Dana Levangie: Every Game is a Road Game

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

This article was published in the Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and Their Profession


Scouts Book Cover FrontWhen Jason Varitek sets up low and outside, when Alex Gonzalez moves a little more to his left, when Curt Schilling fires a fastball right down the middle to A-Rod for a called third strike, it’s not pure guesswork and not just baseball instinct. There’s always an element of guesswork and always an element of instinct, but increasingly major-league ballplayers rely on detailed advance-scouting work and tailor their movements to advance scouting-reports and the accumulated and detailed video available to coaches, hitters, and pitchers.

One of the loneliest jobs in baseball has to be that of the advance scout. Dana Levangie and Scott Bradley are the two advance scouts for the Red Sox, with former Boston bullpen catcher Levangie (1997-2004) getting the bulk of the work. Levangie, a six-year minor-league catcher before joining the big-league club for bullpen duty, typically travels four to eight days ahead of the team, scouting a team the Sox will face a couple of series later. Thus, when the Red Sox host the White Sox the first week of September, Levangie will have been in Chicago for the final days of August watching how the reigning World Champions play the visiting Rays. The White Sox are in Kansas City for the three days before they come to Boston, but the pitchers the Red Sox will face at Fenway are the ones that will be on the mound against Tampa Bay.

And Levangie never sees his own team play. Every game is a road game, and he never gets to enjoy the companionship of his colleagues. The other scouts he meets on the road are not the same from city to city, as each follows his own schedule. It truly is one of the loneliest jobs – but one of the most crucial jobs as well. Levangie is part of the “team behind the team” that gathers information to help the Red Sox succeed.

During postgame remarks on more than one occasion during the first half of the 2006 season, Curt Schilling credited the work of the advance scouts in helping formulate the game plan that enabled him to succeed. Of course, Jason Varitek has to call the game and Schilling has to execute, but the game plan is one developed through the combined efforts of a number of people and Schilling was quick with praise on the days when things went well.

Advance video

Over the last few years, the Red Sox have accumulated video of opposing players – pitchers and hitters – that they might have occasion to face. Their system allows each batter to study video of the starting pitcher and likely relievers from the opposition, and to do so in considerable situational detail. Billy Broadbent has been Boston’s major-league video coordinator since 1997. He travels with the team and is available home and away to players and coaches, effectively the liaison between advance-scouting coordinator Kyle Evans and the Red Sox coaching staff. He travels with a server and four laptops, no longer the now-primitive VCR and single monitor of even just a half-dozen years ago.

Since the newer system was first implemented in 2002, any coach or player can draw on an extensive database showing real-time game footage. For instance, suppose you were a left-handed batter expecting to face Mike Mussina in Yankee Stadium in mid-September. You could call up video of every at-bat you had previously had facing Mussina to see how he’d worked you in the past. You could call up recent video from his last five starts to see how he attacked other left-handed batters. Did he often start off throwing strikes? Was there a pattern he might follow as he got deeper into the count? If you even wanted to know the pitch he had most often thrown in 2-0 counts, you could isolate those at-bats. It’s a very sophisticated system allowing any number of ways to “slice and dice” the available video data.

Advance-scouting coordinator Kyle Evans

Kyle Evans was in his first year as advance-scouting coordinator for the Red Sox. A former pitcher with six years of experience in the Indians system behind him, Evans got as far as Triple A with Cleveland but became a key component of the Red Sox major-league effort. “This is my first job on this side of the game,” he said, and he was pleased to be part of such a successful organization. “I know there are things that we’re doing here that are definitely ahead of the game. We’re obviously very guarded about our trade secrets, but it’s definitely an organization that prides itself as being a step ahead in terms of the information we have access to and can provide to the players and staff.”

Evans is in constant contact with Levangie and Scott Bradley, the advance scouts, but there is by no means a constrained channel of communication. “Dana spends a lot of time on the road watching games and trying to take in as much information as he possibly can, to get something of value to the coaching staff and to the players. He spends a lot of time talking to me, but he talks on a regular directly with Jason Varitek and with [bench coach] Brad Mills, trying to relay what he›s seen. He also talks to Al Nipper quite a bit, on the pitching side.”

Levangie will talk to quite a few people. “I talk to Brad Mills, to Nipper. I talk to Papa Jack [Ron Jackson, hitting coach], when I feel things are needed. He has a lot of history as far as the guys he’s seen. If there’s a new guy on board, I’ll mention it.” With Varitek, though, there’s a special catcher-to-catcher connection. “We’ll talk about every hitter. We’ll go over every hitter. He’ll have his own image of how he’s going to approach them, but I’ll try to sell him on what I’ve seen at that point.” Levangie’s conversations often continue after the game, too. “I talk to Billy on a daily basis, so he can tell me what happened, what stood out, how we did as a team, who’s doing what. I talk to Tito [manager Terry Francona] occasionally. Tito has a lot to do before each series. He respects his coaches a lot and he asks a lot from them, so I try to go through Brad [Mills].”

Jason Varitek

Having worked together for years while Levangie was the bullpen catcher for Boston, Varitek has a strong rapport with the scout. “Having been with Dana and having developed a great deal of trust in him and his knowledge of the game … he observes the game so much there’s probably nobody in the advance-scouting world that I would trust as much as him.” Varitek explains that his game preparation takes 2½ to 3 hours prior to each series, beginning with his own player-by-player outline of the upcoming opposition. “I’ll make my notes, then I’ll hear from Dana. I like to have mine done first so we have a comparison of what they’ve seen and what I think. We add in Billy [Broadbent] with the video and the pitching coach’s work and the bullpen coach’s work, and you have a big compiled pool of information.”

Then he sits down and formulates the game plan with the starting pitcher. Sometimes there isn’t a great deal of time to prepare. The Red Sox were in Atlanta for a Sunday night game, then flew home afterward with the Washington Nationals due in the next evening. “I had to do it the night before. I knew we were going to have a short day. I had to do it all on the plane.” Once a series gets under way, preparation for subsequent games in the series can be a 10-or 15-minute review. Of course, game plans are one thing and execution another. The scouting might be dead-on, but it all comes down to pitchers’ strengths: “Who’s on the mound? You can’t always pitch guys certain ways if the guy on the mound doesn’t have that capability. You have to take that information and interpolate and extrapolate it, and come up with a plan.” On a given day, a pitcher might have difficulty, say, locating. “Then you have to mix and match even more, and try and think out of the box a little bit.” One thing Varitek knows: “Everybody’s always put in their work.” That said, though, “They can do their work, and it still comes down to our execution, using that information properly and making on-field and game-time adjustments.”

Information flow

It is by no means just Varitek who receives the information. Kyle Evans, the advance-scouting coordinator, further explains the information flow: “The way it sets up is that Dana sends in reports that come to me. I try to filter the information along with what I can pick up watching a lot of video and having access to some different numbers and things that we have here in the office, to try and compile an accurate picture of the opposing team and specifically the players on the opposing team. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like Jason Varitek, who takes so much pride in the way he calls the game and how well he knows the opposing hitters. And so we definitely make sure there’s a lot of information there in terms of having an accurate picture of the other hitters strengths and weaknesses.”

The reports typically are prepared by the advance scouts in text form, using templates developed by the Red Sox over time, Evans says, using forms “that the players and coaches are comfortable with. Everything goes into those formats. Dana and Scott both feed information into those templates and then I follow through and update it and try to make things a little more complete. I put in a little more statistical information for them as well. At any point in time, we can print out very up-to-date spray charts and the like. Anybody would have access to certain things, but we definitely … it’s one of the places that the Red Sox try to get an edge, having access to things that the average person couldn’t come across.”

Evans tailors the reports to each recipient, developing different information specific to, for instance, the tasks of the individual coaches. “Each of the coaches gets a scouting report in one form or another. [So do] certain players who definitely take a more active role in terms of scouting the other teams. In Jason Varitek and Curt Schilling, I would say we have two of the most prepared players in the major leagues. In my opinion, Curt Schilling is one of the best pitchers in the major leagues at actually executing a scouting report. It makes my job a lot of fun to be able to game-plan for a guy like Curt.”

There are players, of course, who rely more on instinct than on preparation. Billy Broadbent recalled that Nomar Garciaparra “very rarely looked” at video, yet as a two-time batting champion was clearly successful despite drawing on the available information much more sparingly. Evans agrees that there are players that “you wouldn’t recommend trying to go outside of their strengths. That’s one of the biggest things that you have to take into consideration, someone’s ability to execute a scouting plan. That’s why I say it’s a real pleasure to get a chance to do this for someone like Curt. But we take into account everybody we have on the staff. That’s one of the places where there’s so much value in having Tek take an interest in it, because he does have a really good rapport with the pitching staff. Those guys trust him to call a game, and I think it’s a big deal to make sure that he’s prepared in a way that he continues to earn their trust. There aren’t a ton of players running around with a ‘C’ on their jersey. He’s a special player.”

Alex Gonzalez and Mark Loretta

Advance-scouting work benefits fielders and hitters as well as pitchers. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez explains that they will watch video of the pitchers they’ll be facing. “We have a video room and watch the video in our hitting group. Who’s pitching today, say Randy Johnson or anybody, you look at how they pitch, the last time he pitched to you – how he worked to you, watch this guy, how to see the curve. But they pitch different here [at Fenway]. You’ve got to make adjustments.” He listens to the defensive coaches, too. For the Red Sox, it’s third-base coach DeMarlo Hale who positions the infielders while first-base coach Bill Hasselman positions the outfield. So, Gonzalez says, Hale might tell him, “This guy, everything he throws through here, he’ll just try to … he’ll like to hit up the middle. We just move a little here [to the left]. Some guys you leave straight, a slight pull.”

If there’s a shift on, for a Teixeira or Giambi, Gonzalez has to be prepared to play second base instead of shortstop. “They tell me before the game, this guy likes to pull-hit it early in the count. With two strikes, he’ll have to hit a ball in the middle. You have to know the hitter, how they like to hit. What I do is watch his hands.”

Like Varitek, most of Gonzalez’s video work is done prior to a series, not on a daily basis.

Infielder Mark Loretta has been in major-league ball for eleven years and seen the use of computer data evolve. “It’s come a long way,” he says. “Especially the video stuff. It’s beome a pretty big part of the game.º I tend to lean more toward video scouting than I do the opinion of someone else. I like the radar-gun reading, et cetera, but in terms of what a guy likes to do in a certain situation, I’d rather look at the video and kind of determine that for myself.” Loretta is referring to the opposing pitchers. For defense, he tends to rely more on the preview meeting with Hale, going over the opposing batters. All in all, Loretta says, “The Red Sox are as advanced as any team I’ve seen.” He believes that the Red Sox pitchers “probably rely on it even more than the hitters do.”

Billy Broadbent knows that information is something you don’t toss out. “You don’t ever throw anything out. A perfect example is Chris Hammond. He retired for a couple of years after the ’98 season. You’d think you could throw away his video, but no, he ended up coming back.” Hammond played for the Yankees in 2003 and for Oakland in 2004.

Mike Timlin

Veteran relief ace Mike Timlin talks about how the bullpen uses the advance scouting reports. “We go over them as a group, the relievers. The catchers are in there, too. We sit down and put a game plan together, hash out some stuff. You bring your strengths, bring your weaknesses into the meeting. Nip (Nipper) starts rolling over the hitters, and we all chime in, because we’ve all faced different hitters at different times. There are things that we need [in the reports]: hot and cold zones. Where you had previous experience, most of it’s knowledge that you already have in your head. I used to write the stuff down, what I did facing each hitter, but it got to the point it was kind of tedious. Now it’s more of a memory thing. Most of the time I can remember the hitters that I faced, and how I got them out. Billy [Broadbent] sees it from a different perspective-he is like an advance scout that sits with us, or a pitching coach that sits here and watches all our films, as they As it takes place. I went up to him as I got finished yesterday and asked him what it looked like. He gave me what he saw.”

Levangie’s reports mean a great deal to Timlin. “Dana has a great eye for baseball. Catching in the bullpen, he could tell you something you were doing wrong while you were doing it. He had that kind of eye. He’s a very learned baseball man. Awesome.”

Bill Monbouquette

Of course, pitchers from earlier times never had the option to slip in a DVD and watch video. They still took advantage of the tools available to them. Bill Monbouquette pitched for the Red Sox from 1958 through 1965. “Each pitcher who was pitching in the series got the chance to go over the scouting report – what kind of success did you have? How do you pitch him? Where would you want to play him, in certain towns?” After time spent with a few other clubs, he ended up doing some scouting for the Yankees. Scouting reports in those days were handwritten reports. “You’d have to get that report in the next night.”

Monbouquette felt at times there can be a danger in providing too much information. “I really believe there is way too much over-analyzing and thinking about the game today. You listen to guys talk and you go, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’They make the game harder than it is.” Nevertheless, the better players would always try to get an edge any way they could. “Ted Williams, he would watch a guy. The first inning would be over and he’d come flying in. He’d get right up over there [the home plate side of the dugout]; he’d want to get a look at this guy. He’d ask, ‘Can you pick the ball up?’ That’s all that mattered to him.”

These days, players will sometimes take advantage of modern technology during the course of the game. Broadbent explains: “If those hitters see somebody warming up in the bullpen, they’ll go down and take a look on the computer to see what they can see versus right-handed or versus left-handed. There’s a room downstairs where they can take a look. Most of them know how to do everything, but I can control it remotely if they get stuck.”

Curt Schilling

Viewers watching the game on television will often see Curt Schilling poring over his notes during the course of a game. Schilling represents the most diligent player in terms of preparation. “The day I pitch, from the minute I wake up and get out of bed in the morning and have breakfast to when I throw the first pitch, every minute between those two moments, I’m in the on-deck circle. Every moment that I can, I’m thinking about a hitter or a situation, or a count, or a pitch. It’s not that I’m trying to get on a game face and be a tough guy. It’s just that I have a horrible fear of coming out of a game with a loss because I wasn’t prepared for something. I’ve done it before when I was young and I vowed I would never do it again. If I’m going to take the ‘L’ and we’re going to lose a game I pitched, it’s going to be because I made mistakes. That happens, and you have to live with that, but I can’t go to sleep at night if I thought I lost the game because I wasn’t prepared.

“My goal is to never be caught off-guard on the mound. To always be prepared for any situation, any count, any hitter – as far as keeping notes on umpires, knowing what guys call on what corners. So in the eighth inning of a game with a runner on third, if I’ve got an umpire with a wider outer half to the strike zone, I’m going to try and throw the ball off the plate.”

What about going over his notes while his team is up at bat? “The stuff that I’m doing between innings is more with the game charts. When I’m on the bench, I’ll have all of my previous starts against that team, the game charts there, just to see sequences. Because there are hitters who I know that study. And who guess. And I’ve had situations where I know that he’s guessing one way and I’ll throw a fastball down the middle and the guy will … In New York, I threw a fastball right down the middle to A-Rod in the first inning for strike three and he took it. I knew he was guessing something else. And that’s an out. Any time you can buy an out that way, the game’s too hard not to take it.”

Schilling takes an active role in defensive placement as well, creating his own spray charts and not relying on those from Major League Baseball. All his notes are handwritten, and he’s been keeping them for years, carrying forward the previous year’s notes during spring training. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that teams have an approach, much more so than individual hitters. In my preview meeting, I go over with the defensive coach where my outfielders are going to be with each guy, where my infielders are going to be, if this situation shows up, I want to do this and this and this. You rely on your advance scouts for a lot of that.

“I’m going to throw a pitch. I know where the ball’s going to be when things are right; I know what his reaction’s going to be. I don’t want to give up a hit on a ball that I know was going to get hit before I throw the pitch. That doesn’t make any sense. So I’ll position the infielders, I’ll move my defenders – and if a guy hits a ball to a spot where I’ve moved a defender away from – that’s happened – that’s my fault. That doesn’t bother me. I get mad, but I get nobody to blame. You can’t defend a bad pitch, so I defend the pitch I know I’m going to make, and if I don’t make it, that’s my fault.”

Varitek has the same feeling about proper preparation. He agrees that sometimes a good battery could probably pull it off without rigorous planning. “You probably can, but I think there’s situations where you might not have your best stuff, you might not be locating as well that day, somebody’s breaking ball isn’t working as well as it normally does. … It becomes my safety net. I think it’s a big part of our continued success.”

The information supplied by the Red Sox scouting department is crucial to Curt’s approach. “I’ve had some great advance scouts in the past. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they knew I was relying on them. It’s a thankless job. I know I couldn’t be as good as I am – or want to be – without them. These guys – this group – are probably the best, the most detailed, the most thorough I’ve ever been around.”

It’s no accident that the Red Sox have made the postseason three years running, and part of the reason has been the advance scouting. Dave Jauss earned plaudits for his work in prior years, and earned him a world championship ring, and the team continues to invest heavily in data collection, analysis, and distribution. There are the professional scouts evaluating draft prospects and players on other teams being considered for possible trade acquisitions. As the postseason approaches, some of the professional scouts will be assigned advance-scouting duties, supplementing the work done by Bradley and Levangie to size up the opposition and better prepare the Red Sox players for the challenges ahead.

 

This piece on advance scouting was adapted from an article written for Red Sox Magazine in August 2006.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved