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Beginner’s Guide to Scouting: Pitchers

This series won’t help you land a job with an organization, but it will help you sound smart in front of your friends

Pittsburgh Pirates v Tampa Bay Devil Rays
really you could just make one of these out of a cereal box and a cat food lid if you wanna look official
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

If you follow spring training closely, you will probably see a good many players you haven’t seen before. A lot of these guys will be MLB veterans hoping to catch on with one final team, and some of them will be high-minors guys you probably recognize by name. But there’s a good chance—especially as players depart for their respective WBC teams—that some of them will be guys you had no clue were in the organization, especially if you attend spring training and find yourself on the back fields. So we at LL have put together a quick-and-dirty scouting guide for you to start picking out your favorite new prospects, so you can tell everyone you knew they were going to be a star way back when, you baseball hipster, you. First up in the series is pitchers, because they’re my favorite and it’s my series, Carol.

First Impressions: Physical Appearance

You can start scouting a pitcher before he even steps on the mound. Taller pitchers are prized because the angle they throw from is thought to be more challenging for hitters, and although this is an idea that’s been disputed, it’s still prevalent in scouting. Even more important than height alone is the frame of the body—a super-skinny pitcher might wear down more quickly or have more injury concerns, so you’re looking for a body frame that can hold weight and mass, even if the player has more bulking up to do. Here’s a good example, of Taijuan Walker way back in high school:

High school Tai isn’t as big and strong as the version we saw in the majors, but you can see how he would grow into that with his long, lean frame, broad shoulders, and overall musculature. (Also, hahahaha holy potatoes, imagine looking like this in high school. I was basically a mushroom spore with eyes in high school.) Another thing you can scout before a prospect even throws a pitch: handedness. Lefties are prized like the special snowflakes we are, because they are both more rare (meaning batters don’t get as much practice against left-handed pitching) and possess an advantage in that their fastballs will naturally show arm-side movement, meaning their pitches will typically cut in on lefties but run away from righties. Even a mediocre lefty pitcher can usually stick in the majors as a LOOGY, especially if he doesn’t have disastrous platoon splits. Tall lefty pitchers are my most coveted baseball item. If you see one in the wild, put him in a box and mail him to Safeco, please and thank you.

Special Delivery

Eyeballing up a kid can only tell you so much, and also make you feel vaguely skeezy, so the next thing to watch is the pitcher’s motion. The key word to remember when evaluating pitchers is consistency. When evaluating a pitcher’s motion, you’re looking for one continuous fluid movement from the wind (when they start moving) to the delivery. The hand should move smoothly and naturally from the break (when the hand moves away from the glove) to the arm extension; if your reaction is “wow, that looks like it hurts,” that’s not a great sign. The delivery should look easy and repeatable, like the pitcher could do this all day, every day, in exactly the same way. The arm slot and release point should be generally the same, no matter what pitch is being thrown. Pay attention to the tempo at which a pitcher works; Andrew Moore prefers a quick tempo, for example, while Iwakuma likes to work slowly and methodically. One isn’t necessarily better than the other (although I’m sure Rob Manfred is physically pained every time he watches an Iwakuma start), but whatever their approach, it should be consistent, even with runners on base.

Speaking of Iwakuma, he’s a great example to use of a repeatable, fluid delivery that also shows incredible balance. Here’s Iwakuma back in 2012:

And here he is delivering the last pitch of his no-hitter.

If you can get those gifs to line up together, it’s amazing how easily you could lay one right on top of the other with no major difference. Same leg kick (although the double hitch is more evident in 2015, but it’s been a consistent feature of his delivery), same plant and follow through, same arm slot, same landing position. For the 2400 innings-plus he’s pitched in his professional career, Iwakuma has looked mostly the same.

The Right Stuff

Unless you’re sitting behind home plate with a radar gun and know each individual pitcher’s repertoire, it’s pretty hard to scout pitches. Even trained scouts can have trouble picking out a slider from a cutter in live pitching. A better approach is to watch the reactions of those on the receiving end of the pitch: the catcher and the hitter. Watch the catcher to see if the pitcher is hitting his spots consistently. If a catcher is having to jump out of his crouch all the time or make last-minute adjustments to receive the ball, that’s a sign that a pitcher is struggling with control or command or both. Control is the ability to put the ball in the zone; command is the ability to hit the catcher’s target. The latter is more rare in developing pitchers, and can vary from pitch to pitch. However, if you’re watching an exhibition or spring training game rather than a regular-season game, chances are good you’re seeing pitcher-catcher combos that don’t have a lot of experience in working together. Therefore, it is also necessary to watch the batters carefully to see if there are any patterns you notice in how hitters react to what the pitcher is trying to do. Is the batter clearly guessing at pitch selection and location? Is there a steady stream of batters walking away from the box looking bewildered? What kind of contact are they able to make off the pitches? Who seems to have the upper hand in each at-bat? You could keep a running tally to see who “won” the at-bat, regardless of outcome. A deep flyout may be an out but also signals a batter who is making good contact. A squib hit that trickles into the outfield for an RBI past a player who was a catcher last week might not accurately reflect a pitcher’s performance, even if he gets that hit and run tacked on to his line. This is your chance to right the sins of BABIP! You’re not getting paid for this; you are the ruler of your own notes, and you may punish or pardon as you see fit. Tracking number of pitches thrown and the ball/strike breakdown can also help you get a good idea of how efficient a pitcher is (a lower pitch count is usually a sign of good command).

Depending on the level, you’re looking for a pitcher to have at least two good pitches. The most important thing is fastball quality, since the fastball is what sets up all other offerings. Velocity is great, but velocity without command or control makes for a pretty one-dimensional pitcher. Generally scouts will prefer someone who can throw with good velocity, thinking command is easier to teach than velocity, which is considered an inborn trait. All other things being equal, a pitcher who can get the ball in the zone in the mid-90s, even with poor command, is usually considered a better prospect than one who throws in the high-80s with good command.

For an example, here’s a young James Pazos at the Class-A Short Season All-Star Game. You can see how often he misses his spots (jump ahead to about 1:22 in the video to really see this), forcing the catcher to reach across his body, but the velocity is there and he’s mostly in the zone. You can see why the Yankees took a chance on drafting him, and why the Mariners think they can help him take that extra step to be a successful MLB-pitcher.

The Intangibles

“Pitchability” is a nebulous word but basically means “baseball IQ.” A player with good pitchability is able to make choices with his pitch selection to get good players out, work out of tough jams, and remain ahead in the count, dictating the progression of the at-bat. Pay attention to a pitcher’s sequencing. Does he vary his offerings, or does he lean too hard on one particular pitch? Pitchability goes beyond the mound, as well (and is often called “makeup”). Watch a pitcher between innings. If he’s being coached up by someone in the dugout, what is his body language like? Is he making adjustments inning-to-inning? How does he rebound from a poor inning? A player who’s ruffled easily in A-ball might melt down in more challenging situations.

Real scouts have to be dispassionate in their evaluations because it’s a job they’re paid to do and they need to be right. As a fan, you have the luxury of choosing favorites based on your gut sense of who you like the best. It’s a little like adopting a pet, but without any messes to clean, and you get the joy of getting in on the ground floor in case “your guy” ever blossoms into a star. So go forth and choose a new favorite pitcher, and tell us all about him in the comments.