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March 15, 2006

Future Shock

Taking A Step Back, Part Two

by Kevin Goldstein

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After taking a look at how scouts evaluate players when they have a bat in their hands, today I'll look at the "non-bat" tools, and how those tools are weighed once you have a complete feeling for a player's abilities.

Running:

Pretty self-explanatory. Can he run fast? Is he a burner or a base-clogger? The overwhelming majority of this score is measured by the player's recorded time from home plate to first base. Average (50) is generally considered 4.3 seconds from the right side, and 4.2 from the left. Times under four seconds earn the rare 80, while times over 4.5 can get 20. Speed is one of the only tools in baseball where there are a number of players in the major leagues with 20s. Another unique aspect of speed is that it is the only tool where it is somewhat common to find scouts awarding a future score that is lower than a player's present score. While power may be the last tool to arrive, speed can be the first to go as players fill out and their body matures. Scouts need to be able to look at a player's build (some even look at their parents) and recognize those who will keep their speed well into their career and those who will not. Other considerations--such as a player's instincts on the base paths and ability (or inability) to read pitchers and steal bases--can bring this grade up or down a tick.

Some Prospects With Very High Running Scores: Brett Gardner, Eric Reed, Denard Span, Corey Wimberly.

Fielding:

While the world of defensive statistical analysis is still in its relative infancy, grading defensive skills is one of the most important aspects of scouting. The defensive spectrum existed in the scouting world before Bill James was born, as projecting a player's ability to stay at a more difficult defensive position--as opposed to being forced to move elsewhere on the diamond--can be the difference between getting to the big leagues and working at Sears. What scouts look for at each position is different, so let's go around the field.

  • Catcher: Catcher is arguably the most important defensive position, and has a unique skill set. The defensive tools required to be a catcher are not instantly transferable to other positions. It's easy to see why a center fielder has to move to a corner, or why a shortstop has to move to second base, but it's hard to find good defensive catchers, and even harder to convert players from other positions into catchers. The primary defensive skills looked for in catchers are the ability to block balls in the dirt and frame pitches well. Overall agility behind the plate plays a major factor, as does a judgment of the overall physicality of a player. It takes a special kind of durability to withstand the grind of catching 130+ games in the big leagues.

  • First Base: The least important defensive position, where players are evaluated on range and, of course, the ability to catch balls thrown by infielders, with a focus on dealing with difficult throws (high, off the line, in the dirt, etc.).

  • Middle infield: Shortstop is the most important infield position, as it takes a combination of speed, agility, soft hands, arm strength and instincts. Scouts look closely at a player's footwork and fluidity, and while speed plays an integral part of measuring a player's range, his ability to position himself properly and read the ball off the bat can play a major part in increasing (or decreasing) that range. The ideal shortstop can get to balls hit well to his left or right, and has the ability to make good throws from deep in the hole, or off-balance when charging balls. The ability to turn a double-play is also an important consideration.

    Second base is a slightly different beast. When Milwaukee drafted Rickie Weeks with the No. 2 overall pick in 2003, it was the first time a second baseman was selected in the first 10 picks since 1994, when the Twins selected LSU's Todd Walker with the eighth overall pick. Other than Weeks, a total of five second basemen have been selected in the first five rounds of the drafts over the past three years. That's a total of six second basemen out of 488 picks, or 1.2%. Basically, second basemen are not born, they are made. Second basemen are players who began as shortstops and are still athletic enough to play up the middle, but for one defensive problem or another (range, speed, arm strength), they were forced to move over. Moving from shortstop to second base involves learning the new angles on throws to the different bases and, more importantly, learning how to be the pivot-man on most double plays.

  • Third Base: While still requiring the same basic skills (though on a lesser level) as the middle infielders, third base is more of a "read and react" position that requires excellent reflexes. To earn a high grade here, players must be able to field bunts well and make plays on balls in the hole and down the line. Arm strength is a far more important factor here than any other infield position due to the distance of throws, but is graded separately.

  • Outfield: An outfielder's fielding score is nearly all about range, and obviously center fielders have much better range than corner outfielders. The biggest factor playing into range is speed, but two other factors that scouts look at, jumps and routes, can have a major impact on a player's range. Jumps are the ability of a player to read a ball's direction on contact, and to quickly begin running in the proper direction. Even at the major league level, we've all seen plenty of outfielders take a step in and then start going back, or vice-versa. Routes can be even more important. As we all know from middle-school geometry class, the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line, and scouts want to see outfielders running in as straight a line as possible from where they are positioned to where the ball is eventually caught. Bad routes are run with too dramatic a curve or a hook, which means the player is running farther than necessary to reach a ball, and therefore reducing his overall range.

Some Prospects With Very High Fielding Scores

Catchers: Chris Ianetta, Miguel Perez, Rene Rivera
Infielders: Erick Aybar, Tommy Manzella, Ryan Zimmerman
Outfielders: Charlie Fermaint, Franklin Gutierrez, Eric Reed

Arm:

Arm is just a measurement of the ability to throw the ball hard and accurately. For infielders, obviously, the farther you play from first base, the more important arm strength is. For outfielders who lack the athleticism to play center, their arm will dictate for the most part whether or not the player is a left fielder (weak arm) or a right fielder (strong arm). Catchers, just like in fielding, have some unique attributes when it comes to measuring their arm. A strong arm is important, as is a quick release when trying to gun down opposing base stealers. Catcher's arms are primarily measured in "pop times," which is the time it takes from the pitch hitting the catcher's glove to the throw arriving at second base. 1.9 seconds is major league average. 1.7 or less is outstanding. So again, mechanics enter into the equation. A catcher with average arm strength but a quick release will have an above-average pop time, while some physically large catchers with strong arms are betrayed by a slow (or long) release.

Some Prospects With Very High Arm Scores

Catchers: Adam Donachie, Miguel Perez, Rene Rivera
Infielders: Matt Bush, Jerry Gil, Corey Ragsdale
Outfielders: Rick Ankiel, Shin-Soo Choo, Cameron Maybin

Putting It All Together:

While the five tools I've discussed are the primary five tools that are graded, modern scouting has evolved, and scouting reports have changed. Scores are given for these five tools, but many of them have been split into two different scores, and others have been added. Even scouting reports I've seen from the 1970s have 20-80 scores for up to 10 different categories. So taking the example of our scouting report on the fictional Joe Ballplayer from yesterday, let's modernize things a little bit and learn some additional things about him.

Joe Ballplayer, OF  Present Future
Hitting               40      50
Power                 40      60
Plate Discipline      35      50
Speed                 40      35
Base Running          40      50
Fielding              45      55
Range                 50      45
Arm Strength          35      35
Arm Accuracy          50      55
OFP: 53

Because we've split some tools up into more than one aspect, we've learned a little more about our old friend Joe. We now know that Joe isn't a walk machine, but also isn't a complete hacker and should end up drawing his fair share of free passes. Scouts have always valued plate discipline, and relatively recently, it's become a separate grade for some organizations. In the past, plate discipline was part of the hitting score, as a player with bad plate discipline who has problems chasing outside breaking balls or sliders in the dirt is going to have a lot of difficulty at the big league level hitting for average. Players who do not draw a lot of walks are rarely good hitters for average, unless their plate coverage is off the charts (Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki, and in the minors, Howie Kendrick). We also now know that Joe has fringe-average range, but is a good fielder (good hands, good instincts), so while his arm is a little shallow, he's not a liability in left field. He's not fast, but he makes up for it with good base running instincts. So Joe is a left-fielder who is a decent all-around player. Not a star in the end, but worthy of a job, as his OFP score of 53 indicates.

As you can see, because we now provided scores in nine categories (some organizations use even more), we have a better indication of what type of player Joe is. The 20-80 scores are just a small part of a real scouting report, as they are basically the Cliffs Notes version of the total report. A standard report also contains biographical and contact information, a physical description of the player including anything relevant from the player's medical history, as well as written notes about what the player is presently good at and what the player needs to work on. In addition, there are notes about makeup (basically intangibles, and worthy of a series of articles on their own) as well as a player's signability issues (if any) when the report you are looking at is for an amateur.

When considering the scores and other factors that go into an OFP score, position plays the biggest role in weighing a player's tools. For first basemen and corner outfielders, it's all about offense. Nobody cares how good a defensive player you are at these positions if you can't hit. Right fielders have slightly more defensive importance because of the necessary arm strength, but even if you made the best throw from right field I've ever seen (I'm looking at you Alex Ochoa), you can't play these positions in the big leagues if you aren't capable of being a big-time run producer. First base and left field are for players who don't have defensive skills but can hit (Billy Butler)--you don't want a prospect to end up there, but sometimes the bat is more than worth it. Often in scouting circles, people will talk about what positions the bat will "play" at. Manny Ramirez's bat will play anywhere. Omar Vizquel's will not.

Third base is like the offense-first positions, but to a slightly lesser degree. Teams still expect their man on the hot corner to hit, and most expect power as well, but defense becomes a much larger consideration than it does with a first baseman. Up-the-middle positions are unique, because while hitting is still very important, a player simply can't be at that position unless he has defensive chops. Center fielders need speed and athleticism to play the position, but they also have higher offensive expectations than middle infielders. This all-around ability is the reason that, quite often, the best pure athlete on the team is in center. As the most important defensive position, a player's hitting is less important at shortstop, but the game has undergone some major changes in the past 30 years, and the days of the Gold Glove shortstop who plays every day despite an OPS under .600 are long gone. Everyone is expected to hit these days. As failed shortstops, second basemen are expected to hit more than shortstops to make up for their defensive inefficiencies.

Once again, catchers are a bit of a wild card, because of the uniqueness of the position. If you can't play the position, you can't get to the big leagues, offense be damned. Yes, some rare players hit well enough while struggling behind the plate to move off catcher, but there's a reason that catcher has the lowest overall output of any position in baseball. Just finding one who can play at the big league level is hard enough; finding one who can hit is simply a bonus. In addition, a great arm, while still important, does not hold the value it once did now that the stolen base is less of a factor in the game.

Tomorrow I'll discuss something more difficult than scouting position players ... scouting pitching.

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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