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Scouts spend countless hours watching and evaluating players, carefully considering the appropriate grade for each tool or each pitch a player offers. Throughout the course of the season and particularly throughout the course of ranking season, grades are tossed around with near reckless abandon. This player has plus power, and that player has a below-average fastball. This player offers above-average hit projection while that player buries hitters with a potential plus-plus curveball. It's easy to talk about the quality of an individual tool, but what does it all mean in the context of other players?

In the second edition of the annual Top Tools Series, the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff debated long and hard over how individual players’ tools stack up against those of their counterparts. Drawing upon our own eyewitness accounts and opinions from scouts across the league, the team debated and compiled the following ratings. The end result is a product that captures the oft-missing context of how individual player tools compare and who has the best of each tool in baseball.

Previous entries: Best Hit/Power | Best Speed/Makeup | Best Infield Defense/Infield Arm | Best Outfield Defense/Outfield Arm | Best Catcher Defense/Catcher Arm

Fastball

Top Fastball in the Minor Leagues: Yordano Ventura (Kansas City Royals)
The raw velocity Ventura possesses can stand with that of any pitcher in baseball, starter or reliever. What separates Ventura is his ability to combine movement with extraordinary velocity while also maintaining that velocity deep into games. Ventura’s arm speed borders on the absurd and helps him generate elite velocity from a small, thin frame. Over the last two years, he has dramatically improved his ability to manipulate the movement on his fastball, cutting and sinking the pitch in a variety of velocity ranges. Ventura is surprisingly strong for his size and continues to generate easy cheese no matter how deep he works into the game, giving him the full suite of characteristics associated with a premium fastball.

Others Considered: Kyle Crick (San Francisco Giants), Mike Foltynewicz (Houston Astros), Lucas Giolito (Washington Nationals), Jonathan Gray (Colorado Rockies), Keury Mella (San Francisco Giants), Alex Meyer (Minnesota Twins), Fracellis Montas (Chicago White Sox)
The Giants have had a knack for developing high-octane arms in recent years, and both Crick and Mella should continue that tradition. Crick’s fastball currently plays in the 94-97 range and touches near triple digits, and scouts frequently project that he could sit at 97-99 mph in short bursts. Mella already has plenty of velocity, sitting in the mid-90s, and at just 20 years old with a projectable frame, he could park in the upper 90s consistently over the next couple of years. The Astros have seen Foltynewicz make the leap from a guy who sat in the low- to mid-90s to a guy capable of working in the upper 90s and touching 100 mph in most of his starts. He velocity still fluctuates from time to time, but his consistency improved throughout the 2013 season and he is poised to make his mark with one of the elite fastballs in baseball. Gray, Giolito, and Meyer can all pump mid-90s gas while regularly touching 97-98 mph throughout their starts, and Giolito has the potential to surpass that range as he continues to get further away from Tommy John surgery.

Top Major League Fastball: Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati Reds)

All-Time Tool: Aroldis Chapman

How to Identify It: Arriving at a fastball grade is one of the simpler thought processes of all the tools, because it is more of a measurement than a judgment. As opposed to the rest of the pitching tools, velocity plays an overwhelming role in the process, with a radar gun being the instrument of choice in determining a pitcher's velocity. The standard scouting scale for velocity is as follows:

Velocity (mph)

Grade

97+

80

94-96

70

92-94

60

89-91

50

87-89

40

85-87

30

84 and below

20

A pitcher's initial fastball grade is derived from where he regularly finds himself on the radar gun, or "sits" throughout the outing. The peak velocity is not used but could be a sign of things to come in the future. The chart doesn't differentiate between whether a pitcher is left- or right-handed, but handedness will often be noted due to the scarcity of hard-throwing lefties. A pitcher's future fastball grade could be higher on the 20-80 scale than his present grade if there's projection in the player. This could be physical projection, as a young athletic hurler could find himself throwing harder once he's able to tack on additional strength and fill out his frame. Another factor could be the player development team, which might improve and solve issues in a delivery, such as by incorporating the lower body and legs for a player who is all upper body.

While the number that appears on the radar gun has much to do with the grade, it's not an exact science. This is where the judgment factors in, as evaluators may change a fastball grade depending on its life or lack of life. An upper-90s fastball is an 80-grade offering but could be moved down to a 70 or 75 if the pitch is true and flat. Control is also an important factor in the grading process, as some evaluators put a higher importance on where a pitcher "sits" for strikes as opposed to all pitches, which could decrease a pitcher's grade. —Ronit Shah

Curveball

Top Curveball in the Minor Leagues: Archie Bradley (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Featuring a knuckle-curve that can buckle knees, Bradley’s hammer has few true competitors in the minor leagues. Thrown with serious conviction, Bradley generates atypical velocity with his curveball, helping to make the bite and vertical movement even more dramatic. He has demonstrated an ability to move the pitch around, finishing it in the strike zone and working it out of the zone as a chase pitch. With frequent plus-plus grades, Bradley uses the curveball to back up his overpowering fastball, leaving him with a dominant one-two punch at the front of his arsenal.

Others Considered: Hunter Harvey (Baltimore Orioles), Lance McCullers (Houston Astros), Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates), Zack Wheeler (New York Mets), Kyle Zimmer (Kansas City Royals)
Last year’s leader in the clubhouse, Taillon still has a big-time hammer, but the progress Bradley made in 2013 couldn’t be ignored. Wheeler and Zimmer both rate highly as well, and they earned plenty of support from scouts, but the consensus indicated that they were a half tick behind Taillon and Bradley. McCullers had one of the best curveballs in the 2012 draft and the pitch showed more consistency throughout his full-season debut last year. Harvey is a new entrant to the mix and could establish his breaking ball as one of the premier pitches in the minor leagues with a strong showing in 2014.

Top Major League Curveball: Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers)

All-Time Tool: Nolan Ryan

How to Identify It: The curveball is the more traditional, but now less used, of the breaking pitches. It's a vertical breaking pitch, but it can come in many shapes and velocities. Although it varies based on the arm angle, the curve will usually not have a lot of horizontal movement. A 12-6 or 11-6 rotation (referring to movement superimposed on the face of a clock) is ideal for a right-handed pitcher; 1- or 2-6 shapes are ideal for lefties, who tend to have lower arm slots. A lower arm angle or the hand not being on top of the ball can cause the pitch to lose definition and become “slurvy.”

A curveball is thrown similarly to a football at release. The grip is usually held on one half of the ball with the middle finger resting against the side of the horseshoe on the seams of the ball. At release, the fingers should be on top of the ball so that they can pull down through the ball, creating the sharp downward movement that you want. The shape of the pitch may be loopier/bigger or may “fall off the table.” Loopier curveballs are slower with more depth and up-and-down movement, while still staying tight throughout. They can become “lazy” when they lose the sharpness and are picked up earlier out of hand. Harder curveballs will not have as big a shape but will stay on plane with less upward movement, then dive suddenly just before reaching the plate. The best curveballs overall will have late, sharp movement, making balls become strikes and strikes become chase pitches. —Steffan Segui

Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.

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azynkewl
3/04
In the Mets top prospect list Syndergaard is listed as having an '8' fastball. How come he's not in consideration?
juice133
3/04
Syndergaard's name came up occasionally with scouts and I don't recall it coming up in our internal conversations. He has an exceptional fastball, but for whatever reason his name wasn't mentioned with the frequency of the other players listed.
smallflowers
3/04
Wow, Nolan Ryan. I assume he's a top 10 or 20 fastball of all time too, yes? Could this be a skill that needs to be era-adjusted?
mgolovcsenko
3/04
No love for Robert Stephenson? Aren't his best 2 pitches a fastball and curve??
Muboshgu
3/04
Sure as schnitzel. Professor Parks even gave the FB a "7+", no "potential".
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=22722
aceblack
3/04
Fall off the table
walrus0909
3/04
What, no one mentioned Sidd Finch? No love for 168 mph in cowboy boots?
leites
3/04
One prominent prospect writing significantly downgraded Ventura's overall potential because he felt Ventura's fastball lacked "downward plane" (as a result of his lack of height) and thus that he would allow too many HRs to be a successful starter. Interested in whether you could elaborate on "movement" vs "downward plane". Thanks!
ssegui
3/04
Not Mark but Ill give it a go. Ventura is 5'11 so lack of downward plane is definitely a concern. Essentially what the concern is, is that Ventura's fastball will stay on one parallel plane to the ground and be flat instead having a more downward trajectory towards the plate. Ventura though does a good job of staying tall in his mechanics and releasing the ball from a high point. Essentially a flat pitch is easier to hit because the ball is actually where the hitters eyes think it is (hitters cant physically see the ball the final 15 feet of its flight, so the downward plane moves the ball to the effect that its not where it was when the hitter last saw it) and in theory is easier to barrel up and more importantly lift consistently. Plus he has the explosive tailing movement to boot and maintains it throughout and thats why we have it as the best.
leites
3/04
Thanks, that's helpful!
timber
3/04
Not to belabor the point, but the very same evaluator described Ventura's fastball as "straight," yet you say it has "explosive tailing movement." How can that be?
ssegui
3/04
Perhaps they meant "Flat". Its not straight by any means, as Parks writes " he can manipulate the movement". If they think the lack of angle has him pitching on one plane then it would be flat, but flat can still move horizontally. So that may have been their thinking with the wrong wordage. It definitely moves though.
nickgieschen
3/04
One thing I don't understand about this is that hitters are conditioned to hit a ball with a downward plane. IIRC from a Ted Williams vs. Charlie Lau debate, Williams was a proponent of a slight uppercut since this would allow the bat to square up to the downward moving ball better. It seems to me the fact that Ventura's ball doesn't have downward plane might even be an advantage. I guess what I'm asking is whether there's actual evidence for this downward plane thing or is this just some unexamined scouting truism?
ptakers
3/04
Ryan ahead of Koufax and Blyleven? Never.
MattSz
3/04
Last year's article gave Blyleven the all-time curveball award. I'm pretty sure a mistake was made here.
juice133
3/04
No mistake was made. We got different feedback this year, both internally and externally.
ErikBFlom
3/05
At one point Ryan had a reputation to appear to throw the curve at the batter's head and still get a strike. Do you want to be the batter guessing curve or fastball in that situation?
doog7642
3/04
This series is really fun. Thanks.
Muboshgu
3/04
Can't wait for sliders and changeups. Any other pitches in the offing, like cutters and splitters? Dice K and the gyroball perhaps?
juice133
3/04
We stuck to just slider and changeup for other pitchers, and there will also be a look at best command.
bobbygrace
3/04
Love this series!

Anyone care to take some guesses on the names in the upcoming entries in the pitchers' series? My guesses for all-time slider, change, and command: Steve Carlton, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux.
vigilantebsball
3/04
I'm sure Randy Johnson is in the mix for best slider.
canada
3/04
Mark or other BP staff - has the 20-80 fastball velo scale been "updated" in recent years?

By my quick check of the charts at fangraphs, the median fastball velo amongst qualified starters was about 91.5 mph and relievers was 92.0 mph in 2013. There were only 18 starters of 80 (ex Dickey) who averaged less than 90.0 mph.

Maybe it's a loose definition of "sitting at" vs. average but the whole scale just seems off. You'd think a starter prospect who sits 89-91 would be a 35 or 40 given the empirical data, not a 50. There were also only 2 pitchers (Strasburg and Harvey) who averaged over 95mph.

myshkin
3/04
The issue here is that, while the 20-80 scale came from social science with the implications of a normal distribution with mean of 50 and standard deviation of 10, scouting usage does not hew to those implications. The population is not distributed normally, and 50 is not the mean of the population. That said, if the scale no longer has the range to convey meaning clearly, then it's a problem, and I recall that Parks and others have mentioned that at least one pure measurement scale (speed, I think) has moved over the decades.
ronito
3/04
This is an interesting comment.

I believe you're referring to average speed on the scale being above-average at the major league level. Also, I was talking with a scout the other day about this, and how some teams didn't change their scales (specifically, for power) during the steroid era.
canada
3/05
Interesting, I agree to a point. While my knowledge of stats is a little rusty, average pitcher velocity seems to follow binomial distribution.

While the 2013 dataset is a SSS, i downloaded the fangraphs data and this is what is implied based on the 1 standard deviation rule for 20-80 (it's only based on average velocity for each pitcher and not all pitches thrown)

Average: 92.2 mph, Standard deviation: 2.3 mph

20: 86.3 and below (3 players)
30: 86.3-88.7 (8 players)
40: 88.7-91.0 (52 players)
50: 91.0-93.4 (93 players)
60: 93.4-95.7 (46 players)
70: 95.7-98.0 (11 players)
80: 98 and above (2 players)

So basically, if you assume a pitcher sits within 1/2 of standard deviation above and below his fastball (so a guy with an average fastball of 93.0 mph sits between 91.8 mph and 94.2 mph) it looks like the scale as it's shown here is low by about 2 mph purely based on the 2013 season

canada
3/05
This is for both relievers and starters. Starters had an average velocity of 91.4 mph and a standard deviation of 2.0 mph. Relievers had an average velocity of 92.6 mph and a standard deviation of 2.4 mph. So a 50-grade for a starter is 90-92 mph, while a 50 grade for a reliever is 91.5-94 mph.

Either way, well off of 89-91 being a 50-grade, especially for relievers. I also kept in guys like Darren O'Day and Brad Ziegler which skews the data even more since you can't compare their fastballs to Aroldis Chapman.
bishopscreed
3/05
Perhaps the scale still reflects (through institutional inertia) that velocity used to be measured closer to the plate, but is now measured near the release point.
bishopscreed
3/04
Does Ventura have a chance to be a true ace starter, or is something aside from the fastball holding back his game? Jason Parks had his overall future potential as "7: Number 2 starter." I understand that is already high praise, but with the best fastball in the minors and two 6+ secondary pitches, can he realistically aim even higher?
smallflowers
3/04
He is small, that's why. His frame might not hold the workload of a #1.
CharlieWerner
3/04
giolito has potential 8 hung on his curveball and he's not mentioned. also zack wheeler is not a prospect anymore so he shouldn't be mentioned in the others receiving consideration list
Yefrem
3/04
Yes he is
Yefrem
3/04
Oh wait, that was fastball. Whoops. Ha!
MikeJordan23
3/05
No Adam Wainwright mention for best curveball?