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May 12, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Hitters, Part I

by Jason Parks

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In parts one and two of this series, I exhausted the word allotments per piece, yet barely scratched the surface of the subject at hand. A proper breakdown of what I look for in a pitcher would probably require a six-beer conversation, and that’s rushing it a bit. Talking continuously while maintaining a socially acceptable pace of alcohol consumption, I would need at least three hours on the platform to expatiate my thoughts on the process of pitching evaluation. Have you ever listened to someone talk for three straight hours about pitching? It’s awesome, but it requires passion, patience, and an ever-climbing blood alcohol level. The point is, I wanted to offer more, but articulating my thoughts on this page proved to be more difficult than I imagined. I’m sure it comes as no shock to you that drinking and running my mouth about scouting come naturally, while writing succinct articles with clever narratives proves to be more difficult.

Before taking the stage to deliver my thoughts on the evaluation of hitters, it needs to be stated that like the previous articles, this is going to be a six-beer conversation compressed into a few thousand words. (Actually, it would probably require a 12-beer conversation or two separate six-beer sessions, but let’s not even go there.)  Because of the density involved, I’m sometimes going to paint with a wide brush, but I’ll get precise when a detail needs dissection. As is the case for every article I write (or fail to write), my door [read: my electronic door] is always open to the fine readers of Baseball Prospectus. If you ever have any comments, questions, insults, accolades, or want clarification on a point, or want me to expand on a comment that didn’t receive enough explanation, I’m always willing to start up a conversation or provide a more thorough description. Don’t be shy.

At the Plate
When evaluating any prospect, you have to start with the body. The body is the vehicle that drives the present (remember: We are scouting underdeveloped players for the purpose of this series) and provides a window to the future range of physical performance. The future grades placed on the raw tools are influenced by whether the body doesn’t give you much to dream on [project], or if it shows warning signs upon initial encounter.

The process of evaluating hitters starts in the cage, where you can start to piece together the swing mechanics and the way the body works in connection to hitting. From a snapshot perspective, you want to see athleticism without really having to search for it. I look at the way the hips work and the overall coordination being displayed. This is a very simple point: Coordinated athletes are better equipped to make adjustments, both in the field and at the plate. The ability to make adjustments is the key to finding sustainable success at the highest level. More on this in part two.

After taking notes on the body and letting my mind extrapolate the present into the future, I focus on what is actually happening with the bat in the hand. Hitting is a combination of several factors, the most important of which is strength. Without strength, you could possess the hand-eye coordination of a Korean StarCraft champion, but your contact ability would be rendered obsolete when velocity knocks the bat out of your hands. I promise I’m not looking at you, Dee Gordon. Okay, I’m looking in the general vicinity of Dee Gordon. General vicinity.  

This is why evaluating the body is so vital to the scouting process. Let’s say you see a 19-year-old hitter in the cage, and he looks like he’s 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds. Ask yourself these questions: Does the frame look like it can hold more weight/strength as the player develops? Is there good present strength despite the immature body? Are the hips narrow? What about the shoulders? Not to make it overly complicated, but does the player have bloodlines in baseball? If so, what did his relatives’ bodies look like at physical maturity? You don’t have to channel your inner Thomas Magnum and open an investigation, but you aren’t going to be penalized for knowing more than the next guy. (But if you can pull off a Thomas Magnum aesthetic, don’t let me dissuade you.) I wouldn’t recommend stalking a prospect to find developmental clues, but it doesn’t have to begin and end with what happens on the field. Open yourself to avenues of information, but don’t cross any ethical boundaries and don’t be creepy about it.

With eyes still focused on the cage, I turn my attention to swing mechanics. Obviously, watching a hitter against live pitching in game action carries more weight than what transpires in the controlled environment of a batting cage. But even five o’clock evaluations have merit, as they help highlight what is inherently possible when the bat hits the ball; whether it equates to game action or not is inconsequential to the parameters the display helps establish.  

You are already well aware that I’m watching the body, but now its time to focus on specific parts of the body and how their functionality translates to the successful act of hitting a baseball. The better the hands, the better the hitter. Simple, right? Hands establish the physical connection with the bat, but they also control the navigational system that takes the bat into the load, the zone, the path of the baseball, and through the extensions. Let me repeat this: The better the hands, the better the hitter.

I mentioned the load, which I could either break down in 500 words, or I could just describe it as the first phase in the mechanical process where the hands move back into hitting position and the weight shifts to the back leg/foot before triggering. Basically, it’s pulling the bow back before firing the arrow. When I watch the load (take it easy…), I’m looking for tranquil movements: I want to see the hands slowly drift back (not forward). I want to see a balanced weight shift. I want to see the front shoulder and hips aligned (not already open). I want everything to be fluid. The act of making contact with a baseball has everything to do with timing, and the load starts the timing process. When hitters rush the process, bring their hands forward before going back, drop their hands too low, or fire their hips too early, it disrupts the timing and the flow, and such mechanical hitches either get ironed out or the hitter gets exposed in a graphic manner.*

After the load, most hitters will institute an additional timing mechanism with their front foot to get in rhythm with the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Most use a front foot pickup or stride of some variety, whether it’s just a simple replacement or an exaggerated kick. Generally, I don’t like to see a front foot lift over 12 inches, and I prefer the timing mechanism to be as subtle and controlled as possible. The less movement, the better.

As the ball approaches the plate, the most difficult thing in any sport is put into motion: triggering the bat into the zone for the purpose of making contact with an object being thrown with exceptional velocity. It’s at this point when the hips should fire, meaning the core begins its rotation and the hands get ready for business. As the weight starts to shift and the hands start the journey to contact, you want to see them remain close to the body [read: not fully extended] to create a quick and efficient path into the zone. Long swings don’t normally translate into long careers.

At this point, the weight has started to shift, the hips have opened, and the front leg has planted, creating the leverage necessary to send the bat through the zone with authority. Staying balanced, the hands control the bat in the zone to the point of impact, where the first extension takes place and a hitter drives through the ball. Finally, the second extension takes place as the hitter rolls his hands, continues the process of driving through the ball, and then climaxes in a euphoric wave. Blah, blah, blah, the ball is hit.

The act of hitting is an extremely complicated process that doesn’t require an extremely complicated breakdown to actually understand. I wanted to point out some of the more intricate details involved, but only to show you how the food is made. You don’t need to know all the particulars for casing the sausage to evaluate a hitter. You only need to know how to recognize the fact that it is sausage, and then to appreciate the varying degrees of tastiness the sausage can have. If you don’t like food metaphors, you don’t like happiness.

Let’s make it simple. You want to see balance. You want to see mechanics conducive for a clean, compact stroke. You want to see skill in the hands, which allow for bat control. You want to see hand-eye coordination, which will allow for contact ability. You want to see fluidity and strength in all the movements in order to create bat speed. And finally, and most importantly, you want to see comfort. A hitter has to be comfortable at the plate to establish proper mechanics and the subsequent muscle memory to successfully execute a series of movements in the blink of an eye. Comfort is to hitting as marijuana is to making Cheech and Chong appear funny. Or so I’ve heard.

Now that we have a basic construction in place, part two of this series can focus on the grades assigned to both the hit and power tools, and we can go over what I’m really looking for when evaluating a hitter. While it’s true that the body and the mechanical profile start the process, the product is what ultimately makes the prospect.

 * I want to mention a few things about unconventional swing mechanics. If you happen to come face-to-face with a successful yet unconventional swing, sometimes you just have to say, “If it works, it works.” This runs counter to most of what I’ve propagated in this article, but when special cases arise, you have to just go with your gut. If you think it’s only a matter of time before the unconventional swing gets exploited, make note of it and grade the hit tool accordingly. The majority of the time, you will be standing on solid ground. If you think the hitter in question can find sustainable success despite a swing that breaks the mold of modern mechanical theory, well, kudos to you. How many scouts lined up to question Jeff Bagwell’s Senator Larry Craig-approved batting stance, or Gary Sheffield’s violent pre-swing bat movement?  The ones that did were proven wrong. It happens. Here’s the point: Just because it’s unorthodox doesn’t mean it can’t work. It’s good business to know the script, but don’t rush to slam the door if it happens to be painted a different color. 

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

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