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February 10, 2011

Overthinking It

Tooling Around

by Ben Lindbergh

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In my chat last week, reader “dandycharger” asked me to name all of the genuine five-tool players in the majors, hoping to illustrate how loosely the term tends to be applied. Since I’m always happy to honor a reader request (especially when it supplies me with an article topic), I decided that I’d hold off on offering an incomplete, off-the-cuff, chat-length response in favor of writing up a semi-complete, Overthought™, column-length response, which brings us to today’s piece.

Tools are a slippery subject. Before we dive in, let me offer a quick refresher on which tools we’re talking about. (You can also look here for a lengthier take.) The wording may vary slightly depending on the source, but the proverbial five tools are as follows: hitting for average, hitting for power, foot speed, throwing ability, and fielding ability (the Dickson Baseball Dictionary calls those last two “throw” and “catch”). “But Ben,” you might ask, “isn’t foot speed linked to fielding and hitting for average? And shouldn’t throwing be considered a component of fielding ability?” To which I’d respond, hey, I didn’t decide what the tools were—this particular assortment of skills was handed down on stone tablets by the great scout in the sky long before I became a prospect.

As reader Bob in Seattle pointed out further down the chat stream, every player is a “five-tool player,” if you want to get technical about it; notwithstanding the incongruous sight of Jorge Posada on the basepaths or behind the plate, every major leaguer possesses at least some trace of talent in each of these areas. The question, then, is where to draw the line separating the haves from the have-nots, which can’t help but be an arbitrary distinction, since tools are distributed along a spectrum, not on a binary basis.

Think about it—at what point does it become possible to say that a player doesn’t “hit for average”? When his average falls—speaking of arbitrary thresholds—below .300? When it fails to match the league average, slips one standard deviation below the mean, or reaches the Mendoza line? When the player goes 0-for-the-season? There’s really no right answer, and attempting to come up with one is an exercise that can be resolved only by making a subjective judgment call, much like trying to pinpoint the exact magnitude of movement at which a cutter should be classified as a slider, or the angle at which a line drive should be considered a fly ball.

What’s more, tools are transient: It’s possible to possess one for a time, only to surrender it to age, injury, or overconsumption. It’s also worth asking why we should even bother to count how many tools a player has at his disposal; after all, isn’t all that really matters the bottom line? Still, while how many wins a player brings to the table is the most important thing, the manner in which a player puts his wins together has implications for his aging trajectory and likelihood of a repeat performance. Plus, talking tools is fun.

Much as we could quibble about whether these particular five tools provide the best representation of a player, the concept does have its uses, both in the scouting field and as an extension of the baseball lingua franca. At worst, the “tools” framework serves as a convenient shorthand, much like the notion of assigning theoretical rotation slots to starters or labeling a given pitcher an “ace.” (Even if the logical question that arises from those abstract terms is “Sure, but in whose rotation?”)

With that throat clearing out of the way, let’s get down to searching for the current crop of five-tool players. Since home-to-first times and FIELDf/x-like measurements of range and arm strength haven’t made it to the public domain, we’ll have to use statistical proxies for each of the tools. I settled on batting average (hitting for average), isolated power (hitting for, you guessed it, power), our rebuilt versions of BRR (speed) and FRAA (fielding), and the throwing component of Tom Tango’s Fans Scouting Report. Colin Wyers has developed a provisional arm rating that will soon be incorporated into FRAA (let’s call it FRAArm for now), but for a variety of reasons—most of them stemming from the metric’s incomplete assessments of infielders, whose arm strength is difficult to isolate from their other work with the leather—averaging the FSR’s three throwing components (release/footwork, throwing strength, and throwing accuracy) yields a more representative crop of five-tool players.

It’s also worth noting that this five-tool APB includes a position adjustment for FRAA intended to save us from judging all the candidates against the same baseline, since an average-fielding first baseman and an average-fielding shortstop probably can’t be said to have the same gifts when it comes to the “fielding” tool. This still isn’t a perfect method—for one thing, BRR is a measure of more than pure speed, since it accounts for the quality of a player’s instincts and decisions on the bases—but it works well for our purposes.

Based on a conversation with Kevin Goldstein, BP’s primary conduit to the scouting world, I confined the search to players who qualified as average or above in each statistical category; according to Kevin, a theoretical player who earned a rating of 50 or above for each tool on the 20-80 scouting scale would be considered a five-tooler. Since some of these stats take time to become reliable, I limited the pool to players with at least a thousand plate appearances over the last three seasons. As a result, this group won’t include anyone who debuted during the last two seasons and didn’t accumulate the necessary playing time to qualify, but the results should be fairly reliable. Two additional notes: FRAA totals in the table below are un-regressed, and FSR numbers aren’t included (thanks to my limited appetite for data entry and Excel’s SUMPRODUCT function), but I’ll vouch for the fact that all of these players’ arms rated as average or above—in fact, the only player who passed the test of the first four tools with flying colors and flunked throwing was Kelly Johnson. Without further ado, on to our 17 five-toolers, ranked in order of descending PA:

Name

PA

AVG

ISO

BRR

FRAA

POS_ADJ

Albert Pujols

2041

.331

0.304

2.6

120.3

-37.2

Robinson Cano

2004

.304

0.185

1.1

30.2

-2.8

Hunter Pence

1947

.278

0.188

5.6

56.7

-20.5

Brandon Phillips

1940

.271

0.169

11.5

6.7

-2.5

Alex Rios

1936

.275

0.164

1.2

41.8

-7.3

Chase Utley

1905

.284

0.218

3.7

36.4

-2.7

Evan Longoria

1840

.283

0.237

7.8

67.3

6.9

Jayson Werth

1810

.279

0.234

8.3

29.0

-15.5

Adrian Beltre

1730

.286

0.184

2.9

54.7

6.2

Alex Rodriguez

1724

.286

0.251

3.3

31.1

4.1

Ryan Ludwick

1707

.273

0.216

2.8

27.1

-16.6

Ian Kinsler

1683

.285

0.193

11.7

34.6

-2.2

Scott Rolen

1539

.285

0.177

1.6

27.6

6.0

Jose Reyes

1532

.289

0.159

11.1

-18.7

20.1

Carlos Beltran

1318

.289

0.197

3.4

-1.9

3.1

Carlos Gonzalez

1269

.299

0.220

8.0

31.4

-3.2

Nelson Cruz

1093

.292

0.263

0.9

75.2

-11.4

 
On the whole, this list looks pretty tooltastic to me, so I'll declare the manhunt at least moderately successful. It should come as no surprise that our five-tool players turned out to compose quite a talented group. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the term is over-applied, as dandycharger suspected; if you’re wondering where Troy Tulowitzki is, he missed out by under half a run of BRR, so we can award him an honorable mention (remember, you have to set that arbitrary cut-off somewhere).

There are a number of related topics to investigate before we leave this subject behind: projected 2011 five-toolers, five-toolers still tooling around the minor leagues, and historical five-toolers, just to name a few. If you’d like to see any or all of those topics explored in an upcoming article, have a suggestion for refining the player selection process, or want to mention a player whom this method might have missed, leave a comment below.

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Tools

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