At Major Leagues, Five-Tool Players Are Treasured Rarities
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.—Jack McKeon sits hunched over in the Marlins' dugout, intently watching his team take batting practice between answering reporters' questions before Florida opens a three-game series with the Mets in late July. Earlier in the week, the Fish had been swept by the last-place Padres, as one of the major league's worst offenses pounded out 23 runs on 41 hits. With the non-waiver trade deadline less than 10 days away, speculation runs rampant about potential trades.
Jack, do you expect any moves to be made? How do you keep the guys loose in the clubhouse at such a tense time? When you were a general manager, how did you communicate with the coaching staff about deals in the works? If Leo Nuñez gets traded, who would be your closer?
About 15 minutes later, most of the reporters have retreated after collecting their sound byte or video clip. But McKeon stays on the top seat of the Marlins' bench, leaning to his left, then craning his neck to survey Mike Stanton take swing after swing. "That's a good sound," McKeon says, as Stanton launches one of his trademark long balls into the upper deck at Sun Life Stadium.
The print journalists have turned off their voice recorders, but a few remain, knowing McKeon usually continues chatting for several minutes. "This," McKeon says, "is what I missed about being away: talking and BS-ing with you guys about the game."
One of the subtle benefits of being a beat reporter is having off-the-record conversations, and that's especially true with McKeon, the 80-year-old baseball lifer who was named Florida's interim manager after Edwin Rodriguez resigned in mid-June. McKeon offers a treasure trove of tales, sharing countless stories of teams, players, games and experiences from time spent managing in parts of five decades.
Jack, who was the best player you ever saw? "Oh jeez, (Mickey) Mantle, (Joe) DiMaggio. Mel Ott," says McKeon, who also managed Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Alomar, and soon-to-be enshrined Ken Griffey, Jr.
McKeon has seen just about everything during his career. But there's one thing McKeon hasn't seen with regularity: a player with five truly plus tools, the Holy Grail of scouting.
Jack, who's the prototypical five-tool player, someone who could do it all?
"That's a tough question," McKeon says. "I don't know what the heck a five-tool player is. I know the five tools, but I ain't seen that many guys that have been dominating in those tools, on all five of them.
"And I don't think there were more in the past than now. I don't even know how many there were in the past. They're just a special kind of player. I think that term is just used very loosely, for somebody that they're trying to sell or when somebody was impressed by a few games or something. You just don't find those guys."
Hard To Acquire
As McKeon makes his way out to the batting cage to talk hitting, Carlos Beltran stands in the corner of Sun Life Stadium's visitors clubhouse, speaking with reporters about potential trade fits. His days in a Mets uniform are waning, and he knows it.
Carlos, how many teams would you approve a trade to? Are you willing to DH in the American League? Have you thought about the possibility of re-signing with the Mets next offseason?
Taking occasional sips of water while adjusting his socks and putting on his knee brace, Beltran is respectful but diverts attention to the series at hand. And for two teams flirting with .500 records, there's a surprising amount of talent between these National League East foes — among the most a fan, or a scout, could see in one series. Although neither team is committed to selling its future, there are at least a dozen professional scouts and front office executives in attendance. They're in South Florida to check out Beltran. Can he still drive the ball from both sides of the plate? How does the 34-year-old with a history of knee injuries move in the outfield? Does he run the bases well?
While scouts want to see Beltran answer those questions—and he showed flashes of his former self, when he was one of the game's few true five-tool players, going 3-for-9 with two runs scored, two RBIs and four walks—that's not what they are most looking forward to. They want to see two of the game's only current five-tool talents: the all-star shortstop for each team, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.
"When you get to watch players like that, as a scout, it makes you feel lucky," said one NL talent evaluator. "They're the guys that stand out. When they've got all those tools, they flash above everybody else. Reyes, that guy is a special player. He's maybe the best in the game. And Hanley, he should be the best in the game. Hanley can be as good as he wants to be. But it's fun to watch good players play. It's nice to see them, and it makes you want to put them on your team."
Having a chance at acquiring them would almost never happen. Five-tool talents like Ramirez and Reyes, whom Alex Rodriguez earlier this year called "the world's greatest player," don't change hands often—part of the reason they're so sought after.
"You can go out and get average players with average tools, but you can't go out and get an impact player," another NL pro scout said. "Nobody would move an impact player. You don't see any impact players moving unless their contracts are up. That's the only way that you can change your team is to get those guys."
Above-Average Across The Board
But before we let our starter get too deep into the game, let's make a quick pitching change: At the major-league level, what's the definition of a five-tool player?
Strictly speaking, amateur scouts say someone has five-tool potential when he could have major league-average tools across the board: tools that grade as 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale in hitting for average and power, baserunning skills and speed, and throwing and fielding abilities.
Pro scouts take a decidedly different approach, and every person interviewed for this story agreed on some slight variation of the following: "To say somebody is a five-tool player, you really have to be able give them a solid-average (55) to plus (60) grade on all five. If you have someone who's an average hitter, runner and defender, well, that's probably an average player."
Each category is evaluated using performance, not projection. Based on team scouting evaluation parameters obtained by Baseball America, a league-average player will hit between .270-.285 and connect for 15-19 home runs, and steal between 15-19 bases.
There are a few complicating factors in this age of advanced metrics and increased statistical awareness. Most organizations include on-base percentage as part of their evaluation of the hit tool. Many said they use slugging percentage as their indicator of "power production," while some said they simply stick to long balls, and others prefer isolated power.
Considering each 10-point step on the 20-80 scale equates to one standard deviation on a normal distribution bell curve, you start to realize how impressive a player that grades as 60-plus on each of the five tools really is.
So how many true five-tool players are there in the big leagues? "If you can't count the number of five-tool players on one hand, you can certainly count them on two," said one of the NL pro scouts.
"I'd have to sit there and look. Well, you've got Reyes, (Justin) Upton, (Matt) Kemp, Andrew McCutchen" said another NL scout, pausing for a moment. "See, it's not easy. That's about it."
American League players receiving consideration include Josh Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano.
But here's the 3-2 pitch: Every player mentioned during as being worthy of the five-tool tag might fall short of the standard. Most scouts grade Upton and Kemp as average defenders. McCutchen is a career .275 hitter; Granderson, .268. Hamilton hasn't stolen more than nine bases in any season; Cano set a new career high earlier this year with his sixth steal. Save for his power outburst this year, Ellsbury slugged around .400 most of his career.
The best five-tool bets are Ramirez and Reyes, and there are even qualms about their ability to live up to the label. Ramirez might be the game's most talented player, but one scout called him "an absolute dog," suggesting he doesn't always play 100 percent. Reyes hit 19 home runs in 2006 and is on pace to tally six this year, though he came into the series against Florida with a slash line of .349/.391/.522.
"Right now, the first five-tool guy that comes to mind, I would say Reyes," said Marlins veteran Wes Helms, who wants to stay in baseball after retiring either as a manager or coach. "That dude has got everything. He can make it all happen when he needs to. Of course he's not going to hit 40 homers a year, but he's got power—40 extra-base hits. He's the one guy in the game right now that can do all five areas well, with the best of them."
The quest to find the five-tool player is never-ending. Those players are incredibly rare. But that doesn't deter teams from trying to find them. Amateur scouts tirelessly toil at their trade, living by the rule of overworked and underpaid. They spend hours each day traveling to and from games, watching batting practice and filing scouting reports. Their painstaking pursuit is the elusive five-tool player.
But it's a nearly impossible task. Predicting the future. Predicting human performance. Predicting responses to failure. Predicting how a person's body will age. Predicting how someone will deal with the wear and tear of playing every day.
Amateur scouts live in the metaphysical world between present and future, projecting an 18-year-old's current flashes of talent into a 28-year-old's complete package. That's what scouts are talking about when they dream on players.
The easiest amateur players to project are those with an above-average hit tool and plus speed. If a player can hit, he can probably add strength and grow into power. If a player can run, he can probably move around in the field and steal bases. If a player is athletic and is on a throwing program, he can probably develop a strong arm.
"The thing is, you're saying 'if' and 'probably' a good bit, but that's the point," one NL scout said. "To be a five-tool guy, that's a pretty damn special player. A lot has to come together."
Because of all the variables, most times when amateur scouts gaze into their Magic Eight-Ball they see: "REPLY HAZY, ASK AGAIN." When projecting talent, those scouts know most tools can't be taught. They are innate abilities — what Ramirez and Reyes call their "God-given talent." Either a player can run and throw, or he can't.
"The biggest problem is with the bat, and that's the most important tool," a pro scout said. "If they're not pure hitters in the beginning, it's hard. I've never seen it. Usually the guys that become five-tool guys, these aren't guys that you're projecting on the bat. Usually you went and saw a high school kid and he just absolutely rakes. He's not a guy where you're saying, 'Well, the bat has to come around.' They're natural hitters, those guys. You can't teach a guy to hit or teach hand-eye coordination."
Scouts generally give a greater benefit of doubt to the best athletes. But this can make it difficult to differentiate between the potential five-tool player and the superb athlete whose skills don't translate on the diamond. Think of Reggie Abercrombie, the former Marlins prospect who rushed through the minor leagues but had an inconsequential three-year career. Plenty of toolsheds strike out 100 times, can't hit a breaking ball and never make it out of A-ball. This is where instincts come into play.
"Just because you have raw power and hit them all over the park in batting practice, if you don't hit them in the games, it doesn't matter," a scout said. "Just because you run like a deer, if you can't steal bases, what good is it? If you've got a Howitzer for an arm but can't control it, what does that do?"
But if a tooled-out player makes it through the minor leagues, they are frequently afforded extra time in the big leagues to prove themselves. It certainly doesn't hurt that these players can provide defensive value.
"A perfect example of that is Carlos Gomez," said one pro scout of the 25-year-old Brewers outfielder. "He's got everything, but he can't put it together. It's the bat, hitting quality pitching. He can run, he can throw and he's strong as an ox. But the jury is still out on him."
Another illustration is Cameron Maybin, who spent three years with Florida after being acquired in the blockbuster Miguel Cabrera trade and was shipped to San Diego last offseason for two relievers.
Just one night before McKeon's Marlins opened their weekend slate with New York, right after the Fish finished their series with the Padres, the skipper praised the development of Maybin, who ranked among Baseball America's top 10 prospects in the game from 2007-09. Maybin went 9-for-15 in the series with three RBIs and five stolen bases, while making several spectacular catches in center field, including stealing a Logan Morrison home run.
"I see a different guy," McKeon said of Maybin. "I see a guy that has tremendously improved. He's a much better hitter — he's got a better idea. What they did to him over there, I don't know. But he's a heckuva lot more like the player we originally traded for now. I don't know why he didn't do it with us. Maybe we didn't push the right buttons. Who knows?"
The lesson for scouts is simple: Every player is different, and picking up on patterns and learning from the past is paramount.
"You take all these cases, and what I always say is, 'You're not a good scout unless you have skeletons in your closet,' " a pro scout said. "The more players you see, and the more similar players you see, you go, 'This guy reminds me of this guy.' If they remind you of the guys that became these five-tool guys, they usually do become those guys. If you see all the similar traits, that's a good sign. If there's something missing, then you raise a red flag."
It's Not Just About The Tools
When McKeon greets reporters after the second game of the Marlins' series with the Mets, he makes a point of drawing attention to Mike Cameron's diving catch in the left-center gap on David Murphy's line drive. Cameron took a calculated route and made a play on a ball destined for the alley look easy.
Cameron stood in the hallway outside the Marlins' clubhouse the next day, taking time to reflect on his 16 years in the big leagues. Everything except hitting came naturally to Cameron, who wishes he had made more contact and taken advantage of his speed earlier in his career. But he won three Gold Gloves and is one of five active players with at least 250 home runs and 250 stolen bases, putting him in the five-tool conversation.
"Being a five-tool player is great, but the sixth tool has to be health," Cameron said. "I've had two major injuries that could have taken me out of the game like that, snap, and it would have been over. If you don't have health, you can't do none of it. It's not a tool itself, but that would have to be the sixth one, because we've seen a lot of great players for three, four, five years and then their body goes into shambles."
When asked what they would consider to be the sixth tool, Beltran said performance, Reyes said work ethic and Ramirez said consistency. They're all elements of what makes being a five-tool player over multiple seasons so challenging.
"It's an extremely difficult thing because as your body gets older your speed declines, and then you're in transition," said one scout. "When you get into your prime as a baseball player and you've had all these at-bats and your hitting skills have advanced to the point where you know how to pull the ball, when you know how to use your power and all these things come together, a lot of times you're getting older. With the very, very talented ones it happens at a younger age, but how many of those guys are going to run and play defense? It's a very, very difficult thing to sustain because the wear and tear on your body (makes it hard to) stay healthy."
Let's not forget another aspect of this five-tool scenario: Players being asked to carry a team offensively aren't likely to accumulate speed statistics. Managers can't risk losing that player to an injury, and that player doesn't want to risk injuring himself before hitting the free agent market.
In today's game, the bat is the most important tool, and players who can hit will find their way onto the field. But the game is starting to transition; 2010 was called the Year of the Pitcher, and organizations are putting an emphasis on constructing teams that prevent runs as much as they score them.
"Speed and defense are going to come back, more where you're going to see a different kind of player playing at the major league level," said a pro scout. "The defense is going to stick out so much more than it has in the past because that three-run home run isn't going to be there as often.
"It's always been like that, but it's becoming more and more obvious, when teams make errors and give teams more outs, it's more difficult for these teams to score and it comes back to burn you. Look at all the teams that are on the top of the divisions—Giants, Phillies, Braves—that are doing this on pitching and defense."
What that will do to the five-tool player remains to be seen. But throughout baseball's history, the game's trends have followed back-and-forth eras where offensive prominence follows pitching prowess.
A Scout's Lottery Ticket
If true five-tool players don't exist and the term is overused, then why do we spend so much time talking about them? Because while they don't come around often, when they do they are franchise-altering talents. Amateur scouts fantasize about finding five-tool players because they change the shape of a team's roster. They are the lottery tickets that could develop into all-stars.
"But the problem is," one front-office executive said, "if that's your definition, five plus tools across the board, you're going to miss some of the best players in baseball. I would much rather have a player with impact than one with all five tools."
Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and Adrian Gonzalez are a few of the game's best players who don't fall into the five-tool debate.
Flash back to McKeon watching batting practice, as Logan Morrison now peppers the opposite field with line drives. The skipper also spent 10 years as the Padres' general manager and knows what it takes to construct a winning roster—and it doesn't have to include a five-tool player.
"I don't pay much attention to five tools," McKeon says with a smile. "What benefit do you get out of five tools? How many guys have all five tools? Is Albert Pujols a five-tool guy? If you could take one player, would you rather have Pujols or the guy that's the five-tool guy according to some baseball people? Give me Pujols with his three tools, and I'll get (Emilio) Bonifacio on the team that will round him out. Bonifacio would be the fourth tool, and another guy would be the fifth tool. Get all those combined, then I'll have the five tools."
McKeon's approach of building a team without a five-tool player might be shaped by his earlier observation: The true five-tool player is almost impossible to find.