Scouting And Grading Pitchers
There are only two core tools to grade for pitchers using the 20-80 grading scale: their pitch arsenal and their command. However, a lot of nuances affect the final grades for that core tools.
Usually, a pitcher only has two to four main pitches in their arsenal (typically a combination of fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup). But if the pitcher uses another pitch like a split-fingered fastball, screwball, knuckleball, etc., it is necessary to grade that out as well. Abbreviations are only used (FB for a fastball, CB for a curveball, SL for a slider, CH for a changeup, SPL for a splitter, SCR for a screwball, CMD for command, etc.) to save space as it is understood right away.
Personally, only four-seamer and two-seamers/sinkers are considered as fastballs and cutters and split-fingers, even though technically fastballs, are separated to better highlight their purpose. Changeups and splitters might be interchangeable, but it is important to discern the proper grip by checking it at the pitcher’s release point.
Unless the pitcher is a knuckleballer, everything starts with the fastball. In the Minor Leagues, it is easy to grade out a fastball as velocity is its foundation. A pitcher’s fastball velocity is usually attached in every scouting report from major sites. For a scout who is evaluating a pitcher in person, a radar gun is a must, especially if the stadium does not have a radar gun or the scoreboard does not display a velocity reading. For a person watching on video or in a Minor League broadcast, the play-by-play commentator will usually blurt out the velocities as they call the game.
The harder a pitcher throws, the better the pitch grade. However, several factors can affect a fastball grade. Vertical movement, horizontal movement, feel, usage also affect a fastball grade. Let's say a pitcher has a 91 MPH fastball, but it has late tailing action, has excellent rise, and you can spot it on the edges of the strike zone, it will play up from initially an average to an above-average offering. Another example is if a pitcher has a 100 MPH fastball but it is as straight as an arrow and struggles to throw it in the strike zone, it knocks down the grade from an 80-grade fastball to a 70-grade fastball. Velocity is the foundation but movement and feel take it to another level.
For the rest of the secondaries, velocity, movement, and feel for spin are also important. Not just movement, but a late, bat-missing movement. The shape of the pitch is important because a ball moves in space or fluid and how the ball moves through space is important.
This might be a weird technique, but intentionally blurring the eyes is a solid way to recognize a breaking ball’s shape. Intentionally blurring the eyes helps create a tail for the pitches to check on the shape of the pitch. If the ball suddenly moves sharply in the middle of its flight (for example, a slider suddenly moves downward in the middle of its flight), that is a good pitch. Although what is a good pitch has a lot of other nuances like the new pitching terminologies that arose in the era of Statcast that are too complicated to explain in words.
Before explaining command deeply, it is important to first differentiate between control and command. Control is the ability to throw the pitch inside the strike zone, whereas command is the ability to throw the pitch to the intended location. There is also a new concept called pitch execution that is kind of in-between control and command. Pitch execution is failing to throw the pitch to its intended location, but the final location of the pitch is in a location where hard contact is difficult to achieve.
To describe the difference between the three, let's say a pitcher will throw a fastball up and in, on the edge of the strike zone, to a right-handed batter. Control is throwing the pitch upper third inside the strike zone. The command is throwing the pitch up and in, on the edge of the strike zone. Good pitch execution is throwing the pitch up and in, off the plate, or a fastball high and outside around zone chin-high. Bad pitch execution is leaving the pitch in the middle of the strike zone even if the hitter swung and missed on the pitch. Like other things associated with pitching, pitch execution also has a lot of nuances attached to it, particularly regarding sequencing, so it is very hard to explain pitch execution with zero context.
For command, athleticism, body control, and pitching mechanics of a pitcher are key factors to look for. Being a great athlete on the mound is essential because it helps refine the pitching mechanics quicker, and that helps the pitcher develop proprioception, or the ability to sense movement, action, and location in space, quicker. Being a great athlete allows a pitcher to pitch without constantly thinking about the little nuances of his mechanics on the mound.
In terms of pitching mechanics, there are people on social media that will say “do not replicate other people's pitcher's arm slot and the best arm slot is the arm slot that feels the most natural”. That is both true and false. Because for a person who is just starting on baseball, that person will not understand how to throw so that person will replicate his idol's pitching motion. After all, any person wants to throw like his idol. Let the people enjoy replicating their idol’s motion, and only once taken seriously does refinement or tinkering come in.
Like what was written earlier, a mechanics with a rhythmic, dynamic tempo over a slow, deliberate motion where there will be plenty of areas that could go awry is the key to harnessing control. Tempo could vary from smooth like Hjelle to varying like Matt Mikulski. What they have in common is that they have the look of a mechanics that you typically see from big leaguers.
The best pitchers have controlled violence in their deliveries that extracts the most out of athleticism. Before, people were worried about dreaded inverted W in a pitcher’s arm action, myself included. But over the years, the worry about it has waned where pitcher usage was the bigger driving force to their breakdown over arm action. As long as the arm action is clean and the throwing elbow does not go way over shoulder level, it's all good.