‘Fringe average,’ ‘plus,’ ‘OFP, a ‘5 fastball.’ If you’ve been around the game of baseball long enough I’m sure you’ve heard some of, if not all of these expressions. They’re all part of the scouting dictionary, if you want to call it that. You may know what some of these terms mean, or you may not. The goal of this article is to help everyone better understand what these terms mean while explaining the 20-80 scale that scouts use to evaluate prospects.
How many times have you been reading about a prospect from your favorite team when you read that ‘Player X has an average fastball’ or ‘Player Y has 60 power?’ A good deal probably. And I bet, like I did initially, you have many times thought ‘what is average?’ ‘Average to what?’ ‘What the heck does 60 power mean?’
First, let me tell you what it’s not. It’s not a representation of their stats or current performance, not at the amateur or minor league level at least. Trying to evaluate and determine what type of prospect someone is based off of their high school, college or minor league statistics is an exercise in futility. The stats and data have not proven reliable. Ever. Scouting in its simplest form is watching players and projecting what they will become three, five, eight or even 10 years from today.
So, since scouts have to project so far into the future and can’t rely on the numbers, they must rely on their baseball acumen, their judgment of talent and the player’s tools. It’s that final piece, the player’s tools, that scouts analyze, evaluate and finally put a grade on to determine a player’s long-term potential. Let’s remember that these scouts, whether they scout the amateur or pro player, are looking for Major League Baseball players, so they are looking for major league tools and grading each tool accordingly. While you may think your college buddy has an average fastball (and he very well may for the level of competition) it’s most likely below-average at best when projected to the big leagues.
The universal scale that scouts use to grade player’s tools is the 20-80 scale (or 2-8 for some teams), with 50 being average, 20 being poor and 80 representing an elite tool. Keep in mind there aren’t many 80 tools in the big leagues — or 20’s for that matter. Here is the full scale below and what each grade translates to in words. These words become important when scouting.
|70||Well Above Average or Plus-Plus
|60||Above Average or “Plus”
|30||Well Below Average
Half grades also can be used. For example, a grade of 55 would be labeled as being slightly above average — better than average — 50 — but not quite fully above-average.
Position players are graded on five tools; running speed, fielding ability, arm strength, hitting and hitting for power. This is where the expression ‘five tool player’ comes from. A player who receives at least an average grade (or slightly above average, depending on the scout you ask) in each of these areas would be considered a five-tool player. A tool must be graded as at least average for a player to ‘have it.’
Pitchers are graded on each of their pitches as well as their control and command. When filling out their reports scouts will give each tool or pitch two grades. The first grade is the present grade. This grade represents how the scout feels the tool would translate to the major league level at that very moment. It’s very rare that you will see many average major league tools from amateur players; the majority of the ones you do see would be running speed and arm strength for position players and fastball velocity for pitchers.
The second grade represents the future grade. This grade is the ultimate ceiling, the best-case scenario for that particular tool. There’s a huge difference between a slider that is currently above average and one that has above average future potential. I don’t think I can stress that enough. Here’s an example of what these current and future scores would look like on a report for a hypothetical high school pitcher:
(NOTE: This is a very generic grade report. I kept it simple on purpose. Teams may include several other categories when grading prospects but this gives a good snapshot of the player. Being able to explain the grades in the written portion of the report may be the most important part)
When you take a look at this report and see the present grade it may leave you thinking ‘this guy isn’t all that good.’ And that would be true if you put him in the big leagues today. But then you scan over and see the future grades and can see there’s a lot of potential. Pitcher X has the potential for one above-average pitch and two average pitches, as well as average control. This is what makes scouting so difficult. Take a look at the gap between current and future grades. There’s some significant development that has to take place for this player to reach those future grades. Going back to our slider example, Pitcher X has a current well below-average slider yet has the potential for an average future slider. One phrase you’ll hear a lot when scouting is if a player shows a tool (or pitch) once it’s in there. In our case of Pitcher X, while his slider lacks consistency it has flashed the potential to be an average major league pitch. That may have been the scout seeing it once or twice in a game or seeing it in a side session but it is certainly in there somewhere, it’s just a matter of getting the player to throw that average slider consistently.
That ‘OFP’ at the bottom of the chart stands for Overall Future Potential. This is the grade a scout puts on a player that represents what they believe their ultimate ceiling is. It is not just simply an average of the player’s tools. Scouts generally have the ability to adjust the OFP up or down 10 points from what the average of the tools may be. So in Pitcher X’s case, the average of his grades was 53.75 yet his OFP was 56 (OFP grades do not have to end in a 0 or a 5 like the tool grades do). In this case the scout sees something in that player (mound demeanor, mechanics, work ethic, etc) that makes him feel comfortable in predicting this player will perform better than the sum of his tools. This is another area where experience comes in handy for the scout. Having a library of players to look back on and see what worked and what didn’t work can be the difference between a second rounder who flames out in High-A and a 22nd rounder who has a 6-year big league career in the bullpen. In general, the OFP grade correlates with the 20-80 scale used for tools, where 50 is an average major leaguer. I will go more in depth on OFP in a later article but that is a very general, simplistic synopsis of it.
These grades are all subjective and if you ask five scouts to grade a player’s tools and determine his OFP, you will more than likely get five different OFP’s. That’s what makes scouting so challenging and at the same time fun — beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. So next time you’re watching a game with your buddies don’t be afraid to drop a “that’s 70 grade power” or even better, next time you’re out at a restaurant give a “that chicken parmesan was an easy 60, the sweetness of the sauce may even bump it up to a 65”.
Photo: Giancarlo Stanton possesses one of the few ’80’ grades in terms of hitting for power.