Outside of speed, scouting a hitter’s current power grade might actually be the easiest tool to grade for a hitter. It’s one of the few tools that can actually be graded somewhat tangibly, as you’re essentially grading a player’s ability to hit a baseball far and how often they can do it.
What isn’t easy however, is grading a hitter’s power potential. There are a litany of factors that come into play when determining how the tool will develop, and outside of perhaps a pitcher’s velocity, it’s the skill that involves the most volatility based on things that aren’t necessarily in the player-development team’s control.
“There are always obvious standouts,” a long-time National League scout said. “The guys who are going to have 70 or 80 power are pretty easy to point out. What’s hard is figuring out the average power tools, the guys who can only get the ball to the warning track but with some work and natural development could give you 10 to 15 homers a year. That being said, if you know what you’re looking for, you can usually pick out who those guys are, though you’ll never get them all right.
As the scout mentioned, there are lots of factors that go into the grade, but here are the four that I believe to be the most pertinent in grading a player’s power potential.
The body type matters, until it doesn’t
There are always going to be body types that are easier to project power for and guys that don’t stand a chance. Guys who are built like Giancarlo Stanton or Joey Gallo always stood a better chance of hitting for power than a player built like Chone Figgins or Didi Gregorius.
“It’s similar to projection with pitchers,” the scout said. “There are just certain frames that you’re going to be more confident in to get stronger. You have to do your homework on their work ethic of course, but typically we’re looking at guys who have a frame that can add muscle to the frame. Those are usually guys who are in the taller range, but it’s not a lock. We also look for a high backside; those guys typically have the type of frame that project well, as compared to the alternative.”
While the build is unquestionably an important part of the projection, it also is no guarantee in determining who will or won’t hit for power.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read power grades just based on size that make me cringe. If everything else adds up, you can’t just assume he’s not going to be a power hitter because of his size. And if a guy has a swing that doesn’t have what you’re looking for, it doesn’t matter how big and strong they are, they’re not going to hit for power, not consistently anyway.”
Just like there are certain body types that are conducive to hitting for power, there are swings that are built for it as well.
Essentially, what scouts are looking for are angles. Even the strongest of hitters need some sort of loft in order to lift the baseball, though if there’s enough bat speed there are exceptions to that rule. Those angles start with the hands, but from there the bat takes an evolving path that involves the entire body.
“You hear guys use the phrase uppercut, but that’s not what you’re looking for,” the scout said. “What you want to see is the hand-load allow the bat to point toward the catcher, then as the weight transfers over, the bat should travel through the zone with just enough loft to lift and drive the ball into the air. You don’t want to see him try and golf balls out of the park, all that does is lead to pop-ups and timing issues.”
The lower half/weight transfer
As important as the swing path is, it’s essentially useless without the incorporation of the lower half of the body. If a player cannot transfer his weight in a timely fashion—or in some cases not transfer the weight at all—it’s difficult to project a hitter adding anything to his power grade.
“Everything has to be in unison,” the scout said. “Balance is such an important part of hitting, and if you can’t stay balanced, it’s really hard to explode on the baseball. You don’t have to take a massive stride or have a huge leg kick, but you do have to be able to transfer your weight from the backside to the front. It’s a non-negotiable for me.”
And like our good friend Shakira tells us, the hips don’t lie, either. If they open too soon—you’ve likely heard the term “fly open”—it affects the entire timing of the swing, and leads to weak contact or whiffs. If the hips stay closed or don’t get “rotational,” the hitter doesn’t generate the necessary torque, and balls that could leave the yard become easy outs in the outfield.
Approach plays a large part in almost all aspects of the game, and the ability to hit for power is no different.
You’ve likely heard the terms “raw power” and “in-game power,” but here’s a friendly refresher course. Raw power is purely the strength of the hitter, and in-game power is how well he can apply that power in actual games. Why hitters can’t tap into their raw power can be for any number of reasons, but it generally comes down to something involving their approach at the plate.
“It’s always frustrating, but this is really where we’re doing our most projecting,” said the scout. “Sometimes it’s just the guy has contact issues that are so bad that the power can’t help but play down. Sometimes it’s a guy who refuses to get into a good hitter’s count so he can get a pitch he can drive.
“The one I seem to run into the most though, is a kid who will hit massive shots and show easy plus power during [batting practice], but then changes his approach and swing to something more contact based. If you’re seeing that from a prep or college kid you hope your player development team can work that out, but if you’re seeing that as a professional, that can be a really hard habit to break.”
It’s an imperfect science, but if you see a young hitter with a projectable frame, a swing with natural loft, an assertive approach, and the ability to incorporate the lower-half of the body, he’s got as good a shot as any to hit for power as a professional.