Love them or hate them, the New York Yankees are one of the most iconic teams in major league baseball. But some of the most important jobs within the franchise are done somewhat under the radar. Take Billy Eppler, assistant general manager of player personnel. He manages the team’s talent scouts.
Eppler worked his way up the organization, starting with the Yankees as a talent scout himself back in 2006. It’s an experience that he deems crucial to his leadership abilities now, since, amid all the fanfare, scouting is a pretty thankless job. He talks to Fortune about the one thing that hasn’t changed since the good old days of scouting and why texting with minor league hitting coaches is often the best part of his job.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Fortune: There’s this image of baseball scouts as lone guys driving around rural America, wearing fedoras. But what is modern scouting like?
Billy Eppler: There isn’t that one guy who you could make the Hollywood movie out of. Nowadays, there’s so much information, it’s more about managing that information. It’s really never one person making the call; it’s always a mixture of opinions.
We look at it similar to different methods of evaluating equity in a company. The quantitative analysis in baseball might be more in line with the technical analysis that’s used on Wall Street. It focuses on the actual performance of the player. But you also need to know how to use some of the more subjective aspects like body, speed, strength, and age. Both areas are extremely valuable for developing the overall picture.
Is there any part of scouting that hasn’t changed?
The human element. You cannot predict how a player will perform when he’s put in New York — the amount of attention that’s given to professional sports is pretty extensive. Some fly through it, it pushes them. Others don’t like being in the spotlight all the time, but you really never know that until they’re here. That’s the difficult part, and it hasn’t changed.
Are there key character traits you want in players?
Ultimately, without getting too deep into proprietary information, we’re looking at some players that have a high degree of competitiveness, even away from the field. They want to win at all costs, even if they’re playing a card game with their son or daughter.
I imagine you get attached to some of these guys. Do you have to keep your own emotions in check?
You’re touching on something that, for me, kind of balances that gut versus brain decision-making, and there’s no right or wrong way. You learn how to manage that through awareness of those emotions.
I’m on the non-playing side for a reason; I couldn’t play. When it really comes down to it, the reason many of us work in the game is because we couldn’t play that well and we love being around it. So when you become aware that you really like a player, you have to say, “Why? Does he play like I used to play? Does he try really hard?”
You learn through practice. You have to acknowledge that even some of the more stable and trusted players are completely out of your control. They’re human beings.
What’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about managing talent in baseball?
As soon as the season starts, somebody will play really well and somebody will start the season underperforming. [General Manager] Brian Cashman has taught me so much about not reacting too soon. I’ve learned that time and patience are extremely powerful weapons when used right.
Our season is so long — it’s a six-month season, but you have to look at it in two-month increments. There are three mini marathons to make this one large marathon.
Somebody will rush to say, “Oh, this guy’s had it,” or “Oh, he’s going to be MVP,” but the fact is that you are dealing with the human element and there is this general ebb and flow. I look to Brian and I almost marvel at how he balances when it’s the right time to make a change and when it’s the right time to let a player sort himself out.
What have you learned about managing other scouts?
When one of our scouts recommends a player or a trade and that player starts performing, it’s fun to text with that particular scout. Those guys are so enthused for that moment in time. I like reaching out to them to say, ”Hey, the three plane trips you took, or the hours you spent in the car on four hours of sleep, it was all worth it.”
Or say we’ll have a player who got sent to the minors and a hitting coach got with him and helped him set up his stance. That hitting coach could be involved in a game with his AAA team that night. I’ll text him and say, “Hey, So-and-so’s back in the big leagues right now, and he just hit a double to left field.” Those guys thrive in those moments. They’ve put the blood sweat and tears into our player. It’s so fun to be able to relay that type of feedback.