Baseball's Five Tools of the Trade


Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, 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 expectations.

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 hit-and-run.

Currently, the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Detroit Tigers' Placido Polanco are ideal examples of superb hitters for average.

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 Majors.

Speed
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 speed.

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 catch.

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.

Throwing Arm 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 potential runs.

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 awareness."

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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