As I was learning to evaluate, I was overwhelmed by this challenge of grading the hit tool. I wasn’t advanced enough to notice when hitters seemed uncomfortable as fast as I wanted to notice it and I hadn’t been on the beat long enough to have multiple years of history with players to know how to put what I was seeing in context of their whole careers. The easier part, however, was noticing the raw hitting tools. By the time an evaluator gets good at noticing and grading these, the other stuff tends to follow.
I break hitting into three components, but you could easily break it down further into many more. I saw three basic groupings and put every observation into one, then graded each group on the 20-80 scale, then use those to get to a hit tool grade in a more objective way. Scouts all have different ways that they do it and I’ve tinkered with different methods, but this one works for me and also gives me a guide for what to ask scouts about with hitters I haven’t seen recently.
1. The Tools
This is the easiest one for the casual fan to pick up on quickly. I included a video of Javier Baez since he was the first player that came to mind of a guy who, after one swing in BP, is obviously crazy talented. It’s a little tough to see with BP swings, but that’s what 80 bat speed looks like. Here’s Clint Frazier so you can see it again.
That was fun. This category includes bat speed, raw strength and the basic structure of the swing. Maybe you’d say strength is a part of the power tool, not the hit tool (it is part of both and stop questioning me) and that the swing mechanics aren’t a tool at all, so why call the group The Tools?
The swing path (steep, level, uppercut etc.), the type of hitter (power/contact, flyball/line drive) the load (pre-swing hand movement) and the lower half dictate how much the tools (bat speed and strength) can be used. I initially had these two things separated until I realized one dictates the other with no exceptions, so they might as well be graded together.
Baez and Frazier are both 80 bat speed, at least 60 power guys that are flyball/power hitters. Frazier has a level path with a high finish (this type is prone to upper cutting the ball) and Baez is a steeper bat path guy that starts his hands higher, though this video is from probably the worst and most out-of-control period mechanics-wise of Baez’s pro career.
The best big league hitters tend to be relatively level bat path guys (leaving the bat in the zone a long time for a better chance at contact with more pitches) that are so physically gifted that they can muscle a ball out of the park without much steepness in their bat path and also have some looseness to their swing despite that brawn. This is what you have in guys like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. There’s also some like Mark McGwire that have some steepness to their path to create loft but have such compact/efficient mechanics and superior bat speed that they also hit for average and power.
I could break down every possible type of hitter and the good/bad combinations, but there is a basic ideal scouts are looking for: above average bat speed and strength and some version of your typical big league swing. While swings can vary and scouts aren’t looking for every swing to look the same, the general principles in good swings are balance, load hands around the back shoulder, upper and lower halves synced, direct bat path, some loft in the finish.
Any hitter that doesn’t do one of these things can probably be coached to fix it, but not doing a couple of them, or doing one that’s hard to coach away (like loading hands up rather than back like Dilson Herrera) is a mark against you, putting the onus on the hitter to prove that he can make those mechanics work against top level pitching (which Herrera has done).
It takes longer for scouts to get on board with a hitter that does it an unusual way, but scouts will change their tune quickly if the tools are there. Scouts will get on board much less quickly if the tools aren’t there AND it looks a little weird. Sometimes a swing can be “fixed” if there’s a problem, but for the types of players I’ll be writing about (professional players and top amateurs) they often have had the same swing for so long, it’s hard to do more than tweak it.
2. Bat Control
The idea behind bat control (also called “feel for the bat head” and “manipulates the barrel” among other phrases) is the ability to change your swing to match the pitch that’s being thrown. Ichiro and Vladimir Guerrero are examples of 80 bat control and the practical thing you’re looking for is when a hitter can be fooled by an off-speed pitch, be off-balance and still square up those sorts of pitches with regularity.
Bat control is basically an analog for a loose, athletic swing. The opposite is a grooved or stiff swing, which you hear often with sluggers that are stuck in the minors but often have good numbers (often with fans calling for them to be given a chance in the big leagues). A grooved swing can often be picked out quickly in batting practice. This type of hitter is stiff athletically and the swing has some steepness to it, while also looking exactly the same every time. Having the bat in the zone a long time gives you a chance to hit balls that you don’t time perfectly. A grooved, stiff swing means you have to time the ball perfectly and have it come right into your wheelhouse of the limited areas you can make hard contact. Bat control comes from fluidity of movement and this guy doesn’t have it.
Something that’s important to point out is that there’s traditional athleticism (size, speed, strength: think football combine stuff) then there’s baseball athleticism (looseness of actions and forearm, wrist and hand strength). There’s a surprising amount of guys, with Dan Vogelbach and D.J. Peterson some recent examples, who look physically like non-athletes in the context of world-class athletics. They are both what some scouts call “athletic in the box” meaning their hitting actions look like they belong on a more traditionally athletic body.
A Short Detour: Dan Vogelbach
This is one of the things that makes baseball great. This guy got $1.6 million out of high school and he looked like this back then, too, if not bigger. His career minor league line is .285/.375/.481 and he’s been young for every league he’s been in. Vogelbach has feel to hit, a very good sense of the zone, 60 raw power to all fields and is loose enough to get to all that in games, while former football players all around him could sell a bunch of jeans but can’t hit a fastball down the middle.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a chip on your shoulder (I’m told Vogelbach reads all the things written about him) and to have that chip make you want to say “I told you so” via an epic bat flip every time you put one into orbit.
I explain all that to illustrate that bat control is an analog for baseball athleticism and not traditional athleticism, though often in top prospects (Byron Buxton is a great example) you will find elite versions of both kinds of athleticism in the same player.
3. Plate Discipline
This is the easiest one to understand. There are lots of elements to it, but I think the general fan understands that you need to have an idea at the plate, be able to recognize different types of pitches, get yourself into good counts, lay off the slider in the dirt, etc. For amateur players, you learn the most about this when an elite hitter faces a guy with some feel for throwing around 90 mph, which explains why it’s sometimes hard to suss out this skill before pro ball.
The interesting aspect of this for me is how much plate discipline can be taught. I think you can improve some of the components and some specific situational issues, but I and many of the scouts I’ve talked to think there’s some inherent skill you can’t change, be it genetic or learned so early and pounded into the brain though years of travel/high school games that it’s hard to reprogram.
I did a study for one of the clubs I worked for and the basic takeaway was that, among above average regulars in the big leagues, less than 10% of them materially improved or regressed their plate discipline numbers once they got into pro ball and the more accurate number is probably around 5%. I think much of it is genetic and tied to vision, but how much can be taught, how early it can be taught and if “eye skills” can be taught or better utilized is still very fuzzy and with plenty of exceptions for every supposed rule. I have some theories about what can and can’t be taught in this realm, but I’d need a much bigger budget to actually answer these questions.
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.