As strange as this might sound, our own Steven Goldman, who tends to write about things from a historical bent, practically handed me a column with his piece on Monday about Augie Galan. As a fan of Steve’s work, I was exchanging some instant messages with him about the piece when he told me this:
Btw, I got lots of reader mail on the YCLIU from yesterday. I’d be interested in your take on the question I raised there–what percentage of player growth is based on inherent skill, what part on learning?
I have my feelings on the subject, but I imagined that some of the people in this industry that get paid to make decisions on who is going to turn into a big leaguer and who isn’t would have some thoughts on what can be taught, and what needs to be “just there,” for lack of a better term. Steven mentioned inherent skill, but most of my world revolves around tools, so with a handful of scouts, I decided to roll through each of the traditional five tools, as well as some more abstract ones, to get their thoughts on the subject.
Thousands of hours have been spent at ballparks and dingy hotel bars throughout the country with scouts debating whether hitters are born or made. One scout was more on the side of born. “I’ve always been of the belief that guys are what they are with the bat,” he said. “I think many players just keep proving they can hit as they move up in the minors, as opposed to becoming better hitters,” he surmised. Another scout saw things differently. “Guys obviously improve as hitters as they learn and develop their skills whether they are 18-year-old kids just starting or 22-year-old senior signs,” he said. “Player development certainly has an impact in molding a young hitter, and hitters at those ages learn to do things they couldn’t do before as they mature physically.” Most agreed that any improvements that can be taught usually involve the little things. “Hitting coaches can tweak some things, like making a swing more compact, or situational hitting,” said one front office official. “But while there are few exceptions, guy who hit in the big leagues usually hit within their first two seasons in the minors.” Another scout brought up what amateur players must have before signing in order to develop as hitters. “When you go see a high school kid, the one skill furthest away from being big league-ready is always the bat,” he said. “Any guy I see has to have bat speed,” he continued. “He can be weak, skinny, whatever, but he has to have it.” That concept was not met with universal agreement. “I don’t know… I can think of 26-year-old guys in the minors who have bat speed, but they lack bat control,” replied one scout. “I’d rather try to get the guy with a better feel for hitting and try to improve the bat speed than try to teach the guy with bat speed how to hit.”
The subject of power brought far fewer disagreements. “You can’t teach that,” said one scout. “A guy has either got it or is going to have it, and there’s nothing you can do.” Looking a little deeper, can one teach a player with good hitting skills how to add power to his game? Can you teach a player with good bat speed how to wait longer on a pitch in order to get it deep within the zone and pull it? Can you teach loft and backspin? “Yes on pulling, no on backspin,” replied one scout, while another said the opposite: “I don’t know if you can teach a guy to pull the ball; you’d have an easier time teaching him to go the other way.” A third scout was more optimistic. “I think we’d be selling hitting instructors short to think that they can’t teach some of this,” he said. “Strength and maturity has something to do with it as guys grow into power, but coaches can definitely teach guys to do different things with the bat.”
In the world of basketball scouting, there’s the old cliché that “You can’t teach height.” Well, you can’t teach speed either. However, you can make some small leaps forward with it. “I’ve seen some guys improve their speed a bit through training, so it depends on if you call that teaching,” said one scout. “But some of these young high school kids who haven’t really built their lower halves yet, they can gain a step as their legs get stronger,” he continued. Another scout echoed those sentiments. “You’re seeing guys in high school and college getting a little faster with training and whatnot, but that’s happening before pro ball,” he said. Why does it happen only at such an early age? A third scout chimed in on this subject that, “If anything, speed declines from age 20 to 30,” he said. All of the scouts did mention that while you can’t teach a player to run faster, what you can do is teach him to utilize his speed in more efficient ways, but again, any improvements are minor. “That’s coming down more to instincts now,” commented one front office official. “You can improve instincts, but if a player is coming to you already with good instincts, his will always be better no matter how much others work at it.”
This tool was unanimously seen as the one that was the most teachable, with one scout going as far as to say, “If they have decent hands and decent athleticism, and if they care, any player should be able to become at least an average fielder with two or three seasons in the minors and good instruction.” Another team official agreed. “Guys shift positions all the time and the ones that work hard get better at it,” he said. “Look at Albert Pujols or Mark Teixeira–they worked hard at first base… or Craig Biggio at second, same thing there.” Another scout also wondered why we don’t see better fielders. “The skill is so dominated by hand/eye coordination, as is hitting, and I’ve always been a little confused as to how guys can be really good at one and not the other.”
The ability to throw was seen as highly similar to the speed tool–either you have it or you don’t. While players can see improved accuracy at times working with coaches that help them work on mechanics and foot placement, it’s hard to get a player to throw harder, though one scout said it does happen occasionally. “I do believe in projection there, especially with the younger draft,” he said. “You get a kid with a loose, easy arm and not a lot of strength yet, and it can happen.” Another scout bemoaned not only the lack of improvement, but seemingly the reverse with most players. “I don’t think guys ever throw better then they do as amatuers,” he said. “They throw their best at the high school showcases and it’s all downhill from there. You go to those and every kid has at least an average arm. Just attending a short-season game, with kids who just got drafted, and you won’t see that.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick. Plate discipline is not a tool, nor should it be a so-called “sixth tool.” There’s nothing physical about the ability to recognize pitches by location. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, and that doesn’t mean it’s not important to scouts–it just means it’s not a tool. That said, most professional evaluators said it is teachable, but like the tools, improvements are only small, and you can’t turn Alfredo Griffin into Rickey Henderson. “You can teach it to a degree,” said one scout, “but I’d have to say that the chances of taking a free-swinger and turning him into a walk freak are extremely poor.” The most important aspect seems to be scouting the right players. “You do have teams like Oakland and San Diego and others where a big part of the philosophy in player development is teaching plate discipline by having players see more pitches, have more quality at-bats, et cetera,” said one scout. “Now, the players they generally acquire already have an idea at the plate, so it’s more about incremental improvements.” On the same subject, another scout discussed how teams do look for that skill in amateur players, but at times it’s hard to identify, as walk totals can mean very little. “I think plate discipline is really part of hitting, and it’s indicative in the best hitters,” he said. “However, for amateurs, a lot of players are the big man in campus at a weak school, or in a weak conference, and they’re getting nothing to hit and they’re racking up a lot of walks, and it has little to do with plate discipline, and you can get fooled.”
Can a player actually learn to get better? Absolutely, and without question. But it seems that any improvement in any area is only going to be incremental, and easier at the bottom of the scale (i.e., it’s easier to go from a poor runner to a below-average one in comparison to trying to go from average to plus). A series of across-the-board incremental improvements can make a world of difference in a player’s final projection, but in the end, and for the most part, some guys just have what it takes.