Consider this Part II in our Scouting 101 series. In Part I we discussed some basic scouting tips covering the body and arm. In Part II, we will examine some of the five tools. The five tools consist of arm, speed, hitting ability, power, and fielding. The five tools are used to demonstrate the ability of a position player and while the tools themselves donít tell the entire story, they are a compass used to tell a narrative about one's ability.
The easiest tool to identify is speed. Technology, in the form of a stopwatch tells us just about everything we need to know about a player's running speed. At scouting combines and showcases, players will generally run the 60-yard dash. Now, you may be asking yourself why a player runs 60 straight yards when nothing in the game of baseball actually requires a player to mimic this specific activity. It does, however, present an opportunity for scouts to know exactly how fast a player is. We don't want to be fooled into automatically labeling a player's speed based purely on his running ability, though. How a player's speed translates to the baseball field is the ultimate barometer. Just as we grade a player's arm using all elements of accuracy and release time, we want to factor in a player's instincts, agility, burst, and overall ability to run the bases before deciding on a final grade. From a fantasy perspective, the stolen base is obviously the one number that fully encompasses a player's running ability. Runs scored are an indirect byproduct of a player's speed, but one statistic that I hope gains more traction in the fantasy world is what is commonly referred to as "speed score." More than stolen bases and runs scored, scoring a player's ability to take extra bases and putting pressure on the defense calculates a truer testament to a player's value.
We talked about the arm grade in the first part of this series. A lot of arms look the same and sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish between an average arm and a plus arm. The plus arm will stand out a bit more though and you'll see a more effortless action in the throwing mechanics. The plus arm will demonstrate good accuracy and mostly, will have good carry as it approaches its destination. The plus arm will also be one that consistently throw through the cutoff man and stay on a low enough plane in flight that a runner attempting to advance will have to hesitate before trying to take an extra base. An average arm will usually show more of a bend and arch.
Fielding is a long subject matter and can easily be its own part in this series. While it's easy to identify as a tool it's a very difficult tool to project. The two essentials you want to focus on when evaluating defense are the hands and feet. A good infielder will demonstrate quick hands and the kind of footwork that always puts him in the correct position to field and throw. Fielding is tough to evaluate because there is a vast difference between a player's tools and his fielding acumen. What I mean is that there are many players who have fast hands and quick feet, but they don't necessarily make good fielders. I've always felt that scouts project too much and almost automatically on players with quick hands and feet. The essentials of fielding though are producing outs and saving runs.
When I began traveling to the minor league affiliates with the Angels, I began to appreciate an entirely different perspective when evaluating fielding. Prior to my affiliate travels, I spent my scouting days at high school showcases and games. I would see a player for a very brief time and may only see him take five groundballs and/or flyballs. I had to evaluate using a short sample size and many times I would have to label a player's fielding tool based purely on his body movement and agility. What I learned very quickly though is that the more you watch a fielder and evaluate him, the greater understanding you have for his fielding aptitude. Many times, I found that the players who I had dubbed with average fielding grades turned out to be the ones becoming plus fielders. Fielding, like hitting is one of the toughest skills to evaluate, and they are the two most important in categorizing how good a player will be in the big leagues. Just like a player needs a lot of reps, a scout does as well, and it's very necessary that a scout gets a lot of looks at a player's defensive abilities.
For most of you though, you only have the opportunity to see a player once or twice. One key I look for in scouting an outfielder are his jumps and routes. If, by the time I look up to see a batted ball in flight I see the outfielder in full stride, I know he got a good jump. If he runs in a straight line to the ball and is not zig-zagging or taking a route that when drawn on paper resembles a loop, then I know he carries good instincts. This is what makes Peter Bourjos the best outfielder in baseball in my opinion. It's also what made us believers when Bourjos was just an 18-year-old. Not only is he one of the fastest players in the sport (a key element to factor in when grading an outfielder's defense) but he has tremendous instincts. He knows exactly where to run to and which route to take as soon as the bat connects with the baseball. This is not a trait that can be taught and generally, it's an innate ability that you can only know after watching a player many times. I mentioned above that a player's speed is a factor when evaluating a player's defensive grade. This is simply due to the fact that the fast runner who may not get good jumps or take good routes can still make up for that with his speed. He can still track down balls in the gaps because of his speed and in spite of his lack of instincts.
A key in evaluating infielders is what many call the "internal clock." Let's continue to pick on the Angels and use Andrew Romine as an example. Romine does not have the quickest hands or feet in the business. Don't get me wrong, his hands are plenty fast, but if you watch him for just a few groundballs and compare him to others, he doesn't measure up. Romine has the instincts though to read hops, judge the speed of the ball, move instantly at the time of contact, and has the best internal clock I've ever seen. What the internal clock means is that he knows exactly how much time he has to throw a runner out. A lot of players have great hands and feet but they get themselves crossed up because they hurry when they don't have to, or lay back when they need to charge. Romine is a plus defender because he is always in the right position to field a baseball and his momentum is always going in the direction of where he will throw the ball. Romine is a great example because if you watch him for five minutes and he takes five groundballs, you would label him an average fielder. If you watch Romine for three or four games, you'll see someone that is a field general who commands his position with great acumen and steadiness.
Head to Part III for tips on evaluating hitting.