Williams: Development Dimensions

This is a continuation of a series about prospect development and evaluation. The Introduction can be found here, and Part One of the series breaks down our 20-80 grading scale.

You reach a certain level in baseball, and every field is the same size.

In high school, college, and pro ball, the breakdown is as follows:

Baseline — 90 feet
Home plate to second base — 127 feet 3 3/8 inches
Home plate to front of pitching rubber — 60 feet 6 inches
Infield arc radius — 95 feet
Home plate to backstop — 60 feet
Foul lines — 325 feet minimum to outfield fence
Center field fence— 400-plus feet
Pitching Mound Diameter 18′
Pitching Mound Height 10″

That means the moment you become a high school baseball player — standing on that infield diamond that is the same size as an MLB infield — you will start to be able to imagine your chances of actually standing on an MLB infield one day.

You might as well.

MLB scouts will be doing the same.

There are obvious differences in the game of baseball between high school and MLB. The outfield dimensions and depths can vary, and that’s even true among MLB stadiums. The altitudes and atmospheres of different cities can impact the way the ball carries on a fly. The bats change from metal to wood as you go from amateur (High school, college levels) to pro (minor leagues and MLB). The frequency of facing a good player will increase with the levels.

But the infield diamond always remains the same.

The only thing that ever changes is that circle and square around the diamond.

That drawing is the best way I can visually describe my perception of how a high school baseball player can go from high school to being an MLB 70-grade or higher player in the future, all while playing on the same size infield diamond.

A high school player will start out on the same size infield that an MLB player plays on.

He might go to college after that, or he might turn pro. Either way, he’s going to be playing on the same size infield.

If he makes it to the majors, he will still be playing on the same size infield.

The game currently groups and perceives players based on their levels. There are set standards like “It takes high school players 4-5 years to reach the majors” and in that time most of them fail.

In that drawing above, the inner square is a standard sized infield. The inner circle surrounding the field represents the amount of people who follow most high school athletes. The circle is barely larger than the field, as most people who care about them are at the games.

That’s not true for all high school athletes. Some of them start to generate attention from beyond their local area, and their market — the amount of people who follow those players — grows accordingly.

In the drawing — and I don’t think I need to disclaim that I can’t really draw — there are circles and squares surrounding the same field. The squares are the levels a player can reach, and the circles are the larger audience that care to follow the player, respective to the stadium sizes.

But, the dimensions of the field are always the same.

Most of scouting relies on tools and abilities to determine how far a player will go. My system’s focus is more on the psychological side, trying to qualify what is inside a player’s head.

When you have a group of players who all have the same Future Projection inside the same system, based on similar tools and abilities, then how do you distinguish between them?

How do two pitchers with 97 MPH fastballs, potential plus breaking pitches, and at least an average third pitch differentiate themselves from one another? How do you know which one will make it and which one will fail to develop? And, why can’t they both make it?

So the first thing you’re gonna have to do
If you decide that you’re going to be
Someone who thrives in times of hardship
And there are always those who thrive in times of hardship, aren’t there?
There are those who survive epidemics
There are those who thrive in hard times

In baseball, you can have two players with the exact same tools and abilities. The same future potential. The same perceived risk. And you’ll end up getting two different outcomes.

The “Tools” used to evaluate a baseball player are typically as follows:

Run – Evaluates a player’s speed and base running

Hit – A player’s ability to make contact

Power – How much force comes with the contact

Field – How a player moves and uses his hands on defense

Arm – How strong a player’s arm is

These are tools to evaluate position players. Each one is graded on a 20-80 scale, typically focusing the grade on future potential, rather than present day status. For pitchers, the graded tools are just their actual pitches, along with their control.

I’ve always had a problem with how general these tools are. They tell symptoms. They don’t tell the cause.

Something like “Arm” is the exception. That’s straight forward. How strong is a player’s arm? It’s a body part, and they all are built up to varying strengths, with varying accuracy levels.

Something like Hit becomes more vague. We know a player can hit when it shows up in the stats. But what body part(s) lead to hitting, and how can you spot a player who excels at making contact without seeing the stats to confirm? In this case, hand-eye coordination is huge.

Then there’s the Field tool, which is a complete disaster. You use your entire body on defense. You run, reach down, dive, leap up, throw the ball, catch the ball, and all based on split second reactions when the bat hits the ball.

Throughout all of this, there are key tools that all of us have which are completely ignored: The Senses.

Senses are all we have.

See the ball, hit the ball.

Hit the ball through the touch of your hands on the bat, applying the right amount of force and reacting quickly enough for power.

The smell and taste senses don’t have much to do during the game, other than eating flavored sunflower seeds and sniffing Jalapeno juice to make your nose run on the mound.

And then, there’s hearing.

It’s difficult to block out hearing 30,000 screaming fans while you’re trying to focus on reacting to a 97 MPH fastball that only appears to you as a blur for a split second.

Here is where I believe the most headway can be made into separating two similarly ranked players: Focus on the senses.

In other words, we want you to step back far enough
You know how when you’re in your airplane
And you’re looking across the landscape
High in the sky, 500 miles an hour, 50 thousand feet in the sky
And you look down, and it all looks pretty calm
Down there, doesn’t it
Put it on the ground at that speed, not so calm

In his first professional game, Pirates’ 2021 first overall pick Henry Davis hit a double and a home run.

And there was much rejoicing.

This came at the lowest levels of the minors, in a setting not much bigger than the largest high schools, or a small college. The amount of people in attendance were probably the same or less than a large high school or small college.

Henry Davis has the tools to be a 60-grade player in the future. He’s got the strength for power, the ability to stick behind the plate with his elite arm strength leading the defensive abilities, and the hit tool will get him to the majors.

Davis is currently playing on the same size infield as the MLB level.

He’s hitting home runs and doubles right now in front of no one.

He hasn’t played in a few months, so this could be considered akin to a rehab appearance to get him up to speed. Eventually, I expect him to move up to an A-ball level.

At that stage, he’ll be playing under the lights, which can provide a glare that distracts the eyes. He’ll be playing in front of fans, bringing a new audio dynamic to impact the senses.

It won’t be as easy as hitting in the quiet FCL during the middle of the afternoon. However, it won’t be much different from what he saw at Louisville.

Davis will go to that A-ball level with the new distractions, and he will inevitably hit a home run. He will do it against guys who have the same stuff as the pitchers in the majors. He’ll eventually move up when he needs a new challenge. As he moves up, more and more people will be following him, and more and more people will go to games to watch him. Eventually, he will enter unfamiliar territory, playing in front of more people than ever, with more people following his every move than ever.

Henry Davis is projected to be a 60-grade player, based largely on his tools in a vacuum. But do his tools play the same at an empty FCL stadium as they do in a packed, loud PNC Park?

That question isn’t specific to Davis. Even MLB players can get off their game when the senses are overloaded.

Baseball players are all human beings with human emotions. There’s stress, self-doubt, anxiety, over-stimulation, outside life factors, and many other things that can derail a player’s game, season, or career. All of those factors can change day-to-day, depending on the surrounding circumstances.

Davis specifically gets graded as a 60 Future Potential player, and that’s based on his skills, plus a loose definition of the human element that sees him as a smart player who can already handle a lot of pressure as a catcher at a major university. The assumption is that what we have seen so far will amplify as he moves up, playing on that same field size, but in front of more and more people.

Let’s look at that bad drawing I had above, only this time, let’s turn it into a bad clip art image.

This obviously isn’t done to scale, but serves as a model.

Keep in mind, I consider 80 to be the Hall of Fame level, with players who transcend the entire sport and don’t appear on this chart.

That 70-grade circle in something close to Yankee or Dodger blue contains the MLB fan base for every star player. These players are inevitably going to be playing in the biggest markets, in the biggest stadiums, and the amount of people following them becomes basically all of baseball.

The 60-grade circle represents a smaller market, though it’s a very large market. By comparison, the 30-grade circle represents the amount of people you’d expect to follow bench and bullpen guys, or top prospects currently in A-ball.

The consensus is that Henry Davis has the tools to play at the 60-grade level.

That 60-grade level comes with a lot of eyes on him. It comes with very little room for error. One horrible mental mistake on the big stage could end or at least define your time in the game, regardless of the tools or potential you have.

Just ask Will Craig…

We’re encouraging you to take flight
We’re encouraging you to ba- ba- back up from it
Get a longer view and understand it
It is not possible for things to get worse in a universe that is expanding

The most expensive thing you can purchase in this world is information.

Sometimes that is obvious, like when you commit to a lifetime of debt in exchange for a piece of paper from a college that tells perspective employers that you know things.

Other times, the expense of information doesn’t come with such an obvious receipt.

Instead, it comes with a frighteningly fast void in your stomach, and legs that turn to jelly.

The honesty that you feel when you think you can do no wrong, and then you actually do wrong in a way that you can’t recover from — that honesty can change your world.

It can end you. It can derail you. It can make you doubt yourself. It can make you doubt anything you ever did correctly in the past. It can make you lose sight.

Or, it can send you on the right path.

This game is filled with failure. The very best hitters fail 60-70% of the time. The best pitchers fail to throw a shutout in almost every outing. The best fielders will still make their share of errors.

Failure is an important data point. It’s an arbitrary endpoint that will make you sit down on the bench and take stock in why everything went wrong.

Sometimes, nothing went wrong, except you forgot that not everything will go right, regardless of the approach. Just get back out there and try again.

Other times, the failure will stalk you, trying desperately to reach you from another dimension with an important message like a telemarketer selling an extended warranty on your voicemail.

It’s hard enough making the call to change anything in your life, especially when sparked from a the limited feedback that failure provides. It’s even more difficult to successfully implement that change, and to do it quick enough as a baseball player where you won’t get released before you make the adjustment.

Yet, baseball players are presented with this situation daily. There are over 200 prospects in the Pirates’ system right now. Many of them will fail tonight. Some of them may fail in career-altering ways tonight. Some might discover a new approach. Some of them will eventually make the majors. Every one of those prospects will face failure in some way before they arrive.

The best players are the ones who learn how to minimize the impact of failure, while learning the information taught by the failing. They’re the ones who can get knocked out completely, then come back even stronger when they get back on their feet.

But, this is something that you may begin to notice
As contrast exists, and it always will
And as everything is expanding, including contrast
As contrast becomes more, then asking becomes more
And when asking becomes more, and resistance stays strong
Then more people beat themselves up by not going with the flow
That’s all you’re seeing right now

At some point in life, you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.

That point comes a lot sooner if you want to be a professional baseball player.

High school players get drafted at age 18. College players get drafted at age 21. By the time they are 25-years-old, we start calling them “Post-Prospects.” By the time they are 30, we start forecasting the end of their careers.

At some point during their short playing careers, every player will be asked to make a change to their approach to the game.

I’ve talked with hundreds of minor league players over the last decade-plus. A change that is obvious to everyone isn’t always obvious to the player. I’ve seen players adamantly strike their way out of baseball while insisting their approach works. I’ve talked to players who could be coaches with the way they explain the game, but those same players can’t implement the changes in their game that they describe. I’ve covered players who have made changes successfully, only to end up worse than before.

Change is a scary thing.

You need to first admit that you’re wrong. Then, you need to adopt an approach that you believe is right. You need to find a way to implement that approach, which involves a lot of trial and error, and failure along the way until you get it right. You may never get it right, and when you do, you may find that this change wasn’t right.

It’s far easier to just stick with what works, and hope that it will magically work out like it did before.

It’s far easier… but that complacent approach won’t get you to the majors.

Those Post-Prospects in Pittsburgh right now need to make a change. They need to find a way to stick in the majors and finally show what made them prospects to begin with. Most won’t succeed. None will succeed if they continue with the same approach that kept them a prospect through age 25.

It’s the same story at every level. The Double-A guys need to adjust and improve, because the A-ball guys are coming. The rookie league guys are coming for the A-ball guys. The international complex guys are going to come over to the FCL. There will be a whole new draft and international signing period to restock the cycle.

With over 200 players in the system, there are changes being made daily, and improvements that will improve the positioning of players in this marathon to the top — where only 26 active spots exist at any given time.

But when you, as an individual, who can’t control what the others do
Let loose of your own resistance and go with the flow
Then you become one who experiences immediate thriving

So a player gets to a point where he needs to make a change. If that’s a physical change, then it’s easier to implement, and easier to track the progress.

However, a change in mentality works different. Only the player will receive feedback on what is working and what isn’t working. And it’s easier to add a leg kick in your swing, or start throwing a curveball, than it is to re-wire your mind to see yourself in a completely different way in relation to the rest of the world.

As a prospect evaluator, that’s a difficult thing to evaluate. So much of the success of a player is determined by his mentality and how he views himself and his abilities. The outside pressure and attention can alter this, but not always in a good way where more attention on the player means more confidence for the player.

We know how to evaluate a player’s tools to see where he can go. However, is there a way to extract information from those standard tools to get an indication of the mind of a player?

I’ll take a look at that in tomorrow’s continuation of this series.

Now this is the part about something you’re going to have to learn to do during this interim
It’s just a few months
You have to decide that you don’t care what others think of you

Check back tomorrow for Part Three, and thanks for reading so far…

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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