Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool, Pt. 1

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

It’s the mysterious hit tool because everyone seems to agree it’s the most important tool in an evaluation, for a hitter or a position player, and it’s also the hardest to project, with the most components of any other tool.

If a scout could project pitcher health and the hit tool perfectly, he would be shockingly close to perfect in his evaluations. Since no one is solving pitcher health any time soon, I’m going to focus on the hit tool: we actually have all the information we need in most cases, it’s just hard to weight the factors correctly. Click here for the introduction to this series explaining how to scout.

Collecting The Information

When scouting major and minor league players, scouts normally are assigned a team and given 5 or 6 games to watch every player on that team. It works out that you should see all the pitchers in this span but also, once you scout a hitter for 4 or 5 games (with an off-day mixed in) you get the amount of information you need.

In most cases, after 4-5 games there’s not much marginal benefit from seeing another game or two and a scout would be better off getting those couple extra games 4-6 weeks later, rather than tacking on more at-bats at the same time. Getting early and late looks on a player in the same season is much more valuable than knowing intimately what he’s like at just one point, as the hit tool is all about history and track record, not a snapshot.

Depending on the scout, this standard process could include one batting practice or sometimes as many as three to get a feel for the broad abilities the player brings to the table. Most scouts stick behind the plate the whole game at pro games to focus on the pitchers, while some scouts, particularly on special assignment to see a few players rather than a whole team, will go down the side to see the open side for some at bats.

In the amateur world where scouts are often just focusing on a couple players and hitters can have raw mechanics due the lower level of pitching/coaching talent, it’s not unusual for scouts to spend the whole game down the side. In pro ball, and specifically at Double-A and Triple-A, it’s almost impossible to hit over .250 with mechanical problems unless you have huge bat speed or raw power to make up for it. At those levels, evaluators are much more experienced and can pick out the more subtle swing flaws quickly from behind home plate, which most scouts agree is a harder place to assess hitting mechanics.

What They’re Looking For

If you ask scouts for a short list of the things they’re looking for in amateur hitters, the list would include 1) athleticism/looseness 2) bat speed 3) some feel for the bat head 4) some sense of a plan at the plate, to recognize pitches/adjust and other plate discipline type things. I specify amateur hitters because that’s the level where stats mean nothing and scouts are purely looking for raw abilities that can be developed.

In batting practice, you’d like to see an easy swing with low effort looseness, quick hands and some pop to all fields with the ability to turn on a pitch and yank it out of the park, but something more varied than pull-only, home run derby approach. Many hitters show you all of their raw power in BP and some seem to go out of their way to just hit low liners gap-to-gap. You’d like to be able to grade raw power and have an instinct about how you might grade the hit tool after BP, but some hitters make that harder on the evaluator than others.

In games, that same factors are in play but one of the things that comes to experienced evaluators that isn’t as evident to casual fans is comfort in the batter’s box. Sometimes scouts will talk about how “the game was too fast” for a hitter and this is the sort of thing you notice when you have a big library of hitters in your mind to consult and compare to what you’re seeing. That phrase is a catchall for “the hitter looks uncomfortable,” “he seems to be guessing on pitches,” “the pitcher is dictating the at bat to him,” etc.

It may seem too subjective for that sort of thing an integral part of an evaluation, but it’s amazing to me how often a quick observation like that will be backed up by a hitting coach, the stat line, later at-bats and often the player himself telling you he was out of sorts. This is very common at the amateur and low professionals levels with hitters that look good in a uniform but haven’t produced. Often, if a scout gets that impression about a player in multiple games at different points in the season, particularly a player that’s been in pro ball for years, it’s an indicator of a real problem.

We hoped you liked reading Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool, Pt. 1 by Kiley McDaniel!

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Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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Mike Green
Guest
Mike Green

“4) some sense of a plan at the plate, to recognize pitches/adjust and other plate discipline type things”

This encompasses several different points, and is probably the most important part of the hit tool. “Recognize pitches/adjust” includes aspects of vision, hand-eye co-ordination, instinct and athleticism. “Other plate discipline things” includes some of the above, but also a psychological approach that usually can be seen in other parts of a player’s game.

You can have a player who recognizes pitches and adjusts exceptionally well, but does not have good plate discipline. Yogi Berra and Vlad Guerrero would be the extreme cases.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yogi Berra and Vlad Guerrero had perfectly fine plate discipline. Good plate discipline is being selectively aggressive, and looking for a ball to drive.

The fact that the range of balls that Yogi and Vlad could drive included balls outside of the standard strike zone does not mean that they had poor plate discipline. It means that they recognized and adjusted for their own personal area of hittable pitches.

a martsass
Guest
a martsass

I think it’s more likely that their contact skills made up for flaws in their plate discipline, rather than their plate discipline being derived from contact skills. While they might be able to drive a pitch, they could still benefit by taking pitches that they couldn’t do much with. Hitters counts are better for everyone.

Pablo Sandoval
Guest

I tried that early this year and it didn’t work.

Yirmiyahu
Member

Pablo, that seems to be the problem with trying to teach plate discipline. If a guy can’t tell a ball from a strike until it’s too late, and he’s told that he needs to be more selective and take more pitches, he’s not actually going to become more disciplined. He’s just going to take a bunch of called strikes.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yeah, when you have elite bat control but a below average eye, it’s better to just go looking for a pitch to hit and adjust, because you can.

a eskpert
Guest
a eskpert

Pablo, you didn’t try taking pitches you couldn’t do much with. You tried taking everything, because you aren’t, as Yirmiyahu says, very good at discerning what you can and cannot hit.

Yirmiyahu
Member

I find it hard to believe that any player– even those with exceptional bat control– is better off swinging at pitches far outside of the zone than he is taking those pitches. Of the pitches they swung at, I’m sure Yogi or Vlad or Ichiro had better numbers on pitches inside the strike zone than than on pitches outside of it.

I’d say that means that they succeeded despite poor discipline.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Ichiro is a different conversation. Yogi and Vlad’s BB%s were only 8% and 7% worse than the league average over their careers, respectively.

They were selectively aggressive within the zone of what they could hit hard. The fact is that what Yogi and Vlad could hit hard included a larger area than “normal” players’ did, so they swung at a wider range of pitches.

Guys who succeed despite poor discipline are people like Adam Jones, Yan Gomes, Starling Marte and Carlos Gomez, who swing at pitches they can’t make contact with. If you’re striking out less than 15% of the time, you have a plan at the plate.

a eskpert
Guest
a eskpert

Vlad’s contact percentage was only about 80%; he swung at pitches he couldn’t make contact with. Albert’s, in comparison, is about 90%.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Having worse pate discipline than Albert Pujols is different from having poor discipline, haha

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU

Remember that pitchers avoid challenging dangerous hitters like Vlad, especially since they know he swings at pitches outside the zone. When pitchers throw a lot of pitches out of the zone, it doesn’t take huge plate discipline to draw some walks.