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Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A Scouting Primer: Hitters

Deric explains the ins and outs of the art of scouting players.  Part 1 of 2.

The science of scouting has gradually found its way into the mainstream. Pitchers’ velocities are routinely being shown at the ballpark and on television, and almost all pre-game analysis will offer scouting reports on the starting pitchers. Hitting mechanics are constantly being broken-down in slow motion. National publications and media outlets are hiring scouts to offer fans a different perspective of the game. Much of the jargon and technical aspects of scouting can overwhelm the casual fan, so we will attempt to breakdown scouting into its individual parts. Here is what scouts look for in evaluating position players.

GRADING SCALE

Scouts grade players based on a 20-to-80 (or 2-8) scale, with 80 representing the highest achievable grade. The grade of 50 is considered Major League average. Position players are graded in five categories (hitting, power, speed, throwing, and fielding) which are typically referred to as the "five tools." Players will also receive grades for base running, arm accuracy, baseball instinct, and aggressiveness, though they do not account as much for the final grade. An amateur player or minor league player will receive two grades for each tool; a present grade and a future grade, based on how they are expected to perform in the Majors. Future grades are added and then divided by the number of grades, to determine their Overall Future Potential (OFP). A scout can then adjust a player’s OFP by 10 points, based on the lesser categories and their gut instinct.

The following example is taken from a scouting report on Nick Swisher (OF, OAK).

                                                                                                                                                         
CategoryPresentFuture
Hitting5060
Power4555
Speed2525
Throwing4040
Fielding4550
OFP 46

The OFP is the number used to determine what type of player the scout believes the individual will become.

                                                                                               
GradeClass
*65-80Major League Star
*50-64Major League Regular
*50Major League Average
*40-49Major League Fringe
*38-39Organizational Player

In the Swisher example, his unadjusted OFP of 46 would slot him as a Major League reserve. Hitting is the primary part of his game, and based on those two scores (hitting and power), he projects as a Major League regular. Speed really isn’t part of his game, though it remains an important tool, but means that he won’t be able to handle centerfield on a regular basis. Moving him to a corner outfield spot or even first base reduces the importance of speed and his arm strength. Taking those factors into consideration, along with Swisher’s aggressiveness and baseball instincts, his OFP could easily be adjusted upwards, perhaps as much as eight points, giving him a score in the low 50’s and projecting him to a Major League regular.

BODY TYPES

Before grading a player’s tools, their body type, or physical description is noted. A scout will want to target athletes for those are the players that possess the abilities of strength, speed, and agility. Athletes and players who demonstrate good mechanics usually turn out to be better players and have a better chance to improve. Body projection, especially at the amateur level is weighed heavily when evaluating players.

Scouts identify the tools and player development’s role is to turn those tools into baseball ability. As a rule of thumb, mechanics below the waist are easier to correct than mechanics above the waist. Being athletic in and of itself does not make one a better ballplayer, but it gives a player a better chance to succeed.

HITTING

Hitting is one of the more difficult tools to evaluate. Strength is the most important ingredient to hitting, especially in today’s game, and allows the hitter to generate bat speed and drive the baseball. Most good hitters will demonstrate balance (feet width of shoulders), a quick and timely trigger, knee flexion, hands going back before going forward, a short stride, arms in an "L-shape" with proper extension as they make contact, and proper weight transfer.

Two other factors are common to good hitters. The plane of the bat through the strike zone determines the trajectory of the baseball. Most hitters possess a slight uppercut, but watch for those who have extreme uppercuts or chop at the baseball. Confidence plays a bigger role than most would think. Good hitters want to be at the plate and attack the baseball with controlled aggression. Watch for hitters who show fear by stepping out and those who may possess mechanical flaws (wrapping bat, hand hitch, head pulling, and a long stride).

Some players will lack some of the above hitting skills, but can hit the baseball anyway. Tony Batista (3B, BAL) with his extreme open stance and the wide-based/step-back/severe uppercut of Jeff Bagwell (1B, HOU) are examples. These players should not be tinkered with, but left alone to hit. If you can hit, they will find a place for you.

Hitting grades and their translation:

                                                                                                                                                                               
GradeHRAVG
*8035+.320+
*7027-34.300-.319
*6020-26.286-.300
*5015-19.270-.285
*4010-14.250-.269
*305-9.220-.249
*200-4 .219-

SPEED

To measure speed, players are timed via stopwatch from the time the baseball makes contact with the bat, to the time they reach first base. Left-handed batters will have a 0.1 second advantage on times to first base. It is important to note that players do not run hard all the time. Infield grounders, especially ones that have double-play potential, will usually get the best results. A scout should also note the running mechanics and instincts. Some players, like Larry Walker (OF, COL) and Darin Erstad (OF, ANA), are not particularly fast, but have superior instincts and are better runners under-way. A player’s speed grade can be altered up and down depending on these factors. Speed cannot be improved upon to a significant degree.

                                                                                                                                                                               
GradeLHRH
*803.94.0
*704.04.1
*604.14.2
*504.24.3
*404.34.4
*304.44.5
*204.54.6

THROWING

A player, whether position player or pitcher, should demonstrate proper throwing mechanics. The throwing motion should be uninterrupted with proper extension in back, followed by a fluid move forward in which the arm is in an "L-shape" with the elbow parallel to the shoulder. The transmission of energy follows through the hand and arm, with full extension out front. The action of the wrist is very important, as it helps propel the baseball and creates velocity.

A scout will note the on-line carry of the throw and the movement of the ball during the last eight to ten inches. An outfielder with an above average arm will have his throw skip on the first bounce. A centerfielder who cannot carry the pitchers mound from medium outfield depth should not be given a grade above average.

Arm strength can improve with physical maturation, proper positioning, and through mechanical adjustments. Long arms with fluid movement may be able to improve their arm strength, whereas muscular, short-armed athletes tend not to improve. When evaluating the throwing arm, a scout will determine if a mechanical adjustment can be made and to what degree the player will improve.

FIELDING

Fielding can sometimes carry a player to the Major Leagues. For middle infielders, a scout looks for agility, quickness, arm strength, soft/quick hands, and instincts. Fielders with soft hands usually give the impression that the baseball disappears into the glove. Possessing hard hands, which can entail jabbing and/or rigid elbows, may be a detriment, but is a correctable flaw. Positioning and turning the double play are traits that usually come with experience. Corner infielders should exhibit arm strength, soft hands, and first-step quickness.

Outfielders need to show agility, quickness, speed, and arm strength. Having quickness and speed alone do not give the outfielder range, as they must also take the proper angles and routes. Demonstrating good arm strength is a plus, but accuracy and throwing to the proper base/cut-off man is important as well. Scouts do not always get a chance to look at a fielder during game conditions, so paying close attention to pre-game infield/outfield practice is imperative.

CATCHING

The catching position is the most difficult position to play and may be the most important. A good catcher should possess arm strength, agility, receiving skills, and durability. Good arm strength is beneficial in halting the running game, but equally important is the glove-to-hand transfer and proper footwork. A good catcher will have his feet turned out with the weight distributed towards the inside and heel.

The quality of the arm can be visualized as you would any other arm, but scouts will also rely on catcher release times (catcher’s mitt to middle infielder’s mitt), which incorporates arm strength, transfer, and footwork. The average release time for a Major League catcher is 1.95 seconds, with 2.05 seconds being the high-end of acceptability. Bottom line, however, is can the catcher throw out the good runner?

Agility and receiving skills are also important. You want a catcher who moves well behind the plate, can get out and field the bunt, and block the plate. Being a good receiver entails having soft hands with a knack for framing pitches. Game calling and leadership skills come with experience and are usually measured at the upper levels of the minors.

A catcher, like Mike Piazza (NYM) possesses above average arm strength, but his footwork and release are slow, preventing him from throwing out most runners. Jason Larue (CIN) is a catcher that isn’t blessed with great arm strength, but is so quick in his release that he can prevent the stolen base. When you combine arm strength, receiving ability, and proper footwork like Ivan Rodriguez (FLA), a catcher can change the course of a game.

POSITIONING

A good scout will never observe a baseball game from one place. Certain views of the game offer distinct advantages. The view directly behind home plate allows you to see the entire field and is where most scouts will view the game. Positioning yourself on the opposite side of the hitter lets you see the hitter’s swing mechanics and bat plane. Infield/outfield practice is best viewed from the first base side, allowing you to see the trajectory and velocity on infield throws to first base.

Next week: Scouting the pitcher

Deric McKamey is a minor league analyst for Street & Smith’s and Baseball HQ

Deric McKamey Posted: July 22, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 13 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Athletic Supporter can feel the slow rot Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612257)
Interesting stuff. Where does the scouting report on Swisher come from? Is it fictional, from another organization, or from an A's scout?
   2. Chris Dial Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612261)
Dactyl -
PECOTA uses body type to predict career path. That indicates a pretty strong belief in body types having more than an "injury effect" on a player's performance. Of course, injury performance is part of it. If body types have career path influences (as is PECOTA's, and thus BP's position), it is not irrelevant, but very helpful.

Even "Moneyball" says this. No, the A's aren't selling jeans, but they aren't taking Brown unless he agrees to lose some weight.

Yes, scouts disagree as the talent level gets murkier. I suspect everyone thought ARod was going to be a stud and Tim Stauffer too. It's when the talent gets more "average" that it is tougher. But that's also true as "strike zone judgment" gets closer to average.

Strike Zone judgment is about the one skill that doesn't predict well from minors to majors (AFAICT). And since walk rate and ISO are fairly constant, if you can predict a player's BA, you get his OBP and SLG right out of the gate.
   3. WTM Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612262)
"The categories themselves also betray a lack of understanding of those things that are truly important in baseball. You give a player a score based on what you think his batting average will be? What about his strike zone judgment?"

It's funny that in one of the most skill-oriented of all sports, the focus is on physical attributes. If you follow minor league baseball at all, you see one heavily hyped prospect after another with bad plate discipline hit the wall anywhere from AA to the majors. Yet evidently the standard scouting report looks only at the batter's swing, not at what he chooses to swing at. I don't exactly see Billy Beane as the Messiah, but you can understand his reported frustration with his scouts.
   4. WTM Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612263)
"Strike Zone judgment is about the one skill that doesn't predict well from minors to majors (AFAICT)."

Hmm. I've been reading for years that it's the best indicator of a minor league hitter's ability to advance successfully, and that certainly fits with my own unscientific observations. Is this not true, or is saying it doesn't predict well from minors to majors different from saying it doesn't indicate future performance at higher levels?
   5. rich Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:29 AM (#612268)
Something about this has always bothered me, and that's the player's arm. How important is that really? Sure, a terrible arm on an outfielder may give up an extra base every so often, but surely a below average to average arm is neither here nor there in the big scheme of things, and this rating can't be given the same weight as hitting or hitting for power?

I can understand why your infielders would need to be graded here, and sure it's nice to know for your outfielders, but isn't it overrated for the latter?
   6. dlf Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:29 AM (#612269)
When you rely on walk rates or BB/K at the college level, you end up with a Jeremy Brown who can?t do anything offensively other than draw walks and can?t run or play defense.

Interestingly, Brown's BA is about 40 points higher than Swisher's at the same (AA) minor league level. Last year, while playing together at Visalia (A), Brown again out hit and outhomered Swisher.
   7. Chris Dial Posted: July 22, 2003 at 02:29 AM (#612270)
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I hope that works.

dlf, he was saying a guy like Brown who can't hit, but has good BB/K rates. Not that Brown can't hit. At least that's how I read it.
   8. mike green Posted: July 23, 2003 at 02:29 AM (#612283)
Strike zone judgment is a fundamental aspect of a position player's ability. A 22 year old outfielder who hits .300 with 15 homers and walks 30 times and strikes out 120 times in a double A season is in a completely different category of prospect than the same outfielder who walks and strikes out 60 times because the former lacks one of the key elements of offensive ability.

Yes, on average, a player's strike zone judgment will improve somewhat with age, but it is not simply as Deric puts it, "a development issue". To take into account throwing ability and not strike zone judgment reveals a misunderstanding of the way the game works. As a result, the estimate of overall future potential described in the article is of no value in evaluating a potential major leaguer.

It seems that an intelligent major league GM will take these scouting reports as providing useful infomation regarding many of a position player's skills, but will form his own evaluation of the overall future potential of the player.

Here in Toronto, JP Ricciardi has done a lot of the scouting himself. Now I think I understand why. Players like Aaron Hill and Russ Adams, who possess a number of skills of which strike zone judgment is one, will be significantly undervalued by traditional scouting approaches.
   9. studes Posted: July 24, 2003 at 02:29 AM (#612319)
Deric, maybe I'm being slow here, but don't you need a stronger arm in right field because there are virtually no plays at first base for an outfielder, and some plays at third? Given that second base and home are the same distance from left and right, wouldn't you put the stronger arm in right field?

I agree with the comment, by the way, that arm strength is overhyped for outfielders.
   10. studes Posted: July 24, 2003 at 02:30 AM (#612329)
Sparkles, Nate Silver ran an article in prospectus about a week ago, comparing actual standings vs. PECOTA. It's premium content. Interestingly, diamond mind also ran a comparison to its team projections and, from an extremely quick revoew, it appears that diamond mind was closer. That's based on looking at the biggest outliers of each vs. projected team runs scored and allowed.
   11. Joey Numbaz (Scruff) Posted: July 30, 2003 at 02:31 AM (#612400)
I doubt anyone will read this since this hasn't been commented on in almost a week, but . . .

"I never said that you should take your best outfield arm out of RF, but merely stating that with more batted balls being hit to LF (due to more right-handed batters in the game) than RF, that the difference isn?t as great as many claim."

PBP data shows that batters tend to pull ground balls and hit fly balls the other way. We think they pull flys because many HR are pulled, but the majority of fly balls go the other way. I think the ML average RF for a LF last year was 2.09 and RF was 2.23, but I could be off, I'm going from memory.

I'd put the guy with better range in RF, unless the other guy has the better arm. I think the difference in available plays is marginal, and it's obviously better to have the arm in RF. Plus, generally more fly balls are hit to RF, so you'll have more chances for the play at the plate to RF, so the better arm is probably better used in RF for that reason too.
   12. OCF Posted: July 30, 2003 at 02:31 AM (#612402)
Joe: The ground balls matter, too, and have you ever noticed that fast guys do pretty well at getting outfield assists? I noticed that Vince Coleman always got quite a few assists, and he certainly didn't have a strong-arm reputation. I could be wrong, but I assumed that a fair number of them were 7-2 plays on runners trying to score from 2nd on ground singles. That's not a particularly long throw, and the strength of the arm is secondary to accuracy and to how well the left fielder charges the ball. Fast center fielders can get assists, too, and some of them might be 8-6-2 on a runner trying to score from 1st on a single. On both such plays the speed of the outfielder is critical; on the second, the arm that matters belongs to the shortstop.

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