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March 11, 2013

Top Tools

Arm Strength

by BP Prospect Staff

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Infield

Top Infield Arm in the Minor Leagues: Junior Lake (Chicago Cubs)

There are open questions about Lake’s ability to play shortstop and hit at the major-league level, but there are no questions about his arm. He has the ability to unleash lasers with tremendous velocity and good accuracy from anywhere on the infield, and possesses the athleticism and utility to flash similar strength while on the run. Lake’s arm is a legit 80-grade cannon and is quite easily the best among prospects currently in the minor leagues. As an elite tool, Lake’s arm strength would be a weapon at any position on the diamond, including on the mound, where some scouts believe he may end up long term.

Other Players Considered: Kaleb Cowart (Los Angeles Angels), Joey Gallo (Texas Rangers), Dixon Machado (Detroit Tigers)

Both Cowart and Machado have premium arms that earn consistent 70 grades and the occasional 75 or 80 from the left side of the infield. I (Mark Anderson) have gone on record multiple times as believing that Machado does in fact possess an elite-level arm. Gallo represents a lesson in tool utility: Although he shows raw arm strength in the 70-80 range, his footwork and lack of accuracy force the tool down the scale and out of true consideration.

Top Major-League Arm: Brendan Ryan (Seattle Mariners)
All-Time Tool: Shawon Dunston

How to Identify It:

Elite arm strength among infielders is not a subtle skill—it stands out and nearly smacks you in the face when you see it. Beyond identifying the best arms, rating this tool becomes far more art than science. Watching how throws are made from deep in the hole at short, behind the bag at second, and from foul territory at third base can offer telling signs. As you see these throws, you should be looking for good velocity across the diamond, as well as tracking the trajectory of the throw. You want to see the ball traveling on a line to first base and not showing arc that hints at a lack of arm strength. The utility of raw arm strength also plays a factor in grading the overall tool. Players with good raw strength and high utility will show consistent mechanics, good accuracy and an ability to show the same type of velocity while on the move. Both aspects of the tool are considered strongly when developing the final grade. In the end, the top and bottom of the scale are obvious, but differentiating between a below-average, average, or plus arm can be difficult, and scores may vary considerably from one scout to the next.

Outfield

Top Outfield Arm in the Minor Leagues: Aaron Hicks (Minnesota Twins)

Though his path to the upper levels of the minor leagues has been lengthy, due more to his offensive development than anything else, Hicks’ arm strength has always graded out near the top of the scouting scale. His arm is a plus-plus rocket that frequently elicits elite grades. While the raw strength is evident (Hicks hit the mid-90s as a pitcher in high school), he also exhibits consistent throwing mechanics and a very quick release—elements that help to maximize the utility of the tool.

Other Players Considered: Byron Buxton (Minnesota Twins), Che-Hsuan Lin (Houston Astros)

Buxton, Hicks’ future teammate, shows off his own 70-grade arm from center field, and there are some talent evaluators, including a couple in the Twins organization that believe he could have a stronger arm than Hicks down the road. It is difficult to project significant development in outfielders’ arm strength, but with a player with Buxton’s athleticism, anything is possible. Lin features another true 70-grade arm that plays at that level in games and fits well in right field.

Top Major-League Arm: Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals)
All-Time Tool: Jesse Barfield

How to Identify It:

Similar to identifying arm strength on the infield, the top and bottom of the scale in the outfield can jump off the field and become very obvious to any onlooker. While the results are what really matter, there is a greater focus on how the player accomplishes those results in the outfield than in the infield. As an evaluator, I (Mark Anderson) want to see a longer arm sweep and an over-the-top throwing motion, allowing the throw to stay true and not drift to either side. I look for throws to stay on a line and exhibit good carry to their destination. As a means to make a case stronger or clarify an opinion, the way the ball bounces on lower throws can be an indicator of arm strength. Though it is not a guaranteed indicator, balls that “skip” off the ground rather than catch and “hop” as they approach their target are often the work of a high-level arm. With outfield arms, the difference between above-average and plus arms can be even more difficult to pinpoint. Taking everything into consideration—including the velocity, throwing mechanics and even the bounce—can help to paint the complete picture that leads to a more accurate score.

Catcher

Top Catcher Arm in the Minor Leagues: Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves)

Anybody can look at the consistently sub-1.80 second pop times or even the occasional 1.65 pop and understand that Bethancourt has massive arm strength. The numbers do tell the story here, but they don’t do it justice. Bethancourt’s arm is a dominating tool that blows away the rest of the minor leagues. Almost incredibly, Bethancourt’s arm can actually “play up” even more, because of his lightning-quick release and impeccable accuracy.

Other Players Considered: Jorge Alfaro (Texas Rangers), Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres), Carlos Paulino (Pittsburgh Pirates)

Bethancourt has the best arm in the minor leagues, but Hedges isn’t far behind, and the Padres prospect is a better all-around defender. Hedges maximizes his 70-grade arm strength with a quick release that may allow it to play a half-tick higher, giving him exceptional utility. Alfaro and Paulino also flash 70-grade arms that can cut down foolhardy base stealers in their tracks.

Top Major League Arm: Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals)
All-Time Tool: Ivan Rodriguez

How to Identify It:

When looking at and trying to grade a catcher’s arm strength, the telltale sign for me (Mark Anderson) has always been the appearance of the throw as it travels to second base. Whether it’s an illusion or not, the strongest throws have the appearance of being thrown on a downward plane to the bag, sometimes with a steep angle toward the receiver at the keystone. The pop time can hint at the strength of a player’s arm, but a scout cannot rely solely on that number to develop the final grade. The transfer from glove to throwing hand, footwork, and even arm angle can impact the pop time, taking away some of the value of the number in terms of gleaning grades for raw arm strength. Instead, scouts can use the pop time as a hint, but must also rely on the trajectory, apparent velocity, and carry across the diamond.

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