Regardless of how alluring it is to light up the radar gun, good scouts look for much more than velocity from pitchers. As a starting point, scouts start by looking at a pitcher's strength, stamina, agility and aggressiveness, and then look at things like arm action and delivery. Sure it's nice to throw hard, but scouts are also looking for movement and deception.
For starters, here's what scouts will have looked at before a pitcher has even thrown the ball:
Physical attributes: Is the pitcher going to grow more? How tall are his parents? Has he physically matured yet, or does he still have room to fill out? If a high-school player hasn't fully matured yet and can hit 83 mph on the radar gun, it can almost be certain that he'll be adding a few more miles as he gets bigger and stronger. What kind of body type does he have? Long and lean, or bulky and compact?
"You're looking for a guy to be strong down the road and be able to eat innings," says one Major League scout. "You want a reliant arm that is going to last. A guy with a big, durable body and a strong lower half."
Intangibles: Is he emotionally mature? Can he handle the pressure of pitching in big games and big situations or does he let mistakes rattle him? Does he know the game and the rules? Is he confident? Aggressive? Or does he look as though he'd rather be elsewhere. Scouts are looking for guys who want the ball.
"Watch his body language after he gives up a home run," says the scout, "or when the ball gets past the catcher's glove and a run scores in a tight game. It tells you a lot about what's going on. Some young kids are overly animated, it just depends on how you channel it. Giving it the old Tiger Woods fist pump is OK, but you just got to note that."
And scouts aren't just watching for actions during a game. They usually watch a player from the moment they reach the stands.
"In his pre-game routine, is he taking extra hacks, or hitting off a tee? Last year Mark Prior would run about three miles on days after he pitched -- that's the stuff you look for," says the scout. "If you watch close enough, body language will tell you anything."
Health: Does he have any current or previous injuries? Any recent surgeries or health concerns? Having an injury doesn't mean a kid is no longer a prospect, but they are just flags the scouts note.
"It really depends on the injury," says the scout. "Shoulders and elbows can be bad, and breaking an arm isn't necessarily a good thing."
Before seeing a pitcher in a game, scouts will often observe a prospect in the bullpen to get a sense of his pitches, and to get a close look at his mechanics, control and velocity. Scouts aren't judging what they see in the bullpen -- players should only be evaluated from what scouts see in games -- but it helps give sort of a preview to what the pitcher is about.
"I've seen guys not really turn it on in the pen," says the scout, "but when they turn the scoreboard on, it's a whole different guy. "
In evaluating pitchers, scouts are looking for specific tools. A grade between 20-80 (or some clubs use a 2-8 scale) is given for each tool at the present and future level, and they are averaged to get an Overall Future Potential number, or OFP, which projects what level the pitcher will be at the Major League level.
Although clubs differ slightly on how they evaluate players, most rely on assigning grades for fastball, fastball movement, curveball, slider, any other pitches (cutter, forkball, etc.), control and velocity.
Scale between 20-80, with 50 being Major League average
Velocity: This just measures one thing - how hard a pitcher can throw. Hitting 90 mph on the gun is considered something special, and scouts will take notice, but that's not all they are looking for.
"I can see big league guys in the Majors get guys out with 83-86 mph fastballs, by using location and changing speeds. Big leaguers don't even use that word 'velocity.' You got to make sure they can get someone out. Sure, 90 is considered the magic number, but there's too many other variables in the equation. Some of these kids with electric arms in low-A ball -- it's like "Bull Durham" out there -- they don't know where it's going.
But it's not a tool to be taken lightly. "Movement and secondary pitches can be taught -- but velocity you're born with," the scout says.
Movement: While velocity is the easiest tool to measure, it isn't necessarily the most important. In order to be successful at the Major League level, pitches must have movement. Does the ball drop, rise, sink, slide, fade, tumble or go straight? Since a moving target is harder to hit, the more movement a pitcher has, the better.
"You're not looking for the guy who throws as straight as a string," one scout says.
While breaking pitches such as curveballs and sliders usually aren't thrown with Major League quality by young pitchers, scouts look for the makings of a pitcher who could develop those pitches. Is there evidence of proper spin, tight rotation, downward movement, a flexible wrist and proper follow through? If so, the scout may project this pitcher as someone capable of developing these pitches.
"Different grips and different finger pressure on the ball create movement. If a pitcher had the right teacher and had some aptitude, sure, this can be taught. We also want to see if their second or third pitch is an out pitch."
Control: Control is the other tool a pitcher should have. Can he place his pitches and find the plate, or is he all over the place? While excellent command at a young age is a distinctive tool to have, scouts know that by looking at a prospect's other skills -- such as delivery and arm action -- control is something that can develop as the player matures.
"If you've got [control], even if you don't have plus velocity, you still have a chance to win," says the scout, "if you can throw strikes with a couple of different pitches and hit your spots. Watch where Greg Maddux's catcher sets up - he doesn't move around too much back there. [Maddux] spots the ball well."
Mechanics and arm action: Should be smooth, easy and effortless. The pitcher shouldn't look like he's laboring to throw the ball, or putting great effort into it with a herky-jerky motion. Does the pitcher get full extension and is it a fluid movement?
"But if you get a funky guy, they can be effective too with twisting, curling deliveries. Ideally, everything is in synch. More variables than there are constants here."
Delivery: Where is the release point? Is he an overhand pitcher? Does he throw from a high three-quarter angle or low three-quarter slot? Or is he a sidearmer or submariner? "With amateurs we're looking for consistency and the ability to repeat delivery. If one time it's a perfect full wind up, and the next time he's coming from the side, that's not too good. College guys are generally more polished. In everyone we're looking for the release point to be the same on all pitches. If you go to throw off-speed, drop your elbow and slow your arm down, decent hitters will cream the guy."
Curveball: Should have tight rotation -- curveballs are thrown rotating forward instead of backward like a fastball -- and the tighter the rotation the sharper the drop or bite. Scouts will also look for the type of break it has - does it break early or late, go across the plate or down? And they will look at how easy it is for hitters to pick up. But due to the stress throwing breaking pitches has on a young arm that's still developing, scouts take that into consideration.
"It all depends on physical maturity," says the scout. "If you're a 6-4, 150-pound kid, you want to build up arm strength first. A good coach will tell you if you have a fastball and hit your spots and have a changeup, you have five pitches already without spinning a breaking ball."
Changeup: One of the most important pitches for a pitcher to establish. Scouts will check this pitch for accuracy and frequency -- is it effective enough to be thrown in any situation?
"You need this pitch to keep hitters off balance," says the scout. "Pitchers should use the same arm slot and arm speed as they do with a fastball, but it's an entirely different pitch. It's a feel pitch -- one you have to develop a touch for throwing."
But scouts will also look at how a pitcher fields his position -- as good athletes show decent fielding skills, and any other skills like if he had a pick-off move. In all players scouts are looking for qualities that will bring winning results. To become a successful Major League pitcher, players will have to learn to make adjustments, and scouts have to decide which players demonstrate the ability -- both physically and mentally - to make that happen.
"There aren't many true No. 1 Major League starters out there -- powerful guys with focus and presence -- but that's what we're all looking for," says the scout.