What scouts are looking for in a player (Gold)
Tools are a basic building block of our coverage at Baseball America. We begin assessing players’ tools from the time they become prominent high school players, and we continue to do it through college and the minor leagues all the way to the majors. It culminates with the Best Tools feature that we unveiled last week, but we really write about tools all year long.
When you’re watching a hitter for the first time, what are the things you like to see? What are you looking for?
“The first thing is bat speed—whether it’s wood or aluminum—just, how fast can he swing the bat? That’d be the first thing and hopefully we get it with wood and (are) able to determine objectively what the bat speed is. And then his stance, his approach and does he have a feel to hit? Does he have a good knowledge of the strike zone? All those things are kind of objective there and you just kind of look at the hitter. Sometimes those guys will just walk up to the plate and they’ll walk up there with confidence and look like they can hit. So, you just kind of piece it all together.”
“A lot of what I’m looking for goes beyond what they’re doing at the plate. You like to see the athleticism and the sort of body that is going to continue to get better. Guys that physically are what they are when they’re 16 years old, it’s difficult to project that guy out significantly. It’s nice when a guy passes the eye test right when he walks off the bus. If I’m seeing a high school kid, I would hope that I can pick the kid out when I walk up to the field and I don’t need to get a program to figure out which kid he is. At the plate, generally I’m looking at the mechanics of their swing and the bat speed that they have. You try to get into pitch recognition and plate discipline and things like that, but that really turns into one of the most difficult things for high school hitters because they’re not seeing quality breaking balls and they’re generally not seeing velocity.”
“The single biggest thing for me, and I write it down all the time, is handsy looseness to the swing. In other words, just that little whip in the bat with the hands instead of the strength. And I know there are different types of guys with the strength swings like (Jim) Thome and (Mark) McGwire, but those guys are different types of birds. We don’t see those guys very often. And I think those guys still have the handsy looseness, it just comes through as strength because of their bodies. But that handsy looseness, I’ve never seen a guy that didn’t have that pan out and become big-time major league hitters. It’s just that point in the swing where the top hand starts to move the bat. When the top hand starts to bring the bat head through the zone, those hands right there—how fast can they whip that bat? When a pitch is on the way, only those special guys really have that little bit of whip there to really get that bat head moving and get it in the right spot to make sure you square up the ball.”
“It depends on when I’m watching him. So, if it’s pregame and we’re just watching batting practice, pregame is nice—you can learn some things about it, but it’s not everything. I don’t want to get too excited and I don’t want to get too down, either. In batting practice, I’m looking for bat speed, I’m looking at the bat path, I’m looking at his balance, I’m looking at how his hands work—do they work independently, or does he kind of swing with his shoulders? I really like guys that have good hands. I’m looking for a short path that has some pop. It also depends on the position. If I know the guy plays a corner, I’m looking bat and power. I want to see some thump and if you’re not thumping it, you better steal a ton of bases—you better be (Carl) Crawford. Once the game starts, I’m looking for a guy that can hit deep in the count, that can hit in situations and that flat-out hits the ball hard often. If you can’t make contact, what good are you? That’s the biggest thing with hitters—hitters hit. They hit the ball hard.”
“We watch how the ball comes off the bat. How much raw power does the kid generate? Does he have some lift to his swing, does he have some loft? If he has some loft to his swing, that tells you with some raw power, he’s going to hit some homers. If he doesn’t generate any loft, he’s going to be a doubles and singles kind of guy. I watch for the way he holds the bat. If he holds the bat back in his palms, then it’s going to be a little tougher to hit. It’s going to create some tension in his swing and not so much wristy action. It’s kind of a negative if they hold the bat farther back in their palms.”
Some scouts like it more than others, but what are your thoughts on watching players take batting practice?
“I like batting practice because I think your swing is basically the same as it is in batting practice. Your ability to adjust obviously comes into play when it’s game speed, but you can get a good look at a player’s pure mechanics in BP. But I think a lot of guys put too much into it. You walk out of there and the kid’s missed two or three curveballs by a foot and gets jammed with an 87 mph fastball because he doesn’t have enough bat speed and a guy’s walking out of there still talking about the batting practice and I’m like, ‘Dude, did you see the three freaking at-bats?’ It’s still about the game.”
“You see how a player approaches batting practice. Does he use the whole field to hit? Usually in a batting practice round, the batter will try and go the other way for the first round and then the second round, he’ll hit the ball where it’s pitched and then maybe the third round he’ll show his power to wherever that is, right field or left field. And then the path of the bat—does he hit a lot of fly balls? Does he hit a lot of ground balls? Is he a line-drive hitter? Does he square it up hard? Obviously batting practice pitchers don’t throw very hard and you like to see a guy square a ball up pretty hard in BP consistently. A red flag would be a lot of swing and misses in BP or a couple swing and misses and fouling off the ball in the cage. That’s a good indicator of hand-eye coordination. So, definitely how he approaches batting practice and how hard does he square it up in batting practice.”
“I think it’s huge. For me, it’s huge. Because in the ballgames, I would say 75 percent of the high school kids we go watch are not getting pitched to. So, to be able to go see BP ahead of time and multiple times, that’s huge for me. You can see how the swing works and what type of raw power he has. A lot of times, you like to go when they don’t know you’re there watching. In my area, kids take BP before the game on the field and I know a lot of places in the country, that doesn’t happen.”
How many times do you like to see a hitter before you’re comfortable putting a grade on his tools?
“For me, of course over a couple of years with a college guy and you hope to see him a couple of times per year. The most difficult thing for me is when I go to see guys out of my area and I walk in on those really good players—guys that I know are good—and they don’t have a good day or something and you have to ask yourself, ‘OK, what did I see in BP? What did I see in his swings in the game, even though he didn’t hit anything?’ and then throw a grade on him, that’s really tough. I guess the answer is at least a half a dozen times before you feel comfortable. As many as possible, basically.”
“Well, I like to see one batting practice to see his raw power, see basically how far he can hit it. One batting practice I’m pretty good with. The more times you can see a hitter, the better. It depends on the game. If you go to a game and the guy gets pitched to and he squares a ball up and pretty much shows you what you think he’s got, one game would be sufficient to write him up. But sometimes you might go to the game and he gets walked twice, or maybe he has a poor at-bat on the breaking ball, he waves at the breaking ball and he only gets three at-bats. Maybe it’s a lefthanded hitter facing a lefthanded pitcher and the guy struggles off the lefthanded pitchers, so you think he might be a platoon guy and you have to come back and see him against a righthanded pitcher.”
“Just once. I mean, you either get that fuzzy feeling, or you don’t. If you get that fuzzy feeling, then it’s on to the games to see how he takes pitches, how quiet he is at the plate—that’s huge for me. You want to make sure his hands don’t go forward or he doesn’t lunge when he’s taking pitches. If he’s quiet taking pitches, then you know he’s going to be a pretty good professional hitter. If you get that fuzzy feeling one time around, you’ve got to write him up. Pretty much, you have to, in order to start the process of getting your supervisors in to see him. The longer you wait, the longer it takes your supervisor to get in there because everybody else in the nation wants their guys looked at too. It’s a long process to be able to get a kid seen by the people who make decisions.”
“I’d really like to see the guy probably three or four games with a couple of batting practice sessions in there. You try and match those high school hitters up against someone that’s at least going to pitch to them and potentially challenge them and see them against some sort of level of competition that isn’t just someone throwing 75. A lot of the process in getting comfortable with these players is seeing them on the showcase circuit the summer before, so you have that follow number on the guy and you’ve had the opportunity to see them against some competition and then you go back in the spring and figure out if you got the guy right or you need to make an adjustment on him. With the hitters, I’d like to get as many at-bats as possible. It’s certainly easier with the college guys because the matchups are significantly easier. The high school guys, you have to figure out which ones you like and get in and see them.”
What are you looking for mechanically in a hitter’s swing? What sorts of things are red flags for you?
“A lot of guys talk about a hitch not being correctable, but if a hitch is a timing mechanism, I think it’s OK. If a hitch occurs during the swing and causes the bat to be late, then I do think you have a problem on that because that involves their hand-eye coordination when the ball’s released and when they recognize it and so forth. So, a hitch bothers me if it’s part of their swing and not a timing mechanism but, you know, we’ve all seen a million guys—the Eric Davises, the Bonds, all that—that hitch, but it’s a timing mechanism and that bat’s in the right spot when it needs to be. The arm bar doesn’t really bother me because I think you can help that if you need to help it, but there’s a lot of major league batters that arm bar but then get that bat going out there good enough. I think you can learn to help a guy develop not to do that. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that I would say ‘Wow, that one can’t be fixed.’ Other than just a slow bat. Slow bat’s a slow bat. If you don’t have bat speed, I don’t think you’re going to develop it.”
“Maybe a kid—no matter what his stance is, whether it’s square or it’s open—and he steps in the bucket, maybe he’s showing you that he has a little fear of the ball and that kind of raises the yellow flag there. Swinging at the breaking ball out of the strike zone consistently, that may show you that he can’t identify the pitch or can’t lay off the pitch and that’s tough to correct, too.”
“I generally like to see guys with fairly calm approaches at the plate. An excessive movement, be it a high leg kick or a hitch with their hands or just anything that can alter the timing and execution of the swing, I don’t like. That’s not to say there aren’t guys that do those kind of things and are extremely successful doing it, but I feel like those guys are the exception and the fact is that when you slow them all down, when their foot’s down and their hands are ready to go, they’re just about all in the exact same position. It doesn’t matter if it’s Manny Ramirez with the high leg kick or Gary Sheffield with the bat waggling. You slow down the video and they’re in the same spot when they’re ready to hit. Getting into that position consistently is a lot harder if you’re moving around a bunch. Another thing I really don’t like to see is head movement in a swing. You can’t hit if you can’t see it. So, any sort of thing where a player moves his head during a swing, it’s difficult for that player to consistently center the ball against better competition.”