The Scout

Dan Cox knows major league talent when he sees it
Story by DW Gibson. Photos by PF Bentley.

Dan Cox is watching the line of tall Cook pines just past the outfield fence at the Mililani High School baseball field. Under a gray, blustery sky the trees tilt toward right field. “Wind’s blowing right,” Cox notes. “Some players will realize that and make adjustments. And some won’t.”

The sky flicks down a little rain; Cox squints past it, scanning the field: “I’m always keeping an eye on all the position players. You have to see who’s active, who’s alert. You’re watching for reads, you’re watching for jumps, you’re watching for athleticism, instincts and feel.”

Cox first started looking for that perfect jump on the ball nineteen years ago, when he broke into big-league scouting. Since 2015 he has been the eyes of the Atlanta Braves in the Aloha State, looking for the next best amateur prospect—the next Shane Victorino, the next Kurt Suzuki. Cox has been a part of baseball in Hawai‘i for most of his forty-six years. As a kid growing up in Waimalu, his favorite spot to play was Kaonohi Park. When the grass field was occupied, he and his friends played baseball on the basketball court. One way or another, the game was always in his life. And while his own playing career might have been short-lived (“Mostly I played left bench,” he jokes), few people recognize baseball ability as well as Cox, and perhaps no one understands baseball in Hawai‘i better than he does.

Major League Baseball scout Dan Cox connects with Farrington High School Governors pitcher Clyde Enos. Now scouting for the Atlanta Braves, Cox has spent his career seeking out new talent for teams including the Blue Jays, Angels and Twins.

As the Mililani players get the third out and come off the field, nearly each one lifts the brim of his hat for a quick peek at Cox. They know he is watching. And Cox knows it’s his job not just to see skills but also to understand where each player comes from. “Talent and ability and IQ, those are big things,” he says, “but it’s also the upbringing, the foundation, the home visits and getting to know them.”

After graduating from Aiea High School and studying business, Cox sold his car and moved to Southern California when he was 21. He landed his first job in baseball selling tickets for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he was living in Laguna Niguel, about sixty miles south of the stadium. “I was working for six bucks an hour,” he says, “driving two and a half hours each way. I started at the very bottom, just trying to get my foot in the door.” 

He took a second job working games at Angels Stadium, enticing fans to apply for a credit card in exchange for a free t-shirt. “I was the loud guy up front,” he laughs. “I got a dollar an application, and it was another way of getting my foot in the door.” He stuck with the Angels and worked his way into the front office as an assistant to general manager Bill Bavasi, making $10 an hour doing whatever Bavasi asked: filing, errands, coffee. “I was finally in baseball ops [operations],” he says, “and that’s what I always wanted to do.”

There were thrilling moments in those early days. Bavasi once asked Cox to pick up Francisco Rodriguez, who had just arrived from Venezuela. Only 16 at the time, Rodriguez hadn’t yet earned the nickname K-Rod by dominating the World Series with late-inning strikeouts. Cox drove the young pitcher from one doctor appointment to another for the better part of a week. He guided him through his first wide-eyed, disorienting days in the United States, and Cox still remembers when the frightened teenager asked him to stay close just before the MRI machine entombed him. Rodriguez spoke little English and Cox spoke little Spanish, but the two pieced things together. Years later K-Rod told Cox that he was “my first friend in America. I will never forget.”

Cox started running radar guns and keeping statistics for coaches Joe Maddon and Bud Black. It was the late 1990s, before Moneyball and the algorithm-driven brand of baseball, when spray charts were still recorded by hand and kept in binders. As he maintained these records for the Angels, Cox learned the game at a microscopic level. When Major League Baseball decided to bring its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (R.B.I.) program to Hawai‘i, Cox was put in charge of the effort. Who better to find the kids who lacked the support and resources to learn the game than a kid from Waimalu who was determined enough to play on a basketball court? He got R.B.I. going in Hawai‘i while keeping up with his responsibilities to the Angels. “It was long hours, from 9 in the morning until after games,” he said, “which was usually 11 o’clock at night.”

The R.B.I. leadership was so impressed with Cox, they decided to give him the required sponsorship for an elite MLB scouting development program. He spent two weeks with about forty others studying how to evaluate skills on the baseball diamond. “I learned what a first-round draft pick looks like,” he says. “And what a tenth-rounder looks like.”

The Minnesota Twins were the first to hire him to scout. It was during his four years with that organization that he drafted Kolten Wong, once a two-sport standout at Kamehameha Hawai‘i High School in Kea‘au, now the starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. After the Twins, Cox went to the Braves for a year, then to the Blue Jays and the Angels before returning to the Braves. Baseball scouts tend to move around with the general manager and scouting directors who hire them. “Everybody always wants to use their guys,” Cox says. “When you’re working in baseball, nothing is forever. You’re fortunate enough to be working in it at all.” 

Recognizing talent is only part of what makes recruiters successful; they also have to get to know the players and understand their needs. Growing up in Waimalu, Cox is familiar with the kinds of issues Hawai‘i players face.

There is no off-season for amateur players trying to catch the attention of pro scouts. “We’re watching games the day after Christmas,” Cox says. “The day after Thanksgiving, too.” He manages three associate scouts in Hawai‘i and three in Southern California. In addition to the Islands, Cox recruits players from San Diego to Long Beach. “If you’re a Southern California scout who has Hawai‘i in your area, you can miss players, the under-the-radar guys. It’s the guy you take pride in, the tight-to-the-vest guy, the guys like Kolten Wong who are drafted out of high school in the sixteenth round and end up getting to the big leagues.”

Each time Cox endorses a player, his reputation is at stake. Scouting is a subjective line of work where, ironically, the pursuit is pure objectivity. “Everybody’s got a bias, though,” says Cox. “Scouts from Southern California love Southern California players. Scouts from the South love their own players, people in Florida; Puerto Rican scouts, they love their own players—it’s natural. But there’s a fine line. You can have your favorite players and be super optimistic, but you can’t get too crazy.”

This isn’t so easy for Cox. His love for the Islands is visceral. His great-grand-parents originally came from Japan to work on sugar plantations, and his family has remained for four generations. He spent summers in Pepe‘ekeo, where his mother grew up, and he was a very big fan of the very bad Braves only because he watched games with Grandpa Nishioka. From Kaonohi Park to the afternoon breezes in his grandfather’s living room, Cox’s richest memories are grounded in place. “I run around with the Hawai‘i state flag,” he says.“It’s on my back, it’s on my chest. Everything I do and say, I want to make sure I do it right because it reflects on Hawai‘i.”

Cox converses with Kamehameha High School pitcher Christian DeJesus. It was here Cox recruited Kolten Wong, once a two-sport standout at Kamehameha, and now the starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Cox conveys this pride, this optimism, in interactions with the players he watches, even if he knows a “gut-feel guy” is rare. That’s what Cox calls players he can’t help but believe in, the very few for whom he’ll pound the conference room table with conviction. They are the gut-feel guys, the pound-the-table guys. “Five, ten years later they’ll look back on your reports, and you might have been really, really high on a guy or really, really low on a guy. So you have to choose wisely. You can have only a handful of pound-the-table guys.”

The day after watching a game in Mililani, Cox hears from Kurt Miyahira, the manager at ‘Iolani High School. The team is making the most of the bad weather by taking indoor batting practice. Cox heads over to the batting cages, but before he does he spreads the word to other scouts he knows are in town. “Because I’m the Hawai‘i guy,” he says, “everybody looks to me to be the point guy. It’s not a credit to me; it’s a credit to the coaches for making it happen.”

Miyahira beams when he sees Cox, greeting him with a familiar handshake-cum-hug. “Dan, he’s the man,” Miyahira says. “Nobody fights for Hawaiian players more than him.” Cox’s contact list is awash in high school baseball coaches, and other scouts often come to him asking for an introduction. 

Cox and Farrington Governors head coach Eric Tokunaga, himself a former scout for the Kansas City Royals, talk with Enos. Cox strives to start relationships with High School players as early as their freshman year, long before other scouts begin paying attention.

“The first thing you got to understand,” says Cox, “is nobody knows Hawai‘i baseball and the players better than the people from Hawai‘i. We’ve got coaches that have been coaching for twenty years.” Cox is part of a Hawai‘i baseball lineage that goes back to people like Wally Komatsubara, the late scout and coach, and longtime Royals scout Erik Tokunaga. (Several years ago Cox and Tokunaga discovered they’re actually cousins.) Cox says he owes much of his career to Komatsubara and Tokunaga. While the players put on helmets and grab bats, Cox chats up Miyahira. “The scouts, we identify the main guys,” Cox says, “But guys like Kurt and Mark Hiroyama at Mililani, they know everybody.”

Scouts must both identify and categorize prospects in preparation for MLB’s annual three-day draft. Most players selected on the first day, in the first two rounds, get contracts with seven-figure signing bonuses. Players drafted on the second day, in rounds three through ten, more generally get six figures. By the time teams are drafting players in rounds eleven through sixteen on the third day, signing bonuses are capped around $125,000, along with college tuition. Each player’s circumstances determine what offer they might take, and these are some of the most important factors for Cox to understand when making recommendations. “If you’re a rich kid,” he says, “$250,000 plus college is not a lot. But you go to a public school and you’re working and living in an apartment, then $125,000 after the tenth—and an opportunity to play baseball with a scholarship waiting for you—that’s a good deal. I’ve signed players who live in multimillion-dollar homes in Newport Beach, and I have signed players in trailer parks.”

Although Cox is a point man for local players, he’s quick to credit his success at finding talent to the Islands’ coaches. “Nobody knows Hawai‘i baseball better than the people from Hawai‘i,” says Cox. “We’ve got coaches that have been coaching for twenty years.”

Most of the scouts who show up to ‘Iolani’s batting practice want to see Shane Sasaki hit. “He stands out because of his tools,” says Cox as he watches the kid step into the cage. “He stands out because of his energy and because he can hit. He’s got sneaky power.” Sasaki is a senior center fielder, already committed to play for Cal Poly, which has a nationally competitive Division I baseball program in which he can continue to mature as a player and enhance his professional prospects. Cox knows that Sasaki and—perhaps more to the point—Sasaki’s parents won’t take just any offer in the draft: “Common sense says he’s not going to sign for a hundred grand after the tenth round.”

A half-dozen scouts—from the Giants, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Rockies, Reds and Yankees—watch Sasaki swing. “A bunch of us have met with him,” says Cox. But it wasn’t always like this. “I was one of the first scouts to talk to his family after a game. And his parents said, ‘Well, that’s great that you came to his game, but he’s going to college.’ And so I talked to them about the process, about scholarship plans, and mom didn’t know about that. So I started educating them. Early on they were college, college, college, and now they are very interested in signing.” 

“If you scout long enough, you start scouting the sons of the players you already scouted,” says Cox. “I’m 46, and I’m starting to get to that point. It’s great because it’s hard enough to get into scouting; to get to stay that long is pretty cool.”

For his part, Cox must decide what to put in his report about Sasaki. Everyone seems to agree he should be drafted, but in which round? Is he a gut-feel guy? Someone for whom Cox is willing to pound the table? Outside the batting cage, in the company of his fellow scouts, Cox keeps his cards close. “In scouting there’s a camaraderie but there’s also competition,” he smiles. “It’s a healthy competition. We have fun.”

After Sasaki is finished for the day, several scouts, including Cox, talk to him and his parents one at a time. After each scout does so, they cut out, heading back to their hotels or to Duke’s or to the beach. But Cox stays and watches some of the other players hit. Suddenly a freshman catches his eye. Cox likes that he has muscle already, and confidence. He introduces himself and asks one of the coaches to point out the player’s parents. “You got to start making that connection,” he says. “I’ll never miss a guy here. I do the extra work. You can beat other teams in Hawai‘i, but you have to work a little harder and dig a little deeper. You got to spark that fire and start building a relationship.” HH