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March 21, 2013
While there are several players that come up in the conversation for best hit tool, few draw such consistent praise as Taveras. The swing mechanics aren’t so much pretty as they are violent, but Taveras has an uncanny ability to control the violence in his swing and put the bat on the ball. The strength in his forearms and wrists helps create plus-plus bat speed through the zone and the overall swing plane allows him to keep the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone for an extended period of time. Taveras’ contact is often loud and consistently sprayed to all fields. The only question surrounding Taveras’ hitting ability is the frequency with which he swings and the aggressiveness of his overall approach; but even that has yet to keep scouts from projecting him as a perennial .300 hitter and potential batting champion.
All three of these players were given strong consideration for the top spot in the minor leagues, but none could match the overwhelming praise piled on Taveras. Profar is nothing short of a fantastic overall player and most scouts project him as a consistent .300 hitter in the big leagues, much like Taveras. After an impressive college career that left amateur scouts drooling, Rendon has flown a little under the radar over the last year because of injury. There may be durability and longevity concerns surrounding Rendon, but nobody questions his ability to hit for a high average. He has an excellent approach at the plate, quick hands and good barrel control, leading to plenty of hard contact and high batting averages. Christian Yelich may be the most unheralded of the four prospects in this discussion, but he owns a gorgeous swing that generates hard line drives to all fields. Like Profar and Rendon, Yelich profiles as a potential .300 hitter, just not in the class of Oscar Taveras.
All-Time Tool: Tony Gwynn
How to Identify It: Hitting a baseball isn’t always as easy as Larry Walker made it seem when he said “See ball. Hit ball.” Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. A skill as difficult to execute can be just as difficult to identify. Start with the pre-pitch setup. The positioning of a hitter’s hands and his pre-pitch movement (often referred to as trigger or load) is extremely important. “Quiet” hands are desirable. Hitters that load with a consistent and relatively simple mechanism have a better chance of getting the bat to the zone smoothly and on time. Additional pre-pitch movement (sometimes referred to as a timing mechanism) such as a high leg kick, toe tap or long stride must also be monitored. Idiosyncrasies like leg kicks and toe taps can throw off a hitter's timing; causing them to be early or late to the point of attack and frequently swinging through the ball or making weak contact. Long strides can alter timing as well, but they are more frequently the cause of a hitter changing his eye level during the swing. Under ideal circumstances, good hitters demonstrate modest pre-pitch movement, allowing them to remain on balance throughout the initial phase of their swings. Once the pitch is on the way, good hitters will demonstrate an ability to manipulate their hands and the barrel of the bat as it approaches and goes through the hitting zone. A hitter with good hands can adjust to different types of pitches in different parts of the strike zone (and sometimes outside the strike zone). Those same hitters show an ability to keep their hands in or extend their arms as necessary to complete the adjustment and drive the ball to all fields. An additional part of the pre-pitch hitting sequence is early pitch identification and a strong knowledge of the hitting zone. All of these individual pieces leading up to impact can lead to the type of contact necessary to hit for a high average. The nuances threaded throughout all of these individual attributes are countless, and those nuances are difficult to separate. A hitter with excellent balance throughout the swing can be undone by modest hand-eye coordination or pitch recognition. Conversely, hitters with exceptional hand-eye coordination can at times hit without being balanced. Hitting, and identifying the ability to hit is far more art than science. There are no absolutes in hitting and in many cases it is about identifying the individual elements and coming to a conclusion about a hitter’s projection based on your gut and the results you see during game action.
The power Sano generates stands out in today’s baseball environment, because it is truly impressive and because it is a rare commodity in today’s game. Sano has the strong, physical build associated with elite power hitters. He shows plus bat speed despite the natural length present in his swing. The bat speed, brute strength and loft in the back half of his swing combine to produce tremendous raw power that is capable of generating towering home runs. While Sano’s raw power is impressive, he must continue improving his pitch recognition and plate discipline to allow full utility of the tool. To date, Sano has done an admirable job transitioning his raw power to game action, allowing easier projection of his 35-plus home run potential.
The only player truly in Sano’s class in terms of raw power is Texas’ Joey Gallo. In fact, Gallo might actually have more raw power than Sano. During internal discussions, the scales tipped in favor of Sano largely because of the projected game utility of the tool. Gallo’s swing-from-the-heels approach may ultimately force his raw power to play a grade lower as he faces more advanced pitching. Also a grade lower on the 20-80 scouting scale are high-end prospects Javier Baez, Xander Bogaerts and Oscar Taveras. All three players display exceptional bat speed and possess the potential to blast 25-30 home runs at their peak. Both Baez and Bogaerts need to continue refining their approaches to maximize their power potential, while Taveras’ advanced hitting ability should allow his power to play at a high level.
Top Major League Power Hitter: Giancarlo Stanton (Miami Marlins)
All-Time Tool: Mickey Mantle
How to Identify It: In a series like this it is necessary to discuss power potential in the context of hitting ability. Without the latter, all the strength, bat speed and raw power in the world won’t matter. The essence of a power hitter is bat speed; without it, a hitter will not impact the ball enough to generate legitimate power. Having strength and snapping the bat through the hitting zone is only part of the equation when considering bat speed. How the hitter collectively applies the elements of the hit tool discussed above can lead to a fluid, explosive swing that leads to “loud” contact. While bat speed is the basis of power, there are other mechanical components that are critical to realizing the raw potential many hitters display in batting practice. Within the swing, power hitters generate torque with an explosive hip turn that is timed with the impact on the ball. In addition, a hitter’s swing plane is of critical importance to the projection of power. There needs to be a slight upward trajectory (not quite an uppercut) to the swing, particularly on the back half to help lift the ball. Hitters that project for maximum home-run power have a tendency to impact the ball on the lower half, creating back spin and adding to the loft generated by the upward trajectory of the swing. The combination of bat speed, mechanical intricacies and the utility of the hit tool are all essential to generating power. Because of the many elements involved in hitting for power, it can be especially difficult projecting power in an extremely young, raw player. In such cases, scouts are forced to look for early signs of hit utility, the requisite mechanics and physical projection to make their case for future power. Scouting and projecting power is not as simple and straightforward as looking for the big guy that sends the ball flying over the fence. It is a nuanced process that is a derivative of hitting ability, making it exceptionally abstract and difficult to project.
Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Team. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.