Image credit: Elly De La Cruz (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
When it comes to evaluating players’ scouting tools grades, an 80 is the holy grail.
An 80-grade tool represents the best of the best on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. Some evaluators consider only one player’s tool to be an 80 at a given time, simply because only one can be the best.
When you think of 80 tools, think of Tony Gwynn’s hitting ability, Mark McGwire’s power, Rickey Henderson’s speed, Ozzie Smith’s defense, Randy Johnson’s fastball and Mariano Rivera’s cutter. They are the tools that stand among the greatest individual attributes of all time and are remembered long after the players’ careers are over.
While 80 tools are rare, they are not contained solely to the past. As players have gotten bigger, stronger, faster and more explosive with advances in nutrition, technology and player development, myriad players with 80-grade tools have emerged in MLB in recent years.
Here are the 80-grade tools in the game today, with comments from top players about what makes those tools so elite.
All statistics are through Sept. 6.
Luis Arraez, 2B, Marlins
Arraez was already a batting champion and arguably the game’s best pure hitter entering this season. What he’s done in 2023 has elevated him to another tier.
Arraez was hitting .401 after play on June 24, though after that point he cooled in his pursuit of the first .400 season since Ted Williams in 1941. Still, he entered Thursday batting .355. No player has topped .350 in a season since Josh Hamilton in 2010.
Just 27 players have hit at least .350 in a 162-game season since the 1994 strike, a list headlined by such hitting luminaries as Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Chipper Jones, Ichiro Suzuki and Larry Walker. At his current pace, Arraez is set to join them.
“He hits everything,” Braves catcher Sean Murphy said. “It’s not like there’s a hole in the swing. He doesn’t really leave the zone, and when he does, he can still hit it. He’s just tough.
“Going into games, you know it’s gonna be hard to hold him for an oh-fer . . . He’s inevitably going to probably get his knocks. His hands are so good he can get just about everyone.”
With his short, sweet lefthanded stroke and exceptional batting eye, Arraez simply has no weaknesses for pitchers to exploit. He’s hitting at least .350 against fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He’s hitting over .300 against pitches in seven of the nine sectors of the strike zone. He’s even batting over .300 against pitches in two of the four quadrants outside of the zone.
Arraez has the highest contact rate in the majors, the lowest strikeout rate and the highest batting average in the game among qualified hitters by 20 points.
“I mean, we always talk about my eyes, but I think his eyes are way better,” Padres outfielder Juan Soto said. “Because the way he’s just seeing (the ball) and making contact, it’s incredible.”
Next Best: Freddie Freeman, 1B, Dodgers
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
Shohei Ohtani, DH, Angels
When it comes to power, Judge and Ohtani stand alone.
Judge hit an American League-record 62 home runs last season and has the most home runs of any player in the majors since his rookie season in 2017. He once again led the AL in home runs and slugging percentage this year before he tore a ligament in his right toe crashing into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium on June 3.
At 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, Judge’s sheer strength sets him apart. His 97.4 mph average exit velocity this year is the highest ever recorded since Statcast began tracking the metric in 2015.
“I’m pretty sure Judge has clipped me twice in the last two years and I think they were both opposite way,” Rays lefthander Shane McClanahan said. “It’s like, man, why are you so strong? Why do you have to do that to me?”
Ohtani is the only player whose power rivals Judge’s. The two-way sensation leads the American League with 44 home runs and leads the majors with a .654 slugging percentage entering Thursday. He has hit 47 home runs of at least 425 feet since the start of the 2021 season, most in the majors.
What separates Ohtani is his power to all fields. Eighteen of his 44 home runs this season had landed between the left-field foul pole and straight away center field, including six of 440 feet or farther. He showcased his unparalleled opposite-field power during a four-game series in Texas in June, when he hit three home runs the opposite way into the second deck at Globe Life Park.
“He came in and went upper deck in our stadium opposite field and you just don’t see that,” Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien said. “The exit velocity and the angle that he’s hitting it at is top in the game. I played with guys like Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) who I thought was the most impressive.
“Then I saw what Shohei did. He’s definitely doing the best you can possibly do right now with the power tool.”
Next Best: Yordan Alvarez, OF, Astros; Matt Olson, 1B, Braves; Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets
Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds
The game is filled with athletic flyers, including Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., D-backs outfielder Corbin Carroll and Phillies shortstop Trea Turner, but De La Cruz is the fastest of them all.
The Reds rookie has the fastest sprint speed in the majors this year at 30.5 feet per second, just ahead of both Witt and Turner. Beyond just his pure speed, he effectively uses it to change games and is a true 80 runner.
The 6-foot-5 Dominican shortstop closes ground remarkably quickly with his long strides and combines his speed with elite instincts to achieve jaw-dropping feats on the basepaths. His signature moment came July 8 against the Brewers when he stole second base, third base and home in a span of two pitches. Earlier this week against the Mariners, he manufactured a walkoff win with his legs by beating out an infield single, stealing second and racing home with the winning run on a shallow single to right field.
“He’s electric, man,” said Nationals righthander Josiah Gray. “I think what he brings to the game is something we only see in a few guys.”
De La Cruz is 25-for-32 on stolen bases, owns three of the four fastest home-to-third times on triples and also owns three of the four fastest home-to-second times on doubles this season.
Simply put, once he gets underway, De La Cruz outpaces all others.
“It definitely makes your job a little bit tougher,” Gray said. “You have to utilize the pitch clock or your disengagements to try and slow him down a bit, keep his feet stuck in the dirt.”
Next Best: Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals; Trea Turner, SS, Phillies; Corbin Carroll, OF, D-backs.
Kevin Kiermaier OF, Blue Jays
Kiermaier has been the standard-bearer for defense in center field since he took over the position full-time for the Rays in 2015. Even at 33 years old and coming off hip surgery last year, he remains a premium defender.
Kiermaier is a top-flight runner elite at running balls down in the gaps to both his left and his right. He gets the best jumps in baseball by any measure and is a threat to make a highlight-reel catch on any given night. He introduced himself to the Toronto faithful in grand fashion on April 11 when he made a leaping catch at the wall in center field to rob a home run in his first home game as a Blue Jay.
“I think his jumps and his first step are about as elite as it can get,” Blue Jays right fielder George Springer said. “He covers so much ground and he does it from almost, like, a standstill. He’s very good at anticipating where the ball is being hit and the next thing you know, he’s just there. It’s impressive.”
With his continued defensive excellence, Kiermaier has joined the pantheon of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time. While he has won just three Gold Gloves, Kiermaier has placed top three in his league a total of seven times for Best Defensive Outfielder in Best Tools balloting. Among center fielders, only Ken Griffey Jr. (11), Andruw Jones (10), Torii Hunter (nine), Jim Edmonds (nine) and Devon White (seven) have more top-three finishes.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is,” Springer said. “I know a lot of people talk about how good he is, but being next to him now, it’s really impressive to see how truly good he is.”
Next Best: Dansby Swanson, SS, Cubs; Ha-Seong Kim, 2B/SS, Padres
Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds
Ronald Acuña, Jr., OF, Braves
Fernando Tatis Jr., OF, Padres
De La Cruz has the strongest arm of any infielder in the game with room to spare. He set the record for the fastest infield assist ever recorded by Statcast when he unleashed a 99.8 mph relay throw to nab the Giants’ Wilmer Flores at the plate on July 20. That broke his own record he had set four days earlier, when he threw a ball 97.9 mph across the diamond from third to first base.
In just his first 79 games, De La Cruz set a record with eight infield assists of at least 95 mph, the most of any player in the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015. Equally as impressive is how he harnesses that power—De La Cruz has committed only three throwing errors this season.
In terms of outfield arms, Acuña and Tatis combine strength and accuracy to a degree that is the best in the game.
In his first full season as an outfielder, Tatis has recorded 11 outfield assists, third-most in the National League. That includes a 100 mph one-hopper to the plate to nail Carlos Correa on May 10, a perfect 99.5 mph one-hopper to the plate to throw out Manuel Margot on June 18 and a throw nearly 300 feet in the air to get Vinnie Pasquantino at third base on May 16. He combines that arm strength with exceptional accuracy.
“It’s funny to me that guys still test his arm,” Padres closer Josh Hader said. “It’s one of the strongest arms I’ve seen from the outfield. And also the accuracy as well . . . it’s perfect. It’s on a line, short hop or even a perfect throw that’s incredibly hard.
“He knows when he needs to short-hop it to the catcher (and) when he needs to throw on a line.”
Acuña’s pure arm strength is even more prodigious. The Braves outfielder set the record for fastest throw ever recorded by Statcast last year when he unleashed a 105.8 mph throw to the plate against the Phillies. He once again had the hardest throw in the majors this season at 104.1 mph until the Rockies’ Brenton Doyle bested the mark earlier this week. While Acuña is slightly less accurate and more error-prone than Tatis, his pure arm strength is virtually unmatched.
“He made a throw in Philly where he caught the ball on like the warning track and you figured he wasn’t even going to try,” Murphy said. “But he let it go . . . and then the play was surprisingly close at home. We didn’t get him, but it was almost one of those like, ‘I can’t believe he tried and made it close.’ ”
Next Best: Casey Schmitt, SS/3B, Giants; Nolan Jones, OF, Rockies; Brenton Doyle, OF, Rockies
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees
In the age of power pitching, Cole’s combination of velocity, movement and command give him the best fastball of any starter in the game.
Cole’s four-seam fastball sits 96-97 mph, touches 100 and plays up with high spin rates and late life through the strike zone. Notably, he has dialed his fastball down about 1 mph this year to improve his command. The result has been fewer fastballs left over the heart of the plate, more on the edges of the strike zone and a .210 opponent average against his four-seam fastball—his best mark since 2019.
“He has good command with it,” Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker said. “It makes it a little tougher facing 98 when he can kind of put it wherever he wants. So I think that kind of makes it one of the tougher ones.”
One underrated aspect of Cole’s fastball is the deception he generates. While he doesn’t have a deceptive delivery in the traditional sense, the smoothness and ease with which he operates helps his fastball jump on hitters faster than they expect and play up even more.
“It’s effortless,” Blue Jays second baseman Whit Merrifield said. “When a guy’s effortless like that, you feel like you see it and then you go to swing and it’s on you. So there’s a little deception with that and with that extra life that he’s got. Once you see it, you kind of get a better feel for it over and over again, but it’s still never easy.”
Next Best: Luis Castillo, RHP, Mariners; Zack Wheeler, RHP, Phillies; Felix Bautista, RHP, Orioles
Charlie Morton, RHP, Braves
Blake Snell, LHP, Padres
Morton’s “Uncle Charlie” has long been the curveball standard and remains so today. The 39-year-old righthander’s curveball combines power, tight spin, depth and sharp horizontal break to form a hellacious offering batters struggle with even when they’re looking for it.
Beyond the pure pitch qualities, Morton commands his curveball exceptionally well to make it a true 80-grade offering. He effectively locates it to both sides of the plate, can expand the zone with it to get chase swings and rarely leaves it in a spot where he can get hurt in the fat part of the strike zone.
Batters have hit just .181 and slugged .267 in at-bats ending with a Morton curveball this year. As impressive as those marks are, the longevity of Morton’s success with his curveball makes it stand out even more. Morton has held opposing hitters to a sub-.190 average against his curveball in every full, 162-game season since 2012.
The other curveball that has an argument to be an 80-grade pitch belongs to Padres lefthander Blake Snell. With a big, bending arc and powerful, late snap, Snell’s curveball is nearly impossible to hit when he throws it in the zone. Batters are hitting a miniscule .085 against Snell’s curveball this season and have whiffed on it 55% of the time they’ve swung. Where Morton arguably gets the edge is in his command of the pitch. Morton throws his curveball for a strike 63% of the time, while Snell throws his curveball for a strike just 55% of the time.
Next Best: Framber Valdez, LHP, Astros; Max Fried, LHP, Braves
None grades as an 80
As teams have emphasized a north-south plan of attack, i.e. four-seam fastball up, curveball down, fewer starting pitchers are throwing sliders than in years past. While there are certainly swing-and-miss sliders in the modern game, none meets the threshold of an 80-grade pitch.
Ohtani, Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw, White Sox righthander Dylan Cease and Rangers righthander Jon Gray throw the best sliders among starters in today’s game. All are out pitches that confound hitters, but none rise to the same level of dominance as Cole’s fastball or Morton’s curveball.
Rangers righthander Jacob deGrom arguably had an 80-grade slider at his peak, but he has struggled to stay healthy and his slider has not played to that level in recent years. He is out for the season after having his second Tommy John surgery.
Most of the best sliders in the game belong to relievers, led by injured Mets closer Edwin Diaz, Reds closer Alexis Diaz, Mariners reliever Matt Brash, Rangers closer Will Smith and White Sox reliever Gregory Santos.
Alexis Diaz’s slider comes closest to rising to the level of an 80-grade offering, but it still falls a tick short by historical standards.
Devin Williams, RHP, Brewers
Williams’ career 1.96 ERA is the second-lowest of any player since he debuted in 2019. The primary driver of his success is his “Airbender” changeup.
Williams’ changeup parachutes in on hitters at 82-84 mph before cutting hard to his arm side at the last minute. The combination of its late drop and arm-side movement leaves batters swinging over it again and again, even when they know it’s coming.
“I mean, he’s throwing a lefthanded slider,” said Hader, Williams’ former teammate in Milwaukee. “To be able to do that from the right side is unbelievable.”
The bad news for hitters is Williams’ changeup keeps getting better. Opponents are batting .109 with a .210 slugging percentage in at-bats ending with a Williams changeup this season, the lowest marks of his career aside from the shortened 2020 season.
“I would say what’s changed is my command of it,” Williams said. “. . . That’s what I’ve tried to improve on. My walk numbers have been up a little bit this year, but I still feel like I don’t really make too many mistakes with (my changeup) in terms of leaving out over the plate. I think that’s how it’s gotten better over the last few years.”
Next Best: Shane McClanahan, LHP, Rays; Logan Webb, RHP, Giants
George Kirby, RHP, Mariners
Kirby’s pinpoint control has been his hallmark since his college days at Elon, when he walked six batters in 14 starts as a junior in 2019.
After flashing exceptional control as a rookie in 2022, Kirby has taken it up another notch this season.
Kirby had just 14 walks in 26 starts this season and a minuscule 2.2% walk rate. That is the fourth-lowest walk rate of any qualified starting pitcher since 2000, and he leads the majors with a 71% strike percentage.
Kirby’s success starts with his 80-grade fastball control and goes from there. He also has some of the best curveball control in the game—his strike percentage with his curveball is even higher than Morton’s—and he lands his slider for a strike at an exceptionally high rate, too.
It’s not just control, but command. Kirby locates all of his pitches on the edges of the zone with remarkable precision, especially his fastball. After sitting in the low 90s in college, he has increased his fastball velocity to 95-99 mph as a pro without any loss of command. That makes Kirby the rare power pitcher who can spot his stuff at will in any part of the strike zone with the combination of velocity, location and movement to stymie hitters.
Next Best: Zach Eflin, RHP, Rays; Logan Webb, RHP, Giants