A whole new ballgame: Surface tablets score a big hit with the Kansas City Royals

Sunshine and organ music bathe the bleachers in baseball bliss. But in one seat near home plate, the vibe is all business. From that perch, Alec Zumwalt splits his gaze between the diamond before him and the tablet in his lap.

He studies both the bursts of action and the game’s silent nuances, from defensive alignments to body language. For nine innings, he writes and records every data point he spies into a Surface Pro – his go-to tool as a Kansas City Royals executive and, previously, as a scout hunting for hidden intel on players and teams.

“It boils down to one central question: What’s your time worth? My Surface saves me time, helps me do my job better. Scouts who use this technology, I would argue, are more efficient,” says Zumwalt, the Royals director of baseball operations. “For me, it’s been life changing.”

Alec Zumwalt records his baseball observations in a Surface Pro while sitting in the stands.
Alec Zumwalt jots game notes with his Surface Pen.

When Zumwalt, 37, talks baseball, his tech evangelism flows like a four-seam fastball. But bringing a computer to the ballpark was initially a tough sell inside the grand old game. The subculture of baseball scouts – a century-old profession – carries a reputation, fair or not, as anti-data and slow to modernize, reinforced by movies like Moneyball and Trouble with the Curve.

An ex-minor leaguer hired as a Royals scout in 2011, Zumwalt has now spent six seasons – spanning one World Series title, two American League pennants and four Surface Pro devices – convincing doubters and building converts.

“When I came to spring training in 2012, immediately people were questioning why I had a tablet at the ballpark. I knew then that, especially to a lot of older scouts, technology was not something looked at in the best light,” Zumwalt says. “But I did play the game for 10 years. And I was just trying to streamline my work.”

Traditional tools of the scouting trade included hand-written notes and hand-typed scouting reports along with stopwatches to clock runners and, eventually, radar guns to measure pitch speed. Zumwalt saw one scout lug an accordion file jammed with every paper scouting report he’d ever written.

Alec Zumwalt
Alec Zumwalt

Of course, pen and paper do convey familiarity, wherever you work. At the ballpark, Zumwalt says the Surface Pen and Surface Type Cover – along with battery life that lasts nine innings and beyond – allow him to jot quick notes, write full reports and collaborate with Royals colleagues without leaving his stadium seat. His observations fill special templates he created in Microsoft Word.

“Honestly, it’s a little overwhelming to some people when they see how much I write over the course of the game,” he says.

Zumwalt’s massive library of scouting reports – detailing hundreds of players he evaluated in person – are available via his Surface Pro, allowing him to compare talents and weaknesses across seasons.

“Just having your scouting reports at your fingertips at the ballpark, to access a report I wrote years ago, to be able to say, ‘That guy reminds me of this guy,’ that is very powerful,” Zumwalt says. “It has completely changed my process for the better.”

His keen eye for the game is born, in part, from early baseball struggles. Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1999, he spent three seasons as a rocket-armed right fielder who struck out far too often. In 2002, the organization made Zumwalt a pitcher, giving him an ultra-unique view from both sides of the plate.

Between pitching outings, he watched games from the bullpen, dissecting every pitch and each at-bat, logging his hand-written observations into dozens of spiral notebooks before sharing that knowledge with teammates. He still keeps those notebooks tucked into baseball bags at his home.

“Really, there’s not a lot to do in the bullpen every night. You can eat only so many sunflower seeds and blow so many bubbles from gum,” Zumwalt says. “I was scouting as a player before I knew I was going to be a scout.”

A Kansas City Royals pitcher throws to a hitter during a game in spring training.
A Kansas City Royals pitcher faces a Seattle Mariners hitter during spring training.

He retired as a player in 2008 and enrolled in college, never having reached the Major Leagues. But he rekindled his baseball dream three years later when the Royals hired him as a scout. His assignment was to travel five games ahead of the ball club to analyze the next team on the schedule, particularly the opposing pitchers.

The job was enormous. Beyond the tortuous logistics of traversing dozens of cities across a 162-game season, Zumwalt’s tasks included: watching video of players before games; sitting behind home plate during games to track the velocity, location and situation of every pitch; and organizing all of that information into a single scouting report for the Royals players and coaches.

“My whole mindset became geared to not spending so much time taking handwritten stuff and entering it into a database by typing. I wanted to try and just get it all in one place,” Zumwalt says. “That’s why Surface was a necessity for me.”

A view of Alec Zumwalt's Surface screen as he jots notes during a baseball game from the stands.
Zumwalt writes on his Surface.

Slowly, he began swaying fellow scouts about the benefits of going digital – including a 91-year-old scouting legend who began his career in 1952, appraising prospects for the New York Yankees.

Art Stewart, a Royals’ front office executive and the club’s former director of scouting, acknowledges that he didn’t initially buy into the value of scouts using laptops during ballgames.

As the man who steered the Royals to draft Bo Jackson in 1986, and as a baseball lifer who knew Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, Stewart maintains that a scout’s most vital tool always will be the vision to grade curveballs, bat speed and a player’s mental toughness. Nothing, he adds, can replace that trained eye.

But after seeing Zumwalt churn data into his Surface and pull out insights, Stewart says “my views have changed” on the promise of tech in baseball.

“Alec does a magnificent job of taking what he sees on the field and then incorporating it into his computer to give to the manager,” Stewart says. “It helps position guys to know how and where to play, and it gives tendencies of what certain clubs do. That is very, very important.”

When Zumwalt joined the Royals as a scout in 2011, the team was mired in an eight-season losing streak. In 2014, Kansas City won the American League pennant. In 2015, the club won the World Series.

A crowd in Kansas City at the team's championship parade.
Royals fans celebrate at the team’s championship parade in Kansas City.

“The players won those,” Zumwalt says. “But on our side of the game, we were all able to work better and be more efficient.

During the playoffs, I would be joined by other (Royals) scouts to help with game preparation. It was a great opportunity for me to show our guys what I do with the device.

“Honestly, everyone who traveled with me during that stretch now uses the device the way I use it.”

Gene Watson at the ballpark.
Gene Watson

In November, Kansas City promoted Zumwalt to director of baseball operations, also overseeing player development and scouting. This season, new Royals advance scouts Tony Tijerina and Cody Clark are using Surface Pros – as is Gene Watson, 49, the Royals’ senior director of professional scouting.

“Alec was the guy that led us to it,” says Watson, now in his 12th season with the Royals. “He changed the way a lot of us approached the way we looked at things.”

As a younger scout working for other teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Watson jotted his player evaluations onto sheets of paper, then, from the road, faxed those reports back to the ball club. Now he does it all on Surface, from assessing amateur talent to pro stars.

Watson's World Series ring.
Watson’s World Series ring.

“I woke up this morning and all the college players that I saw this weekend, I went in and entered everything in my Surface,” Watson says. “Today, when I go to our Major League games, I’ll have the Surface with me.”

Zumwalt has spent years taking note of all that he witnesses on the field. As more scouts turn to technology, he also likes what he sees in the stands.

“Every day at the park,” Zumwalt says, “I feel like I’m trying to convert somebody else.”