Best Tools

Some names are fixtures on the Best Tools lists




Baseball America 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.)

Managers 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).

That's why 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 Best Slider.

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.

Gordon was 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.

"For 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.

"I remember 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

Winning Streaks
Player, Pos.Tools CategoryWon Since . . .
Greg Maddux, rhpBest Control1995
Scott Rolen, 3bBest Defensive 3B1998
Andruw Jones, ofBest Defensive OF1999
Mariano Rivera, rhpBest Reliever2002
John Smoltz, rhpBest Slider2004
Luis Castillo, 2bBest Defensive 2B2004
Juan Pierre, ofBest Bunter2004
Johan Santana, lhpBest Changeup2005
Billy Wagner, lhpBest Fastball2005
Jose Reyes, ssFastest Baserunner2005
Albert Pujols, 1bBest Hitter2005
The 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.

But 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 his best.

"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 another AL pro scout.

"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 CategoryRanked Since . . .
Ivan Rodriguez, cBest Defensive C1992
Greg Maddux, rhpBest Control1992
Omar Vizquel, ssBest Defensive SS1993
Andy Pettitte, lhpBest Pickoff1996
Scott Rolen, 3bBest Defensive 3B1998
Andruw Jones, ofBest Defensive OF1998
Mariano Rivera, rhpBest Reliever1999
Jim Edmonds, ofBest Defensive OF2000
Rafael Furcal, ssBest Infield Arm2000
Juan Pierre, ofBest Bunter2001
Ichiro Suzuki, ofSix Categories2001
Billy Wagner, lhpBest Fastball2002
Omar Vizquel, ssBest Bunter2003
Carl Crawford, ofFastest Baserunner2003
Luis Castillo, 2bBest Defensive 2B2003
Albert Pujols, 1bBest Hitter2003
Setting 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.

Historically, 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 aged.

"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.

"You 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."

Ichiro Suzuki 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.

Like Ichiro, 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 out.

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 appearances.

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 RankedNo. 1s
Ichiro Suzuki, of4327
Barry Bonds, of4220
Pedro Martinez, rhp3919
Greg Maddux, rhp3714
Randy Johnson, lhp3520
Mike Mussina, rhp338
Kenny Lofton, of3017
Alex Rodriguez, ss/3b2915
Ken Griffey Jr., of2915
Derek Jeter, ss278
Since 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 Hemisphere.

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.