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Grading Rays Major League Player Tools

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Why do we only grade prospects? Here’s what major league grades might look like

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

If you follow minor league prospects, you know that scouting reports like to “grade” their skills, using a numerical scale where 20 is the worst, 50 is average, and 80 is the absolute best.

As I watched the Rays face the Astros in the playoffs, I thought it could be interesting to apply the same grading scale to the guys who were already up in The Show. Using that minor league 20-80 prospect grading scale, our own Ian Malinowski slapped some near-elite 70s on Gerrit Cole’s fastball and slider as we watched the probable Cy Young carve through the Rays lineup.

As a way of better appreciating major league talent, I’m starting a project in which I will apply grades to Rays major leaguers, and then compare these grades to the results they are getting now as well as their projections as they were coming up through the minors. To carry this out I will compare advanced statistics to league averages for the major league grades, while referring back to previous scouting reports for their old minor league grades. Below is a more detailed breakdown of how I will grade major league tools.

Pitcher Grades

Pitchers will be graded on their individual pitches, and their overall command. The aggregate of these grades are combined with a projection of the pitcher being a starter or reliever in the long run, and that produces a combined total grade.

Primary Pitch- The primary pitch tool usually refers to the pitcher’s fastball, whatever variety that may be. The components here that usually matter most are velocity and movement, while extremes in deception and release point can sometimes move the needle as well. Deception is the only factor here that can’t be measured with publicly available statistics.

Example: Jose Alvarado’s fastball was the 9th fastest in baseball at 98.0 mph (610 qualifiers, min. 250 pitches), but the movement was right around league average. With elite velocity and average movement, this pitch at a quick glace would probably grade in the 65-70 range.

Secondaries - Similar to the primary pitch, velocity and movement are important, while the ability to consistently command a similar shape (movement profile) becomes more prevalent in the bendy stuff.

Example: Tyler Glasnow’s curveball is thrown in the 83-84 mph range, and gets 6” more drop than the average curveball in that velo range. These are both elite measurements, and you just don’t see that combination very often. In that regard, an elite pitch gets an elite grade. Easy 80.

Command - The command tool projects how well the pitcher commands the strike zone with his pitches. That is, ability to throw not just strikes, but competitive strikes on the edges with all pitches. Walk rate is one way of measuring the ultimate outcome of command, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes giving up a walk on a 3-2 pitch is better than a home run. A “competitive pitch” metric would be nice to have, but there are in/out of zone rates and swing rates that can be used to make a decent enough assessment of command.

Example: Ryan Yarbrough walked 1.27 batters per 9 innings, a miniscule 3.6% of his plate appearances. That is incredible, but does it mean he can put any pitch on a dime, or maybe he just aims for the middle of the strike zone more than most? More digging is needed there.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Total Grade - The aggregate of these tools will compile into a total grade somewhere on the 20-80 scale, where 50 is an average major leaguer. Pitchers typically need at least one above-average pitch to be even just an average pitcher in the bigs, so this grade will often be lower than a simple average of the tools. For example, a pitcher with only 2 pitches that are each 50 grade is probably going to be worse than a 50 in the majors.

Hitter Grades

Hitters are graded on their ability to hit, field, and run. Hitting is broken down into hit, raw power, and game power, while fielding is broken down into glove and arm.

Hit - The hit tool projects how well the player commands the strike zone, and ultimately gets on base from contact and walks. For the major league tool, I’ll use expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). This considers quality of contact, strikeout rate, and walk rate. I’ll take that information and compare it to league averages to compute the Hit grade.

Example: Austin Meadows had a .370 xwOBA in 2019, which was 33rd best among 451 qualified batters. Being in the 88th percentile for hitters in this metrics, I’d probably rate this in the 70 grade range. That lines up with the .291 batting average and .364 on-base percentage he posted in 2019 as well.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Raw Power - The raw power tool projects how hard and far the player can hit the ball. This is one of the easier tools to measure now with exit velocity (EV) numbers publicly available. I’ll cite both average EV and max EV vs league averages to grade a hitter’s raw power.

Example: I’ve been picking all the truly excellent tools for examples so far, so let’s reel it back in a little. Ji-Man Choi’s max EV checked in at 110.1 mph in 2019, which is smack in the middle between the low end of 100 and high end of 120. His average EV of 91.1 mph was higher on the leaderboard, coming in at 51st best of 478 qualified hitters. For average EVs, 95 is about as good as it gets (Judge, Sano), 80 is the worst (Billy Hamilton, Victor Robles), and 87.5 is average. Mix these together and Choi’s raw power comes in around the 60 grade range.

(Researching Choi’s power revealed this fun fact: Tyler Glasnow hit the 2nd softest ball in 2019 at 35.2 mph. It traveled a whopping 4 feet.)

Game Power - The game power tool projects how often a player can take advantage of that raw power. Strikeout rate tells us how often the player puts the ball in play, while launch angle tells us if the player is getting enough loft on the balls to send it into extra-base territory.

Example: Kevin Kiermaier’s batted balls averaged 145 feet, which is 434th of 478 qualified hitters. This is mostly due to his low average launch angle of 6.7 degrees (groundballs galore), where 11.2 is MLB average and the 20-30 range is where most home runs are hit. Though he did hit 14 HR in 480 PA in 2019, his above average ISO of .170 is more due to his speed enabling him to leg out doubles and triples. His strikeout rate has hovered in the average range, so that doesn’t move the needle much. Overall, the launch angle limits KK to a still-good 50 grade in game power. Luckily for him, LA is something that can be tweaked (hello Yandy Diaz). There is upside here.

Glove - The glove tool measures how well a player defends his position. We can use Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for the infield, and add on Outs Above Average (OOA) for outfielders. I will be grading players based on their performance at their specific primary position, not on overall athletic ability. Meaning, a 60 grade 1B is not the same as a 60 grade SS.

Example: Kiermaier would be the fun example here, but I already used him. Let’s take a look at Tommy Pham in Left Field. According to FanGraphs, he was +1 DRS and +0.4 UZR in 1093 innings. That’s basically an average LFer. Well, OOA does not agree. Statcast has him in just the 3rd percentile of all OFers by OOA. They break down performance by zones, and it looks like his issue is with coming in on balls that are shallow hit. So two systems give him 50 grades, and one gives him a 20 grade. We’ll call that a 40 grade LFer for 2019.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Throw - The throw tool is used to grade how strong and accurate a player’s throws are. Outfielders and catchers have their throws measured by DRS, UZR, and Statcast, but infielders do not. Infielders will have to be measured by throwing errors, position played, and some “eye test”.

Example: Going with a catcher here, just because there is more publicly available information to measure at their position. Statcast rates Mike Zunino’s pop time (the time between the ball hitting his mitt and the ball reaching the fielder at 2B) as 1.97 seconds. The best in baseball in 2019 was J.T. Realmuto at 1.88, and the worst was Stephen Vogt at 2.14. Zunino is 17th fastest of 78 qualifiers, coming in around the 73rd percentile. That’s good for a 60 grade Throw tool.

Speed - The speed tool measures how fast a player runs. The Statcast sprint speed leader board is perfect for this and makes for an easy, quick reference.

Example: 27 feet/second is the league average run speed. Any one full foot/second in either direction will be one full grade deviation from the average of 50, where 30 ft/s is an elite 80 and 24 f/s is a terrible 20. The Rays didn’t have anyone reach 30 f/s in 2019 (KK came close at 29.4), but they did have two players in the 20 grade range. Can you guess them? I’ll leave you hanging there.

Total Grade - The aggregate of these tools will compile into a total grade somewhere on the 20-80 scale, where 50 is an average major leaguer. Total Grades for hitters typically favor the hit and power tools a little more than the others, as that often translates into the most valuable aspects of a position player.

I’ll be crunching the numbers over the off season and posting periodic updates. If you’d like to see a particular player graded, leave a comment and let me know!