Another Scouting Primer: How to Scout Pitchers

Last week, I discussed scouting report compilations and evaluation methods used by professional scouts. I took the initiative to display all of what I've learned this summer in one article before I realized the amount of intended targets I failed to shadow upon. Scouts can't elucidate their entire scouting knowledge in just one conversation, and I certainly can't do so in a single post. I'd rather shed light on different categories day-by-day or week-by-week anyway, however, and that's exactly what I'll be doing from here on out.

When I re-read my aforementioned initial scouting primer last week, a scouting conversation I had a couple of months ago with our good friend, Johnny Scout, came to mind. When I recalled this exact discussion I had with Johnny, I was easily able to extract just about everything he elaborated. Why? Well, just because his words were so damn interesting, and they were extremely informative, too. Bear in mind that this scout had been doing his job quite well for some time. The communion wasn't just about scouting in general. Because after all, this was the same scout who had shed light on evaluating hitters. Most of what I already knew was thanks to him, so picking his brain on scouting pitchers, and just pitchers in particular was my next challenge.

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In speaking with scouts this summer from an assortment of teams, there was common theme preached by all. It was that each and every pitcher is contrary, and despite their often similar aspects, no two arms are identical. That's one reason why making prospect comparisons can be so futile, and almost always come back and bite you in the butt. The tiniest and most irrelevant aspect in a player's game can make a huge difference. With all of that said, however, this doesn't mean that scouts evaluate every pitcher differently. Just the opposite, in fact. On a similar token, every scout is distinctive. All of their routines are rather personal, and while some may perform their job better than others, they all look for the same thing in the players they watch -- they look for talent that could potentially impact their parent major league club.

The many styles of each scout are usually fixed to what the organization desires. If not that, what the scouting director chooses to focus on. Quite often, scouts who fail to recognize the persona or method intended by the men in charge lose their job, and you’d be surprised to find out how many unemployed scouts there are year after year (although I'm not in liberty to say). In any case, what ever the task may be scouts do as told and eventually come out with around fifteen summaries of why or why shouldn’t the organization attempt to acquire "so-and-so."

If you attend a ballgame inclined to only evaluate the pitchers, sitting behind home plate is a necessity. That’s because you can see the whole plate from the catcher and batter’s perspective as well as the pitcher's mechanics. Doing so from the third or first base line is rather tough, and very hard to evaluate stuff. You don’t need a radar gun, although it really does help. Even a broken radar gun is a conversation maker should a scout see it. They don’t like talking to fans in general as much as they like chatting with those in the know. So you can always introduce yourself and maybe even land a business card if you approach a scout with your gun. If you don’t own a gun, make sure to sit behind a scout or charting pitcher (in every minor league game, each team has two or three starting pitchers who sit behind home plate and chart velocity, location and plate appearance results) who does. It’s integral to use actual radar guns and not the ballpark velocity read, considering they are often juiced two or three miles per hour. Even if they aren’t, you never know how accurate those are. I usually have a notepad with me and a pen, making sure to take down velocity, aggressiveness, mechanics, mound presence and deception along with whatever else I might think of this pitcher.

The following are what scouts evaluate most importantly and how they do so. The players on the field make the jobs of scouts easier or harder, depending on what they feature or how they project. But every scout is different, so it doesn’t make that big a difference. I categorized mostly everything that a scout looks at when evaluating a pitcher, and in no particular order. I thought this article would be a simpler read if I did it this way rather than basically jotting down everything all at once.

Stuff

Velocity generally tends to outweigh command. Command and control are vital, but most scouts insist that they would rather see a young pitcher throw 95 with no control than 86 with plus command. Aside from the rare outstanding athlete who fields limitless physical projection which could lead to additional velocity on his fastball, most pitchers generally don't add much velocity. They can, however, improve their command. More often than not, pitchers enter the lower stages of the minor leagues with pitches that project to be better than than their current state. If they are able to develop an improved feel for the change up or additional bite on a curveball, which often is the case, the pitches get better grades and are valuable assets to the pitcher himself.

It’s rare that pitchers add several miles per hour to their fastball unless they move to the bullpen and pitch in shorter stints. Zach Stewart, for example, was throwing 93-95 a few years ago out of the bullpen but when he was implemented back in the rotation, he rarely sat as high as 93. But that’s the tricky thing about velocity. The tiniest of injuries or a mechanical flaw you aren’t even aware of could cause dips. Some pitchers do add velocity though and it’s all about their physical upside. If they project to get stronger, they could gain a mile or two on their fastball, but since velocity has lots to do with timing, nutrition and just unintentional abilities that doesn’t happen to often.

It's important to note the pitcher's arsenal and what he features. Everyone has their projections as to where a starting pitcher projects in the rotation, and the guidelines for that are quite uniform and personal, but you generally want to see a pitcher feature two plus pitches to be a stud and one plus pitch to project as an average to above average starter. If they are extremely raw but he has shown feel for a plus pitch that's another thing. Velocity is what you want to see from a pitcher, but if he has late life such as sink or bore on a 88-91 fastball, that's fun to project as well.

Command vs. Control is a whole other story, but still something that can’t be discounted by any means. When a pitcher consistently hits the strike zone, that means he’s commanding the ball, amirite? Absolutely not. When a pitcher consistently hits the zone that’s called control. He’s controlling the plate, but still could have lots of trouble hitting the catchers glove. When a pitcher spots a certain pitch consistently where the catcher wants it, that’s command. When a pitcher spots all of his pitches where the catcher wants it, which is extremely rare, than he's considered to have plus command as a whole. When a pitcher has command he generally has good control as well. The thing about control vs. command is the amount of pitchers who constantly work up their pitch count. When pitchers command the baseball they generally do not work up their pitch count. If you see a guy with a high strike out total but out of the game by the sixth inning due to his pitch count, he’s controlling the ball in and out of the zone but not being economical. In other words, he isn’t able to put the ball where the catcher suggests it should be, thus the catcher has to keep trying new things.

Mechanics

When scouts begin their evaluation on a pitcher, it’s usually during his warm-ups (once he’s one the mound). They don’t hold their gun or stopwatch, but instead simply watch the mechanics and delivery of the hurler. That’s because for some scouts, mechanics are the initial attribute that scouts evaluate. First and foremost, they look to see if he can repeat his delivery. If he can, that’s obviously a plus. Even though all pitchers are different and some have their own unique style, scouts typically want to see a clean and smooth delivery. Things usually flow from there, as you can’t do much of anything should you be unable to consistently repeat your mechanics. Scouts prefer clean and smooth deliveries for a variety of reasons, one of which is to prevent injury. You want to make sure he isn’t changing his arm speed when throwing his off-speed stuff. That generally occurs in the arms of younger pitchers, but tinkering can fix that. On a similar note, changing his arm slot when throwing off-speed pitches isn't acceptable either. Tinkering can fix that too, but you don’t want to see the pitcher lose bite on his stuff when changing a delivery flaw. However, consistent mechanics are more important by a mile.

Young and excellent athletes have been known to able to go from delivery inconsistency to consistency. Better athletes also have a better chance to avoid injury than say, someone who isn’t a good athlete. I mentioned repeating a delivery is huge when scouting pitchers, but it’s not the only mechanical aspect that scouts look at. Others include driving through the ball and toward the plate, release point consistency on all pitches and throwing the ball on a downhill plain. With all of this said, there are also many mechanical aspects that scouts do not want to see. For example, you want to see a pitcher lift his leg, break, lift his arm and throw. There really isn’t a name for that, but maybe it should just be called "the right way to deliver a baseball." After breaking your throwing hand away from the glove, there are three things you then hope to not see. That would be the stab, the claw and the wrap. I’m sure all three sound rather unfamiliar, but let me explain.

It’s tough to convey, but try and picture three pitchers and their deliveries in your head: Edinson Volquez, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner. Edinson Volquez is an extreme stab guy. A stab guy is someone who basically reaches down toward his push-off leg before throwing to the plate. Barry Zito, a claw guy, curls the ball once he breaks. Bumgarner (wrap guy); on the other hand doesn’t lose velocity but instead induces quite an injury risk as his herky-jerky arm movement isn’t "clean and smooth" by any means. The reason scouts avoid these deliveries, or at least shy away from them is because of the injury risk they warrant. They put strain on the elbow and could even cause velocity dips (see A.J. Burnett and his claw).

Size

Size obviously plays a role, as teams tend to role the dice more on taller guys rather than the opposite. For instance, if you posess two pitchers who feature lousy stuff but one is 6’8 and the other is 6’0, the 6’8 guy gets the advantage. Tall pitchers offer many many positives, such as deception and pitchability. If they can throw on a consistent downhill plain or hide the ball, then you have a pitcher who has two abilities that the 6’0 guy lacks (even if the 6'0 guys has a consisteny plain, it at times can be much harder to hit than a 6'8 guy's plain). Sure, all pitchers offer something, but size has proven to be extremely valuable. Projection plays a role as tall and lanky guys at a young age have a chance to fill out and eventually throw harder. I once heard a scout mention something rather interesting. He said that in the draft in particularly, you generally want to take the tall albeit lanky pitchers because if you take ten of them at least one becomes a star.

Projection

The way I see it, there are two types of projections. One is physical projection. When you see a high school pitcher throwing 94-95, standing at 6’6 and weighing in at 170-190 pounds there’s obviously going to be signs that he’ll fill out a bit. When you see an outstanding athlete throwing off the mound, they are more projectable should they not be able to repeat their delivery. In addition, those guys get injured far less, so scouts tend to favor them more. However, they are quite tough to find. The taller pitchers offer more upside than small ones, but when you see flashes of plus pitches you need to jot those down too.

Projecting the pitcher’s stuff is another thing, and quite an integral one at that. Take a curveball for instance. Although movement is important, and rather sexy too, you want to see feel and command. The pitcher could have great depth on his curve but if he can’t throw it for strikes, it’s hard to fall in love with it. "Feel" for a pitch is extremely important, in my opinion. It also has lots to do with projection. Say you see a pitcher throw a fantastic curveball. It has good depth, movement and he threw it for a strike. You see a couple more of those as the night goes on but they are all surrounded by misplaced, hangers of the same pitch and it has far less break than the initial ones. Once you saw the excellent curveballs you can project, considering they weren’t figments of your imagination. Few actual pitching prospects, especially in the lower levels, are close to reaching their potential. It’s important to know what exactly needs to be done for him to do so.

Makeup

Makeup applies for all prospects, and is something organizations value a ton. When scouts head across country to a poor and broken down town in the middle of nowhere just to see a kid play ball, they almost always know his personal situation and background. Players with good makeup are valued to such a high degree, and it really does go a long way. Players can always mature, improve their lifestyle and gain more confidence. And on other occasions they certainly can’t. This isn’t something you can always really tell by watching a player take an at-bat or a pitcher throw a pitch, but it’s an attribute you need to know to be a scout. It’s like being a movie critic and not knowing the name, creators and background of the movie you’re watching.

Without naming names, a top five pick less than ten years ago had an uncountable number of personal problems back home. His arm was one of the best and most projectable to ever come out of high school but his general life issues held him back. And thus he never made it. On the other hand, a Double-A player and I are always talking about his improved mental state and confidence, which has come a long way considering he had severe makeup issues during his first couple years of pro-ball. His prospect status and playing ability have significantly improved since he matured and learned how to be a professional, and I have no doubts he’ll be a successful big leaguer in the not-so-distant future.

Deception

Pitchers who have some deception don’t usually do so on purpose. It’s one of those things that’s hard to control, and most pitchers aren’t even aware. Deception is all about timing, and usually involves movement or lack thereof with a pitcher’s glove. He can break late, keep his hands behind his body, bring his front arm forward slowly while his throwing arm is lagging behind or he could even have something in his delivery that’s a constant and simply throws a batter off. The tricky part is having deception and ability to throw strikes. This is because timing is a huge issue. If you’re naturally deceptive that’s ideal, but if you try to do some sort of 70 degree turn or hide the ball longer than you’re used to, you’re velocity will be spotty (since velocity has a lot to do with timing) and you wont be able to throw strikes.

Age

You don't necessarily scout "age", but knowing how young or old the pitcher you intend on evaluating is crucial to your observations and conclusions. Generally, the twenty-five year old right-handed starters with underwhelming stuff who dominate the Eastern League aren't considered prospects. But that's not to say you should completely write off a prospect because he's clearly the oldest player on the team, or even one of the oldest in the league. These special circumstances only apply every so often, though. You'll very rarely find older pitchers throw extremely hard, such as Sergio Santos, who I believe was 27 during his first year on the mound, threw 95-98. Santos possessed height as well, standing 6'6 on the mound throwing on a consistent, downhill plain. Height is a factor too, and bodes well with age but I can think of ten old(ish), "well-sized" pitchers off of the top of my head who featured underwhelming stuff and were never given a chance, only to see the younger guy even with similar stuff favored because he was simply younger.

Mound Presence

Lots of people make fun of mound presence, demeanor and poise as it’s not a "quality" of any sort. Well, no, mound presence doesn’t show up in the box score and it’s one of the more unheralded qualities, or lack thereof regarding pitchers. Mound presence is all about slowing the game down. It’s about not getting rattled and it’s about trusting your stuff and challenging opposing hitters. It’s one of those things that just comes to you when you see it. Many players in general, especially at a young age, deal with temper tantrums and frustration rather often. And by no means do you become more confident and relaxed overnight. However, pitchers especially gradually learn to stay calm and zone everything out while on the mound, and as they get more mature it’s very easy to tell.

Grading Pitches

Not too long ago, a majority of organizations only had grades for fastballs. Nowadays organizations grade each pitch separately. Also, command is graded on it’s own too. Scouting reports on pitchers aren’t compiled the same way ones for hitters are. As I said, before writing the usual summary ending with "I would choose or not choose to acquire him" scouts grade each pitch and command separately as well as writing a short note on the side, just to give the director an idea of what you’re talking about without solely using number grades.

Here’s a scale I would use for grading out velocity


Pitchingscale_medium

Conclusion

The one thing I’ve always loved about the art of scouting is the amount of uncertainty yet upside of the players you’re scouting. Unless you’re scouting a 24-year old college graduate in Triple-A, you never scout a player based on what he currently is. Evaluating and scouting is all about what the players will be in the future, and the ability to project is so valuable. As Jason Parks noted in his brilliant piece on scouting, doing so is all about questions. That’s why I get ticked off when a fan or writer basically writes off a 19-year old shortstop in short-season ball because he’s hitting .220. If that was the actual way to go about scouting, everyone would be experts and scouts would have the easiest job in the world.

What I love about scouting pitchers is everything you're given to evaluate. When you look at a hitter, you have to evaluate bat speed, plate approach, power, physical upside and the whole shebang. When looking at a pitcher, you can see what he throws, how hard he throws it, his mechanics and even his aggressiveness toward batters. It’s still a challenge but the template given makes things that much simpler for scouts. Scouts love seeing guys with lots of arm strength and pitchability. There isn't a single scout on the planet who dislikes their radar gun jumping up in the mid-high 90's range. But they're patient too, and understand that a majority of the guys they see might never translate in to anything.

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