How Do Scouts Evaluate Raw Power Given Triple-A, MLB Baseballs?
The announcement prior to the season seemed almost innocuous: Triple-A planned to use the same baseballs used in the major leagues. The element of uniformity, the thinking went, would eliminate the need for pitchers to adjust to new baseballs on the fly once they got to the majors.
That small change has led to the biggest minor league storyline of 2019.
Baseballs are flying out of Triple-A parks at unprecedented rates and have given hitters of all shapes and sizes the ability to hit balls harder and farther than ever before.
Padres second baseman Luis Urias, for example, entered the season as an excellent prospect but had hit just 16 home runs in 467 minor league games. He hit his 17th home run this season in his 55th game with Triple-A El Paso.
Urias’ output was hardly an outlier. As a whole, his El Paso team through July 16 had already slugged 196 home runs, more than all but one team hit during the 2018 season. The Pacific Coast League as a whole had racked up 2,222 home runs through July 5. That total was 125 more than the league’s output for all of 2018.
The International League wasn’t immune, either. Through July 16, the IL had clubbed 1,688 home runs, besting its 2018 total by 133.
All that extra power provides fun for fans, but also presents scouts with a quandary: How does one calculate and evaluate raw power for players at Double-A and below when you know that they will instantly get a boost simply by playing with the new baseballs?
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” one scout said. “I think we almost have to see all the data from this year and then decide if we have to make adjustments or give guys a half-grade boost. I always acknowledge when I’m writing some of these guys up at the lower levels that it’s different baseballs now.”
Part of the equation is simply looking at the quality of contact. Yes, there are mis-hit or weakly hit balls that are leaving parks now, but there are still plenty of hitters out there who consistently hit the ball very hard. So perhaps the first part of the puzzle can be deciphered by watching to see who’s punishing the ball and who may be lofting fly balls with a little more carry than usual.
“(A prospect’s) power doesn’t change to me whether it’s in Greensboro or it’s in Indianapolis,” a second scout said, referring to a pair of Pirates affiliates that are, respectively, notoriously hitter-friendly and pitcher-friendly. “It doesn’t change, regardless of the park, to me. For me, it comes down to the impact off the bat. Is he hitting balls like they’re shot out of a cannon or is he hitting balls that are barely going out of the ballpark?”
Take White Sox Double-A second baseman Nick Madrigal as an example. Like Urias, he’s never been known for his power, but he’s always had a knack for finding the barrel. His exit velocity numbers don’t jump off the page, but he makes hard enough contact to shoot balls to the gaps and let his speed take over.
Once Madrigal reaches Triple-A, he’s in line for a power boost. Not only will he be hitting the new baseball, but he will be playing his home games at the hitter’s haven that is Charlotte’s BB&T Field.
Charlotte’s park this year had seen 3.6 home runs per game, which is second only to Las Vegas among Triple-A teams. Knights road games see an average of 2.2 home runs per contest.
Merely finding the barrel at Triple-A should allow Madrigal to tap into unprecedented power. He’ll face better pitchers and a more hitter-friendly environment in the big leagues, but he still gets the benefit of the new baseballs. Negotiating all of those variables makes calculating Madrigal’s eventual big league power output especially tricky.
For the first scout, it once again comes down to monitoring the quality of contact and using the instincts he’s honed over his career.
“As long as the guy’s a good hitter, I think that gives (scouts) hope that if he gets to Triple-A and the big leagues, there’s going to be an extra grade of game power and raw power,” the scout said. “That’s why when you look at Madrigal or someone like that, ‘OK, yeah, right now he might be a 25-30 game power guy (on the 20-80 scouting scale), but he’s a good hitter who finds the barrel. He’s going to end up hitting 8-10 home runs in the big leagues.’ ”
The next question is: Are the new baseballs here to stay? If they can be manipulated to increase the power output, they can certainly be recalibrated to bring home runs down to previously normal levels. If baseball doesn’t make that change, and the new baseballs are the new normal, then scouting departments might have to consider changing the way they grade raw power.
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The pitcher-velocity boom of the last few years has caused some departments to reevaluate the definition of an average major league fastball, and the new baseballs might mean they have to rethink what an average big league power output looks like, too.
“I guess it’s just a matter of re-figuring out what average is and what that means,” Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll said.
“Scouts and different guys have been doing it for a while, just comparing the PCL and the International League, and now that cranks up even further with the power production we’re currently seeing. I think it’s just another recalibration.
“Again, you have to remember that if everyone’s receiving that boost, then you’re always trying to compare that to average and ultimately value-determine relative to your peers,” Zoll continued. “That’s the biggest thing we’re trying to figure out, and I’m not sure if we’re at the point of figuring out which types of players are going to benefit more or less from those adjustments, but they’re definitely good things to be thinking about.”
If the definition of average power changes, the next question becomes: Will hitters at all levels feel pressure to sell out more often to reach the new, higher standard?
That is, will the new baseballs encourage players whose skill sets are geared toward line drives to try to join the launch angle revolution? One scout has already seen it trending that way.
“You see guys who are selling out for power in Rookie ball, and instead of flaming out in Double-A or Triple-A, they’re going to flame out in the Rookie leagues,” the second scout said. “It’s a different style of game almost, and I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing—I don’t know what everybody wants to watch.
“With the power increase, we’ve also seen an increase of power swings all the way down to the lower minors.”
Through July 17, full-season minor league batters had struck out 6 percent more often than they had hit safely. In 2018, batters hit safely 3 percent more often than they whiffed.
This is only the first year of the major league ball being used in Triple-A and the results are already too loud to ignore. It’s clear that scouts will have to adjust to the new power output, but the industry hasn’t found a simple solution.
In fact, there might not be one out there.
“I haven’t made an adjustment,” a third scout said. “You go to Triple-A and you say, ‘Well, I thought he was going to end up with 60 (raw), and now he’s got 70 raw power’ . . . I still don’t know how to account for it.”