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.

We hoped you liked reading Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool, Pt. 2 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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Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus

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
Guest

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
Guest
joser

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
Guest

Damn prospects. Ingrates.

haishan
Guest
haishan

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
Guest
Wobatus

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
Guest
Eliassen Sports Bureau

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
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

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
Guest
Eliassen Sports Bureau

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
Guest
Eliassen Sports Bureau

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
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

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
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

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
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

damn. double post.