Some names are fixtures on the Best Tools lists
started polling managers in the minor leagues for Best Tools lists in 1986.
Naturally we started in the minors, and this is our 20th year of polling big
league managers for their opinions. (We actually called them Best Skills for a
couple of years, and now in fact they are a mix of tools and skills.)
aren't scouts—at least in most cases—so they view tools a bit differently. To
managers, tools can't just be tools; they have to show up in games. There's no
Overall Future Potential (OFP) grade on a big leaguer—you produce, or you don't
keep your job (unless you're a Devil Ray).
John Smoltz is on the cover of the latest issue of Baseball America. Smoltz was once raw and toolsy—in 1986, he shared
Best Pitching Prospect with another green pitcher, Randy Johnson, in the high
Class A Florida State League. (FSL managers of 1986 deserve a pat on the back,
don't you think?) Smoltz won tools categories in '87 (Best Fastball, Eastern
League) and '88 (International League's Best Pitcher, Best Fastball and Best
Curveball), as well, before reaching Atlanta
in the second half of 1988.
For four years, Smoltz was
absent from the Best Tools scene, perhaps due to his high walk totals. In his
first five full big league seasons, he walked 419 batters in 1,159 innings.
After his stellar 15-12, 2.85 season in 1992, he finally received Best Tools
recognition again—in '93, he ranked second for Best Curveball and third for
And ever since—when healthy—Smoltz has ranked
on our Best Slider list in the National League, winning for the first time in
1995. The most similar path belongs to Tom Gordon, who won his first Best
Curveball in the Midwest League in 1988 and has ranked among the game's Best
Curveballs in the AL or NL 10 times since 1989.
No. 2 for curves in 2006. Smoltz won Best Slider again in 2007—at age 40.
Perhaps more amazing is that for the first time, Smoltz earned placement this
year in the Best Control category, finishing second to old Braves teammate Greg
Maddux of the Padres. Like many players who have made our lists consistently
over the years, he's evolved from a player who relied on pure tools and has
honed his skills to maintain his elite ability.
me, his slider defines what an 80 pitch is," said a veteran scout who does
pro coverage for an American League organization. "It's got (high 80s)
velocity; it's got two-plane break; and he commands it. Some guys have similar
velocity, or the two-plane break or tilt--however you want to put it. Some have
both. But no one else combines the two with the ability to throw it for strikes
or bury it out of the zone like he does.
a couple of years ago advance scouting him when he was closing . . . and we had
a line on the report that essentially said, 'How to get to him.' And I wrote,
'Get ahead.' That pitch was too good when he was closing. And now, for him to
have that consistency at this age . . . I just look forward to seeing someone
like that work. It's amazing."
Smoltz is far from
alone in having an 80 tool, but by evolving over the years from wild
flamethrower to a polished power pitcher, he's done it the longest—even
outlasting Johnson, who hasn't won a Best Tools category since 2004. Always A Winner
|Player, Pos.||Tools Category||Won Since . . .|
|Greg Maddux, rhp||Best Control||1995|
|Scott Rolen, 3b||Best Defensive 3B||1998|
|Andruw Jones, of||Best Defensive OF||1999|
|Mariano Rivera, rhp||Best Reliever||2002|
|John Smoltz, rhp||Best Slider||2004|
|Luis Castillo, 2b||Best Defensive 2B||2004|
|Juan Pierre, of||Best Bunter||2004|
|Johan Santana, lhp||Best Changeup||2005|
|Billy Wagner, lhp||Best Fastball||2005|
|Jose Reyes, ss||Fastest Baserunner||2005|
|Albert Pujols, 1b||Best Hitter||2005|
top 10 longest winning streaks by players in our Best Tools categories bear out
what your coaches told you growing up—defense shouldn't slump. Three of the
five longest streaks belong to perennial Gold Glove Award winners. Amazingly,
Rivera also won Best Reliever in 1997, but wasn't even among the top three in
1998, when the Yankees were on their way to a 114-win season.
as streaks go, Maddux makes the most sense—the last year (1994) he didn't win
the Best Control category, he finished second, and posted his career-best 1.56
ERA. He's placed in the top three in the category every year since 1992. And
yet, one professional scout with an American League organization argues his
control has waxed and waned over the years, with his recent work being among
"He has such great control because of the
great delivery, how smooth and easy it is. I'm not actually always sure that
he's deserved to win all those years—I think Kirk Rueter had better command of
his movement, for one. Rueter had success with nothing else but fastball
command—that’s all he had—whereas Maddux could always fall back on his sinker
or that out-of-this-world changeup. Brian Lawrence also had amazing command but
didn't have Maddux' stuff.
"Maddux has the 80 command
to go with great movement and the great changeup. Now he doesn't quite have as
much movement, and the changeup isn't the weapon it once was, but he's still
got the great command. Now, when he needs it most, it's still there. That's why
he's been around for 20 years."
Rolen, who frequently
wins or places in the top three for Best Infield Arm as well, has fashioned the
longest defense streak by evolving along similar lines as Smoltz, according to
"He's the everyman third baseman. Early in
his career, he was just tools. Yes, he
had that intelligence that separated him, but his tools did most of the
talking," the scout said. "Ten years later
his tools still speak for themselves, but he's compensated for this thing we
call 'getting older' by better positioning and really knowing who's on the
mound and who's at the plate. Situations? They've never been a problem for this
guy. This is a guy who's always known what's at stake at any moment he's on the
field. He's as close to an 80 defender as we've seen in a long time."Streakin'
|Place & Show|
|Player, Pos.||Tools Category||Ranked Since . . .|
|Ivan Rodriguez, c||Best Defensive C||1992|
|Greg Maddux, rhp||Best Control||1992|
|Omar Vizquel, ss||Best Defensive SS||1993|
|Andy Pettitte, lhp||Best Pickoff||1996|
|Scott Rolen, 3b||Best Defensive 3B||1998|
|Andruw Jones, of||Best Defensive OF||1998|
|Mariano Rivera, rhp||Best Reliever||1999|
|Jim Edmonds, of||Best Defensive OF||2000|
|Rafael Furcal, ss||Best Infield Arm||2000|
|Juan Pierre, of||Best Bunter||2001|
|Ichiro Suzuki, of||Six Categories||2001|
|Billy Wagner, lhp||Best Fastball||2002|
|Omar Vizquel, ss||Best Bunter||2003|
|Carl Crawford, of||Fastest Baserunner||2003|
|Luis Castillo, 2b||Best Defensive 2B||2003|
|Albert Pujols, 1b||Best Hitter||2003|
the bar a shade lower, here are the top active streaks of players merely
appearing in a category's top three, rather than winning it outright. Maddux is
here with Best Control, and Ivan Rodriguez appears for having placed at Best
Defensive Catcher over the same time period. We don't care for ties, though;
Pudge also was showing up in our minor league Best Tools as the Texas League's
Best Defensive Catcher in 1991, so we listed him first.
it's more difficult to remain a defensive stalwart up the middle than it is on
the corners. That makes the longevity for Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel so
amazing, and Vizquel's streak for Best Bunter would stretch back to 1998 if not
for a one-year miss in 2002. The sliding scale for the 40-year-old Giants
shortstop, however, has moved from tools to skills over the years as he has
"He's so smooth and so graceful, if there were
a tool for grace he'd be an 80," said an AL scout. "His actions and motions are
so smooth, it's just God-given actions, hand-eye coordination, plus he takes
care of his body and is in shape every year. I think he has slipped some; that
gracefulness makes you think he's better than he is.
see other players when they age, and they might do something awkward that makes
you think, 'Oh, he's losing it.' But he's so smooth, he will never look
awkward. He's had trouble going to the hole the last couple of years, but he's
still above-average, no doubt."
dominates this category, on his way to a later chart. How about being
considered among the top three in six different tools non-stop for seven years?
Every year since coming to Major League Baseball, the Japanese all-star has
ranked in the top three in Best Hitter; Best Baserunner; Best Defensive
Outfielder; Best Outfield Arm; and Most Exciting Player. One year, 2005, he
didn't crack the top three in Fastest Baserunner, but he has every other year.
Ichiro has won a tools category 27 times.
Rafael Furcal has shown consistency, placing in Best Infield Arm every year
since winning it as a rookie in 2000. Furcal would have a similar streak going
in Fastest Baserunner (to 2002) had he earned a nod last year, but he was left
Andy Pettitte is a noteworthy near-miss from the list
of Best Tools winning-streaks, with his pickoff move, which ranked second last
year in the NL behind Chris Capuano to break a string of victories dating back
to 1996, his second full season. (He started a new streak this year.) Astros
catcher Brad Ausmus—voted third this year, at age 38, as Best Defensive
Catcher—appeared every year from 1997 through this year, except for 2005,
making him another near-miss on a distinguished chart of most consecutive
Juan Pierre is in a similar boat as Maddux,
in that his calling card isn't what it used to be. While he can still get down
a bunt with anybody, he didn't earn votes this year in Fastest Baserunner for
the first time since his first full season, in 2001. One scout said Pierre's speed grade has
dropped from top-of-the-scale 80 to merely above-average at 60. "It's just
not outrageous speed anymore," one AL
scout said, "and it's not as useful in the outfield."Raw Totals
|Most Times Ranked|
|Player, Pos.||Times Ranked||No. 1s|
|Ichiro Suzuki, of||43||27|
|Barry Bonds, of||42||20|
|Pedro Martinez, rhp||39||19|
|Greg Maddux, rhp||37||14|
|Randy Johnson, lhp||35||20|
|Mike Mussina, rhp||33||8|
|Kenny Lofton, of||30||17|
|Alex Rodriguez, ss/3b||29||15|
|Ken Griffey Jr., of||29||15|
|Derek Jeter, ss||27||8|
he came to the U.S.
for the 2001 season, Ichiro has been one of the majors' most unique players.
His success in our Best Tools surveys also stands alone as unique—only Barry
Bonds (42) challenges his 43 total appearances on our lists, and that's just in
seven seasons, compared to Bonds' career that spans the history of our Best
Tools survey. Three future Hall of Fame pitchers—none named Roger Clemens, mind
you—challenge Bonds for supremacy among players from the Western
It's speed-and-defense players
such Ichiro—or the 1990s facsimile, Kenny Lofton—that tend to rack up the most
raw votes, though they tend to have less staying power than top defenders.
Lofton earned top-three placement from 1993-97 in five categories—Bunter, Best
and Fastest Baserunner, Best Defensive Outfielder and Most Exciting Player—but
hasn't had a top-three finish since 1999.
It's quite the
coincidence that the best No. 1 draft picks of all time, Ken Griffey and Alex
Rodriguez, stand tied both in total tools won and categories won, especially
considering that Griffey's total was compiled completely in the 1990s.