February 20, 2014
Scouts spend countless hours watching and evaluating players, carefully considering the appropriate grade for each tool or each pitch a player offers. Throughout the course of the season and particularly throughout the course of ranking season, grades are tossed around with near reckless abandon. This player has plus power, and that player has a below-average fastball. This player offers above-average hit projection while that player buries hitters with a potential plus-plus curveball. It's easy to talk about the quality of an individual tool, but what does it all mean in the context of other players?
In the second edition of the annual Top Tools Series, the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff debated long and hard over how individual players’ tools stack up against those of their counterparts. Drawing upon our own eyewitness accounts and opinions from scouts across the league, the team debated and compiled the following ratings. The end result is a product that captures the oft-missing context of how individual player tools compare and who has the best of each tool in baseball.
Previous entries: Best Hit/Power
Top Speed in the Minor Leagues: Billy Hamilton (Cincinnati Reds)
Other Players Considered: Byron Buxton (Minnesota Twins), Billy Burns (Oakland Athletics), D.J. Davis (Toronto Blue Jays), Terrance Gore (Kansas City Royals), Roman Quinn (Philadelphia Phillies)
All-Time Tool: Vince Coleman
How to Identify It: One need not be a seasoned talent evaluator in order to identify speed on the baseball diamond. The aesthetic physicality of this tool is visible to the naked and untrained eye, the utility of which can be felt on both sides of the ball. The problem—or rather, the challenge—for evaluators is that there are differing shades of tool intensity. Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton are both extremely fast, but anyone with eyes and/or a stopwatch knows Hamilton is the faster of the two. A majority of that set-in-stone determination has been derived via the following grading system:
So, you’ve obtained a stopwatch and trained your finger to initiate the start button at the hitter’s point of contact and again when his foot hits the first base bag. You’re ready to sit with scouts behind the plate and slap run grades on players, right? Unfortunately, it’s slightly more nuanced than that.
First, the situation in which the time is gathered is important. Did the runner get out of the box well, or did the follow-through from his swing cause him to stay in the box a split-second longer than normal? (Think Adrian Beltre’s back-knee exploits.) The type of batted ball has great importance in contextualizing the time measured. If the ball is hit on a rope directly to an infielder, most runners choose not to bust it down the line, knowing their fate is all but sealed. On other occasions, runners begin the quest down the line at full speed but will pull up two or three steps from the bag when the first baseman receives the ball from the fielder. With this in mind, we want to gather times when runners run through the bag at their top speed. As such, groundballs to the left side and/or double-play balls typically provide the best medium by which to accurately judge this tool. When a batter attempts to bunt for a base hit, the recorded time is referred to as a jailbreak and is an embellishment of the player’s true speed down the line. In a perfect world, multiple home-to-first times will be compiled before placing a speed grade on a player.
In addition, not all athletes are created equal. Some runners can access their top speed much more quickly than others, and players with bodies of the long and lean variety—such as Jason Heyward—will register home-to-second or first-to-third times that are much more impressive than their home-to-first times would indicate, causing the baseline grade to tick up. A player’s instincts on the basepaths also play a role when grading the run tool. An average runner’s grade may play up if he displays an uncanny ability to read pitchers or take the extra base when the opportunity presents itself.
Projection of the run tool depends on multiple factors. If a young player lacks explosive strength throughout his core and leg muscles but has good running mechanics and decent speed, scouts may project him to be a better runner with professional instruction and a professional workout regimen aimed at addressing this deficiency. Conversely, if a scout notices the necessary strength but bad running mechanics, such as extraneous hip movement or landing on the heels of the feet, he may feel that the runner will tick up in a professionally coached environment. More often than not, however, scouts project speed to diminish with age and physical maturity. A plus runner who has physical projection as an amateur may only be an average runner—or perhaps slightly below—when his body matures, depending on the type of bulk his body puts on. Assuming more physical development leads to better offensive capability, this tradeoff is preferred. On the whole, offensive prowess is exponentially more important than foot speed in today’s game, though up-the-middle profiles still place some emphasis on the tool. —Ethan Purser
Top Makeup in the Minor Leagues: Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians)
Other Players Considered: Albert Almora (Chicago Cubs), Dylan Bundy (Baltimore Orioles), Reese McGuire (Pittsburgh Pirates)
All-Time Tool: Jackie Robinson
How to Identify It: Of all the difficult tasks scouts are handed, identifying the makeup that will allow a player to maximize his natural ability is easily the most daunting. Pegging an individual’s personality can be challenging enough without being asked to do so with modest exposure to the player. Good makeup doesn’t necessarily mean a player is a good guy, though that can hint at the overall makeup. Off-field concerns will certainly surface when appropriate, and they will factor into the overall evaluation of a player’s makeup, but the real focus is the clubhouse and on-field makeup.
How a player interacts with his coaches and teammates is one aspect that must be considered. A player with good makeup has positive relationships with most of his teammates and demonstrates the appropriate respect for his coaches. But it is of paramount importance to consider how a player approaches the game and how he prepares himself during the offseason, during the season, and on game days. Quality makeup may be observed with a player who diligently focuses and prepares for each game, puts the work in between games to maintain his conditioning, and does everything necessary during the winter to become better.
Identifying the makeup necessary to fulfill a major league future represents a mystery that may never be solved. Players with perceived high-end makeup will fail to reach their ceilings and players with aloof natures and apparent carelessness may go on to become superstars. There is no magic formula for identifying or developing the type of makeup required in today’s game, and having a true understanding of a player can come only through getting to know the player closely, which isn't always practical with a scout’s busy schedule. As a result, expanding the ability to identify and understand what makeup means and how it impacts a player’s development has the potential to be one of the next great frontiers in baseball.
Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.