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March 14, 2006

Future Shock

Taking a Step Back, Part One

by Kevin Goldstein

While I've only published seven pieces so far at Baseball Prospectus, I've received a fair amount of feedback from people asking about some of the terminology I use. So I'm taking the next three days to delve into the scouting process and discuss some of the lingo used. Today, I start the discussion by looking at position prospects.

The Scouting Scale:

Scores for a player's attributes, be they the traditional five tools for a position player or individual offerings for a pitcher, are graded on the 20-80 scouting scale. As to why the scale is 20-80 as opposed to something seemingly more logical like 0-100, I don't have an answer for you, but I'm looking. Grades are given on a base-5 system (40, 45, 50, 55, 60, etc.). I know of one organization that did allow all scores (like 53 or 41), but they eventually saw it as splitting hairs and went back to counting by fives. Some organizations got rid of the zeros and grade players on a 2-8 scale.

A score of 50 is major-league average, 60 is above-average (also referred to as "plus"), and 70 is among the best ("plus-plus"). 80 is top of the charts, and not a score that gets thrown around liberally. 80s in any category are rare, and the scoring system is definitely a strong curve that regresses to around 50 at the major league level, but lower as you move down. Very few players have a 50 score or higher for every tool. Just being average across the board is quite an accomplishment. When scouting a player, scores are given in two categories: Present and Future. Present is what the player is right now, while Future is the true art of scouting--projecting what a player will become. So an example of scouting scores for a player might look like this:

Joe Ballplayer, OF  Present Future
Hitting               40      50
Power                 40      60
Running               40      35
Fielding              45      45
Arm                   35      35
OFP: 53

On the most basic level, what do we have here? We have a decent young hitter, who should develop into an average hitter. He has some power now, but offers plenty of reason for optimism (be it size, strength, build, approach, etc.) to believe he'll develop into a major league power hitter. He's not especially fast now, and it is thought that he'll lose a step as he moves up the ladder. He's a slightly below-average outfielder, and his arm is below average, so he's likely a left fielder. Just as Bill James showed in a Baseball Abstract that one can get a visual picture of a player from simply looking at his stats, the same can be true from looking at a scouting report.

The final score, OFP, is an abbreviation of Overall Future Potential. This is a scout's single score on a player. It is not an average of his individual scores, as those scores (plus other factors, such as position) need to be weighed differently on a case-by-case basis. The OFP scale works just like the individual tool scale. A 50 score indicates that the scout thinks the players will be an average major league regular. A score in the mid-60s or higher indicates that the player projects to be a star, while a score under 40 usually means a NP or "No Prospect."

Now let's examine at the individual tools to see what evaluators are looking for.

Hitting:

Quite simply: the ability to routinely put the ball into play by making solid contact with the barrel of the bat on the middle of the ball. As you can note from the scouting report above, this is different from hitting for power, which is graded out as a different tool. This is more the ability to hit for a high batting average. Factors that scouts look at when evaluating this tool include:

  • Plate coverage: Ability to hit the ball when it is in various places within the strike zone. Can he be jammed inside? Can he hit outside pitches? Can he hit high and low pitches?

  • Using all fields: Can he go opposite field or does he try to pull everything? Does he have the ability to simply take the ball right back up the middle for a clean hit, or does he constantly sacrifice contact by trying to crush everything?

  • Pitch recognition: Ability to recognize fastballs, breaking balls and changeups out of the pitcher's hand, the ability to make adjustments based on the type or locations, and therefore (and most importantly) the ability to hit various types of pitches.

  • Bat Speed: Self-explanatory--how fast is his swing. Scouts will often refer to "quick wrists" or "twitch muscles" when discussing this aspect.

  • Swing mechanics: Is the hitter balanced? Is there a load in his swing, where the bat goes back before it goes forward (this is a good thing)? Does the hitter incorporate his lower half into his swing? Are his arms fully-extended at the point of contact? Does his bat go through the zone in a straight line or is there a hitch or loop in his swing? Mechanics are a very funny thing. If you watch any baseball game, you'll see that every player, while following the same basic template, still has a his own unique hitting style. As a basic rule, if it's not broke, don't fix it. For example: Julio Franco starts each pitch with his bat almost pointing at the opposing pitcher. This creates a long "bat-wrap," meaning there is a more than a normal amount of distance between where the bat starts and where the bat needs to be. However, because Franco has such good bat speed and has over 2,500 major league hits, you don't correct it. If you have a young hitter batting .245 in the Carolina League doing that, coaches will try to shorten his swing.

Quick note: Pitch recognition is not plate discipline, and plate discipline, or the ability to draw walks, is not graded as a tool. The ability to lay off pitches is not a physical skill. That said, it is definitely an important aspect of any hitters' game, and is something that is certainly noted by the scouting world when evaluating talent.

To give a player an average (50) grade in hitting is to say he has the ability to hit for an average batting average (as awkward as that sounds), or roughly in the .260s. To give a player a 70 hitting score is to say he can be a consistent .300 hitter. An 80 is to say he has the potential to contend for the batting title on an annual basis.

Some Prospects With Very High Hitting Scores: Daric Barton, Alex Gordon, Conor Jackson, Howie Kendrick, Delmon Young.

Power:

Chicks dig it. The ability to hit the ball over the fence can make for the most exciting of prospects, and the most frustrating. Many aspects go into this and there are different kinds of power hitters. For a hitters like Hank Aaron, or more recently Eric Davis, their power came from tremendous bat speed and quick wrists, while for a more traditional slugger like David Ortiz or Adam Dunn, you are talking more about good hitting ability combined with brute strength. Power comes in many forms. There are pure pull-hitters who try to wrap everything around the left-field foul pole (if they bat righthanded). These players also can have a tendency to get "pull-conscious," which is to attempt to pull every pitch they see, making them worse hitters for average and leaving them susceptible to high strikeout totals. In one of the first spring training games broadcast by ESPN this year, Braves catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a game-winning home run off Dodgers righthander Jonathan Broxton, taking a mid-90s fastball the other way, and still clearing the fence with plenty of room to spare. That kind of natural power--where a player could hit the ball squarely in any direction and the ball could leave the park--is far more difficult to find. Power can be one of the easiest things to grade, and one of the most difficult to project, and there is a generally believed scouting axiom that power is the last tool to arrive. To project a player to move up one or two grades (10-20 points) on his power score you need to believe that several things will happen:

  • The player will get stronger or learn how to better incorporate his existing size and strength into his swing.

  • The player will learn to recognize those pitches he can pull, and begin to do so.

  • The player will learn how to add loft to his swing. When it comes to loft, you want to still see the bat on a single-plane, but leaving the hitting area slightly higher than when it enters. You do not want to see a pure uppercut, where the bat loops through the hitting zone.

Some Prospects With Very High Power Scores: Prince Fielder, Ryan Harvey, Brandon Wood, Delmon Young.

I list these players for a reason, as they illustrate the many differences between power hitters. Three inches shorter and somewhere around 75 pounds (depending on the day) heavier than Wood, Fielder is as physically strong as any player in baseball, and combined with his quick bat, he's the best pure power prospect in baseball. Wood is almost skinny, with long arms and legs, but he has tremendous wrists, putting a whip-like motion into his swing while also getting excellent extension in his arms. Young is listed to show that he is a rare commodity, as he was also listed among the prospects with the best hitting scores. Players with 70+ scores in hitting and power are rare. The best examples in each league are Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. I list Harvey because he is an example of a player with a very high power score, but a low hitting score. Harvey's swing can get long, and his pitch recognition is poor, but he has as much pure power as anyone in the minors. There are plenty of players who have had lengthy big league careers with very low hitting grades but very high power grades (Rob Deer), or just the opposite (Juan Pierre).

Tomorrow I'll take a look at how scouts evaluate what position players do with a bat in their hands, and how scouts weigh all the different tools based on a player's position.

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

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