It’s the mysterious hit tool because everyone seems to agree it’s the most important tool in an evaluation, for a hitter or a position player, and it’s also the hardest to project, with the most components of any other tool.
If a scout could project pitcher health and the hit tool perfectly, he would be shockingly close to perfect in his evaluations. Since no one is solving pitcher health any time soon, I’m going to focus on the hit tool: we actually have all the information we need in most cases, it’s just hard to weight the factors correctly. Click here for the introduction to this series explaining how to scout.
Collecting The Information
When scouting major and minor league players, scouts normally are assigned a team and given 5 or 6 games to watch every player on that team. It works out that you should see all the pitchers in this span but also, once you scout a hitter for 4 or 5 games (with an off-day mixed in) you get the amount of information you need.
In most cases, after 4-5 games there’s not much marginal benefit from seeing another game or two and a scout would be better off getting those couple extra games 4-6 weeks later, rather than tacking on more at-bats at the same time. Getting early and late looks on a player in the same season is much more valuable than knowing intimately what he’s like at just one point, as the hit tool is all about history and track record, not a snapshot.
Depending on the scout, this standard process could include one batting practice or sometimes as many as three to get a feel for the broad abilities the player brings to the table. Most scouts stick behind the plate the whole game at pro games to focus on the pitchers, while some scouts, particularly on special assignment to see a few players rather than a whole team, will go down the side to see the open side for some at bats.
In the amateur world where scouts are often just focusing on a couple players and hitters can have raw mechanics due the lower level of pitching/coaching talent, it’s not unusual for scouts to spend the whole game down the side. In pro ball, and specifically at Double-A and Triple-A, it’s almost impossible to hit over .250 with mechanical problems unless you have huge bat speed or raw power to make up for it. At those levels, evaluators are much more experienced and can pick out the more subtle swing flaws quickly from behind home plate, which most scouts agree is a harder place to assess hitting mechanics.
What They’re Looking For
If you ask scouts for a short list of the things they’re looking for in amateur hitters, the list would include 1) athleticism/looseness 2) bat speed 3) some feel for the bat head 4) some sense of a plan at the plate, to recognize pitches/adjust and other plate discipline type things. I specify amateur hitters because that’s the level where stats mean nothing and scouts are purely looking for raw abilities that can be developed.
In batting practice, you’d like to see an easy swing with low effort looseness, quick hands and some pop to all fields with the ability to turn on a pitch and yank it out of the park, but something more varied than pull-only, home run derby approach. Many hitters show you all of their raw power in BP and some seem to go out of their way to just hit low liners gap-to-gap. You’d like to be able to grade raw power and have an instinct about how you might grade the hit tool after BP, but some hitters make that harder on the evaluator than others.
In games, that same factors are in play but one of the things that comes to experienced evaluators that isn’t as evident to casual fans is comfort in the batter’s box. Sometimes scouts will talk about how “the game was too fast” for a hitter and this is the sort of thing you notice when you have a big library of hitters in your mind to consult and compare to what you’re seeing. That phrase is a catchall for “the hitter looks uncomfortable,” “he seems to be guessing on pitches,” “the pitcher is dictating the at bat to him,” etc.
It may seem too subjective for that sort of thing an integral part of an evaluation, but it’s amazing to me how often a quick observation like that will be backed up by a hitting coach, the stat line, later at-bats and often the player himself telling you he was out of sorts. This is very common at the amateur and low professionals levels with hitters that look good in a uniform but haven’t produced. Often, if a scout gets that impression about a player in multiple games at different points in the season, particularly a player that’s been in pro ball for years, it’s an indicator of a real problem.
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.