May 3, 2011
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
U Got the Look: Pitchers, Part I
If you have ever listened to the BP podcast, you have no doubt heard the always-fedora’d Kevin Goldstein and me identify what we look for in a prospect. Every player is unique, but there are certain attributes that tickle the scouting fancy more than others, whether physical or psychological. While we are recidivistic in our velocity whoring, other factors are at play when evaluating a pitcher, just like evaluating hitters is more complex than watching batting practice power displays. In this long-winded series, I’ll identity what I look for when scouting players on the mound, in the field, and in the box.
Not to get overly existential here, but scouting is a profound philosophical pursuit: Are we looking for enlightenment through the physical exceptionalism of athletes? Is it possible to separate our own deficiencies and insecurities from the process? Does the fact that I used to be quite fast influence my ability to appreciate speed in a lower-level prospect? Does the fact that I once had dreams of being a ballplayer heighten my ability to recognize those who are athletically superior to me, or does my failure create a form of subjective justice that I wield upon those that get to play out my fantasy for a paycheck?
Wow, I really got serious for a second. But scouting is about asking questions. What is this player all about? What can he do now, and what will he be able to do in the future? It’s also important to ask: Why am I forming these conclusions? Why do I value certain physical characteristics and discount others? Some of these questions will soon find answers, but the rest will require more sessions with my therapist, who should just set up a direct deposit with Baseball Prospectus at this point.
First, I look at the body. While it’s true that size doesn’t always matter, it’s also true that size often matters, and the immediate physical attributes form the skeleton of any report. When scouting a younger player, you look for signs of physical projection. Can the frame hold weight/mass? How mature is the present body? How athletic is the body? Projection gives scouts the freedom to dream, to create a conceptual space between the reality of the present and the possibilities of the future. If I see a 6-foot-3, 175-pound body, given the age and the present physical maturation, I can start envisioning arsenal projection before actually seeing the arsenal. It’s the starting point.
While an admitted velocity monger, my fancy is even more susceptible to the tickle of fastball command, especially in lower-level arms. (For the purpose of this report, let’s just assume that I’m looking at developing talent, rather than physically mature players that are nearing or have already reached the peak of their developmental arc). Establishing fastball command is the perfect building block for the rest of the arsenal. It creates the opportunity for a more effective secondary arsenal before the secondary arsenal is even deployed. Fastball command is the product of repeatability and comfort. When I look for command projection in a pitcher, I start with the mechanics. How fluid is the overall motion? Does the arm take a smooth and easy journey from hand break to extension? Can he repeat the delivery? Is the arm slot and release point consistent on every pitch? How is the overall tempo and pace of the process? Does the pitcher speed up or slow down when runners reach base? How does this affect the delivery/mechanics? Lots of questions need to be asked, and this is just the beginning.
Let’s be honest here: Fastball velocity is the meat in a pitcher’s cheeseburger. Without it, you better bring a 70-grade bun with several above-average accouterments to make up for the missing meat. Raw velocity is easy to identity and slap a grade on, which makes it one of the more tangible aspects of scouting. Here is a chart to help you identify what equals what:
Throwing hard is great, and most people find radar gun readings sexy, but without companions like command and movement, velocity is exploitable at the highest levels of the game. While it affords pitchers more room for error, it’s only one variable to the overall fastball equation, and very rarely is it strong enough to survive on its own.
To continue with the metaphor, fastball movement is the motion in the ocean, with raw velocity representing the size of the boat. (Can’t you see a pitcher with a mid-80s fastball nervously proclaiming, “My catcher is quite satisfied with my fastball. It moves all over the place. He says it’s better than throwing 95 mph. He says it’s the best he has ever caught.” Too much?) As I mentioned, velocity is very important, but straight fastballs often find barrels, and hard contact isn’t the desired result. Some pitchers are fortunate when it comes to fastball movement; it occurs naturally, stemming from the arm and not necessarily the grip. Most left-handed pitchers feature fastballs that show some arm-side movement, meaning the pitch has a little boring action into lefties and running action away from righties.
Different pitch grips will create different fastballs, each offering unique movement and velocity. Most pitchers have either a two-seam or four-seam fastball, and it’s common for a pitcher to offer both. The four-seam fastball is thrown across the seams and is the grip that allows for maximum velocity. Of course, the faster the pitch the straighter it becomes, so most four-seam fastballs lack aggressive movement. Two-seam fastballs are often called “sinkers,” which isn’t always accurate; some pitchers throw traditional “sinkers,” which are thrown a little slower than the average two-seamer and feature more extreme vertical movement. Two-seam fastballs aren’t thrown with same velocity as four-seamers, but they often provide more movement with some horizontal movement (run) and natural weight to the pitch (sink). Keep this in mind: Every pitcher is unique, so every hand will form a different relationship with the ball and therefore produce a different result. You have to look at the pitcher as an individual.
Scouting movement in person can be very challenging, as your eyes can play tricks on you, convincing you of movement in the absence of movement. Because of this phenomenon, I try to pay close attention to the hitters, watching their reactions to the pitch, judging extreme movement by what I can see from the ball and from where the bat starts versus where it ends up in the zone. A hitter’s swing can tell you a great deal about what a pitch is doing, especially if the pitch starts on one plane and ends up on another.
Late movement on a fastball is often the product of visual subterfuge, but some pitchers help create the environment for this illusion with their arm action and extension. Here’s what I mean: When a pitcher has a fast arm, the ball appears to explode out of the hand, often featuring a little hop or jump as it nears the plate. The same is true from a pitcher with excellent extension on the pitch, as the ball is released closer to the plate, has less distance to cover, and appears to have more velocity than it actually does. It appears to “jump” on the hitters. Again, if you doubt your eyes and don’t want to fall victim to the trompe l’oeil, just watch the hitter.
To reiterate, I scout the fastball in three parts—velocity, command, and movement—but I also pay close attention to the deception provided by the delivery/mechanics and the angle a pitcher can create to the plate. Some scouts value one more than the other, but I tend to give equal weight to each component when factoring the overall grade. For example: If a pitcher is a surgeon with his fastball [read: he can hit any spot he aims for], and is able to induce above-average movement with the pitch yet only throws 87-90 mph, can I grade the overall pitch as plus? While others would require more velocity to feel comfortable placing a 60 on the pitch, I have no problem throwing that grade around, especially if the command and movement are above average.
What if a pitcher throws 99 mph, but the pitch is straight and the command is well below average? What’s the grade? Just looking at raw velocity, the pitch would look to have 80-grade potential, but without movement or command, how effective will the pitch be? A scout’s job is to identify the tools as well as the proper function and utility of those tools, so without factoring in the overall effectiveness of the pitch, you are grading the pitch based on one component, which is a mistake. At present, I would make note of the 80 velocity, but also make note of the below-average command and movement, which would bring the present grade of the pitch down to slightly above average. This isn’t a universal grading system, and I have no doubt that others would disagree with the component values I assign, but this is how I roll. If you grade the fastball like this: (equal parts) velocity, movement, command, and mustache potential of the pitcher….well, you are my new hero. Jay Jaffe would have a plus fastball despite what I imagine is suspect velocity. I want to live in a world where this is possible.
Originally, I thought this might be a two-part article, as I tend to produce segmented work. Let’s face it: I’m not exactly concise with my thoughts. Unfortunately, I rounded the 1,600-word mark before I finished waxing about the fastball, so this series might end up challenging Pynchon before it’s over. Because Steven Goldman, our loving Editor in Chief, cares about your feelings, he suggested I keep the articles under 2,000 words. He’s a very smart man. I let him know that I was set to pop that ceiling, and he instructed me to trim some fat, but not at the expense of the meat. We enjoy talking about meat here at Baseball Prospectus.
Anyway, since the majority of my work is made up of fat, I decided to trim some of the meat, and offer up what should be a four-part series. In part two, I will continue with the pitchers, breaking down what I look for in the secondary arsenal, how to identify poise and instinct on the mound, and why pitchability is important. In parts three and four, I’ll focus on what I look for in the field (defense), in the batter’s box (hitting), on the bases (baserunning). I’ll also explain what my definition of player makeup is and why it’s so vital to player development. When I’m finished, you will either have a better understanding of where I’m coming from in my evaluation process, or you will start an e-mail campaign to have me replaced as a regular contributor.