the time.”

Davis, it turns out, will have to wait until May 6 to reunite with Lopes. He’s now the first base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they visit Citi Field that weekend.

“It’s all about the game, unless it’s like, ‘Hey, tell your dad I said hi,’” Davis said about the dialogue, while alluding to his father, ex-Yankees pitcher Ron Davis. “Other than that it’s, ‘Hey good swing. Nice play.’ Or something like that.

“That’s another cool thing -- some say, ‘Hey, tell your dad I said hi.’ And maybe they’ll tell me a funny story about my dad or something like that.”

In-depth appears Tuesdays during the regular season