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May 17, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Hitters, Part II

by Jason Parks

Because of my ego and this convenient link drop, I’m going to assume you read my previous article, which, at least on an academic level, attempted to set the table for what I look for when scouting a hitter. In the closing paragraph of that piece, I offered up this nugget of forced profundity: “While it’s true that the body and the mechanical profile start the process, the product is what ultimately makes the prospect.” Yes, I just quoted myself. I’ve become that guy. Please bring me a chilled Apollinaris with a lime wedge and a warm cloth. Jason needs to have some Jason time.

As we’ve discussed, hitting is the product of many components, ranging from the strength required to create bat speed, the hand-eye coordination required to make contact, and the comfort and fluidity in the mechanics that allow the other components to exist in sweet, blissful harmony. Let’s move away from the possibilities exposed in the batting cage and move forward to the realities that are on display in game action. Let’s break down how the hit tool is graded, how approach and maturity at the plate can influence the utility of the raw tools at play, what makes a power hitter a power hitter, and, finally, I’ll explain where babies come from.

The Hit Tool
The hit tool sits atop the great pyramid of tools, trumping its own offspring—power—and the three other tools in a position prospect’s physical cache: speed, glove, and arm. Because baseball is a simple game of attack and defend—a duality of wood and leather used to ravage and then to rescue—the hit tool stands paramount because its raw function is to inflict damage on the opponent. Wait, what? Someone needs more attention.

Contrived fluff aside, the hit tool is the simple measure of how often a ball is properly squared up, driven with authority, and deposited into the field of play. The better the hit tool, the more likely a player will hit for a high batting average. We’ve discussed the components that make this action possible, but how do the grades correlate to major-league results? Something like this:

Batting Average (at the major-league level)

Grade

.320+; perennial batting title contender

80; elite

.300-.320

70; well above average; plus-plus

.285-.300

60; above average; plus

.270-.285

50; average

.250-.270

40; below average

.225-.250

30; well below average

.000-.225

20; poor

When scouting a hitter against live pitching, you want to see all the academic components you focused on in the cage and the practical application of those components in an unpredictable environment. This is where the game changes. It’s productive to watch batting practice; as I mentioned in part one, it helps shape the realm of what is possible when the bat hits the ball. But when the object of the game demands a pitcher defeat you lest you defeat him, the intensity of the battle accelerates the reactions and introduces important variables to the equation outside of the raw mechanical components of the swing.

Have you ever heard this? “[Insert Player Name]’s approach at the plate limits the effectiveness of his hit tool.” This is important because the ability to recognize pitches, make adjustments to those pitches, work yourself into favorable hitting conditions, and execute when presented with those conditions are what take the physical tool from its raw state to its ultimate ceiling. A hitters can possess a plus (60-grade) hit tool, but if they can’t get the hitting environment in their favor, they will struggle to find sustainable success if completely dependent on the physical tool. I’m not speaking specifically about drawing walks, although that is an important aspect of the overall offensive package. But drawing walks is not a part of the hit tool. It’s a sweet skill, but not a physical tool. I’m trying to highlight the ability to pick up the ball early out of the pitcher’s hand, diagnose its ultimate agenda, decide how to proceed (should I swing or abstain?), and then execute that decision.

Take a prospect like Josh Vitters. Anybody who has seen Vitters swing a bat can attest to the above-average raw physical skill he possesses. It’s remarkable. Vitters has elite bat speed, and his hands and their function are how I would design a hitter if building a monster from parts. Key question: Why doesn’t his batting average corroborate the scouting report? After all, if his hands are such divine instruments, why can’t he hit? Vitters doesn’t swing and miss very often, but he does allow pitchers to control his hitting environment. Vitters either fails to recognize that he is being served yesterday’s meal, or he has such an overly-confident appetite he thinks he can handle it. Either way, if you don’t win the battle of recognition and adjustment, you provide pitchers with a roadmap to your own demise. You can have 80-grade hands and be incapable of overcoming a 20-grade approach. If you take yourself out of the game because you swing at bad pitches that result in bad contact, why would a pitcher offer you anything but bad pitches?

This is where it gets difficult. As is often the case, you can witness the academic components to hitting, the practical application of those components in game action, what appears to be an approach conducive for execution, and still miss the mark on a hitter’s projection. It’s very difficult to scout a low-level hitter and project major-league results. A pitcher can show you tangible evidence in the present (velocity/movement/command) that can be evaluated on its merits and free from the necessity of context. After all, a 95 mph fastball on the corner of the plate is a 95 mph fastball on the corner of the plate, and this is as true on the backfields of Arizona as it is under the bright lights at the major-league level.

On the other hand, when you watch a hitter crush in the complex league, the level of competition can greatly influence your evaluation. This is what makes scouting hitters more difficult than scouting pitchers. I prefer to scout hitters in an environment where their skills are underdeveloped in comparison to the pitchers they are facing. I want to see if hitters can barrel up plus velocity, velocity that tests the boundaries of their bat speed. I want to see how their pitch recognition skills function against pitchers that offer legitimate choices. I want to see how the adjustment process plays out after the initial encounter. In my opinion, you can learn more from a hitter who is overwhelmed than a hitter who punishes an inferior arm. Batting practice can only tell you so much.

OK, let’s put this all together. When evaluating the hit tool, you want to see fluid mechanics, bat speed and the ability to barrel a ball with authority (strength), hand-eye coordination (contact ability), pitch-recognition skills, the ability to make adjustments (going to the opposite field, working with the pitch, etc.), confidence, and, most importantly, consistency. Every hitter in professional baseball is capable of putting good wood on a ball. The grade given to a hit tool is a measure of the frequency and overall execution of those capabilities.

“You Got the Touch. You Got the Power!”
The ability to hit a baseball over the fence has more sex appeal than a candlelight dinner between Johnny Depp and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not to put every fan in a box, but the home run is baseball’s ultimate act of dominance, and fans of the game love to witness heroic acts, especially when they come at the expense of others. What tickles your fancy more: the path of the ball as it leaves the playing field, or the emasculated look on the pitcher’s face when said ball leaves the playing field? Harm and pleasure go together like cream gravy on a chicken fried steak.

The power tool is derivative of the hit tool, but requires specific swing characteristics to manifest in game action. First, you can’t show power in the present or project to hit with power in the future if you don’t possess quality bat speed. We’ve identified that strength and fluidity in the swing create bat speed, but it needs to be said that plus raw strength does not automatically equal plus power potential. If strength were the only component to power, Sweet Lou Ferrigno would be in the baseball Hall of Fame. As I mentioned, power is directly bred from the hit tool, so you need to possess some quality in that department for the power to actualize. If your hit tool is suspect, your ability to hit for power in game action will be retarded by that deficiency.

Power hitters are able to create leverage in their swings. It stems from the firing of the hips in association with the movement of the upper body, which creates torque. It’s a violent physical act, but without a certain fluidity and ease, the violent movement will fail to produce a swing conducive for power. Remember: Fundamentally speaking, the hit tool has to be present for the power to flow through it. You can’t just power up a swing and let ‘er rip and expect consistent results.

As for the swing itself, power hitters possess a slight uppercut to their swing, but it’s not as extreme as you might think. Good hitters should send their bat into the zone on the same plane as the pitch, with a slightly elevated path. Backspin and loft, key components for distance and carry, are created when hitters power through the extension and make contact slightly below the center of the ball. When you bring together bat speed (strength/leverage), a swing that matches the plane of the pitch with a slightly elevated bat path, and contact that occurs a little under the center of the ball (rather than on top of the ball, which would produce a grounder, or dead center, which would send the pitch back on its original plane) the end result will be a ball that has the requisite characteristics to emasculate a pitcher.

When evaluating the future power tool of a young hitter, you want to see signs of these characteristics in the swing, however underdeveloped they might be. As is often the case, the missing key ingredient is strength, which arrives as the body matures—assuming it arrives at all. Not every hitter will have a swing conducive for power; just because there is a blueprint doesn’t mean execution is possible. You have to look at each hitter as an individual, assess his strengths, and project accordingly. Putting a grade on present power is difficult in its own right, but power projection can be so conceptual that scouts often find themselves several grades off the mark when the music stops. When looking at a physically immature 18-year-old, can you imagine trying to identify what the power will look like when the player reaches his developmental peak? It’s insanely difficult. Speaking of grades, here they are:

Home Runs (at the major-league level)

Grade

39+; perennial home-run champ

80; elite

32-38

70; well above average; plus-plus

25-32

60; above average; plus

17-25

50; average

11-17

40; below average

5-11

30; well below average

0-5

20; poor

It’s not possible to properly diagnose the scouting process in a few thousand words. Over the last few days, I revised, redrafted, and re-examined the work, trying to find a better way to deliver the thoughts rattling around in my head. I quickly learned that the deeper I thought, the cloudier the work became. It would be easier if scouting was a science, and I could regurgitate the universal truths involved. While there are key components to the process that form the backbone of all evaluations, the only universal truth in the scouting world is subjectivity. These are my thoughts on hitting, but I’m curious to learn how you approach the process. What do you look for in a young hitter? What components tickle your fancy? How do you go about projecting power? There is always something new to learn.

 The next installment in this series will focus on fielding, and what I look for at each position. As much as I love waxing on about the actions of a shortstop, or the real qualities of a “game-caller” behind the plate, I assume I can properly articulate my thoughts without requiring a sequel. After that, in the final piece of this seemingly never-ending exercise, I’ll briefly touch on the speed tool, the intangible aspects of the game [read: makeup], and I’ll offer a critique of scouting parlance and how the use of “plus” often means “plus potential,” and the expectations associated with that distinction. 

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

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Clubhouse Confidential... (05/17)
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Premium Article Prospects Will Break Y... (05/12)
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