March 15, 2006
Taking A Step Back, Part Two
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.
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.
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.
Some Prospects With Very High Fielding Scores
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
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.