Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool, Pt. 2

Scouting Explained: Introduction, Hitting Pt 1 Pt 2 Pt 3 Pt 4 Pt 5 Pt 6

As I was learning to evaluate, I was overwhelmed by this challenge of grading the hit tool. I wasn’t advanced enough to notice when hitters seemed uncomfortable as fast as I wanted to notice it and I hadn’t been on the beat long enough to have multiple years of history with players to know how to put what I was seeing in context of their whole careers. The easier part, however, was noticing the raw hitting tools. By the time an evaluator gets good at noticing and grading these, the other stuff tends to follow.

I break hitting into three components, but you could easily break it down further into many more. I saw three basic groupings and put every observation into one, then graded each group on the 20-80 scale, then use those to get to a hit tool grade in a more objective way. Scouts all have different ways that they do it and I’ve tinkered with different methods, but this one works for me and also gives me a guide for what to ask scouts about with hitters I haven’t seen recently.

1. The Tools
This is the easiest one for the casual fan to pick up on quickly. I included a video of Javier Baez since he was the first player that came to mind of a guy who, after one swing in BP, is obviously crazy talented. It’s a little tough to see with BP swings, but that’s what 80 bat speed looks like. Here’s Clint Frazier so you can see it again.

That was fun. This category includes bat speed, raw strength and the basic structure of the swing. Maybe you’d say strength is a part of the power tool, not the hit tool (it is part of both and stop questioning me) and that the swing mechanics aren’t a tool at all, so why call the group The Tools?

The swing path (steep, level, uppercut etc.), the type of hitter (power/contact, flyball/line drive) the load (pre-swing hand movement) and the lower half dictate how much the tools (bat speed and strength) can be used. I initially had these two things separated until I realized one dictates the other with no exceptions, so they might as well be graded together.

Baez and Frazier are both 80 bat speed, at least 60 power guys that are flyball/power hitters. Frazier has a level path with a high finish (this type is prone to upper cutting the ball) and Baez is a steeper bat path guy that starts his hands higher, though this video is from probably the worst and most out-of-control period mechanics-wise of Baez’s pro career.

The best big league hitters tend to be relatively level bat path guys (leaving the bat in the zone a long time for a better chance at contact with more pitches) that are so physically gifted that they can muscle a ball out of the park without much steepness in their bat path and also have some looseness to their swing despite that brawn. This is what you have in guys like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. There’s also some like Mark McGwire that have some steepness to their path to create loft but have such compact/efficient mechanics and superior bat speed that they also hit for average and power.

I could break down every possible type of hitter and the good/bad combinations, but there is a basic ideal scouts are looking for: above average bat speed and strength and some version of your typical big league swing. While swings can vary and scouts aren’t looking for every swing to look the same, the general principles in good swings are balance, load hands around the back shoulder, upper and lower halves synced, direct bat path, some loft in the finish.

Any hitter that doesn’t do one of these things can probably be coached to fix it, but not doing a couple of them, or doing one that’s hard to coach away (like loading hands up rather than back like Dilson Herrera) is a mark against you, putting the onus on the hitter to prove that he can make those mechanics work against top level pitching (which Herrera has done).

It takes longer for scouts to get on board with a hitter that does it an unusual way, but scouts will change their tune quickly if the tools are there. Scouts will get on board much less quickly if the tools aren’t there AND it looks a little weird. Sometimes a swing can be “fixed” if there’s a problem, but for the types of players I’ll be writing about (professional players and top amateurs) they often have had the same swing for so long, it’s hard to do more than tweak it.

2. Bat Control

The idea behind bat control (also called “feel for the bat head” and “manipulates the barrel” among other phrases) is the ability to change your swing to match the pitch that’s being thrown. Ichiro and Vladimir Guerrero are examples of 80 bat control and the practical thing you’re looking for is when a hitter can be fooled by an off-speed pitch, be off-balance and still square up those sorts of pitches with regularity.

Bat control is basically an analog for a loose, athletic swing. The opposite is a grooved or stiff swing, which you hear often with sluggers that are stuck in the minors but often have good numbers (often with fans calling for them to be given a chance in the big leagues). A grooved swing can often be picked out quickly in batting practice. This type of hitter is stiff athletically and the swing has some steepness to it, while also looking exactly the same every time. Having the bat in the zone a long time gives you a chance to hit balls that you don’t time perfectly. A grooved, stiff swing means you have to time the ball perfectly and have it come right into your wheelhouse of the limited areas you can make hard contact. Bat control comes from fluidity of movement and this guy doesn’t have it.

Something that’s important to point out is that there’s traditional athleticism (size, speed, strength: think football combine stuff) then there’s baseball athleticism (looseness of actions and forearm, wrist and hand strength).  There’s a surprising amount of guys, with Dan Vogelbach and D.J. Peterson some recent examples, who look physically like non-athletes in the context of world-class athletics. They are both what some scouts call “athletic in the box” meaning their hitting actions look like they belong on a more traditionally athletic body.

A Short Detour: Dan Vogelbach

This is one of the things that makes baseball great. This guy got $1.6 million out of high school and he looked like this back then, too, if not bigger. His career minor league line is .285/.375/.481 and he’s been young for every league he’s been in. Vogelbach has feel to hit, a very good sense of the zone, 60 raw power to all fields and is loose enough to get to all that in games, while former football players all around him could sell a bunch of jeans but can’t hit a fastball down the middle.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a chip on your shoulder (I’m told Vogelbach reads all the things written about him) and to have that chip make you want to say “I told you so” via an epic bat flip every time you put one into orbit.

Vogelbach
His uniform doesn’t fit him, I don’t think any uniform would fit him and he runs the bases like someone told him he legally has to do that if he wants a chance to hit again, like a kid forced to eat his vegetables. Scouts compared his body to Babe Ruth in high school but he sure brings the fun factor back to baseball.

I explain all that to illustrate that bat control is an analog for baseball athleticism and not traditional athleticism, though often in top prospects (Byron Buxton is a great example) you will find elite versions of both kinds of athleticism in the same player.

3. Plate Discipline

This is the easiest one to understand. There are lots of elements to it, but I think the general fan understands that you need to have an idea at the plate, be able to recognize different types of pitches, get yourself into good counts, lay off the slider in the dirt, etc. For amateur players, you learn the most about this when an elite hitter faces a guy with some feel for throwing around 90 mph, which explains why it’s sometimes hard to suss out this skill before pro ball.

The interesting aspect of this for me is how much plate discipline can be taught. I think you can improve some of the components and some specific situational issues, but I and many of the scouts I’ve talked to think there’s some inherent skill you can’t change, be it genetic or learned so early and pounded into the brain though years of travel/high school games that it’s hard to reprogram.

I did a study for one of the clubs I worked for and the basic takeaway was that, among above average regulars in the big leagues, less than 10% of them materially improved or regressed their plate discipline numbers once they got into pro ball and the more accurate number is probably around 5%. I think much of it is genetic and tied to vision, but how much can be taught, how early it can be taught and if “eye skills” can be taught or better utilized is still very fuzzy and with plenty of exceptions for every supposed rule. I have some theories about what can and can’t be taught in this realm, but I’d need a much bigger budget to actually answer these questions.



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Kiley McDaniel has worked in the scouting departments of the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates and has written for ESPN, among other outlets. Follow him on twitter for real-time thoughts on the players he’s seeing and hacky attempts at humor.


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Wobatus
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Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

If plate discipline rarely improves much after a player enters pro ball, that suggests Javier Baez might have some fairly major issues notwithstanding having other aspects of the hit tool in spades.

Zack Murphy
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1 year 8 months ago

Agree. And it makes it seem as if this skill would then be your primary clue to long-term success in evaluating blank slate prospects, if it’s the one least teachable.

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

It may be your primary clue, but given it’s “sometimes hard to suss out this skill before pro ball” you might not have it to go on with a “blank slate” prospect. Which is one of the reasons so many prospects bust.

Zack Murphy
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1 year 8 months ago

Damn prospects. Ingrates.

haishan
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haishan
1 year 8 months ago

Baez is never gonna be a big plate-discipline guy, probably, but I know Kiley on one of the podcasts talked about how some extremely talented hitters sometimes sell out for power in the minors, especially when they think it’ll help them get better scouting grades (or, presumably, move up faster). Baez had high but reasonable K-rates in A-ball and High-A in 2012-13, and considering how much attention he’s gotten, selling out for power, if he had indeed chosen to do so, would have been a pretty smart move.

Also, it may be easier to coach someone from like 4 standard deviations above the mean in swing rate down to 2 or 3 (I’m guessing at these numbers), compared to moving him from 1 or 2 standard deviations down to 0.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

Baez may not need to sell out too much for power, but even if so, he hasn’t been able to reign it back in the majors. He’s K’ing at a very high rate (40%+) albeit in a tiny sample. I’m less concerned with Bryant since he has the walk rate to go with the K rate.

This is all very premature with Baez and I know he is extremely talented, but just something to watch.

Eliassen Sports Bureau
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Eliassen Sports Bureau
1 year 8 months ago

You have to keep in mind that many hitting prospects that played collegiate ball, like Kris Bryant did, see a sizable regression in BABIP, AVG, and walks once they hit MLB.

Especially the ones with sky-high strikeouts like Bryant.

Look at Springer, Smoak, Ackley, Wieters, Pedro Alvarez, Duda, Frazier, Longoria, Brad Miller, Zunino, Ethier, Seager, Dozier, et al. All had solid milb numbers and have seen big dips in BABIP, AVG, and walks in MLB. EVERY ONE, without fail.

And only Zunino and Alvarez had bad K issues like Bryant does. They weren’t quite the hitters that Bryant is, but Alvarez had very similar BB/K numbers.

And don’t be fooled by Bryant’s milb BABIP and AVG. His career milb BABIP is .394, career AVG is .327. SURELY you say he will be able to hit for average in MLB… Brad Miller was an excellent hitter in milb, his career milb BABIP was .382 to a .334 AVG (so far .276 career MLB BABIP to .239 AVG). Kyle Seager was an excellent hitter in milb, his career milb BABIP was .367 to a .328 AVG (so far .294 career MLB BABIP to .264 AVG). Neither of those guys had K issues like Bryant, and both saw huge drop offs in walks in MLB. George Springer’s career milb BABIP was .379 to a .302 AVG (so far .291 career MLB BABIP to .231 AVG). See the pattern? All played college and their milb numbers are a mirage.

Bryant projects to be a better version of Mike Zunino/Pedro Alvarez-ish type big leaguers. Bryant will likely be a career .230-.255 hitter in MLB.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

Yeah, his AA/AAA stat line is only a little better in every way than what Paul Goldschmidt did in Hi-A at the same age!

Clearly, he was just a product of his high .385 BABIP!

Same goes for Mike Napoli!

Bryant has plenty of room to regress in AVG and BB% and still be a very, very good hitter. The most common comp I’ve seen is Troy Glaus, who was a damn good hitter for 10 years. I don’t think .260/.350/.500 for several years is out of the question at all, and that’s a 140 wRC+ in this run environment.

Eliassen Sports Bureau
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Eliassen Sports Bureau
1 year 8 months ago

But then look at what goldy did at AA, cut WAY down on K, walked a TON more, and cut down his BABIP by 54 points and only saw an 8 point drop in average. Dude is smart and willing to make adjustments. Bryant has regressed as he has gone up the chain and has not shown that ability to adjust, which is half of what makes great players great in MLB

Eliassen Sports Bureau
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Eliassen Sports Bureau
1 year 8 months ago

And Glaus didn’t have anywhere near the BABIP concerns that Bryant has (Bj Upton and springer come to mind as comps for Bryant in that dept). Glaus isn’t a bad comp though, you see the collegiate regression pattern. I’m not too far off from your .260 avg for Bryant, but it seems like people are counting on him to be a super stud and history combined with the red flags of his batting profile (crazy BABIPs and strikeouts climbing at every level) suggest a +/- .230-.250 hitter, best case scenario

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

You have to remember that Bryant’s only a year out of being drafted. Really quick moving prospects like Springer and Goldschmidt were over a year older and had spent an extra year in pro ball when they were putting up those numbers.

What he’s doing, even with the Ks, is not normal for an elite prospect, even right out of college. To make the comparisons you’re making, we’d have to look at his stats next year.

If his stats in AA and AAA next year were these, I’d agree with the .245 projection, but I think the .250-.270 range is more realistic when you consider his relative lack of pro experience, rather than just looking at the numbers in a vaccuum.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

You have to remember that Bryant’s only a year out of being drafted. Really quick moving prospects like Springer and Goldschmidt were over a year older and had spent an extra year in pro ball when they were putting up those numbers.

What he’s doing, even with the Ks, is not normal for an elite prospect, even right out of college. To make the comparisons you’re making, we’d have to look at his stats next year.

If his stats in AA and AAA next year were these, I’d agree with the .245 projection, but I think the .250-.270 range is more realistic when you consider his relative lack of pro experience, rather than just looking at the numbers in a vacuum.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

damn. double post.

Lutz
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Lutz
1 year 8 months ago

At what point (level in minors, or number of pro years) do you think plate discipline “stabilizes?”

Lutz
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Lutz
1 year 8 months ago

or at what age, maybe

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
1 year 8 months ago

Kiley, it would be helpful to include video of, say a 60 bat speed guy to see if the untrained eye can tell the difference. This series has been great so far!

Mack
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Mack
1 year 8 months ago

Agreed. Even just a few names would be helpful. We can see what elite bat speed looks like here with Baez and Frazier, but what about plus, average, and fringy bat speed? A similar set of guys for bat control would be useful as well.

James
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James
1 year 8 months ago

How does Javier Baez have a steep swing in this video? Check out how low his bat head finishes, almost hitting the dirt. The only way for this to happen is with an uppercut swing.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

So would a guy like Gary Sheffield be the “Billy Hamilton” of bat speed?

haishan
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haishan
1 year 8 months ago

I hope Vogelbach walked all the way around the basepaths at the pace we see in the bat flip video. Also I hope he does this every time he hits a dinger.

Footroo
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Footroo
1 year 8 months ago

I’d love to see what would come of that trot if McCann were around, or if he tried it in Arizona

AB
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AB
1 year 8 months ago

Why not film swings with a high-speed camera, then review it in slow motion on a computer and count the frames it takes? Does a player’s swing speed vary much from pitch to pitch or day to day? It would be a fairly small amount of video work to get an objective swing speed average measurement over, say 25 swings.

Choo
Member
1 year 8 months ago

Glad you brought up “baseball athleticism.” The first time I watched D.J. Peterson in the on-deck circle, and then stride to the box and dig in, I was reminded of Sean Casey. A little knock-kneed, slightly rounded back/shoulders. My initial reaction was, “This is D.J. Peterson?” Then he dropped the barrel on an outside fastball and drove it into the RCF gap. It wasn’t the result that was impressive – it was the sudden transformation from non-athletic looking guy to athletic-looking hitter.

Eric Feczko
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Eric Feczko
1 year 8 months ago

Really great article.

I’m curious to know what theories you may have regarding the “plate discipline” component of hitting.

One thing that surprises me is how much writers (including scouts), fans, and even coaches focus on the eye and not the brain. The majority of perceptual processing occurs on two visual pathways; one travels from the visual system towards the motor system (the “dorsal” pathway), the other travels from the visual system along the bottom of the cortical sheet (the “ventral” pathway). Roughly speaking, the “dorsal” pathway plays more of a role in processing moving objects, while the “ventral” pathway plays more of a role in processing still objects. Routinely measured visual acuity has little to do with this processing.

I would contend that hitters with better “plate discipline” are processing information more efficiently along the dorsal pathway, but the efficiency at processing moving information depends on a lot of factors, which can be measured and modeled via behavior. For example, information near the fovea (i.e. close to the center of your vision) is processed quicker by the visual system than peripheral information. Therefore, where the eyes are fixated may affect the ability to recognize pitches. One would have to do an eye-tracking study in a simulated environment to see whether better hitters simply “look” at different points during an at-bat than weaker hitters.

On the other hand, some people may simply be better at processing moving objects, independent of where they look. Such an ability could be measured psychophysically, by determining thresholds for detecting motion (e.g. using stimulus sets such as cycling gabor patches).

lewish
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lewish
1 year 8 months ago

Wow! Thanks Kiley! Very nice article and informative…and I really love all the extra overtime in the comments discussion…very informative and thought provoking.

Johnston
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1 year 8 months ago

Agreed. These are very informative.

Johnston
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Vogelbach’s numbers nosedived – and have stayed down – once he reached High A. Kiley, what do you think accounts for that?

HJK
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HJK
1 year 8 months ago

The Florida State League. The heavy swamp air helps that league skew pretty dramatically towards pitchers. Vogelbach finished 6th in the league in OPS and, perhaps most impressively, tied for 5th in dingers while registering the 10th best BB/K mark. It was actually a sneaky impressive statistical season for him despite the pedestrian look of his numbers at first glance.

dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt
1 year 8 months ago

This is a good series, thanks for doing it. Very educational. Keep it up, and welcome to the club.

Rico Brogna
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Rico Brogna
1 year 8 months ago

Kiley– these are quite informative. I’ve seen varied explanations of a ‘long swing.’ Is the difference between a long and short swing just a matter of how efficiently the hands work to move the bat through the zone? I would assume that elite bat speed can compensate for a long swing? I’ve seen plenty of prospect reports noting that someone’s swing is ‘a little’ long– how detrimental is this?

LHPSU
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LHPSU
1 year 8 months ago

Is there a correlation between bat speed and discipline in your experience?

Wobatus
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Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

How about Scooter Gennett’s hit tool? Here’s a guy for whom it seems to have clicked in the majors. Sure, some of it is likely luck, but the babip is partially explained by his near 25% line drive rate. Above average contact ability. And in 659 plate appearances in his career, about a season’s worth for leadoff or 2nd place in the batting order, 15 homers, 41 doubles and 5 triples. I don’t know where is his bat speed would rank, but really seems to have maxed out for his tools.

Plucky
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Plucky
1 year 8 months ago

How would you breka down the bat speed / bat control / discipline of Jose Altuve?

Neuroguy
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Neuroguy
1 year 8 months ago

Kiley, I’ve seen guys mention “vision” skills in past scouting and analysis articles (when talking about plate discipline). As a neuroscientist, I have a couple of thoughts about this. It seems to me that your really talking about visual perception, visual reaction time, visual-spatial pattern recognition and visual processing speed. I’m saying this, because in my world, this has nothing to do with “vision.” You can take a random sample of people with perfect “vision” (as in 20/20 vision, normal depth perception and normal peripheral vision) and they differ wildly on the variables I mentioned above (most succinctly, “vision” just refers to the basic signal from the retina to the brain – what I’m referring to is what/how that information is processed thereafter – which seems much more important to actual hitting). We actually have norms for these as well (but we use them clinically to diagnose neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions). We can even cognitively measure visual impulse control (which I imagine might correlate roughly with the ability to withhold responding to a pitch in the dirt). I would be surprised if there aren’t people in my (or related) fields doing some research on this already. Have you seen anything in this regard actually used or being worked on? I ask because it kills me each time I read an article that talks about “vision” skills; and similarly when I hear a hitter talk about how getting new contacts is going to actually result in something meaningful. Most often its not – simply because its the “vision” post-processing that is likely more meaningful.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

Well, if a guy’s getting contacts, he likely literally can’t see the ball as well as he normally can.

I agree that “having a good eye” usually amounts to how quickly your brain processes the information relayed to it by the eyes, but a guy getting contacts likely has a legitimate vision problem.

Neuroguy
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Neuroguy
1 year 8 months ago

All true. I’m thinking of Josh Hamilton and Mike Olt, both of who recently complained of vision problems. I recall Olt talking about getting contacts, Hamilton vaguely referring to dry eye. My recall might be off, but my main point is that it’s visual “post-processing” that is more important. This of course depends entirely on accurate signal being conveyed from the retina to occipital lobe first – but I’d imagine that for the vast majority, any problems with “vision” are really a cognitive/information processing issues. Again, I’d love to hear from Kiley if teams are actually teaming with cognitive neuroscientists, even on a small scale, to more closely investigate these variables; in part because their seems to be a plausible rationale that some cognitive tests might be able to measure the inherent cognitive capacities and how they relate to real-world outcomes (again, I would imagine that visual reaction time, combined with visual impulse control – both variables we can objectively measure and are fairly innate skills that are not necessarily modifiable – would correlate with some of the plate discipline numbers and observations. Also, to Erick above, I hadn’t read your reply when i quickly sent mine – but we’re thinking similarly here I think. You’re correct that hitting is likely entirely dorsal stream dependent – as would be almost all action sports – and taking it a step further, how dorsal stream information is then integrated with cerebellar and basal ganglia motor adjustments would also be something interesting to think about (though I’m sure most reading this site might not be as interested :) ).

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
1 year 8 months ago

Olt is definitely a neurology thing, IMO, because the issues really started after he got a massive concussion. I never thought he’d crack .260 in the majors, but he used to walk.

Not sure about Hamilton.

Jay29
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Jay29
1 year 8 months ago

Wow, Vogelbach runs just like Babe Ruth as he heads out of the box (on his balls in play, not the bat flip HR gif).

Rookie319
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Rookie319
1 year 8 months ago

You posted what elite bat speed looks like. What does 50 bat speed look like? Thanks!

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