Tools vs Numbers, Old School vs New School

Baseball America has resumed their top 10 lists with the Atlanta Braves today, and the Phillies are scheduled for January 10th. If you’re reading this site, you are clearly interested in the minor leagues and prospects, so I’m sure you already know plenty about Baseball America. For those who don’t, basically, they rely on the reports of scouting directors, individual area scouts, crosscheckers and other talent evaluators. They gather all of their info, look at the numbers, then rank their prospects based on all of that information. For people like you and me, it’s obviously one of the best resources available, because most people don’t have the time to go out and see hundreds of minor league games every year. However, when looking at players at the minor league level (and even the major league level), there are two sharply divided schools of thought: Tools (old school) vs Numbers (new school), and I’m not here to tell you which is right (both are right) and which is wrong (both are wrong), I’m just going to try to explain where I’m coming from with my analysis (ramblings) and thoughts.

When you get into this game, and by game I mean following minor leaguers, you have to understand what you’re looking at, and how others look at things. “Moneyball”, the book by Michael Lewis, really is about the economics involved with baseball, especially front office decisions, but it also introduced some casual fans to the work of Bill James, and along the same lines, it introduced (or at least rekindled) the debate of “tools” vs “production on the field”, which is especially important to minor league players.

Generally (and more closely related to position players), there are 5 conventional tools:

  • Hitting for average
  • Hitting for power
  • Running
  • Arm Strength
  • Fielding

If a player is excellent in all of those areas, he’s labeled a “5 tool player” by talent evaluators. If he’s good at 4 areas, he’s a 4 tool player, etc etc. Now, of those tools, some are more “skill oriented” and some are more physical trait oriented. For example, if you’re 5’10 and weigh 215 pounds, with a thick muscular build, chances are you aren’t going to be considered a speed demon. If you don’t have 30 stolen base potential, you lose one of your “tools” when you’re evaluated by scouts. If you don’t have a cannon arm, you’re not looked at as a right field candidate, and you lose another tool from your arsenal. Scouts use a scale to rate every tool, with a 20 being terrible (think Sal Fasano rounding second base), and 80 (think Ryan Howard’s power) being the best.

Ok, so what does that mean? When a scout watches a player, he immediately looks at those five areas. He makes notes about a player’s build and his “tools”, and this is important in the next area, projection. Projection is another scout buzz word, and it basically means “what can he become?”, and believe it or not, this is almost as important as what a player can actually do at the present time. This is much much more important when looking at high school players, because they are generally years, (2 or 3 at least, normally 4-6) away from making it to the majors when they are finishing high school. If you have two pitchers with identical numbers in high school, what generally separates them is their projection. For example, a kid who is 6’4, 180 pounds is much more projectable than a kid who is maybe 5’9, 150 pounds. On the pitching mound, they could have identical pitches, and put up identical statistics, but the scouts will favor the taller kid 95/100 times because of his projection. They look at the taller, skinnier kid and picture him growing 3 more inches and adding 50 pounds of muscle to his frame, and that means more potential velocity, a better downward plane on his pitches, and better durability.

Scouts rate players based on what they could become, also taking into account what they’ve done in high school, but again, more on what they can become. While you can definitely see the merit of this approach, it also helps explain why guys like James Happ, who I’ve discussed in my previous article, flies under the radar. He has good size, but he hasn’t added much velocity, and probably won’t in the future. Because he has lesser “stuff”, you can’t project him out to be a top of the rotation starter, despite his incredible consistency and otherwise solid numbers as a pro.

Back to my opening line regarding Baseball America’s Phillies list. Baseball America is driven by scouting reports of players. Scouts take notice of a guy’s numbers, but the old school approach is still very prevalent in the scouting world. To use a Phillies example, just look at Greg Golson. There’s a decent chance Golson will be ranked in the Phillies Top 10 list at Baseball America, and there’s an even better chance he ends up in the Top 15. If you look at his numbers, they really aren’t good. He was taken in the first round of the 2004 draft ahead of Phillip Hughes, now one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, because he was regarded as the best athlete in the draft. The general view of him was “incredible athlete, but raw baseball skills”, and boy were they right. Golson is fast, he has good raw power, he has a strong arm, but he really isn’t all that good at baseball. Lots of people can run really fast, but you don’t see many Olympic sprinters in the NFL, because it still requires skill and technical ability.

The old cliche “the hardest thing to do is hit a baseball” really does have some merit. Can you teach someone to have good plate discipline? Maybe. But it seems like the guys who “make it” at the big league level always had the skills, even if they didn’t have the “tools” that scouts obsess over. A scout would probably argue, on the other hand, that you can’t “teach a guy to run a 3.9 second 40 yard dash, but you can teach him to hit a curveball”….and well, they are probably right. Remember when I said that both sides were right and both were wrong? Here’s why. Scouts are correct when they say you can’t teach a guy to be a good athlete. And let’s face it, to play a sport like baseball at the highest level, you have to be at least a good athlete, and I’m convinced that guys like David Wells were once good athletes, even if they look like reserves on your Beer League softball team now. On the other hand, the more results oriented people point to guys like Greg Golson and say “if he can’t recognize a curveball, he’s never going to hit”, and if you believe Golson’s numbers represent his ability, they are right too. But because of guys like Greg Maddux (he’s short, he never threw 97 mph), we’ve learned there are always exceptions to every rule. The really smart people (or lucky I suppose) are the guys who can spot the Tom Gordon’s (short righthanders are frowned upon in the scouting world) and realize the skills are there, even if the tools aren’t.

The moral of the story? It’s quite simple, despite that long-winded diatribe above. If a player doesn’t have a good set of baseball skills, the odds of him making the big leagues, let alone being a good player, are pretty slim. If a guy doesn’t have at least one above average tool, the chances of him making the big leagues, let alone being a good player, are slim. So how can you tell? Well, that’s the thing, you really can’t. Baseball America, John Sickels, and just about every other talent evaluator out there has been wrong tons of times. Hey, I loved the Kyle Drabek pick in June, I think he could be the next big thing, but he could be out of baseball in 2 years.

Sometimes we don’t realize it, but to make it to the big leagues is a great accomplishment for any player, and at some point in your baseball life, you had to impress someone (more than likely a ton of people) to even get a shot, and even then, only the cream of the crop stick at the highest level. Every year, teams draft 50 guys or so in June. They take a few more (sometimes) in the Rule 5 draft, they sign 16 year old kids from the Dominican Republic, or they spend 51 million dollars to negotiate with guys from Japan. Some guys turn into superstars, a bigger group turn into good players, a bigger group turn into fringe guys who bounce between the majors and the minors, and the biggest group of them all never make it to the Show. When looking at any minor league player, whether it’s Felix Hernandez or Junior Felix, you have to remember that in reality, we’re all just projecting, we’re all just hoping, and we’re all just guessing. If you look at everything out there, including scouting reports and a player’s complete playing history, you can make a guess as to what he’s going to become. However, you also have to prepare yourself for the letdown of that player never making it and washing out of baseball.

You’ll have to forgive me, going back and re-reading what I wrote, I feel like I was channeling Bill Conlin, and I ended up straying off topic and getting lost in my own thoughts. I hope it was somewhat readable and you maybe got something out of it. Ah, who am I kidding, no one is reading this. Anyway, my original goal of this column was to predict what the Baseball America top 10 will look like, compared to my list. So, here’s my guess, in order. We’ll know next week how far off I was.

Carlos Carrasco
Kyle Drabek
Adrian Carenas
Michael Bourn
Josh Outman
Greg Golson
James Happ
Edgar Garcia
Jesus Sanchez
Matt Maloney

Last minute addition/thought. I think BA might go ahead and put Jaramillo on this list, based on his tools and his good showing the Arizona Fall League. He had a pretty modest 2006 regular season, but he’s always had a strong defensive reputation, and he hit well in Arizona, so he might have elevated his prospect status.

5 thoughts on “Tools vs Numbers, Old School vs New School

  1. Well, I read it too, my friend, and think you got it pretty much
    on the nose. I can’t remember now who I picked some weeks
    back for the top 10, but your list (with Jaramillo, w/o Sanchez)
    looks very similar to it. (Incidentally, from what I’ve read
    about Sanchez, he looks promising, but I suspect BA would go
    with Jaramillo at this point.)

    I think I’m going to like this site.

  2. Hey! I read it and learned a lot. Just found this site today. Great stuff. I just added to my favorites. I gave your site a plug on Beerleaguer. I’ll be checking in frequently to get all “learned up” on the Phillies restocking system.

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