Scouting Primer: Hitting Ability

Hitting ability is the absolute foundation of a young offensive prospect. Without a projectable ability to hit a player can have all the raw power in the world or all the speed you can imagine, and they may never materialize into more than a tantalizing dream.

While the hit tool can be considered the life blood of an offensive prospect, that doesn’t make it easy to evaluate. Seeing and projecting hitting is one of the hardest things to do in scouting. It confounds many scouts and has proven many more wrong time and again throughout their careers. Just when you think you have it, a guy comes along that turns what you know around and proves that scouting is an art and not a science.

So what does it take to scout the hit tool? While there are some basics to the process, much of it comes down to a scout’s personal preference and even their gut feel at times. I discussed this topic with numerous scouts before publishing this article and though I came away with many common themes, all had slightly different takes on the subject.

As a means to explain the scouting process for hitting ability I will try to walk through the different elements, discussing their importance and what to look for, all while acknowledging that sometimes you just see a guy and believe he will or will not hit, despite some of these factors.

The first thing to look at is a player’s balance in the box. Is he balanced as he sets up in the box and while he waits for the pitch? Does he maintain that balance as he loads his swing and begins to attack the hitting zone? Is the weight transfer violent or is it smooth and timed properly, keeping him on balance throughout the swing? This balance is a key for any player’s ability to adjust to the ball during the swing and repeat his swing mechanics.

Next, let’s look at the pre-swing set-up. Where are the hands positioned? Are they very high or very low, requiring additional movement to get them into position to rip the bat through the zone, or are they positioned appropriately to allow a smooth transition from setup to load to swing?

If the hands are positioned well – or even if they are not positioned ideally but still seem to work for the player – then you look at the trigger or load. What is the player doing to get his body moving for the swing? Is it complicated and difficult to repeat or is it quiet and simple? Does it include leg movements like a long stride, a high kick or a toe tap? What it takes for a player to get ready to swing at a ball can be an excellent preview of how the rest of their swing works and the success they may or may not achieve.

So far, everything I have discussed happens before the swing truly begins. So what do you look for with the swing itself?

Some of the more obvious pieces include bat speed, contact ability on different types of pitches, and how repeatable the swing is. If a player possesses a couple of these attributes, that is an excellent foundation for projecting future hitting ability, but again, it is not the entire story.

Beyond this sturdy foundation a scout must look at more abstract concepts of whether a player’s “hands work” and whether the bat stays in the zone a long time. These are difficult concepts to visualize and can be difficult to pick up in limited samples viewed real time.

When you hear a scout talk of “hands working well” they can mean slightly different things. Most commonly they are referring to how the hands get the bat to and through the zone. Do the hands consistently get the bat to the hitting zone quickly, without wasted energy/movement, and in time to adjust to the ball as it approaches the plate? Do the hands keep the swing short and quick while allowing the hitter to adjust to pitch movement and still make solid contact? If a player does these two things most of the time then scouts will routinely say that his hands work well or that he has good hands. It is a tough attribute to see in a brief snap shot of a player.

The discussion of the bat staying in the zone for a long time seems counterintuitive to the idea of a short, quick swing that many players are praised for. In the most basic sense this concept hints at the idea that the player’s swing is not exhibiting a steep uphill or downhill plane, thus short-circuiting it’s time in the zone. Rather the plane of the player’s swing is generally flat with some lift at the end, essentially staying in the zone as long as possible to give it the best chance at contact with the ball.

The combination of good hands, a good swing path, and good bat speed can all combine to allow a hitter to “let the ball travel deep.” In essence, these individual skills allow a player to begin their swing a little later without sacrificing their ability to get to the ball and make sound contact. This slight delay in starting the swing gives a hitter just a touch more time to evaluate the location of the pitch and recognize the spin.

There are numerous other tiny features that may draw observation from a scout, including how the player looks when approaching and when in the box – is there a plan in place? – do they struggle with certain types of pitches, whether they are cheating on fastballs, how they get out of the batter’s box, etc. Aside from a hitter’s plan at the plate, none of these smaller factors will make or break their ability to hit, but they can move a scout off the fence in one direction or another.

To relate this broad discussion to the scouting scale I will provide the following matrix:

Grade

Average

80

.300 or better

70

.290-.300

60

.280-.290

50

.270-.280

40

.255-.270

30

.240-.255

20

.240 or below

In the end – as I said in the beginning – there remains an element of scouting the hit tool that is purely subjective. Does the scout believe this player will hit as he continues to climb the minor league ladder? If there are enough red flags when evaluating all of the items discussed above, then a scout will be hard pressed to turn in positive projections. If the red flags are minimal or the player has ways of overcoming his deficiencies that work consistently, then the projection may be more favorable.

There is no simple way to explain the evaluation of the hit tool. In my opinion it remains the most abstract concept in scouting and is the one tool most frequently mis-rated by scouts – myself included! That’s not a knock on scouting professionals but a testament to the difficulty of seeing and projecting hitting ability.

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4 Responses to Scouting Primer: Hitting Ability

  1. Anthony says:

    Just found this site, love it.

    I’m curious, how many at bats do you feel you need to see to be comfortable giving reports on players?

    • Mark A. says:

      Thanks, Anthony!

      The answer to your question depends a lot on the individual player and what you know going in.

      If the player is familiar to you for some reason, you may only need a couple games to verify what you initially thought, identify what’s changed and make your evaluation. If you are not familiar with the player, it can take much longer. It tends to be easiest to quickly identify the guys that can’t hit. The guys that can hit can be a bit tougher, simply because you have to come up with a projection for just how much you think they can hit long term.

      If the guy is only getting 3-5 at-bats a game, it can take quite a while to get a sense of his swing and his natural feel for hitting. That’s why you’ll see scouts sit on a team for 3-4 games in a row, at least once a season, if not more than that.

      Personally, I always consider myself still learning the art of scouting, so while I may believe I’m comfortable with what I’ve seen, I still make my calls to scouts to talk it through with them as well. It’s important to get that verification and have the discussion.

  2. RG says:

    Very informative series Mark. Where would your recommend sitting for scouting a RH hitter and also for scouting pitchers?
    Thanks

    • Mark A. says:

      You’re never going to get everything you need from one spot. You’re going to have to move around. I typically sit down the right field line during batting practice to watch the hitters. I start the game behind home plate to get a basic feel for the starting pitcher and hitters, then I’ll move down the first and third base lines to get a different look and more perspective. I’ll move back behind the plate after that and depending on the pitchers that come in the game, I may move around again if I need a side view.

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