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VEB Knowledge Nest: Tools - Position Players

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How do scouts define and evaluate the sacred "Five Tools"? This post will help define and explain what pro scouts are looking for.

Mike Stobe

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?

1. Hitting

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.
Note that all those things above are fairly subjective in nature -- no scout has mastered the ability to properly project a major league hitter. That's as it should be: Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports, and regardless of what Tom Emanski says, there are lots of different ways to get the bat into the proper hitting position. What works for Julio Franco, say, doesn't work for, well, anyone else really. What's important is what's happening from the second before contact to the second after contact -- and what's going on in the brain matter during that time.

2. Power

Nothing makes scouts drool more than raw power -- watching a ball literally jump off the bat when struck. Raw power is most easily seen in batting practice or Home Run Derby: When players are locked in on pulverizing the baseball and hitting as hard as they possibly can. A good way to differentiate between raw power and usable power would be to think of the differences between a successful slugger in slow pitch softball versus one in fast pitch softball. The slow pitch slugger has tons of raw power and gets to load up and unleash all of it on nearly every swing. The fast pitch slugger has some raw power, but more usable power, in that he can hit most pitches that are strikes with power, while also making contact and doing other things well at the plate. The slow pitch slugger would never get his bat off the shoulder in a fast pitch game, but the fast pitch slugger could be just as effective in the slow pitch game.

Most scouts evaluate both raw and usable power when evaluating a prospect. If you see two ratings, the first is usually raw power, and the second is usable (or sometimes labeled "projectable") power and is more of a combination of power and hitting and is the scout's opinion on how that player will develop as a hitter. If you see only one rating on a report, that generally indicates the player's raw power.

3. Arm Strength

This is probably the easiest skill to evaluate: A player either has a cannon attached to their shoulder or they don't. It's not something that can be taught or developed most of the time. It's also a skill that is position dependent: If the player profiles as a first baseman, it's not necessary to have a great arm. If the player is a catcher or plays on the left side of the infield, a strong throwing arm is an absolute requirement. Generally, scouts are looking to see if a player can make all the throws that a player in that position would need to make: Shortstops must be able to make throws deep in the hole towards the third baseline, third baseman must be able to gun it from behind the bag, and right fielders should be able to make the throw from the right field corner to third base on a hop or two.

Different positions require different throwing motions as well. Outfield arms will have a much longer, over-the-top windup with a crow hop, catchers and third basemen generally short arm the ball from a quick, square setup, and middle infielders must be athletic enough to throw firmly and accurately from multiple arm angles and body positions.

4. Speed

Another "you-have-it-or-you-don't" skill. Generally measured by how quickly a player gets from home plate to first base but is also evaluated defensively. Outfield positions require more actual straight line speed, like you see evaluated at the at the NFL combine while infield positions and catchers need quick, sure feet rather than straight line running speed.

5. Fielding ability

Most scouts break this tool down into a few singular attributes:
  • 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.
Various combinations of above average tools exist. The most common are the speedy defensive players -- nearly every farm system has a few SS or CF who great speed and defensive instincts. The most difficult players to find are those who exhibit above average raw power and an above average hit tool: Those are the complete hitters -- players that can hit .300 and slug .600 at the same time. Finding power and speed is also difficult and has generally been the trademark of the elusive five tool stud -- a player who can hit 30+ homers and steal 30+ bases in the same season.

Tools aren't the whole story, but they provide the building blocks that player can develop from. Without above average tools, it's difficult to become an above average player. You end up typing 2000 words about above average players instead....