The 20-80 (or 2-8) scale functions as a universally agreed-upon language for communicating information about tools and projected performance at the major-league level. As a scout, knowing your club’s iteration of the scale inside and out is arguably just as important as the talent evaluation component of the job.
Scouting is, of course, an inescapably subjective exercise, but one that aspires to formalized methods. For the most part that’s possible, especially in evaluating major-league or high-minors talent. But sometimes the scale as is just can’t handle the demands of the evaluative process. Sometimes the scale must bend. Consider the amateur hit tool.
The scale is calibrated such that 5 is major-league average, with each grade up or down representing a standard deviation from the mean. Consequently, it’s very difficult to produce present hit tool grades for amateur and low-level minor leaguers that actually convey meaningful insight about the current state of the player’s hit tool. If dropped into the major-league talent environment in his draft year, the best high school hitter in the country would be a present 2. I’m a 2; you (the reader) are a 2, unless of course you’re a highly-skilled professional hitter; the best high school hitters in the country are 2s; and all but a handful of the best drafted college hitters are 2s. The preceding statements are all accurate if you’re basing the grade on projected performance over the next three months at the major-league level, but assigning 2s en masse to amateurs doesn’t convey anything meaningful about the current state of the player’s bat and how far he has to go to reach his assigned future grade. Teams approach this issue in a number of different ways and there isn’t really a right or wrong answer. The goal is to maintain consistency and transparency, such that anyone in the organization will understand what you mean if you put a 4/5 on a guy.
The Peer Grade
Kiley McDaniel, former BP rival and noted Reggaeton enthusiast, laid out one of the approaches used by teams to grade an amateur’s present hit tool in an early look at the 2015 draft class, then added a bit more in Part 5 of his 83-part treatise on the hit tool.
“The present hit grades for (Brendan) Rodgers and for all amateur players going forward is a peer grade (which I’ll discuss in more detail in a few days in another article about the hit tool), rather than just putting blanket 20s on everyone’s present hit tool. A peer grade means how the player performs currently in games relative to his peers: players the same age and general draft status or skill level. Some teams started using this system to avoid over-projecting a raw hitter; some use the rule that you can’t project over 10 points above the peer grade for the future grade. This helps you avoid saying players that can’t really hit now will become standout big league hitters. Obviously, some will, but it’s not very common and it’s probably smart to not bet millions on the rare one that will.”
The appeal of this approach is that it gives scouts more freedom to use the entirety of the scale, which of course allows for greater differentiation between players, many of whom start blending together, especially in the middle rounds and beyond. The downside is that defining the “peer group” is difficult and somewhat problematic. If you’re evaluating a top-five-round high school center fielder from Florida, are you comparing his hit tool to all top-five-round center fielders? All draft-worthy players? All high school players? Where does the subsetting end? Additionally, using this approach necessarily means splitting the scale in two—one iteration designed specifically for amateur talent and one designed specifically for pro talent. This is fine if the distinction is agreed upon and understood by all within the organization, but it necessarily means that the hit tool a player is given as an amateur cannot be compared directly to the grade he’ll receive once he signs and starts playing in front of pro scouts.
The Low Minors Translation
If an organization is fine with breaking the scale down into two versions, then you might also see the present hit tool for amateur players graded according to their projected performance in the lower levels of affiliated ball. A 2 is given to a player who will likely struggle with the bat and spend two years in rookie ball; a 5 is given to only a handful of hitters in a given class—the “cream of the crop”; and 3s and 4s are given to players who fall somewhere in between. I really like this framework for evaluating amateur talent because it represents the outright admission that the scale needs to bend in order to actually convey something meaningful about a player. Also, low minors performance is a readily available heuristic for scouts to access as many pull double duty, strictly covering the amateur beat leading up to the draft then splitting time between the amateur summer circuit and pro scouting coverage after the draft. Once again, the player’s amateur hit grade is necessarily rendered useless once he reaches pro ball, but this method does a good job of painting a picture for uniformed and non-uniformed player development folks regarding, broadly, “what the hitter has to work with.”
The Ingredients Grade
Last but not least among the methods I’m familiar with is the “ingredients” grade version of the present hit tool. According to this framework, one must think of the present hit tool not in terms of performance at the major-league level but, rather, in terms of the “hitting ingredients” the player has to work with. You like the player’s bat speed, his swing path, and his balance at the plate such that you put a 6 on his future hit tool. Then answer the following questions: How far away is this player from reaching that projection of 6 and how many adjustments must he make to get there? Amateur players always have an aspect of their swing that can be improved, so you’ll almost never see a 6/6 using this framework. Further, a 6/6 would beg the question: “If there’s so much to like about him right now, then what’s preventing him from being a 6/7?” A present 5 is the most common grade you’d see for a future 6 hitter in this framework, as the 5 translates to, “he has the qualities of a 6 hitter but there’s some aspect of his mechanical profile or his approach that still needs work.” A 4/6 is less common but a 3/6 is almost unheard of. A hypothetical 3/6 would be a 16-year-old J2-eligible guy, likely without a lot of in-game experience, who has no clue at the plate, catastrophic timing issues, and almost no ability to replicate mechanically, but he nonetheless has crazy bat speed to dream on. A similar guiding question, like the one applied to the hypothetical 6/6 guy, can be used here. “If you like his ingredients enough to give him a 6 future, then why isn’t he a 4/6 or a 5/6?” This iteration of present hit tool grading is difficult to grasp at first but it really forces you to focus on the most granular aspects of the hitter’s profile.
While the future hit grade is the far more important field on a player’s report, taking time to thoughtfully consider the present grade promotes accountability within an organization and discourages overprojection. Of the scale-bending methods discussed above, no one in particular stands out above the others. Rather, the value of including such workaround in an org’s scouting manual ensures transparency and consistency in the grading process. After all, the scale is more of a language than a hard-coded, inflexible set of edicts. One must approach a report with a rule-adherent mindset but providing insightful information is the ultimate goal, and if the scale needs to bend a bit to fulfill that overriding objective, then so be it.
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