Whether you lean more towards numbers, or observations, you probably watch players and form an opinion on how good they are and how good you think they will be. You may observe a promising young player's high BABIP and conclude that the worst is yet to come, .300 average be darned, or you may observe a player laying off a late-breaking two-strike slider and conclude that the best is yet to come, .200 average be darned.
Today's discussion will center around hitters. Here are some of the more physical measures that I have found most reliable in watching young players:
* To what extent does the ball "jump off their bat"? For some hitters, the bat appears lighter and the ball smaller as contact is made - more like an aluminum bat whacking a golf ball and less like a big log hitting a bowling ball. As examples, I noticed this quickly with Jose Lopez (Mariners), Howie Kendrick (Angels), and the dearly departed, strike zone judgment challenged Carlos Gonzalez. I've seen it in Kurt Suzuki when he is rested, I have seen it in Aaron Cunningham, but I have not especially seen it in Ryan Sweeney.
* Is their swing short and quick, especially through the strike zone? The longer a hitter can see a pitch and still make solid contact, the better off he will be. In September, 2007, Daric Barton appeared able to see the ball almost into the catcher's glove and yet still uncoil to pull a fastball into the right field corner. What happened with Barton in 2008 remains an utter mystery to me.
* How is their pitch recognition? This has been one of Bobby Crosby's biggest achilles heels, while Ryan Sweeney seems able to sit back without guessing and react to pitches well in real time. Some hitters may pick up grips and seams out of the pitcher's hand better than others, some may just track pitches better as the ball moves or breaks, but this skill appears to be a difficult one to teach compared to teaching swing mechanics or maximizing force at the point of contact. You kind of have pitch recognition or you don't, and it doesn't take long to see which players have it and which players are your starting shortstop.
* Can they hit the ball hard to all fields? It is just such an advantage to be able to spread the defense out, and to be able cover all parts of the strike zone, by hitting line drives to all fields. Players who mostly pull the ball (Jack Cust), or who mostly wait for pitches they can slap the other way (anyone nicknamed "Pesky"), are just so much easier to pitch and to defend. In other words, Eric Chavez when he's hot is a pitcher's nightmare, while Eric Chavez when he's cold is a pitcher's dream.
So these are some of the things I watch for in evaluating a hitter's projected long-term success. Here's your chance to weigh in with some of the things you look for, be they observational or statistical in nature, in trying to do one of the hardest jobs in all of baseball: predict a player's performance going forward.