Churchill: Evaluating 101

 First off, I am not a scout. To me, the only scouts are those that work for clubs. That doesn’t mean, however, that others outside the game itself aren’t good — sometimes better — at evaluating a player’s present and future skills and abilities. It’s up to you to decide how valuable one’s assessments are. Second, it’s important to remember there is more than one right evaluation of a player, a player’s tools and his future. Sans the ridiculous, that is.

Lastly, context is important in the evaluation game. Nothing is done or seen in a vacuum, and in relaying information context is an important part of properly communicating one’s evaluation. It’s something of which I don’t do a good enough job; often I assume the reader understands the basics, including the level-age-experience of a player, the differences between the contexts, and so on.

Before the amateur season gets fully under way I wanted to pass on, to both returning readers of Prospect Insider and new ones, some notes on how I evaluate a player. This will be uber-basic and generalized, but it may make future pieces a little easier to understand, since not every single person that covers amateur players and pro prospects does so in the same manner.

The Scouting Scale
The scouting scale is a bare-bones way to place a value on a tool or skill. The five basic skills for position players/hitters include run, hit, power, glove and arm. For pitchers the standard varies; for me, I focus on stuff, athleticism and present mechanics, so there may be more than five ‘tools’ graded for pitcher prospects as each pitch will receive its own grade.

20: Poor; far below any standard that plays at the major league level; highly unlikely to reach passable big-league levels
30: Well below-average big-league standards; unlikely to reach big-league standards
40: Below average big-league standards; decent chance to reach big-league standards
50: Major league average; decent chance to reach above-average or plus standards
60: Above average or plus; decent chance to reach plus-plus levels
70: Significantly above-average, among best in game; Plus-plus
80: Among the very elite in big leagues; Many save ‘plus-plus’ for 80 grade tools; very few 80 grades truly exist outside arm strength and speed related tools

Some treat a ’60’ grade as above average and not plus, but I simply don’t use the basic term ‘plus’ that way. ‘Plus,’ to me, means beyond the standard. Standard typically is the median, average. So, above average does indeed equal ‘plus.’

I will use ‘half grades,’ too; Felix Hernandez‘s changeup may be consistently plus, a 60 grade, but maybe half the time it’s plus-plus. This might push me to give the pitch a 65 grade, to be more accurate and representative of its effectiveness and value. Bryce Harper‘s power still has some projection left. so I might give it a 65 present grade and 70 future, suggesting he could prove the 42-homer year in 2015 was closer to the norm than any outlier.

With amateur players, even more so than minor leaguers, projecting the tools properly is essential in correctly assessing a player. This creates the necessity for a present grade and a future grade. The present grade represents how the tool grades now, without projecting. Evaluators may produce their future grades differently than I do, but when I project I’m talking absolute ceiling, not ‘most likely landing point.’ For example, Seattle Mariners prospect Alex Jackson possesses a 60 future hit tool; that means I’m suggesting that is where he tops out, if all goes well. I think the reader is wise enough to figure out the median grades are more likely than the ceiling assessments. I hope to do a better job explaining to readers when I believe a player has a better chance than most to reach his particular ceiling, whether it be overall or within a specific tool or skill. Often I use the word ‘probability’ and will continue to do so in order to separate players in this manner.

I’d also like to note that amateur players are unequivocally more difficult to assess than players that have gone through at least a year of professional baseball. The change to wood bats makes a difference, even with BBCOR heading into its fifth season for prep players and sixth year for the NCAA. The rigors of a longer season, acumen to apply coaching and training are all important and generally we know a lot more about a player in those ways once he’s in pro ball than we do for prep players or even those in big-time college programs.

The player’s coaching staff also matters; I may grade two players almost exactly the same, but give one a slight edge because I know his coaches are good at what they do. If I do my homework, I’ll know this stuff for every prospect I go see. Same with player’s training habits, although with high schools kids that intel is more difficult to acquire sometimes.

I like to see players as much as possible, and the more I see him the more confidence I will have in my ultimate evaluation. If I have seen a player just once or twice, I hope to do a better job in 2016 relaying the factors that come into play; this means the evaluation will be incomplete, though never lacking in value. Getting looks is harder to do in the Seattle region than many others due to weather and the rate of games being washed out, delayed, canceled, etc.

1. Stuff
What the pitcher is offering the batter is of most importance
2. Command and control
Whether or not the pitcher can throw strikes and locate his pitches, particularly his fastball, is right behind stuff
3. Delivery
Many times a pitcher’s delivery, his mechanics, hinders or assists his ability to command his arsenal. It also can contribute to the raw quality of a pitcher’s pitches, including movement and life
4. Physical traits
Not always a positive versus negative, a pitcher’s physical traits can tell a lot about his future value, including future role

Athleticism for a pitcher often is undervalued or ignored by the layman. The ability to repeat a delivery is an athletic action, as is generating arm speed and remaining consistent within each. The better the athleticism, the better the pitcher can apply mechanical adjustments, both minor and major.

1. Bat speed
The pure velocity of the bat is a significant factor in determining contact rate and power
2. Foundation
I’ve learned a long the way the last several years that a hitter’s foundation, from his feet through his hips and waist area, are underrated. If there’s no solid foundation what he does with his hands — which is amazingly critical — doesn’t matter.
3. Mechanics
Trigger, load, bat path are all things that in this category. In amateur players, I’m more looking to make sure there aren’t any habits that cannot easily be fixed.
4. Judgment and Eye
I know scouts that don’t pay much attention to this in prep hitters, which I find absurd. A hacker is a hacker, if there’s no discipline, judgement and batting eye at 17, that’s another thing or three the player will have to get better at on his way to the majors. When I went to Redmond High School to see Dylan Davis — right-handed pitcher and outfielder, up to 96 mph, good athlete — I also was looking at another player on the RHS roster that, at the time, wasn’t as highly touted. I walked away liking the other player better, not because of his raw power, bat speed or athleticism, but because he showed the ability and willingness to wait for the right pitch. One of my favorite things is ‘good takes’ which is a pitch that’s either a strike or close to a strike, but not necessarily the right pitch for the batter to swing at in that count or situation, or a close pitch taken in a full count for ball four, for example. That player, by the way, was Michael Conforto of the New York Mets.
5. Barrel Awareness
This is a term used that makes little sense without explanation. Ultimately it means a player that finds a way to put the barrel of the bat on the ball consistently. If it’s apparent, the hitter understands his swing and how to get the barrel where it needs to be with regularity. Most amateurs won’t be able to explain how they do this, it becomes natural.

Some questions I get asked

How do you tell the difference between a curveball and a slider?
Underrated question because at high school games and even college games there’s no post-game video to refer to in order to get several more views. Sometimes it’s not easy to do, sometimes it’s quite obvious. Many times velocity will give it away, since I’m never going to see a player without some background on him. If I’m seeing Edwin Diaz, I know he’s a fastball-slider-changeup guy — no curveball. Sometimes the difference in the two pitches doesn’t matter; one can generalize with use of the term ‘breaking ball.’ There are times when the pitch is between the two definitions; slower than the typical slider — there are scouts who literally refuse to register a slider if it’s not 80 mph or higher. Shape, plus velocity, is often the ultimate combo that tells the pitch type. Another is how late the break comes in its path to the plate.

The angle behind the plate is a good one, but from the side view — which is invaluable in terms of getting the right combination of looks at a pitcher’s delivery — doesn’t provide the best look for pitch type.

Why do so many shorter players that play shortstop get the ‘second base’ tag so early?
For me, I’d only do so if the player displayed a specific lack of range or arm strength to handle shortstop. The size of the player means absolutely zero, though in some players their physical makeup, mostly natural in prep players, determines their physical abilities.

What about with shorter pitchers?
This is an actually an area of undervalue in recent years, but players like Tim Hudson, Sonny Gray and especially Tim Lincecum have given scouts a standard to which they can compare pitchers of shorter stature. In the end, 6-foot-5 or 5-foot-10 and 5/8, the mechanics, arm strength, overall stuff will prevail. If all else is equal, however, it’s easy to tab the more projectable player, since the 5-11, 190-pound type simply do not have as much ‘projection’ remaining, meaning his velocity isn’t as likely to be sustained or increased, and the taller pitcher has the natural ability to pitch ‘downhill’ creating a more difficult pitch to lift in the air.

What’s the most difficult aspect of evaluating players?
I’ll give you two, though it’s going to be different for just about everyone. First, it’s the information I don’t have, including the player’s habits off the field, between games. I can get his grades, but may not know how he works, how he practices. Is he a leader? Is he coachable? This is why I’m making a point to see Washington Huskies baseball practice a handful of times before the season starts. A player can produce, show all the tools and skills and project as a first-round pick at some point. But if he’s lazy and relies on his natural gifts, he’s not going to make it in all likelihood. This also includes players who think they know it all; they know what to work on and how to do it, nobody else can help. If a player’s not coachable, he’s not trainable. If he’s not trainable, he’ll fail long before he reaches Double-A let alone the majors.

The second thing is the college player playing in the low-level leagues. The mix of skill levels in these leagues — South Atlantic, Midwest League, Northwest League, the Arizona and Appalachian leagues, Pioneer League, NY-Penn League and Gulf coast League — makes context imperative. Seeing Kris Bryant, at 21, whiff in more than a quarter of his plate appearances and BABIP nearly .500 in order to put up a line of .354/.416/.692 and attempting to use the data and what you saw — chasing of offspeed stuff in the dirt, hard stuff above the hands versus inexperienced and lower-caliber pitching — is not easy. It’s important not to put too much stock in the small sample, and that’s even truer with college players in these lower leagues. I tend to lean on the original scouting report on that player — from college into the draft.

How much value in handedness?
Not much. For me this can be a tie-breaker of sorts. If I am on the fence about an overall grade, the lefty pitcher may get me to lean closer to the half grade than I was originally planning; the left-handed hitter matters a little more to me than some, though not as much as with pitcher prospects. I do give a tiny bump — not even a half point on the overall grade, however — for left-handed batters up the middle — catcher, second base, shortstop, center field, especially the former three since it’s somewhat rare. Switch hitters would get the same treatment if it appeared the player was going to be able to continue to bat from both sides in pro ball. There’s a reason a prep right-hander never has been selected No. 1 overall in the draft, though in my opinion whatever the reason it’s absurd. It’s also not some dumb rule clubs are abiding by, either, but simply valuing other talents more, or the probability and timetable of the college right-hander. In hindsight, one can argue for some prep right-handers being the top pick if a re-draft were in order. It’s dangerous to put significant value in handedness for amateur players. The end result can lead to missing on the overall eval, and perhaps choosing the wrong player in the draft.

Is there a lost or missed value somewhere that doesn’t get talked about?
Lots. I think one of them is the Nathan Karns type; injury history, limited performance history in pro ball, older than most with one year of service or less. Same goes for the player that’s 25-26 in Triple-A that hasn’t had a shot in the bigs. It’s rare, but sometimes a player improves more than anyone expected in a very important area. Players such as David Lough and Jimmy Paredes are two recent examples.

At the prep level, players get missed because they did so little in high school to warrant attention. But an amazing thing happens (not really, it’s obvious, yet nobody talks about it, except me, I guess) between the ages of 16 and 20; athletes grow as much as any time during their lives. Not in height, necessarily, but in physical strength, skills and areas where the emotional and mental growth makes the natural physical traits play up to par whereas a few years earlier the player can look completely different. Want proof? Look at all the college prospects for this year’s draft, for example. Nearly half of the top 100 or so were not drafted out of high school. Yet now they’re among the top 200-250 players in the class? And only a rare few were left undrafted due to signability, so they weren’t drafted because scouts determined they needed college and simply weren’t worth drafting. The draft is 40 rounds deeps, plus all the competitive balance and compensation rounds. There were more than 1200 players picked in 2013, the year almost all of this year’s college class (juniors) were coming out of high school, yet 40-45 of the Top 100 or so weren’t selected.

In this, the lost value is in players with fundamentals that have yet to mature physically, emotionally and mentally to the point where the fundamental baseball skills stand out and allow for notable performance. The problem is, there’s no proven way to determine those players outside of letting that maturation occur in college, if they were good enough to get to school in the first place. Maybe what I’m saying is, the junior college is the lost value, since some of those kids we’re talking about won’t be good enough until they are a year or two into school to earn a scholarship, forcing them to take the JC route out of high school.

What are some of the terms I should know when reading about draft prospects and pro prospects in the minors?
Let’s list a bunch:

hit tool — a player’s ability to make solid-to-hard contact with consistency
raw power — power shown by a player in batting practice, in the cages; ceiling power grade based on bat speed, swing plane
game power — power shown in games
projection/projectable — looking ahead for a player or tool. If a player is projectable, his physical tools suggest better performance is possible down the line
ceiling — the highest point of a player’s overall abilities or in one specific area/tool
floor — the lowest most-likely landing spot for a player’s overall abilities or in one specific area/tool
probability — how likely a player’s set of skills reaches major-league levels
shoulder tilt — when a pitcher creates a forward/downward angle toward the plate in his delivery. This can help a pitcher command his pitches with consistency, stay down in the zone
trigger — a mechanism hitters use to get their swing moving. One can’t simply go from stopped to start and generate bat speed and leverage without it
load — similar/same as ‘trigger’ in that it’s a big part of the beginning of a hitter’s swing
arm slot — the angel at which a pitcher’s arm swings as he works toward releasing the ball. Angles include three-quarters, high three-quarters, low three-quarters (5/8), sidearm and submarine
command (vs. control) — A pitcher’s level of ability to throw pitches to a certain spot with intent. Many pitchers can simply throw strikes (control), command takes it a step further, since in the big leagues pitchers typically throw fewer than half of their pitches in the strike zone
pop/pop time — how long it takes for a catcher to throw the ball to second base after a pitch. The formula removes the pitcher’s contribution. Time starts when the ball hits the catcher’s glove and stops when it hits the glove of the fielder at the second base bag
up the line — This can mean two things; one, when a throw from the outfield toward home plate is wide of the plate, it’s ‘up the line’ closer to third or first base than intended. In the scouting world, it’s used when describing a player’s speed from home to first
tool — a physical trait such as running, throwing, fielding
follow — a report written by area scouts the summer and fall prior to a player’s draft-eligible season to let his club know it’s a player to watch
OFP — Overall Future Potential. The player’s grade, using the 20-80 scale, for the future. Helps clubs determine how valuable he is on draft day, or in trade talks, et al. Just like with tools grades, 50 is big-league average
medicals — simple term used for a player’s injury history. “His medicals are bad” means the player’s injury history is a concern, and drags his OFP down as a result
life — late movement on a pitch, typically a fastball
arm action — Different from ‘arm slot’ in that this is about the arm’s entire path, not just the path leading up to release point. A longer path can create problems with consistent control and command, as well as be a factor in long-term health and controlling the running game (allows baserunners more time to get from first to second)
getting/staying on top — A term used to describe when a pitcher tends to get underneath the baseball, so to speak. “Felix Hernandez didn’t ‘stay on top’ of that fastball and it floated up in the zone and Albert Pujols hit it 420 feet.”
out front — I use this term to describe the ‘when’ of a particular issue in a pitcher’s delivery. Often tabbed as “not finishing out front,” which is to say the pitcher is short-arming the pitch, not following through or snapping off the pitch too much with the lower half of his arm and hand, separating his arm action into multiple movements.
fringe — fringe or fringe-average suggests a tool, skill or player value that’s below average to some extent.
org guy — not a regular major leaguer, at best a replacement level type minor leaguer
quick twitch — sometimes referred to as ‘fast twitch.’ Refers to an athlete’s actions. Ketel Marte has quick twitch actions — immediate, quick movements. Nelson Cruz does not. Carlos Correa, despite being 6-4 and closer in weight to Cruz than Marte, also has quick twitch actions, allowing him to hang at shortstop in the majors. Players without quick twitch actions tend to land in the corners defensively.
stuffier — a term used by some evaluators to suggest one pitcher has better stuff than average or another ilk of pitcher. M’s GM Jerry Dipoto uses it sometimes.

I can’t list them all, and feel free to inquire if you see/read/hear one and are wondering exactly what it means. Some scouts use them a little differently or have their own, but these are some of the general ones I use or hear most often.

Best prep player I have ever seen pre-draft
I saw Joey Gallo, JP Crawford, Dominic Smith,  Nick Williams, Max Fried, Blake Swihart and Daniel Norris, but Lucas Giolito at the 2011 Area Code Games was probably the best high school player I saw live. I did not see Mike Trout as a high schooler; at the time I was at ESPN. Keith Law traveled to see Trout, I stayed out west.

Best college player I have ever seen pre-draft
I’ll name two here since the first one is kind of a tweener.

I was fortunate enough to see Bryce Harper at age 17. He skipped his junior year in high school in order to qualify for the draft a year earlier, so he got his high school equivalent and enrolled at College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, Nevada, not far from Sin City. So I flew to Las Vegas to meet Law and we went to see Harper.

Non-baseball note: This is where I had one of the top five meals I’ve ever had. The mushroom risotto at Craftsteak at MGM Grand is tremendous. Law has always known where to find good food. And we didn’t even have to wear ties and jackets.

CSN was hosting Cypress, from Florida, another tremendous JC program (Levon Washington was on the roster), and Harper stood out like a man among toddlers — at three different positions. One day he caught, the position he played in high school, the next he played center field. On Day 3 he played third base. He was good at each of them. Watching him take BP from just behind the cage was fun, too; here was this 17-year-old kid sending lasers into the gap one after the other. I’d never seen anything like it, nor had anyone else.

At a D-1 college, I think the best player I ever saw was Tim Lincecum at the University of Washington. He was dominant, pretty much every single time out. I only wish I’d gone to see him more than I did. As good as Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer were, Lincecum was head and shoulders better.

Best pro prospect
Trout might be the expected answer here, but I’d call this a tie between Trout and King Felix Hernandez. I saw Hernandez at 17 years old in the Northwest League and again the following year in spring training just prior to him turning 18. I again saw him in Triple-A the following year at age 19.

From Day 1, Hernandez was special and no pitching prospect has surpassed him since. He always was extremely young for his level, always performed well above expectations and was an easy scout. As one assistant GM put it in May of 2005, “I don’t need to scout that kid anymore. What’s to scout. Just give him food and water and watch him grow.”

Yeah, that’s how obvious it was that Hernandez was going to be special as long as he stayed out of his own way.

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