In Part II, we discussed three of the five tools in speed, arm, and fielding. In Part III of our series, we will conclude the discussion on the five tools with hitting. Hitting encompasses two tools – the first is just flat out hitting ability, and the second is hitting for power. Identifying a good hitter is the toughest task a scout has in projecting a player’s ability. You can't understand a hitter's prowess in one sitting, and it takes multiple at-bats in a myriad of situations to fully harness one's talent.
If you only have one game to evaluate a hitter, the best component of any game to judge one's hitting ability is batting practice. Here, we can see a player take a few dozen swings. While the baseball is coming in straight, at a low speed, and generally on the same plane and eye level, we can still learn a lot. While seeing a player consistently square balls up in batting practice and hit line drives is dandy, it's more important to understand the quality of the swing. Concentrate on the effort level. What is the player's ease of operation in his swing? Do his body and hands work together and appear to be all part of the same apparatus? Does his head stay linear? Do his hands work down through the baseball? Do his legs stay on balance through his swing? Does his body stay consistent when approaching the ball on the outer half of the plate? Does he keep the bat head behind the baseball? Does he pull his hands through with the knob of the bat first when turning on the inside pitch? Do his hands stay back in the firing position and not drift? These are all questions you can answer when watching BP.
Good bat speed is a monumental attribute that if part of a player's skill set, usually portends to a good hitter. Keep in mind that it's still just one element that a scout uses to project a player's hitting ability. Bat speed alone does not make a good hitter, but like the defender who doesn't get good jumps and take good routes, the speed in his game makes up for a lot of inefficiencies. If you are watching and evaluating a hitter for the first time, knowing what good bat speed is will be very difficult. It helps to know how to determine quality bat speed and this just boils down to getting as many reps and looks at various players as you can. Scouting isn't always just about the ability to “see" but many times experience parlays one's success. Repetition and experience is a valued asset in an evaluator and in my opinion, I generally trust the evaluation of a guy with more wrinkles.
A hitter's effort or ease of operation in his swing can be much easier to identify than bat speed. Just like a pitcher who looks like he's operating at 50 percent and can still throw a baseball 90+ mph, the hitter who doesn't appear to be breaking a sweat and is spraying line drives all over the yard with relative ease, forecasts as a good hitter. I used the word apparatus above and that was meant to describe a hitter's ability to be as one. Watch a hitter and a lot of times you won't see his hands and body working in unison. It will appear as two different parts struggling to work together. I like to use the word apparatus because it is analogous with a machine. Machines are built to run the exact same motion and procedure each time. The same holds true with a swing. You want to see the same swing each time and see all the essential parts moving as one.
Focus on the head next. Is a hitter's head linear and in the same spot when swinging at an outside pitch versus an inside pitch? A hitter has to see the ball in order to hit it and if his head is bobbling and moving, he can't track the baseball correctly. The less head movement, the better and the more consistency you see in the positioning of the hitter's head at contact, no matter a ball high, low, out or in the zone, is key. Watch for the hitter's hands and see if they are working down through the ball. A key to focus on is to watch and make sure the top hand or wrist stays on top of the bottom hand or wrist. If a hitter's top hand/wrist is getting beneath his bottom hand/wrist, trouble will ensue. This will lead to bad habits like getting underneath the baseball and will most likely lead to handcuffing yourself in your swing.
I previously mentioned the idea of keeping the bat behind the baseball. This is not meant literally of course as the bat will always be behind the baseball since it is coming towards the hitter. This is a general phrase used to demonstrate a hitter who can stay inside-out. Inside-out is a swing like Derek Jeter's and one that keeps his hands back in the firing position for a long time. The longer one can keep his hands back, the better chance the hitter has to make solid contact. The inside-out swing means the hitter is pulling his hands through while the bat head is staying back until it's ready to fire. Hands that drift will cause a hitter to open too early and fail to make solid contact.
The inside fastball is a very tough pitch to hit at the big league level. Hitters with below average bat speed or ones who can't pull their hands through and turn on an inside fastball will fail more times than not against high velocity pitchers. A bit of a tip I learned when advance scouting is noticing that certain players can destroy certain pitchers. In other words, he's a cripple hitter or someone who pounds mediocre pitching. A big separator in what makes one pitcher a stud and one just average is the ability to pitch inside. In a typical championship caliber lineup, there are only two or three really dangerous hitters who don't have multiple weaknesses. A pitcher who can command the fastball on the hands of a cripple hitter will have great success. Watch for a hitter's ability to get to that inside fastball and if he can't, you have a good indication that he might just be a cripple hitter, or average at best.
Finally, we conclude this series with power. There is raw power and there is game power. Raw power is very easy to identify. Just watch a player take BP and listen. If it sounds louder, that means the player has more power. And, simply enough, if the ball travels great distances, well, you've got a guy with raw power. The key in this evaluation component though is how that raw power translates to game power. Again, this basically comes down to repetition. You have to see it to know it. In fact, that is the best way to evaluate hitters. The more you can see one, the better understanding you will have.
The best advice I was ever given about evaluating hitting is this. And, this is no joke because there is nothing more true. While you certainly want to account for a lot of what I have discussed here in this column, the one true principle that outweighs all the others is this.