“Why is he a good hitter?” That was my question for Clint Hurdle at the Winter Meetings, and I asked it four times. I queried the Pirates manager about two of his outfielders: Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, and a pair of his infielders: Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. Here are his capsule scouting reports on each, plus a bonus question about data and video.
Hurdle on Andrew McCutchen: “Number one, he’s confident. He doesn’t feel that he’s ever out of a count. There is no panic with two strikes, and that’s one thing you look for in a hitter. After it’s strike two, is it strike three? A lot of it happens in a hurry. Andrew isn’t afraid to take a strike; he’s not afraid to take two. He’s usually looking for something to hit, until he gets to two strikes, and then he’s going to battle.
“Another thing that makes him a good hitter is that he can hit the breaking ball. That’s usually a developed skill that the good ones get in the minor leagues and continue to put in play in the big leagues. You have to be able to hit soft stuff, spin stuff, in offensive counts at the major-league level, because the pitchers are very talented.
“He can hit the breaking ball because he has the ability to recognize it and wait for it. He also swings at it with authority. A hanging breaking ball from Carpenter, three-run homer. He’s the kind of hitter that hits good pitchers, but he also doesn’t miss many mistakes. That’s another thing you see really good big-league hitters do: they don’t miss mistakes. When pitchers are on, they shut you down. Good pitchers beat good hitters. We’ve seen that as long as the game has been played, but when mistakes are made, good hitters cause damage. Andrew has a lot of self confidence at the plate. There’s really nobody that he doesn’t think he can square up. Mental toughness is a benefit that he brings with him into every at bat.
“One more thing I would say that Andrew does is focus on hitting the ball hard where it’s pitched. He just tries to square it up, get on the backside, and not try to create too much lift in his swing. He just tries to hit the ball hard with a vision, or a focus, to right-center field. Then, after that, just put the barrel on the backside of the baseball.”
On Jose Tabata: “Jose is a young player that we got from the Yankees. He was dinged up more than we wanted last year, and didn’t spend as much time on the field, but he’s a strong-bodied kid. He shows a very good ability to hit the ball hard the other way. He can hit breaking balls as well as go deep in the count. He shows patience. He has very good hand-eye coordination to get the bat to the ball.
“I think that power will show up as he continues to play, and mature. It’s not quite there yet. He can sting the ball, though, including the other way. He hit a few homers last year, out to right field in our ballpark. Any time that a guy has [opposite field] gap power, it plays very well. I think it’s going to play very well throughout his career.
“Mechanically, he has a very aggressive swing, within the strike zone. It’s almost a little Bill Madlock-like, but with longer arms. Sometimes he can get a swing off in a phone booth. It’s short and quick to the ball, and there’s intent.”
On Pedro Alvarez: “Pedro Alvarez is still learning. The success he had in 2010 obviously caught everybody’s attention; it put Pedro in the public eye. He’s got a chance to have a run-producing bat. I really believe that hasn’t changed, regardless of what happened last season.
“One of the biggest challenges for hitters in the major leagues is that after being up for three months, the league has pretty good intelligence on you. Information travels quickly. What you are doing well, they find a counterpunch for. They counterpunched Pedro early in the season and he never really got himself to a position to throw a counterpunch back. He got away from his game. I think he maybe became a little too passive.
“We don’t want him to work on having a perfect swing; we want him to have a dangerous swing, an impact swing. He was vulnerable this past year to soft and spin. The year before, he hit soft and spin. He also didn’t miss many fastballs in the zone.
“Everything starts with a thought. There are things that paralyze young hitters. It usually takes some experience and I think it usually takes more than 500 at bats. It’s closer to 900 minor league at bats and 1,500 big league at bats. It’s the ability to not focus so much on everything the pitcher has. They put too much emphasis on the four pitches the guy throws and not enough on the one they want to hit. That’s a transition I try to take good young hitters to.
“Say that a pitcher has a go-to pitch for when he’s behind the count, a strike-one pitch, and a kill pitch. Well, let’s identify what we want to hit. We want to see the ball up; that’s number one. All right. And we want to see it either in or out. Don’t try to hit all of them.
“I think that one of the things Pedro did last year was get into the trap of trying to hit every pitch somewhere, instead of being more selective and looking to do damage in the strike zone.”
On Neil Walker: “One of Neil’s biggest strengths is his dependability. He takes ownership of each and every at bat. From what I’ve seen, he’s a young player with the ability to hunt RBI. It usually takes a little more experience, but he finds a way to drive that runner in from third with less than two out. He finds a way to use the big part of the field with runners in scoring position.
“He can hit soft; he can hit a changeup in an offensive count. He can hit a breaking ball. He can hit deep in the count, draw a walk, and give you a tough at bat. He uses the whole field. There are also times when he gets a little too much adrenaline going and tries to hit everything.
“He has the ability to switch hit and that provides him with a dynamic. He’s working on improving himself right-handed. He’s probably a little more advanced, and mature, left-handed.
“He catalogues pitchers pretty well. He has a pretty good memory of what’s been done to him in the past.”
On the use of video and scouting reports: “Each one of these guys watches tape. I do think that sometimes you can watch too much tape. I tell them that there actually was a time in this game’s history where we didn’t have video and couldn’t run up the tunnel after every at bat to check things out. You had to communicate with your teammates. ‘Hey, what did you see?’ I kind of encourage them to be a little more touch and feel and not always just run to the video. They have to find their own rhythm with it, but for the most part I don’t want any of my hitters to be a slave to video.
“When they do use it, I think it’s important that they watch as much of their good swings as the ones where they are challenged. One thing I’ve seen with Andrew is that he’s usually able to correct mistakes, or flaws pretty quickly.
“As for scouting reports, the coaching staff spends a lot more time with them than the players. We try to take a lot of information, put it into a tight little package, and give it to them within about 30 minutes. We’ve also got the books in the dugout, so we can share them and catch the players up on them. We can let them know some hot spots and hot counts where somebody uses a certain pitch at a certain time. There are some pitchers who, with two strikes, want to blow it up top; they want go high above the hands with hard stuff. Other guys just want to bury spin down below. We make them aware of those things. That said, they still have to get a strike. That’s my message: get a strike.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.