Projecting Power Proves Puzzling
Much like grading speed, grading raw power is one of the easier parts of a scout's job. In a job that relies on the unquantifiable, it's something that can be quantified. If a righthanded hitter runs from home to first in four seconds flat, you slap an 80 grade (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) on his speed.
It's similar with raw power. If a hitter can hit a ball 450 feet in batting practice, that's 80 raw power. Some scouts even divide the stadium into quadrants and point out that a ball hit to that seat means 60 power, while the berm over there is where 80 raw power resides.
But on every scout's report, there are more important power grades: the present and future grade for the player's productive power--power that actually shows up in games. And those are some of the toughest grades for a scout to hand out.
Harder To Spot
Many scouts believe hitting is a largely innate skill: If you can hit, you can hit. Generally, the best hitters are those whose eyesight, hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition are apparent early in their careers. All of the top 10 finishers in the major league batting race last year were highly valued players from the day they stepped onto a big league diamond. Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer and so on; they are a who's who of players who had obvious above-average hitting skills when they reached the big leagues. The one exception would be Yadier Molina, who became a cornerstone of the Cardinals' lineup as a defensive star before his bat developed.
The story is much different when you turn to the top 10 home run hitters. You'll find Cabrera's name again, but he is joined by some castoffs and late developers. If it's hard to find a batting champ who wasn't always coveted, it's much easier to find home run hitters who were once afterthoughts.
Josh Willingham (35 home runs in 2012) was traded twice in deals that barely were noticed by casual baseball fans. Edwin Encarnacion (42 home runs in 2012) was once plucked off waivers.
Baseball's 2011 home run champ Jose Bautista (43 home runs in 2011) was traded or waived six times before he had his first 20-home run season in the big leagues. Dan Uggla (who has 21 home runs so far this season) strung together five consecutive 30 home runs seasons after being picked up in the Rule 5 draft.
Chris Davis, the current big league home run leader, broke into the majors as a 22-year-old in 2008. He spent the next five seasons bouncing between Triple-A and the majors before a trade to the Orioles--Davis and Tommy Hunter for middle reliever Koji Uehara--set him up for his breakout in 2012 that has carried into this season.
In almost every case, the players showed their power potential, but scouts had to determine whether it would translate into consistent production among the strikeouts and low averages that often came with it.
In his first full season, Uggla hit .214/.301/.307 with five home runs in Class A. Davis had some monster minor league seasons--and a .597 career slugging percentage in the minors--but when he hit the big leagues, he struck out in 34 percent of his at-bats with the Rangers before he was traded. The power was apparent, but it wasn't so clear if either would make enough contact to make it matter.
"A lot of power hitters get shoved to the side because they are hitting .220 in the minors. It does take longer," a pro scout with a National League organization said.
In Davis' case, he got enough chances, and made enough improvements, that his hitting eventually caught up to his power. For a great many other minor league sluggers--such as Rob Stratton, a 1996 Mets first-round pick who set an Eastern League record with 201 strikeouts in 2001--that transformation never takes place.
"The guy has to ultimately hit big league pitching," another NL pro scout said. "Rob Stratton had power for days, but between good stuff and good breaking balls, if he doesn't hit the slider he can't feed off the fastball."
Conversations with multiple scouts makes it clear that separating out the next Davis or Bautista from the next Stratton, Dallas McPherson or Brandon Wood is one of the toughest jobs in scouting.
Wood is the most recent, high-profile example. When the 2003 first-round pick was coming up through the Angels farm system, he showed plus-plus power, knocking 58 home runs between the California League, Arizona Fall League and USA Baseball in 2005--while displaying the athleticism to play on the left side of the infield. That power came with a lot of strikeouts, but that's the case with most power hitters.
Also in the Angels farm system was corner infielder/outfielder Mark Trumbo, a premium high school talent whom the Angels signed away from Southern California for $1.425 million as an 18th-round pick in 2004. While Wood was showing his power in games, Trumbo's power was apparent during batting practice but wasn't coming through consistently during games,.
Trumbo hit .220/.293/.355 with 13 homers in the low Class A Midwest League in 2006, his first full season. His best power years (32 homers in 2008, 36 in 2010) came in notorious hitter's parks at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga and Triple-A Salt Lake, with concerning strikeout totals.
"I zeroed Trumbo. In the Midwest League, he was terrible," a pro scout with an American League organization said. "When I saw him, wow, he was really bad. You never saw power in the game. It never came out because his approach was so bad."
If you asked 10 scouts at the time which of the two would end up as a 30-home run hitter in the big leagues, it's likely that all 10 would have picked Wood.
"Mark Trumbo's mom probably had Wood turned in higher," one NL pro scout said.
But somehow Wood was never able to tame his swing-and-miss tendencies, while Trumbo improved his pitch recognition, his approach and his swing, allowing his massive raw power to turn into productive power. It was a great development story, yet when you ask scouts who saw Trumbo back then what they might have missed, they are left scratching their heads. It's hard to project that a hitter will develop pitch recognition that he currently lacks.
Which Path Does Gallo Take?
Scouts are now asking the same questions about Rangers third baseman Joey Gallo, currently at low Class A Hickory in the South Atlantic League.
Gallo has the kind of power that makes coaches and scouts gasp, with elite bat speed combined with leverage in a 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame. Kannapolis manager Tommy Thompson says a home run Gallo hit was the longest he has seen in his 30 years in the game. Everyone in Asheville is still talking about a home run he hit to the parking lot beyond the right-center field fence.
"I haven't been in the game 30 years, but the 13 years or so I've been in it, I've never seen anybody who can hit the ball like he does, especially at his age," Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale said. "When we're out hitting batting practice, you see the grounds crew stopping and watching. You see the other players come out to watch. When you see the crew cleaning the seats stop and watch BP, you kind of get the realization that you don't see this on a daily basis."
Gallo's power does show up in games--he set a Rookie-level Arizona League record with 18 homers last year and had 26 this year. But he also was hitting .225 with 135 strikeouts in 311 at-bats. As one opposing manager put it, Gallo's approach in a 3-1 count and a 0-2 count are identical: He's going to swing really hard and see what happens. Pitchers know they can get him to chase pitches out of the zone if they hit their spots.
Will Gallo develop the pitch recognition to get into more counts where he can drive the ball? That's where the future gets murky. If he does, he could be a future 30-home run hitter in the big leagues. But if he doesn't, he'll likely settle into a comfortable life as a 4-A slugger. Picking his more likely path is the kind of thing that can make or break an organization.