Primer: Scouting the Fastball

In many respects, scouting a pitcher’s fastball is one of the more linear processes in this fine art. When looking at pure fastball velocity, there is a generally accepted correlation to the 20-80 scouting scale.

80 – Elite – 97 mph or above
70 – Plus-Plus – 94-96 mph
60 – Plus – 92-94 mph
50 – MLB Average – 89-91 mph
40 – Below-Average – 87-88 mph
30 – Well Below-Average – 85-86 mph
20 – Poor – 84 mph or below

It is a fairly straight forward exercise to sit behind home plate with a radar gun and chart the pitches being thrown and assign a general grade to the fastball. Most astute baseball fans could accomplish this task and with reasonable accuracy assign a present score to a pitcher’s fastball that most scouts would agree with.

The issue becomes much more complicated when one tries to provide a meaningful projection of future velocity for a young prospect. The evaluation of a player’s body, mechanics, and just an educated guess come into play in a huge way.

The ideal body type varies from scout to scout. Personally, I prefer a pitcher in the 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 range with good levers and an athletic 180-200 pound build. Broad shoulders and thick legs are two traits that I tend to look for in my evaluation of a pitcher’s body type.

Give me an athletic 6-foot-2, 190 pound 20-year old with wide shoulders and sturdy legs and that is a pitcher I can dream on and project the daylights out of.

This is not to say that pitchers with a variety of body types can’t be prospects, just that there are more acknowledged “flaws” with many of the other common body types. Too tall and a pitcher can have trouble repeating his delivery. Too short and pitches may not change planes enough, making them easier for the batter to square up. Too thin and there are questions about durability and stamina. Lack of athleticism and mechanical consistency again becomes a concern.

As a former pitcher myself, one big red flag for me is a pitcher that is too muscular and inflexible. I am a firm believer that pitchers should possess lean muscle without significant bulk, lending to increased and sustained flexibility. I draw both injury and consistency concerns when observing a pitcher with bulk muscle mass on their body.

In addition to the body type, you will look closely at the repetition of the pitcher’s delivery, how his body remains closed or flies open, how his body turns to help get his arm through to finish his delivery, and what type of arm speed he has. A pitcher that seems to drag his arm through the back side of his mechanics Is unlikely to project a jump in velocity, while a pitcher with a lightning fast arm could see a tick or two bump over time.

In the end, velocity isn’t the end of all things for a pitcher’s fastball. The movement induced by a pitcher can have a profound effect on the ultimate grade the pitch receives. The application of the 20-80 scouting scale to fastball movement is much more abstract than the application to velocity.

The sink, cut (away from a hitter), run (into a hitter) and even the mythical explosive life of a fastball can make a 50-grade pitch look like a legit 60 pitch. Often times the grade for fastball movement is assigned as much based on the nature of swings and/or contact from hitters as it is actually seeing the movement in real time. How a hitter reacts can be far more telling than our own eyes.

For me, movement can often be the tipping point for my final fastball grade. If a guy is straddling a 50 or 60-grade based on pure velocity, his movement may ultimately push me one way or the other. Good sink or boring action on the fastball and I may edge him to an overall 60-grade; fairly straight and without deception and the pitch may sit with a 50.

In the end, a significant portion of the present fastball grade is derived from the basic correlation of the 20-80 scale to the pitch’s velocity. The movement of the pitch can swing the present grade to a degree, but huge swings are infrequent.

The grade given to the future of the pitch, while more abstract, is often founded in past experience and a vision of a player’s evolution. It is important to acknowledge that this evolution may never materialize and that past experience is no guaranteed indicator of the future, but they can provide a canvas on which a scout can paint a portrait inside a crystal ball.

The fastball – and fastball command, which I will discuss in a later post – is the basis upon which pitching prospects are built. Without some velocity, or at least the projection for velocity, nearly any pitcher is going to have an extreme uphill battle to becoming a viable pitching prospect.

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4 Responses to Primer: Scouting the Fastball

  1. Lee Panas says:

    Mark, It’s great to see you start a new project. I anticipate it will be a site I visit frequently.

    One question about today’s article – Do you look for anything different in the fastballs of LHP vs. RHP?

    • juice133 says:

      In the basic sense, not really. I might expect some different movement or a slightly lower average velocity from lefties, but my grading process is essentially the same.

  2. Jason says:

    First off: thanks for this and the other primers, they’re extremely helpful for us laypeople.

    I’d like to offer a few critiques of this particular quote, if I may “one big red flag for me is a pitcher that is too muscular and inflexible. I am a firm believer that pitchers should possess lean muscle without significant bulk, lending to increased and sustained flexibility.”

    1) muscle is by definition lean.
    2) there are lots of flexible and muscular people. It’s a common misconception that bigger means less flexible.

    I understand what you’re saying, but a better wording might be along the lines of: I am a firm believer that pitchers should possess lean strength without significant bulk…

    From a S&C standpoint, mass does not need to come at the price of flexibility especially if done correctly (look at Eric Cressey for baseball proof of this). Inflexibility is usually a result of poor stretching/mobility habits. The only other way that mass can result in a lack of flexibility is through excessive open chain training (think biceps training for 2 hours) resulting in inflamed connective tissues.

    • Mark A. says:

      Jason, thanks for the excellent response! I really appreciate it.

      I was hoping the Scouting Primers would provide a very nice basis for people to understand my scouting reports. It appears that may have been a success — at least partially!

      Your discussion of lean muscle, mass and flexibility is noted and that is an excellent clarification. I’m sure I’ll be updating my Primers sometime in the future and I’ll try to make my discussion of this preference a little more clear when I do that.

      Thanks again!

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