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For this article, I'll be breaking down how I scout and how I grade certain tools using the industry standard 20-80 scouting scale. 50 is MLB average for any given tool, 60 is plus, 70 is plus-plus and 80 is all-time elite. It maps to scientific grading scales, so 60 is one standard deviation above the mean, 70 is two and 80 is three.
This is the most important tool of them all, is the least agreed-upon, the hardest to accurately project and the tool that routinely makes the best scouts look silly. For these reasons, every scout breaks it down differently, given their specific experience with being wrong and the things they tend to get right/wrong with projecting young hitters. For my process, I break it down into three components: hitting tools, plate discipline and bat control. I go in depth on this process in a post at FanGraphs but here's the quick run down.
Hitting tools are the innate things about a swing and they can change but usually take awhile if they ever change: bat path/swing plane, bat speed, raw strength. These are essential to decide how much margin for error you have in a hitter's evaluation. If these are all fringy, the swing mechanics, plate discipline and bat control all have to be perfect to have a chance to be a big leaguer of any consequence. Plate discipline is pretty obvious but goes deeper than just BB/K ratio as seeing a lot of pitches, having a plan and treating borderline pitches correctly can be more important for dual-sport players with limited at bats and indicate a good BB/K ratio is on the way. Lastly, bat control is that wild card ability to square pitches up that often comes with bat speed and conventional athleticism (Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen) and sometimes defines non-conventional athleticism, whether it's a big fat guy that hits like crazy, proving he's a different kind of elite athlete (Miguel Cabrera) or an awkward guy with a weird swing (Hunter Pence) that hits more than guys that look like they should be in that Trout/McCutchen group (B.J. Upton). Length of limbs helps create leverage for power but also creates length to a swing and makes it much more difficult to make contact.
The Scale: Every club I've worked for and others that I have knowledge of use essentially the same scale for this. 50 is .260 batting average, 55 is .270, 60 is .280, 45 is .250, etc. This scale was made using the actual performance of big leaguers, so it correctly scales to .280 being 1 standard deviation above average, etc. Yes, I know OBP is more important but traditionally this tool is just hitting and not plate discipline, though obviously PD skills bleed into batting average. If you want to be all new-agey, you can include plate discipline and make this on the OBP scale (just add 60-70 points to the scale), but scouts will look at you sideways, so keep it to yourself.
This one is pretty easy to get close to correct after just one batting practice and a few games against good competition. You have raw power, which is essentially how far you can hit a ball and you have game power, which is how often you hit the ball close to that peak distance in a game. As long as the hitters takes a few 100% swings in BP and squares it up (less common the higher up the minor league chain you go) raw power is an easy one (directly pulled from hitting tools) and after a handful of games you can find out if the game swing/bat path is the same (hitting tools) and if the approach (plate discipline) and contact rate (bat control) give him a chance to get to his power in games. There's all kinds of little indicators to help you get to that answer in short looks, but the task is straightforward.
The Scale: This one varies a little bit team to team but the same empirical process is used to find what is 1 SD above average, etc but defining what an everyday player is and making a HR range can give some slightly different results. For the scale I use, 50 game power is 15-18 HR, 55 is 19-22, 60 is 23-27 all the way up to 80 being 40+.
This one is pretty easy and is covered in the scale portion as it's almost 100% what your stopwatch says. The exception is when a player looks to be a grade faster once he gets going or when you can tell he was abnormally slow/quick out of the box and to round a game time up or down. Age, Size, type of gait and ease of motion also factors into projecting added or lost speed.
The Scale: There's two scales for this one. The first is for the 60-yard times from workouts and this one varies team to team but 7.00 is 50, 6.7 is 60 and 6.5 is 70, give or take a tenth for most teams. The one everyone seems to agree on are the crack of the bat to foot hitting first base times. From the LH box, 4.20 is 50 with 4.15 being 55 and 4.25 45 while from the RH box 4.30 is 50 and everything is .05 per grade and .10 slower than the LH box. These can be deceiving when you get half-efforted runs, so you'll see scouts compare times when they get a 100% effort on a player that doesn't normally groundout or hustle since they know it's rare to get a usable game time so they don't want to be wrong.
This one is pretty straightforward and there isn't a scale, even if someone tries to tell you velocity on outfield/infield throws converts cleanly to an arm grade, because they're wrong. A good running start and a crow hop can goose a throw 5-7 mph relative to peers with better arm strength, so much like with speed, paying attention to the context is important. Ease of throw, arm action, arm slot, age, background and size all factor into projecting improved arm strength and after watching your first 8-10 throws with a scout telling you his grades on each throw, you get a rudimentary hang for it pretty quickly.
No scale here and is much harder to get an initial feel for without seeing elite and terrible defenders consistently over a long period with a scout giving your feedback, in part because of the different skills to look for at each position. Many scouting staffs won't draft a catcher in the top few rounds without their roving catching instructor weighing in and that's true to a lesser degree with shortstops and infield coordinators. Even scouting directors with decades of experience will defer to positional experts as knowledge and opinions about what works, what's fixable and who's coachable varies scout to scout, sometimes to a hilarious degree.
I keep mentioning these words, so I should probable define what this means. There are two kinds of athletes: the conventional multi-sport type of size/speed/strength athlete and the baseball-only athlete. We all know the combine freak type of kids (like Byron Buxton or Giancarlo Stanton) but the baseball specific athletes are more interesting and harder to pick out in short looks. Miguel Cabrera was at one point the combine freak type but is unique that he kept a lot of those characteristic after attaching a utility infielder to his belly. Some guys (like Billy Butler, Prince Fielder or D.J. Peterson) essentially start as that type of athlete at a young age and many scouts dismiss them until they see in games that they are athletic in the box and have a shocking amount of looseness and bat control with a body type that 95% leads to a stiff, one-dimensional AAAA slugger at best.
Talking to scouts about projection is one of the more fun things you can do. They describe a young kid with broad shoulders (Addison Russell) as being able to hang a lot of weight on those shoulders as though they are a clothes hanger. Many scouts have explained to me what I knew innately but couldn't explain, which is kids grow until their bodies are proportionate to their calves and butt, which normally don't change in size without dramatic fat loss/gain. There's a number of prospects described to me as being like young puppies with big feet so you know they'll fill out to be much bigger. You often hear about parent's body types and athletic career and the obvious (and most important) characteristics of the player like athleticism, ease of motion and for bigger (6'4+) athletes when/if they "grow into their frames" and gain body control.