When I started here just last month, I promised I would write a comprehensive series of articles explaining every part of the 20-80 scouting scale. This is the beginning of that series.
The invention of the scale is credited to Branch Rickey and whether he intended it or not, it mirrors various scientific scales. 50 is major league average, then each 10 point increment represents a standard deviation better or worse than average. In a normal distribution, three standard deviations in either direction should include 99.7% of your sample, so that’s why the scale is 20 to 80 rather than 0 and 100. That said, the distribution of tools isn’t a normal curve for every tool, but is somewhere close to that for most.
You’ve probably heard people call athletic hitters a “five-tool prospect.” While that is an overused and misunderstood term, they are referring to the 20-80 scouting scale. The five tools for position players are 1) Hitting 2) Power 3) Running 4) Fielding and 5) Throwing. The general use of the “five-tool” term is when all five are at least average (which is more rare than you’d think) and I generally only use it when all five are above average. It’s a shockingly small list of players over the history of baseball that have five plus tools, but if you ask around, scouts will tell you Bo Knows.
For hitters, these are the only five tools, despite many questions from readers about why we can’t expand it. Throwing accuracy is folded into the throwing tool grade (which is mostly arm strength since accuracy problems are often fixable) while fielding range, hands, instincts and all the components of defense are folded into the fielding grade. Base running skill and good jumps out of the batter’s box are also folded into the run grade. Many organizations and I will split power into game power (predicting big league power stats) and raw power (how far he can hit the ball in batting practice) but they are often the same and it’s simply a way with numbers to better explain the components of power (and also comment on the hit tool). The hit tool includes plate discipline (the most commonly asked-for sixth tool by the internet) but I’ll get more into why that is and how we can still project contact and on-base skill with one number in the article about the hit tool.
Though some teams have scouts grade each of these components, it’s the five core scouting grades that are paid attention to universally. It’s common practice in scouting reports for scouts to explain in the comments when, say a 55 fielding grade includes some 60 or higher components and some 50 or lower components, but often a 55 means a number of average to above skills and doesn’t merit much explanation. Scouts also use present and future grades for each tool. Present grades often are 20’s for high school players while, in the upper levels of the minors, the gap between present and future grades is very small. A present 20 and future 50 grade on a tool is noted as 20/50.
For pitchers, it is much more straightforward. Scouts grade each of their pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, splitter, cutter being the most common) on the 20-80 scale, then either grade the command of each pitch separately or have one overall command grade. Some teams will do grade for components of command (throwing quality strikes) with control (throwing it in the strike zone, usually closely following walk rate), pitchability (feel to sequence pitches, keep hitters off balance, etc.) and other similar things. Some clubs go so far as to have scouts grade deception, arm action (how clean/efficient/loose the arm swing is in back) and other components that the industry feels predict health. That said, the three core pitches (fastball, changeup, best breaking ball) and command are the four core grades that scouts use to make decisions and that inform the overall grade.
Objective Tool Grades
|Tool Is Called||Fastball Velo||Batting Avg||Homers||RHH to 1B||LHH to 1B||60 Yd Run|
This is a table showing the tool grades (fastball for pitchers, hit, power and speed for hitters) that have objective scales that every scout uses to grade. These scales will vary team to team, possibly shifted one notch in either direction, or maybe separate grades for fastball velocity for righties/lefties or starter/reliever but these are essentially industry consensus scales.
An 80 tool is called 80. It’s really rare, so why do we need another name for it? 75 is almost never used because scouts will yell at you to make a choice and many don’t use 65, though it’s much more accepted than 75. These half grades like 65 and 75 don’t have separate terms because many teams use a 2-8 scale rather than 20-80 and 2-8 is the scale that was predominant when many of today’s top scouts were starting out. Now 20-80 is more commonly used, but often you’ll hear older scouts at the ballpark throwing out single numbers like 6 or 7 while we might call that a 65 here. It helps in my situation to have more numbers describe things when I’m trying to differentiate between literally hundreds of prospects that have 50 or 55 power grades, for example.
One more important addition to the scale that isn’t shown here is solid average (52.5) and fringe-average or fringy (47.5). Since so many tools fall close to 50 but you may clearly prefer one 50 to the other, many scouts will use these terms to differentiate. Again, given the thousands of players I’ll be grading, it makes sense to use this and it will show up as 45+ or 50+, since no scout has or ever will write 52.5 or 47.5 (they just put 50 then say fringy or solid average in the comments).
Fastball velocity is pretty self-explanatory and this is used as a starting point, with many other pieces of information leading to 1-2 notch moves up or down. As mentioned above, lefty/righty and starter/reliever can be taken into account (though I and many teams don’t do that, instead considering those factors in the overall grade at the end) while command, movement and deception are common other components to move up/down from the starting velocity grade.
I’ll go more into the batting average/on base/hit tool thing in the hit tool article but it seems like even the most statistically-inclined people agree this scale is kind of agreeable for what it’s trying to do. For homers, it’s a similar situation that I’ll get into later; ideally you’d like isolated power for projection purposes, but this scale works for what it’s trying to do.
For the two different run grade scale, we have the 60-yard dash, which is a combine-style showcase measure of straight-line speed akin to the 40 from the football combine while the home to first base times from either batter’s box are functional game speed. Often scouts use the raw times (comparing them with scouts nearby to verify accuracy) then round up/down based on wind/grass conditions for the 60 or how good of a jump out of the box and effort level on times to first base.
The Overall Player Grade
|Hitter||Starting Pitcher||Relief Pitcher||WAR|
|80||Top 1-2||#1 Starter||—-||7.0|
|55||Above Avg||#3/4||Mid Closer||2.5|
|50||Avg Regular||#4||Low CL/High SU||2.0|
|40||Bench||Swing/Spot SP||Middle RP||1.0|
|35||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||0.0|
* “Organizational” is the term scouts use to describe a player that has no major league value; he’s just there to fill out a minor league roster and be a good influence on the prospects, though sometimes org players can outplay that projection.
** I didn’t continue down to 20 on either scale since it’s almost never relevant for players that I’ll be writing about or any of their tools, other than speed for big fat sluggers.
There have been plenty of articles here at FanGraphs breaking down this general idea and many adjacent ideas (and there will be more). I won’t profess that the scales I’m presenting here are perfect, but it’s a good combination of the objective, research-based scales and the more subjective ones that scouts have traditionally used (but are slowly becoming more objective as front offices have stat guys tweak them).
The concept that an 80 is just one or two big leaguers at each position is a traditional one while technically there could be a bunch of 7-win guys at any position. The “Top 1-2” notation for hitters is just to give an idea of typically how exclusive each group should be, realizing it isn’t always true.
Most scouts agree there are only ever 8-12 pitchers that could be called #1s or aces at any given time, but then there’s like 20 #2s and like 75 #3s. Many fans get tripped up by this term, thinking there are 30 of each type or that every team has exactly one version of each; that’s an understandable misunderstanding. Scouts see tiers of pitchers and call them #1, #2, #3 starters and this is one of those things you only fully understand when someone takes the time to explain to you what they mean.
Relievers are hard to value in this sense, as many people and scouts would say you’re crazy to not call Mariano Rivera an 80 since he’s the best ever. The problem is that assumes he’s as valuable as Mike Trout, which significantly fewer people believe, but still some people would (with some statistical adjustments for postseason leverage giving them something to point at). The WAR framework gives us a way to figure out where most players can be described and most elite relievers max out at around 3 wins, with very few racking up multiple seasons that good. You’d take a 60 position player over a 60 starting pitcher and either over a 60 reliever (all things being equal) due to attrition and these overall grades do their best to make the comparisons simpler.
The WAR-to-overall-player-grade conversion also isn’t perfect, so don’t assume someone is an 80 for the rest of time after one 7-win season by one of the WAR metrics. It’s a guide to convert a scouting grade convention for minor leaguers and amateur players to a scale that can be understood for purposes like valuing players in trades. The WAR grade here is meant as a true talent level, so crazy BABIP and UZR swings or playing time varying year-to-year doesn’t confuse us. I also may project a player’s upside or future tool grades to be a 3-win player, but the overall grade is subjective and includes various types of risk in the determination.
Many teams call their overall grade an OFP, short for Overall Future Potential. One of the clubs I worked for called their overall grade FV, short for Future Value, as that more accurately describes what this number is trying to do. The scout isn’t just averaging the core future tool grades; he’s trying to use one number to describe how valuable this player is on the overall player market, taking into account risk, distance to ceiling and other factors.
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.