The five tool player. Every scout has claimed to have seen one. They're the four-leaf clover of the baseball scouting game, the diamond with the rare pink hue. But just what are those "Five Tools"? How do we spot them?
The most important of the five tools, and yet the one that's most confounding for scouts to determine. A young player can field like Ozzie, crush it like Big Mac, or run like Vincnt Van Go, but if he can't consistently make contact with the ball, he's going nowhere as a player. There's plenty of things to evaluate with the hitting tool and it's much more art than science. Here are some of the top observations most reported on scouting reports:
- Pre-swing hand position (High or low?). Can indicate whether a player will require some sort of movement to load his swing; what some scouts refer to as a "hitch" or what Clint Eastwood refers to as "hand drift" in the fat kid who can't hit a curveball.
- Stride and weight transfer. Long stride or short stride? Does a player have a trigger in his stride as a timing device (think Chipper Jones' toe tap or Sammy Sosa's step-back)? Short strides are generally better, and giant leg kicks are usually a bad sign as they can lead to a timing problem and make a hitter susceptible to a pitcher changing speeds.
- Bat speed. While important, it's not everything. You can swing as fast as you want, but if you don't make much contact, nobody's going to really care. That said, quick hands and fast bats allow hitters to let the ball get deeper into the zone and give them more time to recognize the pitch which generally leads to better outcomes.
- Ability to handle different types of pitches and different locations in the strike zone.
- Length of time the bat is in the hitting zone. Does the bat swing through the zone with a slight uphill exit? Or does it swing on a downhill plane (Joe Thurston) or uphill plane (Mo Vaughn, Jim Edmonds) and thus shorten the length of the contact zone? The Thurston method will lead to constant struggles no matter how talented the hitter, the latter requires great hand-eye coordination and talent to square the ball up consistently.
- Pitch recognition: Is the player "cheating" (starting early) on the fastball? That could indicate slow hands or a hitch and would make the hitter susceptible to offspeed offerings. Does the player struggle with hitting a curveball or other breaking pitch (Pedro Cerrano, sans dead chicken, the fat kid from that movie I mentioned earlier)? Many a prospect has had a career go down the tubes due to Trouble With the Curve. And no, that abomination wasn't about Amy Adams' potential law career. C'mon people, it's a classic father/daughter drama abou...we're getting off track.
- Reads and Jumps: More important in the outfield than anywhere else (and nearly useless for catchers), this is an evaluation of whether the player can read a ball off the bat and get a good jump on where it's going to track it down and catch it. Many outfielders have been slow afoot but exhibited great range due to their ability to get good reads and jumps on the ball.
- Routes and angles: Even if a player gets a good jump, they still have to take the proper route to a ball or angle to cut off a ball they may not be able to catch for an out. Outfielders are expected to take good routes to make the a catch and keep the ball from getting into the gap or down into the corner for extra bases. Infielders have a more difficult job of putting themselves in the proper position to field the ball and make an easy throw to a base for a putout.
- Hands and athleticism: Hands are more important for infielders, especially middle infielders, and athleticism is more important for players up the middle of the diamond: SS, 2B, and CF. Catchers are evaluated on a lot of abilities, but the one that gets the most interest is their "pop-time", which is the time it takes them to receive a pitch and throw the ball to second base to cut down a stealing runner. 1.9 - 2.0 seconds is considered an average pop-time -- Yadier Molina's consistently clocks in around 1.6 seconds, which is the best in baseball.