Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool Mailbag

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

I wrote a four-part series on the hit tool as an entirely-too-long breakdown of the things I look for when I scout a hitter, but I knew there would be things I forgot to mention.  The one thing I forgot to bring up is something I mentioned in the also-entirely-too-long draft rankings; the different process I use to grade the current hit tool for amateur players.  Quoting from those draft rankings:

The present hit grades for Rodgers and for all amateur players going forward is a peer grade…rather than just putting blanket 20s on everyone’s present hit tool. A peer grade means how the player performs currently in games relative to his peers: players the same age and general draft status or skill level. Some teams started using this system to avoid over-projecting a raw hitter; some use the rule that you can’t project over 10 points above the peer grade for the future grade.  This helps you avoid saying players that can’t really hit now will become standout big league hitters. Obviously, some will, but it’s not very common and it’s probably smart to not bet millions on the rare one that will.

I said I would explain more about this, but I think I said basically everything here.  All but maybe one or two hitters in each draft class will have present 20 hit grades, but the context and amount of evidence will vary greatly.  The peer hitting grade helps tie this all together because, for a player with a short track record, scouts will find themselves projecting only on hitting tools when there isn’t much performance to grade. Using this system, it helps remind you to consider performance, but still weighing it appropriately given the sample size, competition level, etc.  I’m sure I’ll talk more about this with more specific examples as the draft approaches and grading conundrums present themselves.

The Comment Section Was Useful

That was the one thing I forgot to mention, but it turns out the comments section fostered some solid discussion in part two of this series.  Here’s some selected comments, edited for clarity/brevity:

Cool Lester Smooth: At what age should we stop expecting a guy to improve his plate discipline, because he is who he is at this point?

MeI think by three years in pro ball, it’s getting close to concrete. One of my theories is that guys that enter pro ball with very little baseball experience (i.e. Carl Crawford) have no bad habits so they can get better than what they are on day one in the system. Guys like Delmon Young or Josh Vitters that were known to scouts at age 15 and played year round since puberty…those guys might be concrete when they sign.

CLSAre Latin American guys just a whole different ball game? They often seem to have the most dramatic improvements, but they also play more and from a younger age than guys like Vitters or Young.

MeIt’s interesting because Latin guys often don’t play games until they sign (though that’s starting to change), then generally only play games in the summer (DSL) until they’re ready to come stateside. For quick-moving Latin guys, they may have less game experience than the average domestic high school player when they both show up in complex leagues (GCL/AZL).

This Crawford/Young/Vitters observation is one of my theories about plate discipline and it obviously has exceptions (Jeff Francoeur was a relatively raw multi-sport prospect like Crawford) but I think gets at a bigger point. There were a couple comments pointing out that what I called “eye skills” being behind plate discipline at the end of this piece is actually more “brain skills tied to visual perception.”  I kind of knew that, but was intentionally not getting into details since I’d be out of my depth.

I think about this topic a lot. I wrote something about it when I worked for a club and quoted a bunch of hitters from interviews where they talking about how they see the ball. One of those is a FanGraphs interview by David Laurila with Adrian Gonzalez. A particularly good quote from that interview:

DL: What do you see when the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand?

AG: I see rotation. I can pick up on what the pitch is as soon as the pitcher lets go of it. Most of what you see is innate. If you ask some of the great hitters, they won’t all say the same thing. Some just see balls. Some guys see speed out of the hand. I can’t recognize speed, but I can recognize rotation. Some guys can recognize speed but not rotation and some guys just see a ball and swing. They just let their abilities take over and that’s not something you can teach.

Great hitters don’t all see the same thing, don’t all see the ball in the same way and they don’t all describe the hitting process the same way. Great hitters come in different packages and some like Gonzalez and Joey Votto like talking about it and describe it pretty well while others can’t really put their finger on why they’re great. Some of it is elite vision (which most big leaguers have, so that’s really more of a prerequisite) but it’s mostly an innate ability to process a specific type of information quickly and efficiently, with some hard work mixed in as well. There isn’t a perfect way to identify it (there’s physical ability to consider as well) and I don’t think you can learn it, generally speaking, just unlock what you already have. What I’m saying is I don’t really understand it at all. MYSTERIOUS.

Here’s a more concrete question that I’ve been asked in a few forms that I referenced it briefly in my Dilson Herrera scouting report:

Rico BrognaI’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?

MeYes, that’s a good way to succinctly describe a long swing. There’s a lot of ways for it to happen, but it is when the hand path from load (hands farthest from contact) to contact takes longer than it needs to. Long swings often create lift via a “loop”, or initial downward move (you want it to be forward), so extra bat speed would help a hitter with this problem make more contact and the loop would create loft to make the ball go farther. It’s a sliding scale where the 60 bat speed guy can do it and still be an everyday guy and the 50 bat speed guy really can’t…while the 70 bat speed guy can do some really weird stuff and still be an everyday guy.

The next comments reference the section of part two about Dan Vogelbach and this video. Before you see my answer below, watch the video and grade Vogelbach’s bat speed on the 20-80 scale from what you think.

Pirate Hurdles: 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!

Me: What do you think Vogelbach is? That can be an eye test example.

PH: 40-50?

Me: This is a good learning opportunity. 40 or 45 bat speed is what scouts call “slider bat speed” which is usually what you hear with the stiff, grooved swing slugger I mention in the article.

Almost no one with under 50 bat speed is anywhere close to a top 100 prospect list. That would essentially mean you have to “cheat” or guess pitches to hit an average/50 fastball (90-91 mph).

I would call Vogelbach’s 55 bat speed, though I could see some scouts call it a 50 since he’s got a funny body (which affects the perception) and he isn’t a max effort swing type, so you don’t always see all that he can offer.

As a related point to the bat speed/fastball 20-80 grades matching up, an average runner can beat an average defender with an average arm on an average ground ball if there’s a slight hesitation, but a 40 or 45 runner often won’t.

The concept that a 50 bat means a .260 batting average (and usually a .320 OBP) is just what the current MLB landscape tells us; that could change with offensive levels. The 20-80 scale being useful for multiple levels, multiple tools and multiple time periods is the beautiful, timeless reason it sticks around.

Some readers were still confused as to why the 20-80 scale is so prevalent and I didn’t do a great job explaining that beyond the argument for tradition. I expound upon the various tool grades relating to each other here as well:

Mack: 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.

Me: With most big leaguers, their batting line and general body type can give you a lot of hints. Most .250-hitting utility infielders or platoon corner guys are fringy or average bat speed types. When you’re looking for the above average or plus guys, it’s either the guy with the “toolsy” tag that’s out of control and doesn’t have good numbers but is “exciting” or, more often, the guys consistently hitting .280+ with 20+ homers.

You can’t produce at that level for multiple years in the big leagues with average bat speed, with very few exceptions. It goes back to my above comment in this same thread about the 20-80 scale matching up across multiple tools. If so many MLB pitchers have above average fastballs/off-speed pitches/command, along with specialists designed to neutralize you specifically…and you have average bat speed…you have to have big raw power and/or a great batting eye and/or great bat control (probably at least 2 of those) to turn average tools against above average stuff into above average hitting stats.

This is why a plus-plus bat speed guy like Justin Upton seems like a letdown, even though he’s hitting at or above that .280/20 level I’m talking about. If he had above average playability of his hitting tools, he could be an all-timer. The all-time greats have his kind of hitting tools but the instincts and whatnot to get the most out of those tools.

I would also look at guys like Alex Rios or Starling Marte that hit for high averages as everyday players with low walk rates. If these guys were frauds, they league would’ve figured them out by now. These types can be superior bat control guys (and often are) but almost always are also above average bat speed guys, too, since they often have less quality pitches to see given their impatience, so they have to physically (via bat speed and bat control) be able to hit more kinds of pitches than the guy that can patient his way into a meatball down the middle late in an at-bat.

And this commenter zeroes in on a part of my last answer that I didn’t explain well:

Matt: I get a little confused when you equate ‘bat speed’ with being able to catch up to a high velocity pitch. Isn’t it possible for a guy to be able to swing really fast, but not be able to catch up to a 98 mph fastball, and conversely, a guy with mediocre bat speed to catch up to those high velocity pitches?

An example of the latter that comes to mind is Nomar Garciaparra – he could hit a 100 mph high fastball, but it didn’t seem like he had 70+ bat speed (I could be wrong). I can’t think of any specific examples of the converse of this – but I’m sure there are examples of power hitters who punish mistakes and perform significantly better against pitchers with mediocre, as opposed to elite velocity guys.

Me: Big league regulars are getting over 500 plate appearances at about 4 pitches per at bat. That’s over 2000 pitches per season. The reason you can’t have big swing flaws or a terrible approach in the upper minors (unless you have insane tools) is that the pitching is so good–you wouldn’t get that far. With the advance scouting in the big leagues, this challenge rises exponentially.

MLB pitchers and hitters both do a ton of tinkering and studying, which is why nearly every time a random non-prospect has a great 100 PA, he disappears by year two. If he’s short on tools, which could mean 50 bat speed/bat control/raw power, pitchers figure out his weakness, throw that more, then he has to cheat to be able to avoid that pitch and also still hit the 95 mph fastball. It’s like purifying metal. Put enough heat for long enough and all the impurities go away.

On any one pitch, a 20 bat speed guy could square up 98, but the relentless onslaught of highly skilled pitchers and catchers doing hours of homework for each game will exploit any weakness over time. If you go to the plate a couple thousand times and you’re no better than average at any of the skills we’re talking about, you will get exposed as a role player at best. It’s just a matter of when.

Garciaparra, from watching some not so great Youtube video, was a plus bat speed guy, which is what I remember him as. From 1997-2004, he hit 133 OPS+ in over 4000 PA, averaging .324 BA and 30 HR per 162 games in that stretch. That is unbelievably impossible to accomplish with average hitting tools. He was a 60+ bat speed, raw power and bat control guy.

I’ve joked with pro scouts often that when they walk into a Double-A, Triple-A or big league park, they know their overall grade (FV or OFP) for every hitter is down to two options before they even watch any action. You can do so much background on players with their numbers, draft status, basic biographical info and any buzz you know from where publications rank them, if the GM called him “untouchable,” etc.

This also applies to basic scouting grades and fans. Very few tools for big league regulars are below average and you can use context clues to figure out the area of a specific tool grade (give or take a notch). As I reference above, specialization of pitching and advance scouting is helping to further eliminate overachievers, average hitting tools and guess/mistake hitters. Beyond that, many tools (like hit and game power) can be defined completely by performance when we have multiple full seasons of similar performance for players and no signs the player has “changed.”

I’ll keep listing tools and helping bridge the information gap for minor league/amateur players, but I think you guys are better at this than you think, when you have the context the big leagues provides to steer you in the right direction. In a similar way, I was asked about things in the comment section that should’ve been in articles, but I needed the commenters to give me some context for how people are understanding my articles to steer me into explaining it more thoroughly.

We hoped you liked reading Scouting Explained: The Mysterious Hit Tool Mailbag 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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Daniel Schwartz
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Golden summary & review, thanks.