Five Tools of the Trade
January 6, 2008
At its essence, baseball is composed of four fundamental concepts:
pitching, hitting, running, and fielding.
Or, as incomparable Giants center-fielder Willie Mays once
noted, "They throw it, I hit it.
They hit it, I catch it."
Throughout the years,
however, Baseball insiders have further broken down the skill sets
for position players (that is, non-pitchers) into five separate
"tools": hitting for
average, hitting for power, speed, defensive ability, and throwing
arm. In each area,
players are graded on a 20-to-80 scale, with an 80 signifying a
truly exceptional talent.
Rare is the player who demonstrates superlative skill in all five
tools, such as Mays, legendary Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, or
present Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Each year, scouts hopefully project assorted high school,
college, and minor league prospects as five-tool players.
A scant few, regrettably, live up to these heightened
Let us examine each of these tools in turn:
Hitting for Average
comprises the extent of a batter's plate discipline and bat control,
the purity and consistency of his swing, how well he uses the whole
field, and how hard he consistently hits the baseball.
The combination of these factors is believed to lead to
greater success at home plate and thus a higher batting average.
Exceptions do arise.
Yogi Berra batted .285 over his Hall of Fame career despite amassing
notoriety for swinging at anything and everything.
The pull-happy habits of Ted Williams, arguably the greatest
hitter in baseball history, inspired Indians Hall of Fame manager
Lou Boudreau to create the "Williams Shift," an infield featuring
all four members guarding the right side.
An outstanding hitter
for average handles all pitches with deftness, regardless of a
fastball's velocity, a curveball's break, and a changeup's
deception. He makes batting
practice look easy, spraying line drives with short, quick strokes.
He seldom strikes out and may often be called upon to
Currently, the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Detroit
Tigers' Placido Polanco are ideal examples of superb hitters for
Hitting for Power is
often seen as the antithesis to hitting for average, perhaps because
batting leaders rarely lead the league in home runs. Still, the two
have much in common, particularly in the fact that top hitters for
power are expected to be able to drive the ball to all fields, not
just their pull sides.
There are two phrases used time and again by scouts and analysts
when referring to a top hitter for power.
The first is an observation that the ball "jumps off" of the slug-ger's bat, an expression of admiration for an effortless batting
practice swing that crushes wicked line drives and prodigious fly
balls. The second refers
literally to the 'different sound' made by the violent crack of the
bat of an elite power hitter in contrast to the contact made by his
peers. Often compared to the
ringing report of a rifle shot, it splits the air and draws awed
glances from all over the field.
The Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder, the Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau, and the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard are probably baseball's top modern pure power hitters.
Though a hitter for power commands respect, he must possess enough
other skills in order to advance through a minor league system.
His talent goes to waste if he cannot hit or field well
enough to contribute on a consistent basis.
Contrast this with a hitter for average who, if he is
talented enough, is almost certain to be given a chance at the
kills, as the saying
goes, lighting up a manager's eyes with the versatility it provides.
A speedster is a weapon as a pinch-runner, a defensive
replacement, and a bunter.
Speed enhances an average bat or defensive ability, allowing
a batter to turn a routine chopper into an infield single, or
allowing a fielder to erase a late reaction with a running catch.
But raw speed, however attractive, is not enough.
In 1974 the Oakland Athletics signed Olympic sprinter Herb
Washington to be the first-ever designated pinch-runner.
Over a two-year career, however, Washington appeared in 105
games without ever stepping up to the plate or grabbing a glove.
He stole 31 bases but was caught 17 times, an abysmal
percentage for a man with the sole responsibility of scoring runs.
Most famously and embarrassingly, Washington was picked off
first base in a 1974 World Series game by Los Angeles Dodgers relief
pitcher Mike Marshall.
The fact of the matter is that great speed is only as valuable as a
player's instincts. A
runner who is adept at reading pickoff moves will steal more bases
than a runner who isn't, regardless of speed.
An outfielder who positions himself well and gets a good jump
will catch more balls than an outfielder who doesn't, regardless of
The top current all-around baseball speedsters are the
aforementioned Ichiro, the New York Mets' Jose Reyes, and the Tampa
Bay Devil Rays' Carl Crawford.
Defensive Ability varies
from position to position in specifics, but the fundamentals do not
vary. An exceptional fielder combines tremendous range with a soft
glove. He gracefully
ranges left or right, in or out, opening eyes with highlight reel
gems while disposing of routine plays so easily that it becomes
taken for granted. He
plays with great intelligence to go along with his hustle, backing
up teammates and covering empty bases.
For a catcher, defensive ability is measured by how well he handles
a pitching staff, prevents wild pitches, and blocks the plate.
A corner infielder - first or third baseman - is judged on
the quickness of his hands and feet as well as his adroitness in
charging a bunt. A
middle infielder - shortstop or second baseman - is analyzed for how
quickly and smoothly he turns the pivot on the double play.
An outfielder's evaluation is based upon how quickly he is
able to read the ball off the bat and how comfortable he is at the
wall, whether playing a carom or making a leaping and/or crashing
To list the most talented players at each position in the Major
Leagues would take too much space, but St. Louis Cardinals third
baseman Scott Rolen exemplifies an ideal defensive player, combining
intelligence and instinct with superb natural ability.
is similar to speed in that it is most obviously apparent as
a raw talent, like when an outfielder's throw reaches a fielder on
the fly, but a quick release and accuracy need to be present for the
tool to be truly superior.
No matter how strong a catcher's arm, he will not catch an opposing
base-stealer if his release is slow or his throw is inaccurate.
The same holds true for a right-fielder gunning for home; his
strong arm goes for naught if he cannot get rid of the ball quick
enough or his throw overshoots the target.
A shortstop may make a terrific diving stop on a scorching
groundball, but the effort is negated if he takes too much time to
throw or pegs the ball into the stands.
A standout throwing arm makes a clear difference in a game.
Possessed by a catcher, it eliminates the opposition's
running game, preventing men from being moved into scoring position.
Possessed by an infielder, it robs the opposition of seeming
base hits, quashing potential rallies.
Possessed by an outfielder, it intimidates the opposition
into remaining cautious when sending runners from third, saving
Among current baseball players, the Cardinals' Yadier Molina is
probably the top throwing catcher while the Mets' Reyes owns the
best infield arm from his shortstop position.
The best outfield arms likely belong to Ichiro, the Twins' Delmon Young, the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero, and the Braves' Jeff Francoeur.
In conclusion, "Children are taught that there are five senses:
sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch," writes David Diefendorf in
the excellent misinformation compendium Amazing... But False!
"But in the last century or so, biologists, neurologists, and
other experts have added to the list considerably... [T]he extended
list includes the following:
heat, cold, pressure, pain, hunger, thirst, balance, and body
Similarly, the definition of baseball talents to be scouted is
ever-expanding, beginning with the fundamental concepts of hitting,
running, and fielding before branching out into the current notion
of five tools.
Now there is another change coming.
As defined above, the five tools are increasingly becoming misnomers
for all that they represent.
The idea of plate discipline, especially when it comes to
drawing walks, belongs separate from a category named "hitting for
average." Scouts would
be better served rating a player's specific base-running ability in
different categories than grading something as vague as "speed."
Other tools, previously un-thought of, will be sought by
scouts, thanks to statistical analysis illuminating specific
indicators for success.
There are more than five tools for baseball position players
just as there are more than
five senses within children.
Stay tuned for more on this debate.
© 2008 PER Sports, Inc.
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