Statistics and Production vs. Tools and Projection
Just some thoughts
By Jerry Ford
Baseball is a game of statistics, and if you get good numbers on a team that is known to play top competition, the scouts are likely to notice. Once the scout shows up to watch, the statistics mean very little, actually they mean nothing! The scout’s job is to see past the numbers and grade the tools followed by the player’s makeup if the tools are sufficient. If a player shows the tools he will create lots of interest. However, good tools are expected to produce good results. Tools are number one but production still counts, especially at the higher levels of college baseball.
A true 5 tool player will be drafted in the first round if he grades out very high with the bat, after all, 5 tool players don’t grow on trees. The true 5 tool guy is very rare. That said, each of the 5 tools are nowhere near equal in importance to each other in today’s game. Perfect Game uses an amateur grading system from 1-10. The MLB uses a grading system of 2-8 or 20-80. For the purpose of this report we will be talking about the MLB system. 80 representing the very best at the Major League level, 50 representing the average at the MLB level. It should be noted that there are two grades, one based on present and one based on future potential. In most cases here we will be talking about future potential.
The most important tools
If a position player has only one plus tool and is below average in the other 4, here are some possible results….
8 hitter – Below average other tools - MLB All Star, possible hall of fame player.
8 power – Below average other tools - MLB All Star, possible hall of fame player.
8 field – Below average other tools - possible utility player
8 runner – Below average other tools - means very little without other tools
8 arm – Below average other tools - same as above
OFP (Overall Future Potential)
When combining all the tools the overall grade can be higher on a three tool player than a five tool player. Sometimes the grades are adjusted up or down based on additional information or opinion of the scout doing the grading. Here is an example of how a player with three above average tools could be graded higher than a player with 5 above average tools.
70 hitter +
80 power +
70 arm +
40 field -
30 runner –
55 hitter +
55 power +
55 arm +
55 field +
60 runner +
Also the same overall grade can describe two completely different players based on the tools graded the highest.
70 hitter +
80 power +
70 arm +
40 field -
30 runner –
The first player with a overall 58 could be an all star and potential hall of fame type. The second player with a 58 could be a utility player or lifetime minor leaguer. Of course, there is nothing certain about any of this.
Some present tool grades (i.e. hitting and fielding) are educated guesses to a degree. Those are the tools without accurate measurements and often one scout could grade the same player differently than another scout. Statistics mean very little until a player reaches the Major Leagues. At that time, in a perfect world, the “true” 80 power guy becomes the top HR hitter (or one of them). The “true” 80 hitter leads the league in hitting (or is one of the leaders). At least that is the way it should work out, but once again there are no certainties involved in any of this. Obviously there are many things that could keep a player from doing what he is capable of doing, usually injuries being the number one reason. Before the Major Leagues everything is based on an educated guess (projection). That is why you can see a high school player who is hitting .500 receive a low grade for hitting, while someone who shows lesser stats with better raw ability might be graded much higher. The thing to keep in mind is that there can be a big separation between present day ability and projected ability. It’s like trying to see into the future in a way.
Comparisons and experience allow some scouts an advantage when it comes to making these predictions. Will the tools play, are they usable, lots of stuff to think about, even before taking the players makeup and mentality into account. The good scout needs to have some unique talents. He needs to be well organized and a hard worker. He also needs to have the mind of a detective and the memory of an elephant. He needs to account for his expenses and be able to write reports. He has to brave the weather and the less than polite and less than helpful people he will run across. Long hours, lots of traveling, lack of sleep, and often skipping meals. He has to have great knowledge of the game and the mechanics involved and he needs to love what he’s doing. Then he should always represent his organization with class and integrity. But above all he has to have the ability to look beyond the obvious and predict the future. Having done a lot of it myself, there is no one who respects good hard working baseball scouts more than I do. There is no such thing as a good lazy scout!
Back to the 5 Tools
Taking the 5 tools (there really are more than 5 tools, but staying on topic. Each of the 5 tool categories will have their own set of categories. ie. Fielding grade includes evaluating things like footwork, range, hands, instincts, mechanics, etc. all which help make up the grade for that tool.
Running – Pure running speed, usable speed, quickness (first step), etc. It’s very easy to grade pure running speed, the stop watch does that. However, when considering future potential, what you see is not always what you get. Some runners will slow down as they grow older and mature physically. Others might get faster as they grow older and mature. Some will stay pretty much the same. We have seen high school kids who grade out low in power and very high in running, turn into better power hitters than runners in the end. With baseball talent, it’s not always a “what you see is what you get” thing. Too many changes take place, too many variables, too many surprises. Things like body type, bloodlines, physical maturity, etc. play a part in projecting a player’s tools and even profiling that player.
Fielding – Statistics are basically meaningless when grading fielding. Even at the MLB level statistics can sometimes be misleading. Though now days sophisticated formulas for making statistics more meaningful are gaining popularity. Some of the greatest shortstops broke records for making errors before reaching the major leagues. Scouts look and evaluate the actions, athletic ability, feet, quickness, range, body control, instincts, etc. The arm also plays heavily into fielding at specific positions. Fielding ability is a combination of natural talent and repetition. The repetition is easy to take care of, so it’s the natural ability that means the most to scouts. Sometimes mistakes are made by over grading the young guy that has had the most repetitions above the guy with the most natural ability. Often a fielding grade will cause scouts to profile a player at a different position than the one he was graded on. i.e. Justin Upton was a shortstop in high school, but we graded him higher as an outfielder. He had great tools, but graded lowest at fielding as a shortstop. That same fielding grade as an outfielder was much higher. He profiled as a MLB outfielder… actually as a MLB centerfielder he graded off the charts.
Arm – There are many things to consider when grading throwing ability. The most obvious and most important is arm strength. Obviously the throwing grade is position specific. The order of the tools that are most important change from one position to another. Most scouts watch and grade based on their experience. They see if the ball leaves the hand cleanly, the trajectory of the throw, the accuracy of the throw and the speed of the ball as it arrives at the target. We always use a radar gun to get a velocity reading and have someone in the stands grading on eye sight alone. Most of the time we have found that the highest graded arms will also have the best velocity readings, but not always. This is a phenomenon we call the power arm vs. the speed arm. We have seen outfielders throw low 90s on the gun but their throws lack finish, often reaching the target with very little on the ball. These would be the quick arm guys. Then there are those who might throw with a bit less velocity, but the ball carries better and reaches the target with lots of force. These would be the power arm guys. The same thing holds true for pitchers. Some fastballs lose more speed than others from release to the plate. I don’t think it would make much since to a physics professor, but the gun seldom lies and we have seen it many times. Grading the arm is not real difficult, in fact it becomes fairly obvious when you see a better than average arm. In most cases a good arm will stay a good arm or even improve, but there is a problem involved with this tool. Injury can change this tool drastically. And everyone knows that arm in juries are very common. The arm can improve a lot, but it isn’t likely that a below average arm will become anything better than average in the future. There is some room for projection based on physical maturity and improved throwing mechanics. Of course we are not discussing pitchers here and that is another topic by itself.
Power – Two major categories… Raw power and Consistent power. Raw power in its simplest form relates to distance, but can also show up by watching the swing and the way the ball comes off the bat. Also with wood, there is a distinct sound that is hard to describe but every scout knows it when he hears it. When scouts are at a complex with several fields, you can see the heads spin when that special sound is heard. Consistent power relates to how often a hitter can hit the long ball. It’s not good enough to count homeruns at the amateur level, they need to be homeruns that travel enough distance to be counted. There are even certain minor league parks that can cause misleading power numbers. Both of the above, raw power and consistent power mean quite a bit. Raw power can not be overlooked, just like the pitcher with the most powerful fastball can’t be overlooked. Prince Fielder showed raw power before he showed consistent power. Now he has consistent raw power! Consistent power can be somewhat associated with hitting as much as power. The ability to hit consistently (square up) with power is the most prized tool of all. But when grading a young player you must always consider and guess what will happen after he has physically matured, is trained properly and gained the necessary repetitions to realize something close to his potential. Power is often the latest tool to appear. Sometimes good hitters will realize their power potential later than with the other tools. It can be a real guessing game for scouts when watching young players. Power can be over-rated at times, the most important ability involves making consistent good contact. There have been many who possess 60-80 raw power who actually ended up with a 50 or less power grade in the end. But no one can overlook the kid capable of hitting a baseball over 400’ with a wood bat. In most high school prospects who are said to have all the tools (5 tool player) the one tool that might be over graded is power. It is often the one grade missing when considering a player that might have 5 tool ability. That is because it is very difficult to come up with an accurate projection in most cases. There simply aren’t many high school players that scouts are willing to project to become above average power hitters in the Major Leagues. Those that do show that ability usually go very early in the draft. i.e. Prince Fielder, Eric Hosmer, ARod.
Hitting – By far the major tool these days. Most outstanding hitters have a chance to become power hitters even if they don’t show average present power. Once again this is not a statistical thing at all when looking at amateur players. The basic ingredients are fairly obvious, but there is so much more involved. Hitters need to be followed closely once they are graded highly. There are too many ingredients to go over here. It would take a book to go over all the things that go into making a successful major league hitter. Of course, like in the other areas, repetition is something that can be provided if the player has the necessary natural talent. Batting practice is extremely important to scouts. Once a scout sees what he’s looking for, he will want to see as many live (in game) at bats as possible, preferably against quality pitching. Once the physical ability is recognized and confirmed, the scout glues in on the mental side. Many potentially great players have lacked the mental ability to realize that potential. Everything is scrutinized, but the quick smooth aggressive stroke that creates excellent controlled bat speed with good balance and rhythm and showing good hand eye coordination, stands out. Sometimes an amateur hitter shows plus ability but has bad technique or mechanics. Scouts have to determine if faulty mechanics can be changed and if so, how good the hitter might end up being.
More About Scouts
Anyone who thinks that being a good MLB scout is easy, just doesn’t know how much goes into it. Often described as an inexact science… and it really is. It takes vision, imagination, experience, it is all about predicting the future. Just as there are extremely talented players, there are extremely talented scouts. The easy part is watching a baseball game and identifying the best present day player. That is relatively easy, but it is very important because often the best present day player is in fact the best prospect. But not always and seldom is that best player good enough.
Back to the hitting tool
Think about it… How good will that hitter be in 4 or 5 years? How important is it to get that prediction right? After all, hitting has become the most important tool of all. The stats don’t play much of a role for an amateur unless they come at the highest possible level. Only if that hitter is facing pitchers who are also top prospects would statistics mean much of anything and that just doesn’t happen at most levels of amateur baseball. The only time high school stats might mean something is when the stats of a high profile prospect are poor. This can cause concern and some doubt, it doesn’t make sense when a top prospect is striking out a lot or getting a low number of extra base hits against normal high school pitching. However, once in professional baseball, a player can hit his way all the way to the top. The player that puts up great hitting stats will likely keep moving up the ladder until he either finds the level he no longer produces at or until he reaches the top… The grade will not count so much any longer, the production and results will. Then again, the big time prospect with the highest grade might still keep moving up based on potential. It works both ways… Production and Potential. It’s just that potential trumps production at the high school level and often even at the college level. At the professional level it tends to turn the other way around.
5 Tool Players… There really aren’t very many, by whatever standard one wants to use to describe a 5 tool player. If a player grades 50 across the board… he is being projected as an average Major League player. Of course being average at everything is very good and should get him a good career if he progresses as predicted. Even if he is slightly over average in all 5, he will need to improve in order to be a top player. He will simply be above average in everything, which is better than someone who is only above average in two or three areas. Of course, the 5 tool player also has a good chance of improving enough to be a super star down the road. Remember? Scouting is an inexact science! The two tools that can make someone an all star and potentially a hall of famer both involve the bat. The two tool player can and often is the highest draft pick. Now the exceptional 5 tool player who has it all (very rare) who also has the mentality and makeup… Is the most coveted of all. They just don’t come around very often. The best 5 tool player example of all time… Willie Mays!
This is a brief look at some things that are often misunderstood. There is so much more that could be added and it would still be misunderstood. There are several who are close to being 5 tool types, there are very few that really are. That is the reality about 5 tool players.
Next topic… Profiling!