Kubota keeps an eye out


Eric Kubota, photo courtesy of the Oakland A’s

For professional sports teams, being prepared for the future can often be as important as being ready for the present. Without a constantly renewing cycle of young players, it can be very difficult for a professional sports team to stay at the top. Also, with amateur drafts gathering more attention every year, the role of a team’s scouts have continued to grow over time.

For the Oakland A’s in particular, talented youth and undervalued bargains are central to the team’s success, making the scouting department especially crucial. This means that as the team’s director of scouting, Eric Kubota has one of the most important behind-the-scenes jobs at the club.

Having worked for the A’s for more than 20 years and having been promoted to the head of the scouting department almost 10 years ago, one might expect that Kubota has his job completely figured out. The truth, according to Kubota, is the opposite.

“I’ve noticed that the more time I spend doing this, the more I realize I need to learn,” he said in a recent interview. “You could say that it’s a situation where the more you know, the less you know. There’s always more than one right way to do it.”

With much attention placed on the A’s in 2003 after the release of Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball,” it seemed the entire nation was awakened to a new system of baseball stats and player evaluation. While most people placed emphasis on traditional stats like batting average and RBIs, the A’s were busy calculating unheard-of numbers like OPS (on-base plus slugging, the sum of a player’s on-base and slugging percentages), which is now crucial in player evaluation. According to Kubota, the A’s used different measures to evaluate talent because of a more open-minded approach to scouting.

“We’re just trying to bring in the best talent while also being open to different ways of improving and evaluating these kids,” he said. “We are always looking for better ways to do our job and we all know that there is not one right way to do it.”

What Kubota can say for sure is that a baseball player’s potential can generally be measured in two parts. “Physical ability and athletic talent are the most important characteristics and those are fairly easy to determine,” he said. “But it can still be hard to predict — will they be able to hit? Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports so it takes more than just talent.”

According to Kubota, understanding a player’s mentality or make-up is more difficult, but it can be just as important. For example, in 2004, Matt Bush was made the first overall pick of the Major League draft by the San Diego Padres, but many teams were left incredulous about the pick, as the Padres passed on several players widely thought to possess greater talents than the young shortstop.

These suspicions were eventually proven right as Bush was arrested for his part in a fight outside of a night club before he could even step on the field to play in the rookie league. Once his suspension was over, Bush’s performances on the field were equally disastrous and he was eventually traded by the Padres before he could make one Major League appearance for the club. With stories like this in mind, it is Kubota’s job to balance a prospect’s many characteristics and determine whether or not they have what it takes to be a successful player.

With so many players plying their trade in the minor leagues for their entire careers, it is truly the cream of the crop who make it to the Major Leagues and stay there. With scouting and drafting being such inexact sciences, Kubota said that it is important not to dwell on the good players he missed and the subpar players he took. Instead, he revels in pride when he sees the kids he picked succeed at the highest level.

“My proudest day as a scout was when Shane Komine pitched to Kurt Suzuki,” he said. “It was the first Japanese American battery in Major League history. For me, that was really special.”

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