Amid the ruckus of a bustling city, the biggest and brightest baseball stars, along with their minor league counterparts, gathered to show off their incredible skills. One flight, four hotel rooms, two states, and seven Ubers later, I made my way into a decked out Great American Ballpark for All-Star Workout Day. The extra flair in and around the stadium, along with the excitement of the crowd, made it easy to forget that a team 15 ½ games out of first place resides here.
The day before the game itself, which essentially includes batting practice for both teams and the Home Run Derby, provides a unique scouting opportunity in the macro sense. There’s no real benefit to be gained from putting a grade on Albert Pujols’ power based on his performance in a foreign situation, with a clock playing the role of the sun setting behind the trees on the dusty fields of our youth. But the overall scope of the event provided me with an important opportunity for growth as an evaluator.
The most common question I get regarding scouting is also perhaps the simplest: what is the most important aspect of scouting? There are a number of acceptable answers that come to mind, not the least of which are that experience is important, nothing replaces an in-person look from behind home plate, and that numbers can help tell part of the story, but are only helpful if used properly and sparingly. There is one overriding theme, however, that encompass all of those ideals to form what is undoubtedly the most important aspect of scouting: context.
It’s not enough just to know what you’re seeing, or analyze a player’s individual skills. That evaluation in and of itself is worthless without the appropriate context.
The batting practice display put on prior to the Futures Game on Sunday provided a first bit of context for the weekend. While traversing the rigors of the scouting landscape throughout the season, it’s easy for one’s context to become skewed by a lack of variance in competition levels, exposure to extreme offensive or defensive environments, or any number of other scouting variables. In a strong hitter’s environment such as a warm summer day in Great American Ballpark, with a collection of the best raw power in the minors in front of me, an impressive batting practice session by both teams served as a visual reminder of what a plus version of the tool most easily affected by varying environments and levels should look like.
The disparity was even more evident during All-Star batting practice on Monday. With the raindrops having abandoned the area, presenting us with a baseball-hitting window, the truly elite hitters that the league has to offer reminded anyone within striking distance what it means to reside atop the grading scale. They may be the finished product of the players we are trying to project at the minor league level, but these players serve as a reminder of just how impressive a hill it is that prospects are attempting to climb.
The most obvious difference in terms of the power seen on an everyday basis in the minors and that evident this weekend is not the frequency with which a player leaves the yard, but the direction. Even Ben Revere, generally regarded as residing at the bottom of the major league power scale, can sneak a ball over the fence occasionally to his pull side, especially directly down the line. The grading of raw power also depends on where on the field a player can exit.
This was perhaps the most defining difference even between the big league BP session and its Futures Game counterpart. While Futures Game BP had its fair share of power and stood out remarkably from the players in a typical minor league setting, the gap was equally as large between the Futures Game participants and the starts they hope to one day emulate.
Few prospects were able to leave the yard to any direction other than their pull side. This is not uncommon among prospects. “Most teenagers lack the physical strength and the swing fundamentals to hit long batting practice home runs to center or the opposite field,” one scout accurately assessed. This is essential for the development and application of in-game power at the major league level. Pull power is a great weapon to have, but scouting reports will eventually expose whether it’s the only likely opportunity for the ball to leave the yard, and pitchers will adjust, repeatedly working away. Only on mistakes over the plate will the hitter have a realistic chance to consistently hit one out.
But for players who have the raw power to homer in any direction, the pitcher has fewer options, leaving him more easily victimized. This made Nick Williams’ final blast halfway up the batter’s eye in center field that much more impressive.
Such was not the case during the major league session, however. Players like Justin Upton and Kris Bryant hit the grass in center field on multiple occasions, with efforts that weren’t even geared towards maximum power. This is not new for Bryant. “His batting practice was actually more impressive than Joey Gallo’s [at least year’s Futures Game],” said another scout, “because he was hitting upper deck shots to the opposite field. For me the real marker of true raw power is the ability to lift the ball out of the park to the opposite field.”
The main event of the evening, the derby itself, served as the final comparative point towards raising the bar on how easily we hand out the truly top-of-the-charts power grades. With each Todd Frazier swing, he further cemented New Jersey as an unlikely bastion of American athletic prowess, following in the footsteps of Mike Trout and Carli Lloyd. But, more importantly, as he continually conquered the deepest parts of the park, he reaffirmed what I had already begun to note more distinctly than ever this weekend, that the gap between elite big league power and its minor league counterparts is massive.
It’s important to be served this lesson in context outside the prospect cocoon every so often as a reminder of what the players we cover are trying to achieve and just how elite the skill sets have to be in order to get there. We project players to reach certain levels, but even those with average major league skills should shine brightly when surrounded by their minor league peers. A weekend among the game’s best on multiple levels helped to reinforce that lesson.