What Scouts Look For
Pitching: It's more than just velocity
By Christine Destefano / MLB.com
What scouts look for: Pitching
Regardless of how alluring it is to light up the radar gun, good scouts look for much more than velocity from pitchers. As a starting point, scouts start by looking at a pitcher's strength, stamina, agility and aggressiveness, and then look at things like arm action and delivery. Sure it's nice to throw hard, but scouts are also looking for movement and deception.
For starters, here's what scouts will have looked at before a pitcher has even thrown the ball:
Physical attributes: Is the pitcher going to grow more? How tall are his parents? Has he physically matured yet, or does he still have room to fill out? If a high-school player hasn't fully matured yet and can hit 83 mph on the radar gun, it can almost be certain that he'll be adding a few more miles as he gets bigger and stronger. What kind of body type does he have? Long and lean, or bulky and compact?"You're looking for a guy to be strong down the road and be able to eat innings," says one Major League scout. "You want a reliant arm that is going to last. A guy with a big, durable body and a strong lower half."
Intangibles: Is he emotionally mature? Can he handle the pressure of pitching in big games and big situations or does he let mistakes rattle him? Does he know the game and the rules? Is he confident? Aggressive? Or does he look as though he'd rather be elsewhere. Scouts are looking for guys who want the ball.
"Watch his body language after he gives up a home run," says the scout, "or when the ball gets past the catcher's glove and a run scores in a tight game. It tells you a lot about what's going on. Some young kids are overly animated, it just depends on how you channel it. Giving it the old Tiger Woods fist pump is OK, but you just got to note that."
And scouts aren't just watching for actions during a game. They usually watch a player from the moment they reach the stands.
"In his pre-game routine, is he taking extra hacks, or hitting off a tee? Last year Mark Prior would run about three miles on days after he pitched -- that's the stuff you look for," says the scout. "If you watch close enough, body language will tell you anything."
Health: Does he have any current or previous injuries? Any recent surgeries or health concerns? Having an injury doesn't mean a kid is no longer a prospect, but they are just flags the scouts note.
"It really depends on the injury," says the scout. "Shoulders and elbows can be bad, and breaking an arm isn't necessarily a good thing."
Before seeing a pitcher in a game, scouts will often observe a prospect in the bullpen to get a sense of his pitches, and to get a close look at his mechanics, control and velocity. Scouts aren't judging what they see in the bullpen -- players should only be evaluated from what scouts see in games -- but it helps give sort of a preview to what the pitcher is about.
"I've seen guys not really turn it on in the pen," says the scout, "but when they turn the scoreboard on, it's a whole different guy. "
In evaluating pitchers, scouts are looking for specific tools. A grade between 20-80 (or some clubs use a 2-8 scale) is given for each tool at the present and future level, and they are averaged to get an Overall Future Potential number, or OFP, which projects what level the pitcher will be at the Major League level.
Although clubs differ slightly on how they evaluate players, most rely on assigning grades for fastball, fastball movement, curveball, slider, any other pitches (cutter, forkball, etc.), control and velocity.
"I can see big league guys in the Majors get guys out with 83-86 mph fastballs, by using location and changing speeds. Big leaguers don't even use that word 'velocity.' You got to make sure they can get someone out. Sure, 90 is considered the magic number, but there's too many other variables in the equation. Some of these kids with electric arms in low-A ball -- it's like "Bull Durham" out there -- they don't know where it's going.
But it's not a tool to be taken lightly. "Movement and secondary pitches can be taught -- but velocity you're born with," the scout says.
Movement: While velocity is the easiest tool to measure, it isn't necessarily the most important. In order to be successful at the Major League level, pitches must have movement. Does the ball drop, rise, sink, slide, fade, tumble or go straight? Since a moving target is harder to hit, the more movement a pitcher has, the better.
"You're not looking for the guy who throws as straight as a string," one scout says.
While breaking pitches such as curveballs and sliders usually aren't thrown with Major League quality by young pitchers, scouts look for the makings of a pitcher who could develop those pitches. Is there evidence of proper spin, tight rotation, downward movement, a flexible wrist and proper follow through? If so, the scout may project this pitcher as someone capable of developing these pitches.
"Different grips and different finger pressure on the ball create movement. If a pitcher had the right teacher and had some aptitude, sure, this can be taught. We also want to see if their second or third pitch is an out pitch."
Control: Control is the other tool a pitcher should have. Can he place his pitches and find the plate, or is he all over the place? While excellent command at a young age is a distinctive tool to have, scouts know that by looking at a prospect's other skills -- such as delivery and arm action -- control is something that can develop as the player matures.
"If you've got [control], even if you don't have plus velocity, you still have a chance to win," says the scout, "if you can throw strikes with a couple of different pitches and hit your spots. Watch where Greg Maddux's catcher sets up - he doesn't move around too much back there. [Maddux] spots the ball well."
Mechanics and arm action: Should be smooth, easy and effortless. The pitcher shouldn't look like he's laboring to throw the ball, or putting great effort into it with a herky-jerky motion. Does the pitcher get full extension and is it a fluid movement?
"But if you get a funky guy, they can be effective too with twisting, curling deliveries. Ideally, everything is in synch. More variables than there are constants here."
Delivery: Where is the release point? Is he an overhand pitcher? Does he throw from a high three-quarter angle or low three-quarter slot? Or is he a sidearmer or submariner? "With amateurs we're looking for consistency and the ability to repeat delivery. If one time it's a perfect full wind up, and the next time he's coming from the side, that's not too good. College guys are generally more polished. In everyone we're looking for the release point to be the same on all pitches. If you go to throw off-speed, drop your elbow and slow your arm down, decent hitters will cream the guy."
Curveball: Should have tight rotation -- curveballs are thrown rotating forward instead of backward like a fastball -- and the tighter the rotation the sharper the drop or bite. Scouts will also look for the type of break it has - does it break early or late, go across the plate or down? And they will look at how easy it is for hitters to pick up. But due to the stress throwing breaking pitches has on a young arm that's still developing, scouts take that into consideration.
"It all depends on physical maturity," says the scout. "If you're a 6-4, 150-pound kid, you want to build up arm strength first. A good coach will tell you if you have a fastball and hit your spots and have a changeup, you have five pitches already without spinning a breaking ball."
Changeup: One of the most important pitches for a pitcher to establish. Scouts will check this pitch for accuracy and frequency -- is it effective enough to be thrown in any situation?
"You need this pitch to keep hitters off balance," says the scout. "Pitchers should use the same arm slot and arm speed as they do with a fastball, but it's an entirely different pitch. It's a feel pitch -- one you have to develop a touch for throwing."
But scouts will also look at how a pitcher fields his position -- as good athletes show decent fielding skills, and any other skills like if he had a pick-off move. In all players scouts are looking for qualities that will bring winning results. To become a successful Major League pitcher, players will have to learn to make adjustments, and scouts have to decide which players demonstrate the ability -- both physically and mentally - to make that happen.
"There aren't many true No. 1 Major League starters out there -- powerful guys with focus and presence -- but that's what we're all looking for," says the scout.
Hitting: Performance at plate tough to project
By Christine Destefano / MLB.com
What scouts look for: Hitting
Before a player even picks up a bat or glove, a scout will have already done some evaluations. Since they are looking for players who will be able to play at the Major League level, several factors go into consideration:
Is the player going to grow more? What's his body type -- is he long and lean, or thick and stocky? What's his weight -- is he going to develop more, or has he fully matured? Since heights on rosters aren't always accurate, scouts will often get near a player during practice to get a true estimate of his height. Or watch him next to an umpire, and compare his height.
"Guys with short arms aren't going to have a lot of wasted movement there," says one veteran scout. "He'll get to the ball quicker and may have less holes in his swing than a guy with long arms."
Does he spend extra time in the cage? When it's 8:30 on a Sunday morning and it's freezing outside, is he bundled up sitting in the dugout or is he playing pepper or getting in some running?"We look for his reactions on called balls and strikes," a scout says. "Does he go jaw-to-jaw with the umpire? Throw his helmet into the bleachers? Does he take his 0-for-4 performance in the field with him? We want to see if he lets things affect him."
One Major League scouting director said with the significant amount of money invested in top draft picks, teams will often have a player speak to a sports psychologist.
"They usually just talk to the kid, tell us a little bit about their makeup," the scouting director says. "We rely on our scouts to tell us things, too, but this is just another thing we do to try and protect our potential investment."
On the field, scouts are looking for how a prospect plays the game.
"Play hard and with passion," the scouting director says. "Don't act like you've been in the big leagues already. Show me you can throw, show me you can run. Most of us would do anything to have their ability, so let's see them use it and enjoy it."
Every scout carries a stopwatch to measure a hitter's speed to first base. The watch starts the moment the ball makes contact with the bat and stops when the batter reaches first. The scout then gives that player his speed rating.
"I'm looking for a guy who can get the sweet part of the bat on the ball on a consistent basis," says one scout.
There are some minor mechanical adjustments that can be made to improve future performance -- tinkering with a stance, or moving the hands -- that scouts may note as well. But there are some negative things to be aware of: fear at the plate (front foot steps away as hitter prepares to swing), hand hitches in a swing, too much uppercut in a swing and a dead bat (doesn't get it started).
"I check the rhythm on his approach," says one scout. "Is he chopping an ax, or is there rhythm with lift to his swing?"
Projecting power potential in high schoolers -- who may not reach the big leagues for seven or eight years -- is also tricky.
"You gotta get creative with kids who aren't mature yet and who are using aluminum bats. Maybe he's not going to develop his power until he's 25. But when does it come? Jeff Bagwell hit four home runs in Class-AA ball. Paul Lo Duca spent nine years in the minors and now he's showing some power in the big leagues. It's a tough thing to project."
"To me, that was the epitome of baseball instincts," says one veteran scout. "That's an 8."
A good fielder's actions should be smooth and graceful -- the guy who makes it look easy. Outfielders should be able to react quickly, have good range and anticipate. If a player doesn't get a good jump and is slow reacting to a play, there's little likelihood he will ever develop into a skilled defender.
Scouts look for specific things at each position:
First base, third base:
Second base and shortstop:
Left field and right field:
In amateur ball, often times the best player on the team will play shortstop or center field, even though he may not project at that position in the Major Leagues, so scouts have to evaluate a player's skills and tools and then decide where he best may fit with a big league club.
"If I see a kid at shortstop with athleticism and running speed, can he move to a corner position with bat and power? Or will he have to play second base in the big leagues because he doesn't have the agility of a Major League shortstop," says a scout. "But if he has enough foot speed and enough bat, he can play in the middle infield."
Some scouts say it's like figuring out a puzzle -- where can these tools best fit?
"Look at the kid. He's the best player on team. He's 6-3, 180 [pounds] and will go up to 205. He's got a little power, so this guy could play third base or right field. He's got good reactions, so third base isn't out of the question. It's all about seeing what the individual is like.
What are professional scouts looking for?
Other Non-Tool Factors
Once these tools are determined, the player will be placed in the proper prospect category;
No prospect = 0 - 39 Overall Future Projection
Catcher’s Release or "Pop" Times
Physical Tool Correlation with Position Profile
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