Hit and speed tools are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to evaluation. Speed is the easiest tool to measure if you have a stop watch and good hand-eye coordination. Evaluating the hit tool can take decades to learn how to project, and even then the sharpest evaluator can miss horribly. The hit tool is a fundamental part of the game and it is the one tool that can end and make careers on its own. Speed is possibly the most overrated tool in the game, because it is exciting and tangible, but that does not mean it cannot make a huge impact on the game.
I touched on the defensive merits of speed already so I am going to focus on the offensive side. The gold standard of speed measurement is the home to first time, because it is relatively the same for all hitters and it is relatively context independent. Good speed can allow a player’s hit tool play up as the range of what can be a hit is expanded, additionally it can turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples. On the bases speed can alter the way a pitcher throws and can allow you to pick up extra bases. The only thing missing from Roman Quinn’s speed arsenal is a sparkling steal percentage, but he has the elite 80 grade speed to be a game changer on offense. At the plate Quinn can pick up extra hits on the ground and any ball in the gap has the potential to cause a ton of trouble.
In addition to being difficult to evaluate the hit tool inspires a ton of debate as to its definition. Personally I define the hit tool as putting yourself in the position to make consistent quality contact. This combines a good bat path that stays in the hitting zone for as long as possible while allowing extension through the ball, the length of swing and how it allows you to adjust to a pitch, the speed of the bat through the zone, and the approach that gets the player in the position to try and make good contact. Other methods that people use include looking at batting average, strikeout rate, and line drive rate, as well as other metrics like that but ultimately it is difficult to look at any number in the minor leagues and come to a consistent conclusion.
A year ago determining the best hit tool would have been easy with Cody Asche’s gorgeous left handed line drive swing. But coming off the end of the 2013 season there are no minor league prospects in the Phillies system that I am comfortable saying has a pure plus hit tool, but three names do stand out to me.
The first is Carlos Tocci, who probably has a 20 present hit tool, but when you look at the component pieces the only thing missing is the quality to the contact. Tocci has great instincts and you can see at least a plus hit tool with line drive around the field once he has added strength to his frame. Cesar Hernandez has more of the stereotypical hit tool with a high contact rate and the combination of line drives and ground balls to go with plus speed. But he has struggled to put solid contact together and against quality pitching he has shown more swing and miss to his game. Scouts are divided on Maikel Franco’s hit tool, some think it has plus potential and others think it will be a liability in the majors. I fall somewhere in between the two opinions, the bat speed and coordination are unparalleled in the system, but there is a lot going on before he gets into his swing and it add length to the overall movement. Franco is also a case study in approach and it has nothing to do with walk rate; Franco is an aggressive hitter but at times even a reckless one who will swing at anything close to the plate, a more discerning eye would allow Franco to let hit bat speed to spray hard contact around the field and make quick adjustments to pitchers in-game.
The thing with the hit tool is that so much development is done on the major league level and some skills translate more than others. The ability to generate bat speed and get the barrel on the ball will carry a player more in the majors than in the minors and so while the hit tool may not always look good right now, if the tools are there, there may be plenty more to like later.