A funny thing happens when prospects reach the majors. We stop caring about potential and start measuring actual performance. We have statistics that are much better measurements of performance than scouting grades. Sure, we have stats in the minors too, but down there, potential matters a lot more than what actually happened on the field.
Because of this shift in priorities, we don’t talk about tools for major leaguers in the same way. Who cares about the power tool for some random player— I don’t know, how about Didi Gregorius?— when you can see he has 26 home runs, .500 slugging percentage, .231 ISO, 86.3 MPH average exit velocity, and 14.2 degree average launch angle?
If you follow prospects at all— draft, minor league, international, whatever— you know there are five tools for position players. They’re readily apparent on most prospect profiles no matter which website you prefer, but you can clearly see rankings for any prospect on MLB Pipeline. In no particular order, the five tools are as follows:
Occasionally, we still hear certain gifted MLB players described as a five-tool guy. Certainly this describes do-it-all types like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. But if there are five-tool players, there also have to four-tools, three-tools, and so on.
Who are the best four-tool players? Which guys check all the boxes except for one conspicuous weakness? Well, since you asked...
Aaron Hicks: (everything but) hit
Batting average is kind of like velocity for pitchers. It’s good to have it, but it doesn’t mean you’re automatically successful, nor does it mean you can’t succeed without it. In the statistical dark ages, a hitter like D.J. LeMahieu would have been considered superior to Hicks. The Colorado second baseman is batting .277 with a 90 wRC+. Now that we’re enlightened, it’s easy to see that Hicks’ 123 wRC+ makes him a better overall hitter despite his subpar .243 batting average.
Low batting averages are nothing new for Hicks. While he did hit .266 last season, his career mark is just .234, and he’s failed to reach .220 in three of his six major league seasons. In spite of this, he’s quietly become one of the best center fielders in the game. Only one AL center fielders have a higher fWAR than Hicks’ 4.4: Mike Trout (9.2). He supplements his batting average with an excellent 15.8 percent walk rate, and supplies plenty of power (.205 ISO). While he won’t win any Gold Gloves, his 2.5 UZR indicates he’s an above average fielder. As for his arm, he once gunned down a runner with a 105.5 MPH throw.
Lorenzo Cain: (everything but) power
Perhaps it’s not fair to call Cain a four-tool player. He does hit for some power. He has ten home runs this year and has a career high of 16. But he’s so good at everything else on a baseball field that his relative lack of power becomes accentuated.
In a muddled NL MVP field, Cain stands as good a chance as anyone to take home the award. He’s second in the league in fWAR behind teammate Christian Yelich (Cain trails 6.0-5.4). If he wins the hardware, his .423 slugging percentage will be the lowest by any MVP since Nellie Fox’ .389 in 1959. He’s in the top five in the NL in batting average (.308), on base percentage (.398), stolen bases (28), DRS (20, which leads all center fielders), and UZR (7.1, also the best at the position).
Even at age-32, Cain is playing the best baseball of his career. He doesn’t need to hit for much power to be a star, but if he ever manages to hit 25 home runs, he’ll be a ten-win player.
Robinson Cano: (everything but) run
The run tool is simultaneously the hardest and easiest tool to isolate. There are two defensive positions for which speed is not much of a prerequisite: catcher and first base. It’s pretty easy to find someone like Phillies catcher Wilson Ramos, who has been excellent offensively and defensively but horrible on the basepaths. The same goes for Reds first baseman Joey Votto (though the arm tool is tough to measure for first basemen). This exercise becomes much harder if we try to find someone from an up-the-middle position. Usually, there’s too much correlation between speed and defense.
To hell with the low hanging fruit; we’ll go with Cano. With a .284/.362/.440 slash line, there’s no doubting his hit and power tools, especially with nearly 2500 career hits and more than 300 homers. The defense is still there too, with 3 DRS and 1.9 UZR in 496 1⁄3 innings at second base this year. He’s been positive in both of those metrics for the last three years. As for the arm, well, anecdotally he’s among the best throwing second basemen ever. He just makes it look easy:
As ever-present as the first four tools may be, the fifth is just as absent. He’s the slowest up-the-middle defensive player in the majors and it’s not even close. His sprint speed is 24.5 mph, which is almost a full mph behind the next slowest second baseman (Daniel Murphy).
Slowest Sprint Speed, Excluding C, 1B, and DH
|Player||Position||Sprint Speed (MPH)|
|Player||Position||Sprint Speed (MPH)|
If you’re slower than Pablo Sandoval, you definitely do not have a the run tool. Case closed.
Charlie Blackmon: (everything but) field
Life comes at you fast. In 2017, Blackmon’s age-30 season, he was arguably the best all-around player in the National League. He filled every stat column and was rewarded with three first place votes for the MVP award. This year, his offense and baserunning have regressed a little while still being pretty good, but his defense crashed and burned.
Blackmon had always been kind of a middling defensive center fielder, or at worst slightly below average. His -5 DRS and -0.9 UZR in 2017 support this, and they were consistent with his usual defensive ratings. This year is another story entirely. He’s cost the Rockies -27 DRS, the worst in MLB by any player regardless of position. His -13.7 UZR is second worst ahead of only Miguel Andujar (another good four-tool candidate). That’s problematic in spacious Coors Field.
Blackmon has kept his value relatively high with his 114 wRC+, and the 12 stolen bases are a nice touch. His 27.7 MPH sprint speed would be about average for a corner outfielder, but it’s below acceptable levels for center field. There’s a good chance the Rockies move him to a corner in the near future.
??? (everything but) arm
Look, it’s really difficult to quantify who does and doesn’t have a good arm. More than any other tool, it’s really relative to the position. Pop time is critical for a catcher. Arm strength is important for an outfielder, but accuracy is the key factor for a second baseman. It’s nearly impossible to pin down a four-tool player with everything but a good arm. Instead, please accept this blooper video of terrible throws:
BONUS Javy Báez: (everything but) walk
Patience isn’t one of the conventional five tools, but it’s critical to being a good hitter. Even with a minuscule 4.2 percent walk rate, Báez is one of the best players in baseball. He might even win the MVP with a low on base percentage, as Luis Torres explained yesterday.
There you have it: an imperfect list of perfectly imperfect players. Everyone loves a five-tool talent, but Hicks, Cain, Cano, Blackmon, and Báez prove that four tools is plenty.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983