Scouting Grades: Power

June 22, 2020 • Scouting

It's been four months since I published the first entry in the Scouting Grades series, and it's fair to say that motivation to continue blogging about baseball has been limited in that time. With the 2020 draft in the rearview, I found myself thinking about scouting grades again.

If you haven't already, it's probably a good time to review the post on Speed. Now, let's talk about POWER.

Power wins games. Power puts butts in seats. No other tool has a showcase -- the home run derby -- that exists specifically to elevate and celebrate a specific tool. It should come as no surprise that power also draws big signing bonuses and buys prospects more time to develop.

In this context, development most often means translating raw power into game power, the actual production of runs. That development generally takes the form of increased plate discipline which is not limited to swinging at fewer balls but also includes learning and taking advantage of pitch locations that really allow the hitter to get to that power.

Raw Power vs Game Power

Before player- and ball-tracking technology, raw power grades were determined by watching a hitter unload on baseballs -- usually during batting practice, a scout's best opportunity to see a lot of swings in a short amount of time. Raw power was essentially how hard a player could hit the ball, frequently evidenced by distance.

[Note: batting practice is not the only input, obviously. Game swings matter more and commonly result in harder contact than batting practice swings. However, scouts will almost always see fewer game swings than BP swings, and plenty of hitters will show you what they've got during BP.]

The Raw Power Scouting Scale (roughly):

  • 20 – Even with a favorable gale force wind, the ball probably isn't going over the fence.
  • 30 – A stiff breeze should do it.
  • 40 – Doesn't need help, but you don't know it's over the fence until it is.
  • 50 – Hey, there's some pop!
  • 60 – Stadium vendors and people on the concourse should pay attention.
  • 70 – The ball hits weird parts of the stadium, and occasionally leaves to check out other places.
  • 80 – The ball has a greater than zero chance of escaping Earth's atmosphere.

Game power is an assessment of how often a player is going to tap into that raw power against MLB pitching. There's no escaping the subjectivity required for a game power grade since it relies on, among other things, the player's future hit tool and future raw power which are both projected by the scout.

This produces an unbelievably wide spectrum of projections and results. There are guys you've never even heard of with top shelf, 80-grade raw power that projected to hit approximately 0.000 at the highest level. Then you've got freaks like Frank Thomas and Miguel Cabrera that are just as likely to win a big league batting title as they are to win a homerun crown.

The Game Power Scouting Scale (roughly, thrown into disarray by the new baseball; not funny):

  • 20 – 5 homeruns in a single season would be incredible.
  • 30 – ~5 homeruns per season.
  • 40 – ~11 homeruns per season.
  • 50 – ~18 homeruns per season.
  • 60 – ~26 homeruns per season.
  • 70 – ~35 homeruns per season.
  • 80 – Homerun crown contender.

Of the obvious variables that limit raw power in games -- pitch recognition, plate discipline, swing length, and others which will be discussed in the Hitting post -- there is one in particular that can limit a hitter with plus hitting and plus raw power to mediocre or even below average production: launch angle.

Exit Velocity & Launch Angle

Three names immediately jump to mind when I think about how a low launch angle stifles power: Nick Markakis, Eric Hosmer, and Yandy Diaz. That's three big dudes with big raw power, decent batting averages, and just not very many homeruns. Depending on your age, you may recall that, as prospects, Markakis and Hosmer were fairly widely believed to be potential perennial 40-homerun hitters. Diaz, who arrived just in time for launch angle to become a hot button issue, has been frequently noted as a guy that hits the ball as hard as anyone else in the game.

Last season, all three were in the Top 50 in Hard Hit % (95+ MPH) -- Hosmer #32, Diaz #43, Markakis #48 -- just ahead of Mike Trout (#49) and Fernando Tatis, Jr (#50).

Last Season, all three were in the Top 60 in Average Exit Velocity -- Diaz #20, Markakis #30, Hosmer #57 -- ahead of Anthony Rendon (#64). Trout checked in at #51. (Stats according to StatCast via Baseball Savant.)

In 469 plate appearances, Markakis hit 9 homeruns. In 667 plate appearances, Hosmer hit 22 homeruns. In 347 plate appearances, Diaz hit 14 homeruns. That's 45 homeruns in just under 1,500 plate appearances.

In 600 plate appearances, Trout hit... 45 homeruns.

Given 2.5x the number of plate appearances, three hitters that are ostensibly better at hitting the ball hard than Mike Trout combined to produce the exact same number of homeruns as Mike Trout alone.

The key difference (and admittedly not the only difference) is launch angle.

Eric Homser had a 2.1° average launch angle. Yandy Diaz had a 5.7° average launch angle. Nick Markakis had a 7.3° average launch angle.

The average launch angle for all MLB batted balls was 11.2°.

Mike Trout had a 22.2° average launch angle.

The point of all of this is to illustrate that translating raw power into game power requires hitting the ball in the air. A player can hit 100 MPH ground balls all day, but it won't result in power production.

Context and Projection

As scouting evolves thanks to the ever expanding use of technology, the scout's role will increasingly be to provide context for objective data rather than authoring almost entirely subjective reports. With the proliferation of Trackman, HitTrax, and similar systems, for example, it's a matter of course to have objective data for a player's exit velocity and launch angle. A scout provides little of use by assigning a 20-80 grade for present raw power.

A player's future raw power, on the other hand, is a contextual grade usually backed by an assessment of physical projection. Physical projection offers insight into a player's potential through continued growth and added speed/strength. An 18-year-old that could still grow a couple of inches and has never lifted a day in his life could get a 2-grade bump, while a 23-year-old with a mature build generally gets none.

When it comes to game power, the hit tool is the big separator. It is easily the most complex tool grade and is frequently broken into several sub-grades, and the realization of hitting potential often relies on additional external factors that are not easy for a scout to assess. That really is a topic for a future post, but a few quick examples will illustrate the type of context scouts should be chasing.

The path of the barrel, including its overall length and depth, plays a key role for both power and hitting. While a long, flat path might lead to a lot of overall contact, it isn't likely to lead to much hard contact. A shorter path on plane with the pitch has a better chance of producing hard contact, and being on plane with the pitch has the added benefit of an increased launch angle.

The length of the swing ties into timing which has downstream effects on pitch recognition and plate discipline. All other things equal, a hitter with a longer path to contact has to start to swing earlier, giving the hitter less time to see the ball before launching a swing. Less time to see the ball means worse recognition which will lead to bad swings and bad takes.

When timing is more easily disrupted, the contact point "moves" to different parts of the swing. Generally speaking, if the swing is late, the ball is more likely to be popped up because the point of contact has "moved" deeper where the barrel hasn't come back up to the anticipated point of contact yet. If the swing is early -- particularly on slower pitches that drop more -- the ball is more likely to be hit on the ground because the point of contact has "moved" out front where the barrel has already risen past the anticipated point of contact.

These issues are amplified more in swings that are further from the plane of the pitch.

Projecting a future game power grade can seem a lot like witchcraft, but it boils down to just a couple of questions:

  • Will the player's raw power increase or decrease?
  • How will the player hit against top-level pitching?
  • Will the player hit the ball in the air?

At this point, projecting a player falls into the gap between scouting and player development. Amateur scouts can get to know a guy well enough to have a good idea of the player's development potential ahead of the draft, but the same can't be always be said for pro scouts who are watching another ball club's players. This development gap is a complex topic and will hopefully be the focus of a future post.