Ask BA: Why Is Batting Average Still Used For The Hit Tool?

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With the rise in on-base percentage being a more significant statistic than batting average, why on the standard scouting scale do we still utilize the “hit” tool? Wouldn’t it be better to use an “on-base tool”? Or rather some combination of patience (rated 1-4) and hitting for average (1-4) to be combined for the “hit” tool?

Josh Wolff
Evanston, Ill.

You are correct that at least most teams still grade hitting on batting average. The scales vary a little from team to team, but a general rule of thumb breaks it down in the manner you see in the table on the right side of the page.

Hit Tool Average
80 .315+
70 .300-.315
60 .286-.299
50 .271-.285
40 .256-270
30 .241-.255
20 .240 or lower

Yes, batting average is out of date as an overall summation of a player's hitting skills, something that started to become clear with Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts in the 1980s. James posited that a hitter such as Gary Redus (a lifetime .252/.342/.410 hitter) was significantly more valuable than someone such as Omar Moreno (a .252/.306/.343 career hitter) even though they had the same batting average.

That seems obvious now, but when James was writing his essays in the 1980s, he actually had to convince readers and the baseball world in general that hitters actually had some influence over how often they walked—it wasn’t just a random act of luck. Until James came around, it was largely unknown that Fred Lynn benefitted from hitting at Fenway Park and Jose Cruz's power was hidden by playing at the Astrodome. It was a simpler time.

The hit grade may be still scaled to batting average, but at this point teams actually do incorporate plate discipline into their evaluations of the hit tool, even if the scale itself has not been updated to reflect that change.

Some of this has always been true. Scouts are evaluating the mechanics of a hitter's swing, and his setup and his bat speed. But they are also looking to see how well he recognizes pitches, how he understands what pitchers are trying to do to him and whether he makes adjustments depending on count and situation.

But as a pro scout explained to me this week, plate discipline and an ability to draw walks (or an inability) also is reflected in a player's hit grade. As the pro scout put it, he puts his thumb on the scale. If a hitter is a potential .280 hitter, but one who's going to draw a lot of walks and not strike out a lot, he'll bump the grade up to make him a 55 or 60 hitter. If it's a .280 hitter who will post a ferociously awful strikeout-to-walk ratio, he might turn him in as a 45 hitter.

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

There’s not as much difference between the two stats as you might believe, either. Seven of the top 10 hitters in the American League in batting average last year also made the Top 10 list for on-base percentage. The same was true for the National League. Looking at the first four years of this decade, 12 hitters made the top 20 for both batting average and on-base percentage. Usually the 70 and 80 hitters are guys who also get on base a lot. Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto grade out highly whether you’re using batting average or on-base percentage as the guide.

It's also worth noting that when a scout turns in a report on a player, the grades are only part of the report. A players' strike zone awareness and pitch recognition ability are part of the writeup as is a description of the hitters' swing and approach.

A similar complaint could be made about the speed tool. Traditionally, players’ speed grade is based on either his home to first time or his 60-yard dash time. That is a concrete time to base a grade around, but it doesn't really allow much leeway to account for instincts, understanding of how to get a lead, reading pitchers and basestealing ability. Since it's a tool grade and not a skill grade, there is some logic to that point, but baserunning experts say that it's harder to teach those skills than one might believe. Again, the writeup and possibly a thumb on the scale has to account for the differences between a speedster with no clue of how to steal a bag and a slower runner but one with impeccable abilities on the basepaths.

Should the scale be updated to reflect on-base percentage instead of batting average? Possibly. But it doesn’t make as much of a difference as you might have thought.