Researching prospects means reading and rereading the same regurgitated scouting reports far too often, so when someone does things a bit differently, their work really stands out. Meet Alex Eisenberg, author of the Baseball-Intellect blog and contributor to the Hardball Times and Baseball Digest Daily.
In addition to applying sabermetric analysis and traditional scouting methods, Alex uses video to break down the mechanics of amateur and professional baseball players. He looks for what he considers to be "high level mechanics" (mechanical attributes that are shared by elite players) in order to better understand how the best players in the game do what they do, and to identify younger players who share those attributes.
Alex was good enough to answer some questions for Halos Heaven about his methods and what those methods indicate about specific Angels prospects.
HH: Garrett Richards: Did he make significant changes to his mechanics in his transition from college to pro ball? Do you have any theories about what's behind his improvement in command?
AE: Not that I can tell.
As for the improved command he showed in Orem, I think part of it was just getting into a groove. Pitchers can go through periods where everything is clicking and then all of a sudden they lose it.
But I also think Richards should have been dominating the Pioneer League. He did what he was supposed to do. A college pitcher with his kind of stuff shouldn't have any problem getting Pioneer League hitters out and if he did, I'd be worried.
HH: Mike Trout - I loved the analysis you did of his swing (available to subscribers of www.baseball-intellect.com). The video you posted had him taking an "inside out cut," which you argue will help him hit for average but is not conducive to hitting for power. In high school, however, he did turn on the ball often enough to break New Jersey's high school record with 18 bombs. How likely is it that he'll develop the ability to do both - hit for average and power - and rack some HR's in the big leagues? Or do you think he (and the organization) will continue to favor the more contact-oriented approach?
AE: I think he's got a great chance to. He's not going to hit for huge power, but I can see him in that 15 - 20 homerun range with a lot of doubles.
One thing about that video, while he does naturally choke up some on the bat, that was probably the most extreme example of him doing so. My guess is that it might be part of his two-strike approach where he's focused on making contact.
He's already pretty muscular, but he still has some projection left. He's got a quick bat, good bat speed, and strong forearms. As he gets more experience and as he gets stronger, I think you'll see him start looking for balls to drive.
HH: Any thoughts on Hank Conger's swing? Should we be worried about a lack of power?
AE: I'm not too worried about Conger's power dropping off because I think there was a tradeoff in power for more contact. A simple change in approach.
I haven't seen Conger's swing in 2009 from a side angle, so I can't say what adjustments he's made, but from what I've seen of Conger's swing pre-2009, there is a lot to like.
He keeps his swing short, while still generating plus bat speed. He'd turn his hands and hips together on a firm front leg, getting his entire body involved in the process. One thing I noticed with Conger was that he swung the bat really hard, with a lot of intent. That's something he may have cut back on, particularly with two strikes in an effort to make more contact.
HH: Alexia Amarista - We've been hearing that is strong wrists/strong hands are behind his surprising pop. Is there something else in his swing that allows him to sting the ball so hard, despite his stature?
AE: He swings with a ton of intent...he swings hard, like he's trying to smack the crap out of the ball. He's got a quick trigger or loading process and just launches on the ball. And he finishes with a full, two-hand finish...he doesn't cut short his swing.
HH: In your opinion, what are the odds of Ryan Chaffee harnessing his multiple arm slots to achieve sufficient command? Obviously, there are very few guys with his arsenal in the big leagues, but he saw a lot of success with his approach in JC and in May and June of last year. Can he make it?
AE: Not sure what odds I'd put on Chaffee being able to harness his command. I can't recall a player switching up arm slots so much (if you can think of one, let me know). It was actually a really weird season for Chaffee...he posted a 3.86 ERA in the month where he walked 19% of the hitters he faced, but in the month where he walked 9.7% of the hitters he faced (his best month) he had an ERA of 9.82.
He has to be more consistent...consistency is often what separates prospects who make it and prospects who don't. I do think he'll find enough command to at least become a big league reliever, perhaps a very good one...he's a long shot as a starter, but he gets ground balls and he misses bats and that's always a good thing.
HH: What are your thoughts on Will Smith? Are his mechanics such that an uptick in velocity remains possible?
AE: Smith has very basic, repeatable, and safe mechanics. He does some good things mechanically, but I think he is who he is. He could speed up his body a little bit, increase his tempo, but that's easier said than done. A pitcher and/or coach has to feel a change is worth making and the pitcher has to feel comfortable with any changes they make.
But I'm not sure Smith has the pure natural arm speed to increase his velocity a significant amount and he doesn't offer much projection.
HH: Mark Trumbo and Dillon Baird. I've been watching video, trying to understand why it is that Trumbo generates so much power while Baird has yet to show it. Do you see mechanical reasons in Baird's swing for why he consistently generates such great hard contact, but until August didn't hit homeruns? How much power could you project for him?
AE: A few reasons for Trumbo hitting for more power (at least pre-2009):
a.) Trumbo is stronger than Baird.
b.) You have to put the ball in the air to hit homeruns. Most homeruns come on fly balls, while the remaining few obviously come on line drives. And Trumbo had a FB% of around 42 percent in 2007 and 2008. Baird was only around 33% during his time in Orem.
Trumbo's FB% dropped in 2009 to 33.6% and his power fell with it.
c.) Baird's swing plane is more line drive oriented. His approach is also better than Trumbo's as he'll shorten up with two strikes, use the entire field, etc. Baird also sacrifices some power for contact by using a swing path that keeps the bat head in the hitting zone for a longer period of time.
Baird has OK power potential...is it enough for first base? I'm not so sure.
HH: Looking back at the questions above, most are related to the development of power in a prospect. When you assessing a player's potential to develop power, what do you look for most in his swing mechanics?
AE: I'm taking out important factors like pitch recognition, hand-eye coordination...things that don't really have anything to do with the swing, but are still crucial for a player's power potential because the best way to nullify a pretty swing is to not recognize the pitches being thrown to you.
But for just the swing itself, the first thing a hitter must have is proper timing. The body has different segments that are incorporated into a player's swing. Energy is transferred from one segment to the next in a player's kinetic chain. If a link in that chain is broken, the result is an inefficient swing.
Hitters need to be able to efficiently transfer/carry their weight forward in an effort to build up momentum. When they plant their front foot, they should be in a balanced, athletic position. They can't get too far out in front and they can't keep their weight shifted to their backside. The more athletic a position a hitter is, the better they're able to adapt or adjust to the pitch arriving.
I want to see a hitter wait on the ball, let it travel deep into his hitting zone, and then unload on it...don't let it travel too deep though, where you end up jamming yourself and you're unable to get the arms extended.
Power mostly comes from the hips and from the legs. When a batter gets too handsy with his swing, the hands end up getting out in front of the rotation of his hips and the hitter ends up losing out on the power generated from his hips.
Extension is to be achieved just after contact. When you extend before contact -- again, a symptom of a handsy swing -- you get a lot of ground balls and some line drives, but not a lot of power.
Lastly, almost every hitter has some sort of loading process. But you want to avoid those players with really long swings as they don't translate well to big league pitching.
HH: You use a variety of methods to analyze prospects - traditional scouting grades, sophisticated video analysis of players' mechanics, and a healthy dash of sabermetrics. The video analysis really sets you apart from other commentators. What are the advantages of this method? Do you consider it a key tool for predicting future performance growth and/or injury risk, or is it more of a way of explaining the success that a player has already had?
AE: When you break down a player's mechanics, the smallest inefficiencies, the smallest alterations to one's delivery or swing can produce a timing error that results in a significant velocity loss or a drop off in power. There are things you can see in video that the naked eye simply can't see.
I can go pitch-by-pitch and determine how consistent a pitcher's release point is because I can pause the video at the point of release. I can go back and identify a pitch I may not have been able to identify at first.
Video also allows you to make comparisons...what swing I like better, what pitcher's stuff I like more, what changes a pitcher or hitter made to their mechanics. Everything is there for you to see and go back and confirm rather than having to go just by memory or by notes.
And then I'll add that the use of video and animation is a huge plus for readers as well. I'm a visual person and I think being able to understand mechanical concepts is much easier when you are visually able to see the concepts I talk about.
I also think fans and anybody that plays fantasy baseball crave information, but they also want to make sure the information they get is right. Using video allows individuals to make their own judgments on players.
But when it comes to scouting vs. numbers...
Numbers tell us what a certain player is doing. Numbers can give us a good indicator of what a player is going to do down the line. But they don't tell you everything.
Scouting a player both in person and with video can tell us how a player is doing what they're doing. And with that, we can get a better idea of what players actually translate best to higher levels.
So I'd say yes, it explains the success a player already has had, but you are able to determine if they have the tools to continue their success at higher levels.
HH: Thanks Alex!
Alex' website, www.baseball-intellect.com is currently publishing reports on each organizations' top prospects, with plenty of feature content mixed in. You can sign up for Alex's free newsletter for additional content as well as become a Premium Member for access to extended video and player analysis.