Situational Essay: Zen and the Art of Scouting by Aaron Shinsano

Aaron Shinsano is a baseball scout based out of Korea, as well as the co-founder of the influential Asian baseball blog East Windup Chronicle.

Before I started scouting I was a writer. So even as I started to scout I knew I’d be writing about it in some capacity. Eventually.

Call it one of those silly whims writers take further than the average person, since, they’re writers and all, but before I really started to learn how to scout I got the idea that it’d be cool to write a book called “Zen and the Art of Baseball Scouting.”

I did realize that before I wrote the book I’d have to live it first. My idea was exactly what you’d presume – to take the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and view baseball scouting through the lens of the its central metaphor, which, to put it crudely is something like: “life’s a journey, so don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Thing is, in addition to never having scouted baseball, I’d never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Oh, I’d tried to read it. A number of people had recommended it to me. In college, I used to housesit for a family that had it on the bookshelf. Another time, a woman in a yoga class I was taking told me I ought to read it when she heard I liked to write. Finally, I received my own used copy as a gift from a woman I was dating just before I moved to Korea.

She was training to be a pilot, and we used to fly all over Northern California in her 1950-something Cessna together. I hedged on reading the book for a few weeks. That I ought to have read it started to weigh on both of us, so I brought it on a trip we took from Livermore, California, to Grass Valley.

Riding in that plane always freaked me out, and I can remember clutching the book on the flight like one might clutch a bible in the same situation. The flight was at night, which added a layer of sheer terror. It could have been any old book, but once we finally landed safely and I uncurled my sweaty fingers from the spine, the book had accumulated even more importance than before.

It’s a pink paperback edition with old yellowed pages and it’s on the shelf to my left as I type this. It looks like the kind of book printed during the 70s or 80s, when one would have found it in one of the Top 10 best seller slots, sandwiched between two romance novels with dye cut holes outlining roses, at a grocery store. The print was tiny and almost unreadable.

I wasn’t head over heels about the woman, which is probably why we both started wondering why I hadn’t started the book. I applied to and had been accepted to a grad school in Korea and we broke up right after that. At that point I started reading the book, projecting a transformative experience upon it as I relocated across the ocean.

I won’t portend to know a lot about Zen, but I know a few things. Zen means a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, Zen is free verse living. Improvised living. Doing without thinking. To me, Zen is having a bemused look on your face. You’re judging, but you’re completely open to the idea that you’re wrong, because you know that’s just how life is. You’re ready to attack, but you won’t, because you’re going to be too busy laughing.

image by Infinite Jeff (click through)

There’s plenty of Zen to be had in baseball. A good pitch mix is Zen, especially when you throw exactly what the batter isn’t expecting. The ability to vary a slider, like Marmol’s when it was going really good during 2008-2009, is Zen. I might argue Japanese pitchers have a good idea about Zen, which makes sense since it was born in that culture. Think of someone like Yu Darvish, who seems to throw 50 different pitches 50 different ways, few that actually appear to be much like the last. That’s Zen pitching.

There’s Zen in the field as well. Like when a shortstop checks a runner back to third and guns the ball to first. A run down has a lot of Zen. I’d be willing to bet Joe Maddon has read or studied some Zen in his life. In hitting, batters need to constantly make adjustments. Certainly, this requires Zen.

So it stood to reason that there’d be plenty of Zen in baseball scouting as well. After all, it 1. involves baseball, which I’ve already defined as Zen. And 2. was confusing to me, as I knew very little about it. My approach to learning about baseball scouting would have to be Zen, because I knew I was in for a great deal of frustration, at least initially.

There wasn’t one way for me to acquire the ability to scout baseball. I felt I knew baseball, especially the statistical side of the game. I’d never played baseball professionally, which meant I’d stopped being around the game on a day-to-day basis in my early 20s.

I knew that the ability to scout baseball was going to be something I would have to absorb over a long period of time. Today, I’m thankful I realized this then. I even thought of something I’d read in a sushi cookbook, years before I’d even imagined moving to Asia. I kept it in the back of my mind, almost like a mantra, about how in Japan master sushi chefs usually spend their first seven years exclusively learning how to make rice correctly.

That was all fine and good and a nice attitude to start, but when I started to sit down and watch baseball with a team sheet in front of me, I quickly understood that in scouting I had entered the realm of a very different game. To take what’s happening on the field, and somehow fill 15-20 boxes is an arduous task at best. Mind-melting at worst.

Hence the need for Zen acceptance–and the possibility of a Zen book about scouting! At that time, team sheeting a game seemed like it was nothing less than conducting a symphony. Take for instance the concept of grading a player’s run tool, which, in difference to grading a player’s hit tool or range, is less subjective. Every scout has a stopwatch. You start it when a player hits the ball and stop it when he touches the base. Simple enough. There are adjustments. Some runners are faster first to third. In Asia a lot of runners cheat out of the box, especially those hitting from the left side. But for the most part, run times, like fastball velocity, is as simple as reading a digital number and writing it down.

Now, to record run times for all 18 position players plus a handful for pinch hitters and/or runners, is an achievable task and, in the early going, felt like a fairly full day of scouting. It takes some doing, and not every player hits the ball and runs to first during a game, but you can make some headway. And, as I learned later, you can watch a player doing other things involving running and estimate how fast they are, even if they don’t offer a perfect “hit-to-base” run time.

But again, I’m talking about one box out of about 40.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance always left me cold, both then and now. Or, I should say, then and recently, because I won’t try to read the book again. Three strikes and you’re out.

I like the idea of it as a period piece. A guy riding a motorcycle through the Midwest during the 1960s. They break down, go camping, he teaches his son about fixing motorcycles, they laugh, they cry.

The thing I can’t get past is the heavy-handedness in the book. Zen is a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing I don’t think it should ever be is elitist. Zen doesn’t spend a lot of time looking out, and if it does, it isn’t judging. So far as I read, the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spends an awful lot of time judging the people around him, labeling them as “not awake,” while he runs around in this calm, “aware” existence. Bullshit. That’s about the worst thing you can say about a person…that they aren’t alive or that their life is on autopilot. People do this all the time of course, usually while the other person is thinking the same thing about them.

I should probably give the book the benefit of the doubt, or suspend my own disbelief, like I might if I was watching an action movie. The book was written during a time when Zen was a new frontier in the west, still only recently brought to the states when people were merely looking to extrapolate themselves from what they felt was a prevailing culture they did not see eye to eye with. And, it should be noted, taking a lot of drugs. But anyone who knows anything about Zen or “enlightenment” realizes it’s a constant journey, not an endgame scenario or a mountain you climb up so you can look down at all the people trying to get where you are.

Likewise, I think scouting is also a constant journey. A lot of scouts, and even some organizations, would seem to have you believe it’s not. For my money, the best scouts are the ones that admit they’re still learning, even at age 70. The ones that just thrive on ego, well, they probably think they’ve got it all figured out, just like the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But life, like scouting and baseball itself, is an inexact science. And I don’t think there’s any point when you can say you’re done learning.

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