What are a baseball player’s tools? Generally, it’s a player’s ability (or lack thereof) as it pertains to the separate elements of a baseball game — throwing, fielding, and hitting. For baseball fans, it’s a familiar, old-timey concept. It’s the 78RPM single-sided vinyl of baseball analytics. Over at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Jeff Sullivan’s taken a gander at the “five-tool” program by comparing the ‘tools’ benchmarks with newer innovations.
“Now that we have a more precise understanding of what makes a baseball player valuable,” Sullivan writes. “We know, for example, that it’s more important to be able to hit for power than it is to throw the ball real fast.”
Using the z-scores pulled from representative statistics as stand ins for each of the five tools, Sullivan was able to collect data on the players that were, in his words, the ‘toolsiest’ players in the league: “the ones who are most above the mean when considering all five tools combined.”
Think the math lines up with the usual suspects? Here are the top five ‘toolsiest’ MLB players of 2014. All data courtesy of FiveThirtyEight, who drew their numbers from FanSided.
5. Starling Marte — 7.9 (toolsiness total)
Starling Marte, the third-year outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, first signed with the ball club in 2007, and finally made it to the majors in 2012. He memorably became the first Pirate since 1961 to hit a home run on his first at-bat, and his presence on this list more than justifies the $31 million deal that he signed with the club in March (he will be a Pirate until 2020).
But how does Marte stack up against Sullivan’s Toolsiness? If we consider that the typical FanSided measurement — Jeff Sullivan also writes for FanSided, and we assume he hasn’t changed his descriptive metric — goes something like 0 = average, 1 = good, 2 = great, while -1 = not good and -2 = bad, then Marte is a good hitter-for-average (1.5), an OK hitter-for-power (0.8), a great speedster (2.2) and a just-about-great fielder (1.9), and has a solid arm (1.7)
For the astute mathematicians, you’re right! 1.9+2.2+0.8+1.5+1.7 does not equal 7.9. It equals 8.1. That’s correct. In Sullivan’s post, he stated that he gathered the final score was simply a sum of the z-scores in each player’s set … but the table of scores he provided and the finals scores he gave occasionally diverged by one- or two-tenths. So it goes. We’ve decided to stick with Sullivan’s final score, rather than the individual sums, since we figure it’s a rounding error between the actual math and putting it into the post. You can check out Sullivan’s entire list at the end of the article.
4. Troy Tulowitzki — 8.3
Full disclosure: On this one, the numbers don’t quite, but almost, add up. According to the table, Troy Tulowitzki should’ve scored an 8.2. Poor Troy. He’s a good hitter (1.5 in average, 1.5 in power), a decent runner (1.1 in speed), and a great fielder (2.0) with a rocket arm (2.1).
That hardly changes the fact that Tulo, who plays for the Colorado Rockies, is well above average across the entire toolkit. He is one of two Rockies players that show up on this list, interestingly enough, and he’s one of the four players that, according to Sullivan, “were so far above the mean (one standard deviation) in each of the five tools that they can be called baseball’s true five-tool players.” The other three?
Two of them, we’re going to get to momentarily — the other is Yasiel Puig, who grades out to No. 6 overall. Tulo, who has been named a three-time All-Star in his nine seasons with the Rockies, is a five-tool talent. This is what that looks like:
3. and 2. Bryce Harper and Carlos Gonzalez — 8.5
Careful, it’s a toolsiest tie. The drawback to any ranking system that relies on an agregate sum rather than a running order is that you can end up with two equally toolsie players duking it out over which one is toolsiest. Which is not to say that Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals or Carlos Gonzales of the Colorado Rockies are greater or lesser players than each other, of course — there are a million other ways to fight over that one.
First, the direct comparison: Harper pulls down a 1.2 to CarGo’s 1.1. Gonzalez counters with a 2.0 for fielding, and Harper can’t keep up with a 1.4. Harper leads Gonzalez in Hitting for power (2.2 to 1.9) and speed (1.5 to 1.3). They end, tied at 8.5. And the table matches the final score.
But what does that mean? That CarGo is better at fielding and Harper is marginally better at everything else, probably? Well, yeah, that’s exactly what it means. To celebrate, here’s a Carlos Gonzalez walk off, because that’s awesome.
1. Mike Trout — 9.1
It feels like a setup, doesn’t it? What do the sabremetrics tell us? That Mike Trout is good at baseball — which we know. The important takeaway is that this is yet another way of describing how good Mike Trout is. Except for his arm. He has an average throwing arm.
Seriously, Trout’s so solid that his average score (and 0.2 is right next to average) for his throwing skills are severely outweighed by his hitting for average (2.8, almost ‘superstar’ Fansided rating), his power hitting (2.3), his speed (2.1) and his fielding (1.6). Yes, that adds up to 9, not 9.1. If you’re interested in comparing Silver’s numbers to his data, as well as learning about the methodology behind this interesting cross-section of baseball knowledge past and present, you can read the whole post here. And you should. You definitely should.