Scouting Methodology – Eye At The Plate

One of the things I dislike about the fantasy industry – one of my many pet peeves — is the pretend sabermatrician, those that have read just enough Bill James to make them dangerous. They insist on looking at the strikeout rate and the strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB rate) for hitters and lumping all players that strikeout a great deal in one category, making a sweeping generalization that falls more than a stone throw away from accuracy. This season I’ve again been forced to endure the “eye at the plate,” comments for different players’ slow starts, most notably Jeff Francoeur.  Jose Guillen and Aramis Ramirez were labelled same in the later part of last decade, a few of the many examples that erroneously use of the term over the years.

“Eye at the plate,” is actually a reference to the ability to find the release point and recognize the pitch within the split-second time frame required for a major league hitter. If you see a guy taking a big cut at a slider far outside, then watch as a big curve fall into the middle of the plate, you may have a pitch recognition issue. However, if you witness a player swinging at his toes for pitches low and inside, and taking rips at the sky for the eye-level fastball, you probably have something called plate discipline, particularly if they’re fouling off the out- of-zone pitches. This is a completely different problem. Jose Guillen sees and identifies the pitch, he simply chooses to swing at it, following Raul Mondesi and a host of Latin players led by Vlad Guerrero in the well-known colloquialism, you don’t walk off the Island. For the record – there is less truth to the collaquialism in the majors than in the minors, and it’s not a fair representation of every Latin player by any means. But it does represent the many who initially come to pro ball without a lot of coaching and organized structure, and Latin players are over-represented in that sample group. It isn’t racist or a stretch to consider the different social settings which comprise the now International group of professional ball players,  and the largest population of those are in the minors and under the age of 26.

I abhor those that make references to the eye at the plate issue for players like Francoeur, who I’ve written on often for his raw skills and associated problems, but have never questioned his talent in this area. This term is more indicting for my academic studies reveal it’s not really teachable. The trait, necessary for major league success, is evident in the K/BB rates but it takes physical scouting to make the determination. If a player can’t recognize a pitch fast enough, there isn’t much that can be done. Experience and repetition can hone the natural ability, but not teach it.

But plate discipline can be taught, and those that suffer with the problem and yet reach the high minors with success, often have a well-tuned eye. Guerrero is the prime example, a player that likely recognizes a pitch as quickly as Tony Gwynn as it takes that spit-second advantage to get his bat on the ball outside the zone, something he’s accomplished with eerie consistency throughout his career. And it only takes a modicum of discipline for these types to eventually succeed. Use Jose Guillen’s career path as the model for this theory.

Most of you now know who Chris Shelton is but I’ve been following his career for some time. A 33rd round draft pick who destroys the low minors should get the attention of anyone who professes to have knowledge or interest in prospecting. When he was exposed in the Rule 5 draft I wrote it was a horrible move for the Bucs, and you should also note that two of the Latin players mentioned, Guillen and Ramirez, were also Pirates prospects. I’ll let you draw your own inferences on the organization, as there are three phases to this element of the business, scouting, development and management. The Pirates obviously did one of them well through this time period.

Now that you’ve all seen Shelton, can anyone aptly compare his athleticism to the likes of Barry Bonds? Shelton is a combination of discipline and eye, and looking at the two physical specimens I’d guess a comparison at the same age would have the young Tiger picking up the pitch a fraction quicker than Bonds but reacting to it slightly slower. If you look at both of them as 25-year-old’s could anyone not believe Barry would have better reaction time? The eye issue is the great equalizer, the reason a rotund aging player like Gwynn could lead the league in batting average a few years back, hitting over a younger physical specimen like Gabe Kapler by a 100-plus points.

I never question the eye without a full analysis for it’s not something to treat lightly. I’ve made it for Xavier Nady, whose career has always better early in the season before the pitchers get their breaking stuff working at 100 percent and before advance scouting starts to pay dividends. He returns to the minors — fastball leagues – and destroys them, only to come back again and eventually struggle. If you take a hard look at the numbers in this analysis, you’ll see he’s very close but routinely fails this one issue despite the physical tools and power potential that should have him a top player. As mentioned here, I see the same issue in Brad Eldred and don’t think he’ll ever reach the heights many of you envision.
There’s thousands of words on this topic as to why and whom, the issue of genetics, but for another time. Does anyone hold a superior theory?
Dan Quon

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