Scouting FAQ

 

How large a role does scouting actually play in baseball?

 

Scouting plays a larger role in baseball than it does any other sport. Sure, the NBA, NFL and NHL use advance scouts for teams they will soon play and they also scout amateur players for the upcoming draft. Baseball does both as well but still relies more heavily on scouts than the other sports, especially the NFL and NBA.

 

The other sports use game film for a great deal of the advance scouting. For amateur scouting, the NFL and NBA rely heavily on pre-draft combines to analyze prospective draftees. Baseball sends its scouts out in the field much more extensively.

 

Baseball’s amateur scouts are in the field enough to draft up to 50 rounds of talent (up to 1,500 players). The NFL uses seven rounds. The NBA uses two. Both the NFL and NBA also have a much more highly profiled feeder system in the college ranks. Baseball has to work harder to go out and find the talent consisting of collegians, high schoolers, junior college players as well as several foreign-born players in countries where English is not the native tongue.  

 

Baseball also has 180 rosters of minor league teams to consider for future transactions. With all the minor league teams to scout and all the amateur players to research, baseball definitely relies more on its scouts than the other sports.  

 

What does a scout look for?

 

A scout is always looking for a potential major leaguer. And it’s all based on projection. Very rarely will a scout ever see a player who is already major league caliber. He has to see the potential of a player and do his best to forecast the future. Scouts look through the current strengths and weaknesses of a player and examine whether the tools are there to allow him to make an impact at the major league level.  

 

What are these “tools” you speak of?

 

The tools are primarily in reference to position players. A scout will rate a player’s skill level for each of the five tools: hitting, power, fielding, arm strength and speed.

 

Which of the five tools is considered most important?

 

Well, it may depend on the primary position of a player. But for the most part, the first thing about a position player we discuss is his ability or inability to hit the ball. Scouts judge a player’s swing looking for details including, but not limited to, bat speed, a level swing, full arm extension and follow-through.

 

The swing will often show its holes by the mechanics of the player’s body. A scout looks for what the feet are doing, what the hips are doing, what the shoulders are doing and several other biomechanical factors. A player with a “good bat” will make consistently good contact with the ball and the ball should bounce off the bat with some authority when struck.

 

Isn’t power part of hitting? Why is it considered a different tool?  

 

Power is part of hitting, but it’s a different aspect of it. Hitting as a tool judges a player’s ability to put the ball sharply in play. Power as a tool is the ability to hit the ball high and far.

Consider power a supplemental tool to hitting. Without a good hitting approach, power will be much more difficult to realize. A good hitter who lacks power will find it reasonably easier to later add power than will a player with good power-potential lacking a “good bat” develop into a well-rounded hitter. I know that was a complicated statement, so after you spend a moment to further examine it more closely, consider the following simplified version: power will feed off the hitting, not vice versa.  

 

A good hitter will, with experience, eventually show some power by adding a loft to his swing and making other subtle adjustments. That is partly why power is typically the last of the five tools to develop. Power is also late to develop because, though young players may already have a good swing, bodies aren’t fully matured until the early-to-mid 20s. A player at age 18, 19 or 20 is not nearly as strong and filled-out as he will be by age 24, 25 and on. And scouts are asked to predict how strong a boy is expected to be when he becomes a man. Not easy!

 

What about fielding?  

 

What about fielding?

 

What does a scout look for in evaluating defense?

 

Evaluating defense is certainly position specific. But a scout looks deeper than a player’s success at a certain position. He examines the hands, the footwork, the mental capacities of the player. Sometimes the scout determines, based on the player’s skills, that the best position for him isn’t at all the one he’s currently playing.

 

How do we know what position is best for a player?

 

Well, if the player is lefthanded, he’s immediately relegated to the outfield or first base. So, among righthanders, the better skilled he is with the glove the more likely he will be tried as an infielder.

 

Among the infield positions, shortstop and second base require the most range. Turning a double play also necessitates sure hands and agile footwork around the bag. Third base does not require the same kind of range but rather quickness (in terms of reaction time) and agility must be present. If a player does not have good, soft hands he’ll likely end up in the outfield.

The 4th tool, arm strength, also plays a significant role in determining a player’s most appropriate position. An infielder with a strong arm will likely play on the left side of the infield, shortstop or third base. The strongest outfield arm is usually in rightfield. The weakest arms in the infield and outfield will often be second base and leftfield, respectively.

 

If arm strength is part of fielding, then why is it considered a tool of its own?

 

Well, as hitting and power are each tools of offensive skill, both fielding and arm strength are defensive tools. Grading a player’s fielding incorporates the hands, feet, positioning, reaction to ground balls or fly balls, etc. A player’s arm is graded separately. He may be a good fielder with a poor arm or be a poor fielder with a strong arm. The two tools are distinct.

A player with a strong arm will be able to throw on a tight line with some zip on it. And it must be accurate. A weaker arm will need to throw with more loft or arc. And whether it’s strong or not, if it’s not accurate it won’t do you any good.

 

Why isn’t speed considered part of defense?

 

It is! It’s also considered part of offense. It’s the only tool that plays a factor both offensively and defensively.

 

On defense, speed impacts the range of a player. Speed is distinct from the range aspect of fielding because a player may not have great speed yet know how to position himself properly. A player with great speed doesn’t necessarily read flyballs correctly and may make several misplays in the field.

 

Offensively, it can be used as a weapon on the basepaths. Or be a hindrance. And don’t necessarily assume a player with speed is an automatic to be successful in stealing bases. Several speedy players in the minors may get caught stealing as often as they are safe. Reading a pitcher, taking a good lead and getting a good jump are each factors to produce a quality base stealer.

 

Though there have been several players who have better foot speed than Carlos Beltran, nobody in the history of the game has been more successful in stealing bases (over 89% success rate). He’s a very smart baserunner. Even someone with the speed and athleticism of Deion Sanders stole 75% of his attempts in his baseball-playing days, which is still very successful. But it takes more than just speed to steal bases and Beltran proves that basestealing is a skill beyond simply raw speed.

 

How does a scout grade each of the 5 tools?

 

Scouts use a 20-to-80 scale to grade each tool. 50 is considered major league average with 20 at the lowest and 80 at elite status. Neither extreme is given out very often. Some scouts may use a 2-to-8 scale, which is basically the same, only that the 20-80 scale is used in increments of 5 (50, 55, 60, etc.) rather than increments of 1 (5, 6, etc.).

 

For a player to be considered a quality major league prospect, he should be above average in at least two of the tools. A player who is above major league average in only one tool will be considered one-dimensional. A player who is average across the board with no “plus” tool will be deemed mediocre and likely suited for a bench or utility role. If each tool is considered potentially above major league average, he gets that prestigious label of being a “5-tool prospect”.

 

Sample scouting grade for Player X:

Hitting:  60  (above average)

Power:  40  (below average)

Fielding:  55  (average-to-above average)

Arm:  50  (average)

Speed:  65 (well above average)  

 

From these sample grades, I would assume this player is a leadoff hitter, likely playing a middle-infield position or centerfield.

 

How can you tell?

 

The first cue follows the old scouting adage: “Defense up the middle; power in the corners.”  The lack of power from Player X lessens the chances he will play a corner infield (1st base or 3rd base) or corner outfield (leftfield or rightfield) position.

 

Secondly, his speed will put him in centerfield unless there is a tremendous defensive outfielder on the team who may push him to leftfield. If he is kept in the infield, his average arm strength is the only tool that might force him to the right side of second base if there is a stronger and better defensive shortstop on the roster.

 

Finally, his hitting ability would allow him to hit in the top third of the order. His speed and lack of power seal the deal as a leadoff hitter. If he lacked speed and had power potential, he’d be a key run-producer, likely 3rd or 4th.

 

So, which tools are better suited for each position?

 

You’d like to know, wouldn’t you? Baseball America has supplied a synopsis of what a scout envisions about the ideal player for each position. He observes the tools of a player and matches it with the profile of a position that is most suitable. Here is how each position profiles, ranking the importance of each tool from greatest to least:

 

Catcher

Fielding

Arm

Hitting

Power

Speed

First base

Hitting

Power

Fielding

Arm

Speed

Second base

Hitting

Fielding

Power

Speed

Arm

Third Base

Hitting

Power

Fielding

Arm

Speed

Shortstop

Fielding

Arm

Hitting

Speed

Power

Left field

Hitting

Power

Fielding

Arm

Speed

Center field

Fielding

Hitting

Speed

Power

Arm

Right field

Hitting

Power

Arm

Fielding

Speed

 

Note that hitting is the most desired tool at each position except the traditionally defensive-oriented positions of catcher, shortstop and centerfield which each have fielding first. In fact, hitting ranks no lower than the third most desired tool at any position. Also note that hitting always precedes power.

 

As stated previously, the positions that value power the most are the corner positions. As the game continues to evolve, also observe how the expectations of the second base position has become a much more offensively productive position than traditionally perceived. Players like Jeff Kent, Ray Durham and Bret Boone come to mind. Any power from the catcher, shortstop and centerfield positions are bonus.

 

The three positions that place a greater value on arm strength are catcher, shortstop and rightfield. And speed is more valued for centerfielders and the middle infield, as expected, yet ranks no higher than third on any list.  

 

Based on a synthesis of these lists, I suppose we could rank the overall value of tools in this order: hitting, fielding, power, arm, speed.

 

Okay. Let’s change gears for a moment. My team has an All-Star shortstop. They also have a couple decent shortstop prospects in the minors. And then they went out and drafted yet another shortstop in the first round of the most recent draft! What are they thinking?!? Do they have a clue? 

 

Dear Disgruntled in Draftville; Yes, they do have a clue and they are thinking that they want to acquire the best collection of talent possible.  

 

Then why so many shortstops?

 

I just told you! They want to acquire the best collection of talent possible! Just because a player is a shortstop in the minors does not mean he will play there in the Majors. And just because a player is drafted as a shortstop does not mean he will play there even in the minors, let alone if he ever makes it to the big leagues. Many, many, many major league players that are not shortstops were one day shortstops either in the minors, in college or in high school.  

 

Think of it this way, when you have a high schooler with legitimate hopes of entertaining a professional career, he’s going to be the best athlete on his team. And where do the best athletes play? Shortstop. It does not mean he will remain at shortstop at a more competitive level. For when he gets to the next level (either the minors or college) he’ll be competing against several other guys who were also high school shortstops. And they can’t all continue to play shortstop. The ones who do remain at shortstop in the minors may not even continue to stay there while they advance through the system.

 

It’s possible for a team to draft 5 shortstops among their first 10 selections, only truly anticipating that perhaps 2 of them will continue to play the position a couple seasons later. The others will move to other positions.

 

Most major league second basemen were minor league shortstops. Shortstops can grow out of their position and move to third base. A great majority of young shortstops are weeded out and moved to the outfield where fielding and arm strength are not as highly valued. Only the best remain.

 

Anyway, in general, shortstops are good athletes with quality tools. Why not try to accumulate as many good athletes with quality tools at positions all over the field?

 

We’ve only been talking about position players the whole time. What about pitchers?

 

Pitchers are judged primarily on his pitches, command and composure (or makeup). We’ll first discuss the pitches he throws. The fastball is not always the best pitch but it’s usually the place to start.

 

Why start with the fastball?

 

First of all, almost every pitcher has one. Secondly, the effectiveness of his other pitches will draw off his fastball.  Thirdly, velocity is easy to measure. Let’s examine a basic scouting scale to measure velocity.

 

MPH

Grade

98+

80

93-97

70

90-92

60

88-89

50

85-87

40

83-84

30

82

20

 

What velocity doesn’t tell us about the fastball is the movement. That’s something a scout also considers in grading the pitch.

 

Another reason to start with the fastball is because of all the pitches a pitcher may throw, it’s more due to natural ability than learned skill. Pitchers can learn to throw a curveball, slider or changeup. Velocity can not be taught. There are ways to improve it, but only so slightly. Usually, either a pitcher has a lightning bolt in his arm or he doesn’t.

 

Consider this: would you rather have a pitcher with one above-average pitch or two above-average pitches?

 

I’d rather have a pitcher with two above-average pitches. Duh!

 

Exactly. A pitcher with an above-average fastball can learn to improve his average curveball. A pitcher with an above-average curveball is pretty much stuck with God-given average velocity. It’s easier for a hard thrower to develop better secondary pitches. A pitcher with an ordinary fastball has to find more resourceful ways to be successful.

 

What about a guy like Greg Maddux? He has an average fastball.

 

True. Greg Maddux’s fastball has always been ordinary. But Maddux had a plus curveball and a plus-plus changeup with outstanding command and tremendous makeup. He had to excel in several other ways to be as successful as he was without an above-average fastball.

 

What is this “plus” and “plus-plus” you’ve been speaking of?

 

It’s pretty much just scouting jargon. “Plus” is above-average (a 60 on the scale) and “plus-plus” is well above-average (a 70 on the scouting scale). An 80 pretty much speaks for itself.

 

So what does it take for a scout to deem a pitcher as a potential major league ace?  

 

Before we get to that, we need to define a standard of what it takes to be an ace. Does each team have an ace? Are there 30 different standards for being an ace? Does being the ace of the Yankees or Cubs staff carry the same weight as being the ace of the Tigers or Reds? Some teams’ third starter would be the ace elsewhere. So we can’t use a team-by-team standard to define a pitcher as being a #1, #2 or #3, etc. We have to develop a scale that puts every pitcher from all 30 teams on the same level.

 

The scouting community has done that. It has formed a reasonable standard of expectation for what it takes to compile a championship-caliber pitching staff. The following chart is an example of what kind of expectations are placed on a pitcher based on these attributes:

 

#1 Starter:             Two plus pitches, average third pitch, plus-plus command, plus makeup

#2 Starter:             Two plus pitches, average third pitch, average command, average makeup

#3 Starter:             One plus pitch, two average pitches, average command, average makeup

#4 & #5 starters: Average velocity, consistent breaking ball, decent changeup, command of two of the pitches

Closer:                   One dominant pitch, second plus pitch, plus command, plus-plus makeup

 

Note that the 1st and 2nd starters can throw the same stuff. The difference is found in the command and makeup. A pitcher’s makeup would include his character, focus, intensity, etc. The 3rd starter is the same as the 2nd starter except one of the plus pitches becomes average. Average would be the best word to describe the overall skill of the typical 4th and 5th starters on a major league staff.

 

What about relief pitchers other than the closer role? Why are they not mentioned?

 

Well, note that three average-or-better pitches are required for a starting pitcher. A starting pitcher with only two average-or-better pitches is called a relief pitcher. I would guess that about 90% of all major league relief pitchers were minor league starters. Most pitchers who have good enough stuff to be a true major league hopeful will be kept in the starting role for as long as possible. If the pitcher fails to develop a decent third pitch by the time he gets to the Bigs, that’s often when he gets bumped to the bullpen.

 

A championship-caliber closer is a reliever with two above-average pitches. If he had a third pitch that was at least average, he’d likely be a starter. While other relievers may also have two quality pitches, the ones with the plus-plus makeup are those who will better handle the pressures of the closer role. Ordinary middle relievers should throw two pitches that are at least average.

 

Great! Thanks for all the info! Now I’m going to go out and get myself a job as a scout!

 

Best wishes to you! You have plus ambition. But perhaps your technique is still only a 30.