In high school, stats mean nothing. In college, we can look at general indicators, and when taken in context (i.e. he’s the only good hitter on his team and he gets pitched around a lot, he told our scout this frustrates him, etc.) can have some predictive value. For high school showcases with wood bats against good pitching, we can take some away and from the couple good college summer leagues we can take the most (in the amateur context). But, in general, amateur hitting stats mean nothing unless you have some scouting context and hopefully two of 1) strong competition 2) a big sample and 3) a wood bat.
At the professional level, stats are much more insightful. I wouldn’t take much from short-season leagues (which are basically the same level of competition as the best amateur leagues, like the SEC or the Cape Cod League) but in full-season ball we can start to notice things.
I scouted a player a few years ago for a club and though he would be a 45 bat from BP and my recollections from the games, then noticed when I went over my game notes that I wrote a lot of positive comments, thinking I might go as high as a 55. Then I checked his stats: he went 12-for-15 in the games I saw, but hit.250 that season with poor peripherals (I saw him at the end of the season).
As I suggested in my report, I thought his numbers would improve in the future (they did) because I was told by developments folks from his club that this hot streak wasn’t a fluke but the result of some adjustments and added comfort at the plate. Of the 12 hits, almost all of them were hard-hit line drives, indicative of a skill to hit than if I had seen a bunch of bloopers and infield hits.
I mention that to tell you that in full-season minor leagues, the numbers are part of the hit tool evaluation and they aren’t or shouldn’t be anywhere below that. When there’s a generic little guy with a simple swing, you want to write him off after BP since there’s no ceiling. When that guy squares a couple balls up and then you look at this numbers and see that he’s never hit under .300, then you start to investigate how real this is. You hedge because there aren’t a lot of big league regulars that look like that little guy, but there’s a bunch of bench guys and a big reason you’re there as a scout to find free bench guys.
If you’re scouting a big hitting tools guy with mediocre numbers but when you’re watching him, you see things that indicate he’s better than the numbers and developing some feel, the numbers aren’t very useful. If you’re scouting a smaller guy that’s short on tools but you see him squaring the ball up a lot, the numbers can help tell you how long of a track record he has of doing this in the games you didn’t see. If he’s only ever hit .300 in multiple years of pro ball, this makes it more likely he can keep doing this than if he just showed up to Low-A and you have no legitimate statistical history to look at.
Anything more than this sort of supplemental role for minor league stats is misguided. From working with some of the best analytical minds when I was on the team side and from talking to friends in the game that do that sort of work now, there are two ways clubs pinpoint players they want to acquire as undervalued assets.
1) What I’m describing above: some combination of “our scouts really like this player” and “the freely available numbers give us even more confidence than that singular report would.”
2) Using information that isn’t or usually isn’t in the public realm, be it scout-specific knowledge of injuries or mechanical troubles (often via the area scout that knew the player as an amateur, or a particularly well-connected pro scout) or via numbers (Hit f/x, Trackman and other similar things) that are proprietary in the minor leagues.
You can look at the stats for your team’s prospects and pick out guys you like more than the publications, but that’s not even half of what you need, even if you’re looking at stats from Triple-A.
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.