How To Use The Board: A Tutorial – FanGraphs

Screen Shot 2021 02 14 at 3.26.12 PM ProxyEgg How To Use The Board: A Tutorial - FanGraphs

0:00 Introduction
0:45 How To Access The Board
1:20 Three Ways To View The Board

We have a great many data and research tools on FanGraphs. Some people are well-suited to clicking around the site, exploring on their own, and learning how to navigate FanGraphs that way, but others might benefit from a written, audio, or video tutorial. It is my aim to provide a version of that in this post. This first tutorial covers The Board, and gives an overview of some of the prospect evaluation methodology that has been used at the site. The transcript you’re reading now has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. Due to the size of the text, this tutorial is best viewed in YouTube’s “Theater Mode,” or in full screen. In the header of each section below, you’ll find a link to the relevant section of the tutorial so that you can easily click around to specific topics.

You can find a link to The Board on the site’s Prospects menu header, or from the Prospects home page. There are three main ways to view The Board. There is a “Scouting Only” section, a “Stats Only” section, and a chocolate/vanilla swirl version (“Scouting + Stats!”) that features a mix of both old school scouting tool grades and a collection of telling statistics (K%, BB%, OBP, SLG, etc.).

2:25 The “Scouting Only” Section’s Sub-Headers

This is the part of The Board I want to highlight in this tutorial. Most of the information I gather from first-person scouting and from conversations with people in baseball flows through this part of The Board. This section of The Board has four sub-headers. The “Prospects List” sub-header is where our pro prospect lists can be found. The “MLB Draft” section is for draft-eligible amateur players. Then there is an “International Players” sub-header, which you’ll want to pay attention to when I touch on it a bit later since the format for that tab has recently changed.

3:30 The Seasonal Tab

Finally there’s a seasonal tab, which is kind of like a monthly chef’s special collection of players. If there’s an international tournament going on somewhere that’s being broadcast, we might list players to watch. If a new set of baseball cards has been released and there are prospects in the set, we might put up a list of the notable players. It’s a soup du jour concept that should change pretty frequently. Right now, it’s a list of the players who graduated from rookie status in 2020. All of the sub-headers have drop down menus that allow you to look back in time at past lists.

4:12 The “International Players” Tab

This area of The Board has typically been reserved for international amateurs, but there are enough prospective major leaguers in foreign pro leagues to include them here. I don’t know that there’s another central location anywhere else on the internet where you can see scouting reports for those types of players, so I thought this was an interesting place to try to do that. The international amateur prospects are still on this section of The Board and my ranking of the players in that class will be stored for posterity just as before. The previous year’s international free agents will move off once their reports have migrated over to their signing team’s list on the pro section of The Board.

5:05 Back to the “Prospects List” Tab

Note the various ways you can search, sort, and filter The Board using the toolbar beneath the four sub-headers. I think this part of The Board is pretty self-explanatory, but I plan to dive into this specific part’s functionality in a future tutorial. It allows you to filter by age, team, position, or scouting grade so you’re looking at a subset of players on The Board rather than all of them at once.

6:00 Looking at the Scouting Tables’ Summary Tab

Most of the columns on The Board have a “tool tip” that pops up when you hover your cursor over the column header and provides a short explanation of what that column means. The first several columns (from left to right) are likely intuitive for readers (the player’s position, their parent club’s abbreviation, their ranking in the Top 100 and within their org, and the direction in which their prospect stock is trending) until we arrive at “FV,” or Future Value.

Future Value is the all-encompassing, single number that I try to use to map pre-free agency WAR production to the 20-80 scouting scale. I think it highlights the notion that the distribution of prospect talent into tiers is more telling and important than their ordinal rankings, and helps provide answers to some of the questions that some older attempts to do this (like old school OFP) do not. There’s more background on this that can be found here, and way, way more background on it in my book, Future Value, co-authored with erstwhile FanGraphs prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel. I consider this post an extension of that methodological thru-line.

Next we have a prospect’s “Expected Time of Arrival” (ETA). This is almost always simply dictated by the player’s 40-man timeline. Every prospect has a 40-man clock that begins ticking when they sign and stops when they have to be added to a 40-man roster or be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. Each player’s ETA is almost always listed as the season following this 40-man roster deadline, though players who are clearly racing through the minors (like Wander Franco) or who are super duper raw and are going to take a long time are adjusted manually. Jason Martinez and I share a goal of making this ETA column more specific soon.

11:10 Variance

This column is titled “Risk” because “Variance” is too long to put in a column header, but that’s what it means. The column can say “Low,” “Medium” or “High.” For younger prospects, variance is the distance between what I believe their ceiling and floor to be. So high-variance prospects are boom-or-bust types and lottery tickets, while low-variance prospects have a narrower band of perceived possible outcomes. As players move to the upper levels of the minors, I look to adjust variance down since the physical development that makes younger prospects have higher variance has typically occurred. Older/upper-level prospects with high variance are ones who I think may have volatile year-to-year performance, like a Carlos Gómez or Javier Báez type of player. These are often hitters with some exploitable trait, like a bad approach or a hole in their swing.

“Age,” “Height” and “Weight” are pretty simple, as are “Bats” and “Throws.” Next, I have signing information, as well as a complete collection of every prospect’s signing bonus. (Thanks to Kiley for building a foundation of those in the background before he left for ESPN.) Eventually, I’d like to be able to store these in one place even after prospects graduate off The Board. Right now, there are players from recent draft classes who have already been in the big leagues for a while, and you can’t find their bonus on here since they’re not prospects anymore, which is sub-optimal.

The clipboard in the “Report” column toward the far right of the screen will open up the player’s written scouting report when you click it. This is the same scouting report you’d find in the article version of each club’s prospect list. The “Video” link opens video from the FanGraphs YouTube channel. Both function without taking you away from The Board.

14:15 The “Scouting – Position” Section

This is where the tool grades for the hitters live. You can sort each column by either the tool’s present or future grade. You’ll often see very low present hit tool grades for prospects on The Board. The long-held premise of future tool grades is, “If this prospect were put in the big leagues tomorrow, how would he perform?” I don’t think it’s realistic or useful to try to guess how a teenager would hit were he asked to face a big league staff, so I’ve standardized my present hit tool grades. I wanted to use the 20s and 30s in a way I thought was more instructive. And so, for teenage hitters, a present hit tool grade of 20 means his bat-to-ball skills are either neutral or raw, while 25 means that this is an advanced teenage hitter. For college-aged hitters, the same is true of the present 30 and 35 grades, respectively. Once a prospect gets somewhere in the Hi-A/Double-A range, I’ll actually alter their present hit tool grade to reflect how I think they’d do if they were dropped into the majors tomorrow, because at that point I think it’s a little more realistic and practical to consider from both a scouting and Board functionality standpoint.

19:30 The Components of the Hit Tool

There are different reasons players do or do not hit, and thinking about the different components of the hit tool in a reductive way can help illustrate more specific prospect traits while getting more out of the 20-80 scale. To arrive at 20-80 grades for these, I use a combination of visual evaluation (especially for the bat control piece) and data (walk and swinging strike rates, plus whatever proprietary plate discipline metrics I can get ahold of but can’t simply republish). For some hitters very new to pro ball, there’s simply not enough to do this, so for many newly-signed or drafted players, these fields will be blank until they’ve either been seen enough or generated enough data to make a call.

23:40 Power, Game and Raw

“Raw” power is graded via a combination of visual evaluation during batting practice (How far can you hit the ball?) and the max exit velocities I source from teams. As I’ve sourced max exit velocities, I’ve found that there are a couple different ways teams keep track of this data. Several of them wipe away the top couple exit velos to eliminate the possibility of outliers. Keep this in mind as you look at the “Max Exit Velocities” on The Board. It’s a big part of why the visual evaluation piece is still very important in this space.

“Game” power is a grade describing power output. While raw power is “How far/hard can they hit the ball?”, game power is “What is their power production like in actual games?” These two are often different for any number of reasons (often augmented by swing plane, approach, or hit tool quality). The present game power grades are derived the same way present hit tool grades are. If a player’s approach and/or swing currently enable power in games, they’ll be a present 25 or 35 depending on their age. If they lack present strength, or have a contact-oriented approach, or need a swing change to get there, it’ll be a 20 or 30 depending on their age. Once again, I try to put a present grade on the game power in a traditional sense only once the player is in the upper levels of the minors.

26:36 Speed

I outline this in Future Value, but I still think the home-to-first time is the most important measure of speed in baseball since hauling ass to first is often the difference between being out or not. These times are collected by my own left hand, either in person or on video, or via the scouts who I communicate with as I compile the prospect lists. The way home-to-first times map to the 20-80 scale can be found here.

29:00 Fielding Grades

This is the position player tool grade area that has the most room for improvement. Evaluating defense (mostly range for outfielders and a combination of range/footwork/actions for infielders) in a traditional sense is fine, but the entire 20-80 scale is not often used here, and it’s hard to know if it should be. After all, wouldn’t an 80-grade second baseman just be able to play SS? Plus, this aspect of baseball is changing right now as defensive positioning makes it possible for slower-footed players to play the infield, which perhaps should force us to reconsider how we define infield positions altogether.

31:35 The “Physical Attributes” Section

This section of The Board is relatively new. The grades for arm strength have moved over here (“Arm”) since I consider it less important than the other position player tools. I’ve also stopped using a present/future distinction here since they’re almost always the same. Some players (Jo Adell is a prominent recent example) have exhibited strange fluctuations in arm strength over time. I do think it’s important to track and note this but that will now just be done in the player’s full written report rather than in this column since it’s very rare. I also think it’s worth considering differentiating between pure arm strength and “arm utility,” which I talk about at length in the book. It’s not really possible to do this with a scope as broad as ours at FanGraphs but it has real-world practical scouting implications.

One of the other columns in this section is “Frame,” which is an evaluation of the prospect’s body composition. Baseball is unique in that it allows for much more person-to-person body shape variability than other sports. Sure, there are huge height differences in basketball, but you really won’t find anyone built like Pablo Sandoval playing professionally. Some frames allow for lots of strength projection, while others generate concern about athletic longevity. Certain players are moved up or down lists based on how their body development will interact with their tool grades. There’s no data involved in this, so rather than 20-80 guys, they’re just plussed or minused; this approach applies to most of the other physical attributes in this tab as well.

Next is “Athleticism,” which incorporates twitch, explosion, body control, grace, and balance. I tend to project skill development on better athletes. “Performance” indicates whether a player’s statistical track record is a net positive or negative for where they fall on the prospect continuum. Players who have not generated any kind of statistical track record at all tend to get “minused” in this sense, but there are exceptions to this. Sometimes an international prospect has a reputation for hitting in games among scouts, but they haven’t generated data (that we have access to) to support that. Sometimes I’ll “plus” someone like this purely based on reputation.

The “Delivery” column pluses and minuses depend on things like repeatability and impact on stuff. For instance, some pitchers have ugly-looking deliveries that help impart impact movement on their pitches due to their arm angle, release height, etc. Attributes like that push and pull at that grade.

42:00 Talking About Those Plus Signs

A helpful question I often ask myself as I’m doling out these grades is, “Which of these players would I rather have?” If the answer to that question is, “it depends,” then those players should either have the same FV grade, or be pretty close. The answer to the question can depend on roster fit, 40-man flexibility, or where teams are on the competitive spectrum. There have been some instances when a big leaguer has been traded for a draft pick, which helps us compare the way a big leaguer of that skill level is valued in relation to a prospect available at that pick. For instance, if a player like Matt Joyce (a classic 45) gets traded for a compensatory pick, let’s say 45th overall in the draft, that’s an indication to me that the players near the 45th overall spot in my draft rankings should also be a 45 FV or close to it.

This is the part of the written tutorial where I’d like readers to know I’m open to questions and feedback regarding methodology. I won’t be looking in the comment section of this post or the YouTube video because I don’t consider those to be productive places to offer either. Instead I think the people most likely to have constructive thoughts are also the ones who can figure out how to get a hold of me through other channels. That’s also why I’m putting this paragraph in the middle of this post rather than the beginning or end. Thank you for actually reading this.

Anyway, let’s talk about the “+” that’s next to some players’ FVs. For hitters, I tend to use this for a player who I think has a chance to break out. They’re often the higher-upside players who are farther away from the big leagues. As they get closer to the big leagues, I try to just pick a plain FV grade to describe their role, though some players will retain a “+” designation either because of persistent perceived variance (Franchy Cordero would still be a 45+ FV for me, for example, as would Monte Harrison and maybe Tyler O’Neill) or because of how good they are in their role. For example, J.D. Davis is basically a four-corners bench player, which is a 40, but he has so much power that he’s become a very good version of a player in that role. So if I knew a prospect was going to become J.D. Davis, they’d be a 40+ FV even if they’re big league ready.

47:20 I Provide Some Examples

It’s easy to take a current big leaguer (especially one who has been around for a while) and see where they would have fit on the FV continuum had we known exactly how they’d perform. I go over a couple examples in the video but here’s a good one: If I’m considering where to put Travis Swaggerty on the FV scale, I consider his broad strokes abilities (he can really play center field, and he has impact raw power but has struggled to get to it in games and has instead been a passable, but mediocre offensive player) and look for current big leaguers who fit that description. In this case, Manuel Margot is a great comp in almost every way. Margot has generated about 1.5 WAR annually throughout his career to this point (prorating the 2020 season due to the pandemic), which is a 45, so I should start with Swaggerty in the 45 FV bucket. But when I consider Swaggerty’s handedness relative to Margot’s (Swaggerty’s going to have more of a platoon advantage than Manny does) and the fact that he still has an opportunity to make a swing change to tap into that aforementioned power (while for Margot that time has come and gone), I should at least consider making Swaggerty a 45+ FV based on the chance that he might be more than Margot ended up being, even if it’s toward the end of his pre-free agency years.

It’s important to me that this “feels” correct to readers. An example I use in the video is Anthony Rendon. If we average Rendon’s WAR production during his pre-free agency years, it comes out right on the line between that of 60 and 70 FV players, which feels right based on how incredible he is. Perhaps his injury history was a good reason to take the lower of the two at the time, but if you told me exactly how he’d perform during his early big league years, then he’d belong somewhere in the top five of an overall prospect list, and I think readers will agree that feels about right.

I also use Trevor Bauer as an example in the video. In his case, his average WAR production indicates he should have been a 60 FV. Because pitchers are more susceptible to injury and to fluctuations in stuff that impact their performance, they tend to be lower on prospect lists and this is true when using FV. Certainly Bauer’s peak seasons are better than a 60, but he had control problems during his early big league years and on balance, he’s been a 60. Ideally, his potential for a season like his Cy Young run would be captured in his “Variance” description.

58:50 I Talk About Pitchers

The Board’s scouting grades for pitchers are probably intuitive for most readers. “Fastball” grades are impacted by velocity most of all, but it’s increasingly clear that other traits are a huge part of how and why a fastball does or doesn’t play, and I’m working to better incorporate those into my evaluations. Sixto Sánchez throws 100, but he doesn’t have an 80 fastball because the pitch’s underlying traits cause it to play down. Part of why I’ve begun listing “Fastball Type” (Cut, Tail, Rise, Sink, or some combo of these) is to illustrate this. Rising fastballs are the ones I have the most confidence in missing bats.

The gap between a present and future fastball is largely an indication of body projection that I think will bring about more velocity. Certainly some teams are better at installing those aforementioned underlying traits, but it’s difficult for me to use the high speed camera to know who across the entire minors would benefit from a grip change or something more subtle than velocity.

I’ve begun to grade present command/control the same way I do present hit/power, using the bottom of the scale to describe polish rather than trying to put a real present command grade on anyone who is clearly several years away from the big leagues.

As far as FV grades for pitchers go, remember that there’s a difference between a real life ace and an SP1 on your fantasy team, and that me saying a pitcher is a No. 4 starter isn’t actually a bad thing. This post has a handy chart outlining where I place various pitcher roles on the FV scale, as does this one. Relievers are punished by WAR-based analysis, which I think will become increasingly stark as managers improve at using their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, so this is an area where I’m hoping to improve and be a bit ahead of the curve in terms of how I line up players on my prospect lists. Julian Merryweather, for instance, is a 40+ FV and highly-ranked on the Blue Jays list even though he’s 29-years-old. Major league-ready impact relievers have real value for contending clubs (see the Nick Anderson trade) and I’m now designating pitchers as “Starting Pitchers,” “Multi-Inning Relievers,” and “Single-Inning Relievers” rather than as just left- or right-handed pitchers to help illustrate projected roles, and then letting the FV show you how good I expect they’ll be in that role.

I also have fastball and breaking ball spin rates on The Board. Spin rate isn’t a direct proxy for pitch quality. I just think it’s interesting to know if someone can spin the baseball or not. I’m more inclined to project an impact breaking ball for a pitcher who can spin it, even if it’s a different breaking ball than their current one.

I close the tutorial by showing some pitcher examples and thanking folks for reading/watching/listening.

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