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An educated guess

Evaluating young hitters is tougher than pitchers

Posted: Thursday June 7, 2007 2:06AM; Updated: Thursday June 7, 2007 2:05AM
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Who Will Pan Out?
2006 NL Leaders in OPS
Name Round Drafted
Albert Pujols 13th
Ryan Howard 5th
Lance Berkman 1st
Miguel Cabrera FA -- Venezuela
Carlos Beltran 2nd
Barry Bonds 1st
Matt Holliday 7th
Garrett Atkins 5th
Nick Johnson 3rd
Chipper Jones 1st*
2006 AL Leaders in OPS
Name Round Drafted
Travis Hafner 31st
Manny Ramirez 1st
David Ortiz FA -- Dominican Republic
Jim Thome 13th
Jermaine Dye 17th
Jason Giambi 2nd
Joe Mauer 1st*
Justin Morneau 3rd
Vladimir Guerrero FA -- Dominican Republic
Paul Konerko 1st
*First overall pick in draft
Source: Baseball-Reference.com
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Any time a pitcher's name gets called in the annual MLB draft, the drafting team gets a twinge of nervousness -- mainly because of the twinge of pain that so often can crop up in a pitcher's elbow or shoulder.

But when it comes to scouting and selecting amateur players, choosing the right hitter can be even more nerve-wracking than choosing the right hurler.

"I ask guys the hardest things to scout," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "The hardest thing to scout is whether a guy can hit."

"Pitchers are probably riskier than hitters as a whole, but that's more because of the injury factor. A lot of times it's easier to project a pitcher. You can see how much arm speed a guy has, how much life there is on the fastball and if he can throw strikes. ... It's not like you're going to take a high school kid who has a bad curveball and give him a plus curveball through instruction."

Meanwhile, there is no way, particularly at the colleges and high schools that supply the players for the MLB draft, to test for how well batting prospects will overcome the greatest hurdle they will face: adjusting to major-league breaking pitches.

"We usually can predict guys who can hit the fastball -- that's bat speed," Los Angeles Dodgers assistant general manager and scouting guru Logan White said, while watching a pre-draft workout at Dodger Stadium shortly before midnight Monday. "Where I see kids having trouble making the transition to the big leagues, they can't hit offspeed pitches. They get out in front, they can't stay back, they try to hook balls. And that's a tough one to predict, how well they're going to adjust to 98 and then an 87 mile-per-hour changeup and then (other pitches)."

It also takes more effort on the part of major league scouting departments to get a feel for a young hitter -- regardless of the competition.

"With high school kids, you might only see him swing a bat four times (in a game)," White said. "You might only see him swing twice if he walks a couple times. A pitcher, even if he throws an inning or two, you're going to get to see him do his thing 20-30 times. You get a better feeling for his mechanics. ... You don't get a feeling for hitting mechanics at a game as much."

Not even the highest level of the minor leagues provides much of a clue. Although AAA offers some transition to major-league pitching -- hurlers who can throw hard and/or spin off a sweet curve -- rare is the pitcher who can do so consistently at that level. (If they could, they wouldn't be down in AAA -- not for long, anyway.)

Living off fastballs and mistakes over the plate, a perfectly healthy minor-league hitter can compile perfectly healthy statistics as he climbs the minor-league ladder, only to find major league pitching just sick.

"It's the inability to recognize good curves, sliders and changeups," said draft and minor-league specialist Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. "They don't see enough really good ones."

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