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May 3, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Pitchers, Part I

by Jason Parks

If you have ever listened to the BP podcast, you have no doubt heard the always-fedora’d Kevin Goldstein and me identify what we look for in a prospect. Every player is unique, but there are certain attributes that tickle the scouting fancy more than others, whether physical or psychological. While we are recidivistic in our velocity whoring, other factors are at play when evaluating a pitcher, just like evaluating hitters is more complex than watching batting practice power displays. In this long-winded series, I’ll identity what I look for when scouting players on the mound, in the field, and in the box.

Not to get overly existential here, but scouting is a profound philosophical pursuit: Are we looking for enlightenment through the physical exceptionalism of athletes? Is it possible to separate our own deficiencies and insecurities from the process? Does the fact that I used to be quite fast influence my ability to appreciate speed in a lower-level prospect? Does the fact that I once had dreams of being a ballplayer heighten my ability to recognize those who are athletically superior to me, or does my failure create a form of subjective justice that I wield upon those that get to play out my fantasy for a paycheck?

Wow, I really got serious for a second. But scouting is about asking questions. What is this player all about? What can he do now, and what will he be able to do in the future? It’s also important to ask: Why am I forming these conclusions? Why do I value certain physical characteristics and discount others? Some of these questions will soon find answers, but the rest will require more sessions with my therapist, who should just set up a direct deposit with Baseball Prospectus at this point.

Pitchers

First, I look at the body. While it’s true that size doesn’t always matter, it’s also true that size often matters, and the immediate physical attributes form the skeleton of any report. When scouting a younger player, you look for signs of physical projection. Can the frame hold weight/mass? How mature is the present body? How athletic is the body? Projection gives scouts the freedom to dream, to create a conceptual space between the reality of the present and the possibilities of the future. If I see a 6-foot-3, 175-pound body, given the age and the present physical maturation, I can start envisioning arsenal projection before actually seeing the arsenal. It’s the starting point.

While an admitted velocity monger, my fancy is even more susceptible to the tickle of fastball command, especially in lower-level arms. (For the purpose of this report, let’s just assume that I’m looking at developing talent, rather than physically mature players that are nearing or have already reached the peak of their developmental arc).  Establishing fastball command is the perfect building block for the rest of the arsenal. It creates the opportunity for a more effective secondary arsenal before the secondary arsenal is even deployed. Fastball command is the product of repeatability and comfort. When I look for command projection in a pitcher, I start with the mechanics. How fluid is the overall motion? Does the arm take a smooth and easy journey from hand break to extension? Can he repeat the delivery? Is the arm slot and release point consistent on every pitch? How is the overall tempo and pace of the process? Does the pitcher speed up or slow down when runners reach base? How does this affect the delivery/mechanics? Lots of questions need to be asked, and this is just the beginning.

Let’s be honest here: Fastball velocity is the meat in a pitcher’s cheeseburger. Without it, you better bring a 70-grade bun with several above-average accouterments to make up for the missing meat. Raw velocity is easy to identity and slap a grade on, which makes it one of the more tangible aspects of scouting. Here is a chart to help you identify what equals what:

Velocity

Grade

97+ mph

80; elite; bacon

94-96 mph

70; well above average; plus-plus

92-94 mph

60; above average; plus

89-91 mph

50; average

87-89 mph

40; below average

85-87 mph

30; well below average

82-84 mph

20; poor; tofu

Throwing hard is great, and most people find radar gun readings sexy, but without companions like command and movement, velocity is exploitable at the highest levels of the game. While it affords pitchers more room for error, it’s only one variable to the overall fastball equation, and very rarely is it strong enough to survive on its own.

To continue with the metaphor, fastball movement is the motion in the ocean, with raw velocity representing the size of the boat. (Can’t you see a pitcher with a mid-80s fastball nervously proclaiming, “My catcher is quite satisfied with my fastball. It moves all over the place. He says it’s better than throwing 95 mph. He says it’s the best he has ever caught.” Too much?) As I mentioned, velocity is very important, but straight fastballs often find barrels, and hard contact isn’t the desired result. Some pitchers are fortunate when it comes to fastball movement; it occurs naturally, stemming from the arm and not necessarily the grip. Most left-handed pitchers feature fastballs that show some arm-side movement, meaning the pitch has a little boring action into lefties and running action away from righties.

Different pitch grips will create different fastballs, each offering unique movement and velocity. Most pitchers have either a two-seam or four-seam fastball, and it’s common for a pitcher to offer both. The four-seam fastball is thrown across the seams and is the grip that allows for maximum velocity. Of course, the faster the pitch the straighter it becomes, so most four-seam fastballs lack aggressive movement. Two-seam fastballs are often called “sinkers,” which isn’t always accurate; some pitchers throw traditional “sinkers,” which are thrown a little slower than the average two-seamer and feature more extreme vertical movement. Two-seam fastballs aren’t thrown with same velocity as four-seamers, but they often provide more movement with some horizontal movement (run) and natural weight to the pitch (sink). Keep this in mind: Every pitcher is unique, so every hand will form a different relationship with the ball and therefore produce a different result. You have to look at the pitcher as an individual.

Scouting movement in person can be very challenging, as your eyes can play tricks on you, convincing you of movement in the absence of movement. Because of this phenomenon, I try to pay close attention to the hitters, watching their reactions to the pitch, judging extreme movement by what I can see from the ball and from where the bat starts versus where it ends up in the zone. A hitter’s swing can tell you a great deal about what a pitch is doing, especially if the pitch starts on one plane and ends up on another.  

Late movement on a fastball is often the product of visual subterfuge, but some pitchers help create the environment for this illusion with their arm action and extension. Here’s what I mean: When a pitcher has a fast arm, the ball appears to explode out of the hand, often featuring a little hop or jump as it nears the plate. The same is true from a pitcher with excellent extension on the pitch, as the ball is released closer to the plate, has less distance to cover, and appears to have more velocity than it actually does. It appears to “jump” on the hitters.  Again, if you doubt your eyes and don’t want to fall victim to the trompe l’oeil, just watch the hitter.

To reiterate, I scout the fastball in three parts—velocity, command, and movement—but I also pay close attention to the deception provided by the delivery/mechanics and the angle a pitcher can create to the plate. Some scouts value one more than the other, but I tend to give equal weight to each component when factoring the overall grade. For example: If a pitcher is a surgeon with his fastball [read: he can hit any spot he aims for], and is able to induce above-average movement with the pitch yet only throws 87-90 mph, can I grade the overall pitch as plus? While others would require more velocity to feel comfortable placing a 60 on the pitch, I have no problem throwing that grade around, especially if the command and movement are above average.

What if a pitcher throws 99 mph, but the pitch is straight and the command is well below average? What’s the grade? Just looking at raw velocity, the pitch would look to have 80-grade potential, but without movement or command, how effective will the pitch be? A scout’s job is to identify the tools as well as the proper function and utility of those tools, so without factoring in the overall effectiveness of the pitch, you are grading the pitch based on one component, which is a mistake. At present, I would make note of the 80 velocity, but also make note of the below-average command and movement, which would bring the present grade of the pitch down to slightly above average. This isn’t a universal grading system, and I have no doubt that others would disagree with the component values I assign, but this is how I roll.  If you grade the fastball like this: (equal parts) velocity, movement, command, and mustache potential of the pitcher….well, you are my new hero. Jay Jaffe would have a plus fastball despite what I imagine is suspect velocity. I want to live in a world where this is possible.

Originally, I thought this might be a two-part article, as I tend to produce segmented work. Let’s face it: I’m not exactly concise with my thoughts. Unfortunately, I rounded the 1,600-word mark before I finished waxing about the fastball, so this series might end up challenging Pynchon before it’s over. Because Steven Goldman, our loving Editor in Chief, cares about your feelings, he suggested I keep the articles under 2,000 words. He’s a very smart man. I let him know that I was set to pop that ceiling, and he instructed me to trim some fat, but not at the expense of the meat. We enjoy talking about meat here at Baseball Prospectus.

 Anyway, since the majority of my work is made up of fat, I decided to trim some of the meat, and offer up what should be a four-part series. In part two, I will continue with the pitchers, breaking down what I look for in the secondary arsenal, how to identify poise and instinct on the mound, and why pitchability is important. In parts three and four, I’ll focus on what I look for in the field (defense), in the batter’s box (hitting), on the bases (baserunning). I’ll also explain what my definition of player makeup is and why it’s so vital to player development. When I’m finished, you will either have a better understanding of where I’m coming from in my evaluation process, or you will start an e-mail campaign to have me replaced as a regular contributor.  

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

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

adrock

An excellent insight into the scouting process. Thank you.

May 03, 2011 05:05 AM
rating: 2
 
Peter Hood

I really enjoy this kind of article. It gives a lot of substance to subsequent player analysis.

May 03, 2011 05:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

Aroldis Chapman's heater should have its own classification. Let's call it "bacon burger dog."

May 03, 2011 06:35 AM
rating: 3
 
Peter7899

Chapman's fastball would be bacon wrapped bacon topped with bacon flavored cheese...

May 03, 2011 07:27 AM
rating: 2
 
apbadogs

With a side of bacon sauce.

May 03, 2011 08:51 AM
rating: 1
 
yadenr

And then you dropped it in your lap. Then it would have the potential to be delicious, but instead was really messy.

May 03, 2011 16:42 PM
rating: 0
 
ttt

Would ketchup be a 50-grade condiment? I feel like caramelized onions would be plus or, if done properly, plus-plus.

May 03, 2011 06:36 AM
rating: 7
 
jedjethro

+1 for cleverness and pithiness

May 03, 2011 06:59 AM
rating: 1
 
Lloyd Cole

Sorry for being pedantic, but it's "Trompe L'Oeil". Still a fabulous reference to "fooling the eye". For those who haven't experienced this art technique, check out William Harnett's amazing paintings, or find photos of ceiling frescoes by Andrea Mantegna (a personal favorite) or Antonio de Corregio.

To move on from the bun to the bacon, this was a terrific article--very educational!

May 03, 2011 06:52 AM
rating: 5
 
dianagram

Comments like this make me miss Christina Kahrl ... sigh.

May 03, 2011 07:16 AM
rating: 3
 
chris in illinois

How are the commotions??

May 03, 2011 09:20 AM
rating: 0
 
hegglund

Challenge Thomas Pynchon? Maybe.

Challenge Bronson Pinchot? NEVER.

May 03, 2011 07:09 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

It works both ways, but I accidentally wrote "Pinchot" when meaning "Pynchon." I shouln't have been watching Beverly Hills Cop 2 when writing this article.

May 03, 2011 08:27 AM
 
Tommy Bennett

Prince references in article titles!

May 03, 2011 07:16 AM
rating: 0
 
lazyrasmus

Prince reference? I thought it was a Roxette homage. I am so lame.

May 03, 2011 11:16 AM
rating: 1
 
Peter7899

With draft and minor league prospects being the overwhelming reason that I subscribe to BP, I love all things scouting. Looking forward to Part Deuce.

May 03, 2011 07:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Nick Faleris

Good stuff, Jason. Accessible and enjoyable read.

May 03, 2011 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
GrinnellSteve

Great opening article in this series. Please, sir, may we have more?

May 03, 2011 07:51 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Loved the article Jason. Can't wait for the rest.

May 03, 2011 08:43 AM
rating: 0
 
jmercan

Good stuff. For scouting pitchers -- is it best to sit directly behind the plate, or do you also want to see him from the side?

May 03, 2011 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
cloakedarbiter

Interested where you place yourself behind home plate. Left side to see delivery and arm action of right handers? Directly behind the catcher to avoid Wyers parallax issues and better view the run on a fastball? Or am I over thinking this?

May 03, 2011 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I always start behind the plate, but I often move around. I like to watch RHP pitchers from the 3B line/ LHP from 1B. It's always good to soak in as many angles as possible.

May 03, 2011 09:11 AM
 
dREaDS Fan

Great read.

But as I was reading, I found myself looking for some basic data to to support some of the points made. E.g. #/% of MLB pitchers by avg fastball velocity grade (80/70/60/) ... how do MLB pitchers break out by body type? ... etc.

That nit aside, looking forward to the rest of the series.

May 03, 2011 09:09 AM
rating: 0
 
JDLloyd10

Jason, since we're all learning to scout, would you mind suggesting a few arms at the lower levels ranking towards the top of your lists with respects to command and movement?

May 03, 2011 09:42 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Great idea. I just mentioned this to Kevin and we are going to discuss this question on the podcast. (Recording it tonight).

May 03, 2011 09:54 AM
 
irussma

Food metaphors all over the place. Makes me wish FJM were still around.

May 03, 2011 10:28 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

If you sit with a scout for a nine inning game, I guarantee you will hear at least a few food metaphors, usually of the "bread and butter," "serious cheese" variety. I try to use bacon when I can, but I love bacon and I enjoy thinking about bacon.

May 03, 2011 10:45 AM
 
SirVLCIV

I wish I could 'like' your posts.

May 03, 2011 13:25 PM
rating: 6
 
irussma

As an aside, does anyone know where the term 'cheese' for a fastball came from? Bread and butter makes sense, but who associates cheese with high velocity?

May 03, 2011 20:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Doug Thorburn

I am also a proponent of integrating velocity, command, and movement when grading a pitcher's stuff. They might not be weighted equally on the field, but it is close enough that I just take the average of the 3 grades to get a "GPA" for the pitch.

That said, I think that the biggest challenge is grading velocity for secondary pitches. My velo grade for a slider, for example, is based as much on velocity differential as it is pure speed.

Check out my article on Hellickson vs. Haren over at Baseball Daily Digest (linked on the BP home page), and let me know what you think. Morrow vs. Price is forthcoming...


Oh, and great call on watching hitters to read fastball movement. I do the same for changeups and splits, as well.

Excellent article, Jason!

May 03, 2011 12:00 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Thanks. I've certainly read your work before and I've enjoyed it. Agree with you on secondary pitch velocity. I look at what the pitch is doing independent of the FB, but I also look at how it plays in relation to the FB, which I think tells you more about the overall effectiveness of the pitch than just the raw velocity/break.

May 03, 2011 12:11 PM
 
keeperleaguegm

I think this is one of the best articles of the year. I hope this becomes a regular column with examples of grades...nice work.

May 03, 2011 19:33 PM
rating: 2
 
Nick J

Outstanding. Jason in putting out some of the very best stuff on BPro these days.

May 03, 2011 20:15 PM
rating: 5
 
Mr. Cthulhu

Great article yet again Jason, are you sure you want to work for a team when you are putting out 80 grade articles and podcasts every week?

May 03, 2011 21:30 PM
rating: 2
 
smiff

The semi-colons in this piece are off the hook.

May 03, 2011 22:59 PM
rating: 2
 
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