Evaluating a pitcher is simpler than evaluating a hitter. It isn’t easier, due to pitcher attrition, but pitchers show you everything they have to offer—stuff, location, delivery, athleticism, etc.—pitch after pitch and are dictating the action. Watching a hitter is more complicated since you’re evaluating their ability to react to what the pitcher is doing, along with the physical tools, ability to use them, approach at the plate, etc. Hitters can go a couple at bats without swinging and full games without having to show their ability in one of these key areas.
The hit tool is the hardest tool to predict and also is the most important. Imagine the job of a pro scout grading the hit tool for every player on a team from a five game look. You’ll have notes from batting practice and every at bat of each player, but the information is asymmetrical. You don’t know how he responds to a fastball on his hands until one is thrown and maybe he never gets one or he doesn’t swing at it. You pay close attention to his plate discipline but maybe he doesn’t see any borderline pitches for a game or two. This is multiplied for every player on the team, some of whom play irregularly, so your notes can have some holes. Evaluating a hitter is difficult because it’s a passive act graded off of a short look but also because it’s very complicated by nature with countless components.
While my method for grading hitters isn’t a revelation, it’s helped me organize my thoughts about hitters while taking notes mid-game and while writing the final evaluations. I separate the hit tool into three components –tools, plate discipline and bat control—and classify any observation into one of the three groups, then use the grades of each of these components to get to the hit tool grade. If I don’t take this methodical, checklist-type approach, I end up looking at a mess of notes, outcomes, stats and background info and gut-feeling my way to a hit tool grade.
With the philosophical, self-indulgent intro behind us, let’s look at some examples. The Clearwater Threshers (Hi-A, Florida State League, Phillies affiliate) have two players that illustrate these different components well in fellow outfielders Zach Collier and Anthony Hewitt. Collier is a 21 year old center fielder a former sandwich pick in 2008 from a southern California high school. He has good bat speed, a simple swing and an excellent ability to square up pitches in different parts of the zone. Collier’s strike zone is a little loose and he can go through overly-aggressive spells. He has solid-average hitting tools, above-average bat control and below-average plate discipline. It’s not a science, but that adds up to an average hit tool for me: roughly league average batting average and on-base percentage at his big league peak.
Anthony Hewitt was also a 1st round prep outfielder the Phillies took in the 2008 draft and was drafted on the strength of his strong tool set despite a raw approach to the game. Hewitt has struggled in pro ball, posting a .241/.281/.387 line at age 23 this season for the Threshers. He’s still raw as a hitter at the plate and after watching him for a number of games, Hewitt doesn’t look like the type that will improve. After watching dozens of at-bats, I only saw Hewitt make contact with pitches in one part of the zone: middle-away and mid-height in the zone. Luckily, he’d see at least one pitch in this zone almost every at bat and was aggressive enough that he always swung at it, almost always making decent contact. The problem is all the other pitches he swung at and missed. Hewitt largely lay off pitches on the inner half but swung and missed at every other type of pitch, including a number of off speed pitches away in the dirt. He has a grooved swing that stays on the same plane and can only make contact with specific kinds of pitches and locations; lack of bat control contributes to this problem. Hewitt has well below-average bat control and plate discipline that ruin his above-average tools and make him an organizational player that may never get to AAA.
Plate discipline is the easiest to understand of the three groupings as it’s just the ability to have a plan at the plate, identify and swing/not swing at the right pitches. Tools are a broader category that includes the basic parts of the swing (bath path, loft, load) and the physical tools (bat speed, strength, eye-hand coordination) that put you in a position to make good contact. Bat control (also called bat manipulation or “feel for the bat head”) is harder to define but essentially is the ability to use one’s hitting tools on pitches of different velocities and locations by controlling the bat path.
Some would look at Hewitt’s three components, see the above-average tools and think he’s a good buy-low candidate because you can’t teach tools. Of the three, tools are the most likely to change over time by tinkering with the swing and with physical development. While plate discipline can improve, especially for player with limited game experience, it generally stays pretty static over time.
Bat control is a little mysterious and may improve some, like plate discipline, but is much more akin to “hitability” than simply being an analog for bat speed or strength. Typically, medium-sized athletes with loose swings and bat speed have better bat control (and margin for error, given the tools) and big, stiff sluggers typically do not. That’s why big sluggers that can hit for average are so rare, as it takes God-given, elite athleticism and coordination to overcome longer arms and stiffness to take a direct path, manipulate the bat head and square the ball up. When you watch a minor league game and see a guy with a Richie Sexson body type, 99% of the time he is an org player with giant holes in his swing.
As for Hewitt, his plate discipline and bat control as so bad that his tools ultimately don’t matter. If they were simply below-average, you still can’t teach bat speed and he may still be a buy low candidate. As is, he’s a swing-and-miss minor league right fielder with above-average power and arm strength along with average speed. Collier is a solid-average runner with an average arm that still can play some center field but has below-average raw power that makes him a classic fourth outfielder, tweener profile. Like the concept of bat control, evaluation itself is mysterious and unpredictable in its own ways, but making the process a little more deliberate can hopefully reduce some errors.