Evaluating prospects is a skill that has evolved over time. The tried and true methods of scouting still apply to today’s game, and are now complimented by statistical analysis done by in-house professionals or hired third parties by almost every major league team today. While there have been many a debate of scouts versus stats, smart people believe that the two schools of thought can be used complimentary of one another. One thing you probably have noticed here at Future Redbirds is we strongly believe that the marriage of the two can give you a more accurate picture of the player’s true ability. For now, let’s examine the general principles of the scouting method:
The 20-80 Scale is a tool that is used to measure various aspects of a given player’s tools. The tools they measure would obviously vary by group. 50 would be considered to be MLB average, while a “plus” tool would be any tool that is graded at 60, and “plus-plus” would be rated 70 or higher. A 5-tool player would be a your coveted position player whose tools rate above average across the board. The prime example of this type of player in the Cardinal system is Colby Rasmus. So what are the 5 tools?
Hitting, or hitting for average: This is the scout’s measure of the player’s ability to put the ball in play. This is not to be confused with hitting for power, which we will look at next. A player’s ability to hit for average predicates that he has the bat speed and compactness of his swing to make consistent contact. These players will have excellent hand-eye coordination. Scouts look at mechanics-what the feet, hands, shoulders are doing as well as other factors.
Power: While the ability to hit for average measures the player’s ability to make contact, power is the measure of player’s talent to drive the ball a long, long way. Without at least some semblance of hitting ability, this tool will not be very game usable. When a scout says a player has “5 o’clock power” it means he can hit a lot of balls out in batting practice, but when it comes to on the field it’s another story. Sometimes it’s better to find the young player who hits for average that will eventually grow into his body and make some adjustments to his swing later. Power is usually the last thing to develop for a hitter, and research tells us that power typically peaks during ages 27-30 while the player is in the big leagues.
Fielding: Obviously this would be more position specific, but scouts look at the hands, footwork and mental capacities such as reaction times of a fielder. Players with good hands and footwork, along with good range are your middle infielders. A third baseman is usually a player with less range but good hands and quick reaction time. Players that don’t fit that criterion are regulated to the outfield, with the exception of your center fielders, who require the range and instincts to cover a lot of ground. Catchers are a different breed, and are graded on their plate blocking skills, “pop times” (seconds from ball in catcher’s mitt to ball in second baseman’s glove), handling pitchers, game calling skills, etc.
Throwing: This would of course tie into fielding, but it’s separated because you can be a good fielder with a poor arm or have a great arm and be a poor fielder. It varies by position on what is considered a good arm, but it’s obviously more crucial for catchers, right fielders and third baseman to have a good hose. It’s not just about strength, accuracy is also very important.
Speed: This is a help or hindrance on the base paths and in the field, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate to range or stealing bases. It’s measured by the time it takes to get from home to first. Times less then 4 seconds are great, 4.5 or higher is getting into Molina territory.
A player should at least have two standout skills to be considered a major league prospect, and unless you’re a premium defender at the catcher or middle infield positions it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a sniff of the big leagues without being able to hit. Different tools are more important at different positions, here is the traditional view of what tools are more important than others:
Pitchers are graded on the subsequent criteria
Fastball velocity: Self-explanatory. The harder they throw, the better the grade. Lefties are usually expected to throw a mph or 2 slower than right handers.
98 MPH+: 80 grades
You can’t teach velocity, and few increase it by much. Chris Perez and Jason Motte are two fine examples of pitchers with plus-plus velocity.
There’s more to just throwing hard, there’s also movement. Clayton Mortensen’s fastball measured by sheer velocity is a 60 grade, but its sink makes his fastball grade out higher.
Secondary offerings: Different pitchers have different pitches they possess outside of the fastball. The amount of movement and deception they can bring to their arsenal make them harder to hit. Chris Perez’s slider is the best in the system. P.J. Walters has a 40 fastball, but a baffling change-up with screwball type movement to it.
Command: Simply putting the ball where you want. Putting the ball over the plate or not even being able to find it both obviously could have disastrous results. Perez is a prime example of having dominant stuff yet still lacking the proper to command to be as useful as his high ceiling would predicate. Here’s a simple, rule of thumb guide to help judge a pitching prospect:
#1 Starter: Two plus pitches, average third pitch, plus-plus command, plus makeup
#2 Starter: Two plus pitches, average third pitch, average command, average makeup
#3 Starter: One plus pitch, two average pitches, average command, average makeup
#4 and #5 starters: Average velocity, consistent breaking ball, average change-up, command of two of the pitches
Closer: One dominant pitch, second plus pitch, plus command, plus-plus makeup
The first thing I try to do is contextualize a player’s performance by considering his experience, such as his age and number of games he played either in college or pro. But besides that, I try to examine the league the player played in things such as park factors. What a player did in comparison to his peers is an important component when judging performance. A .783 OPS in AAA sounds pretty decent, but when if that player played in the Pacific Coast League, that is considered merely average. Here is the 2007 league average OPS to give you a frame of reference.
Pacific Coast: .783 OPS
Florida State: .713
New York-Penn: .697
Gulf Coast: .691
This makes Allen Craig’s OPS from 2007 look all the more impressive, but then there is also the age factor. Typically you want a true prospect to be young for his league, or at least be average. Here’s typically what you’d like to see:
Again, it’s also important to factor in experience. A 23-year-old in high A with less experience who terrorizes his league is probably a better prospect then a 22-year-old repeating low A doing the same.
Another part of context I look at is the park they play in. Dan Szymborski publishes minor league park factors annually. Here’s how our parks stack up over the last three seasons:
Team R H 2B HR BB SO
Memphis 0.94 0.96 0.98 1.01 1.00 1.01
Springfield 1.03 1.01 1.05 1.11 0.99 1.03
Palm Beach 0.94 0.97 1.02 0.86 0.98 1.00
Quad Cities 0.97 0.98 1.00 0.98 1.00 0.96
Batavia 1.03 1.07 1.16 0.88 1.08 1.08
Johnson City isn’t available, but it is a noted HR friendly park. It’s all pretty simple. 1.00 is average. Anything above or below is a percentage point more or less then average. Springfield is a homer happy park, 11% more fly out then your average park, providing some context for the feats of Joe Mather and the struggles of Jaime Garcia. Batavia interestingly enough allowing 16% more doubles but 12% less homers. Palm Beach is a huge power-suppressing park, again making Allen Craig look all the better.
OK, now that we’ve got context out-of-the-way, what stats do we look at? For batters I tend to not just look at their AVG/OBP/SLG line. That’s a good way to get a quick snapshot of what they did, but they aren’t always the best indicators for what they will do in the future. When judging plate discipline I look at walk rates, strikeout rates and strikeout to walk ratios. A selective hitter will take a walk nearly 10% of his plate appearances. Very good contact hitters will only strikeout in about 10% or less of his plate appearances, but many of those hitters lose some power production with those shortened, contact oriented swings. A player who walks nearly as much as he strikes out usually will hit for a high average.
When looking at a player’s power output, I look at isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average. Isolated Power is considered a truer measure of power than slugging because the latter includes bases gained on singles. You have to keep age and level in mind, but a .200 is deemed very good. A .300 ISO means someone will be popping homers in the big leagues very soon. I also look at extra base hit rate. A player with good power will have 30% or more of his hits go for doubles, triples or home runs. I also like to look at the player’s HR/Air ratios. Hitting the ball in the air is desired, but warning track power is not. Rick Ankiel had 17% of the balls he hit in the air clear the fence, a very high rate for his league.
Lastly, I look at BABIP, which stands for batting average of balls in play. Some call it hit rate. Players with poor BABIPs maybe experiencing bad luck, or they might not. A player with a poor BABIP but with a decent rate of hitting line drives is probably experiencing bad luck, but a player with poor BABIP that’s hitting the ball on the ground 60% of the time is an out-maker. According to Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times, a line drive is worth about 36% of a run in the majors. The average line drive rate vary from lower levels to higher, but you’d like to see 19-21% or better.
When looking at pitchers, I don’t even bother with ERA’s, WHIP or win loss records and I’m hoping most of you reading this don’t either.
Strikeout rates are the first thing I look at. It’s well documented that pitchers with higher strikeout rates experience longer careers then pitchers with low strikeout rates. A good pitcher in the minors should strikeout nearly a batter per inning, especially in the lower in minors. K/9 can be deceiving because a pitcher can strikeout a lot of batters but allow hits, give up walks, hit batters and inflate the amount of batters he faces in the amount of innings he pitches in. I tend to look at K/PA. Good pitchers will register strikeouts 19-25% of the batters they face, depending on the level. A good reliever will strikeout 25%-32%. Chris Perez struck out a league leading 36% of the batters he faced in AA last season. Some pitchers may have good stuff but not miss many bats; this is where you have to look at scouting. Mitchell Boggs has a 65-grade fastball and a good slider but only had a 17% K rate because he doesn’t locate his pitches with precision.
Walk rates are a good indicator of a pitcher’s control. A livable rate for a starting pitcher is about 8%, 5% or below is outstanding and 10-11% or higher could result in some problems. Chris Perez walked 16% of the batters he faced. Some can live being effectively wild, but 16% is a red flag for any pitcher. Control can be learned but unfortunately you do not see many improve in that area by leaps and bounds often. In the case of Anthony Reyes, we’ve seen that even pitchers with good control in the minors struggle with control in the majors.
Groundball rates are another good indicator of future success, because balls hit on the ground more often than not result in outs. An extreme groundball pitcher will have a GB% of 60-65% or higher. In 2007, Clayton Mortensen was one of those pitchers. Anything over 50% is good, while anything under 35% not offset by a very high strikeout rate could spell trouble, especially if that prospect is ticketed for Springfield. Hearkening back to the subject of context, it’s important to remember that not all infielders are created equal. Many a minor league pitcher has experienced a few extra hits and runs given up because of a poor infield.
You may hear me refer to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching. It is scaled to look like ERA, giving you a number based on stats such as walk, K and homerun rates. It’s basically a measurement of their “peripheral” stats to give you a tidy number you are familiar with.
Finally, there are MLEs, which stands for major league equivalences. Introduced in 1985 by Bill James, MLEs are not to be confused with projections. They represent how a player’s previous performance might look at the MLB level. There are a number of ways to calculate MLEs, but the gist is they are derived by taking a player’s stats and applying a multiplier (or multipliers) based on the difficulty of their league. Others will include park factors, the players age, and so forth. Minorleaguesplits includes them, and Baseball Prospectus has MLEs and Peak Translations, which applies a typical aging pattern to the regular MLE to attempt to assess how good the player will be at his peak.
There’s obviously more to the subject than this, and I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this primer as we go along. Hopefully this provides you with a decent idea of the things I look at when I am evaluating prospects.