A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

An NBA Talent Evaluation Analogy: The Baseball Pitcher

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BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - May 3-9, 2010

BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week – May 3-9, 2010 (Photo credit: Big West Conference)

For the last year and change I’ve been writing about how I split up NBA talent into 3 equally weighted categories: Physical impact talent, Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent and Feel for the Game talent.

If I had to the closest comparison to this split, it’d be a baseball pitcher. I am not a baseball expert, but think of the tools that define a pitcher’s upside and success:

1. Power is clearly an important trait. The greater velocity, the harder it will be to hit a pitcher. Pitchers with huge arms are seen as having a high upside, even if raw. For my system the obvious comparison is physical impact talent. Notably, for a power pitcher, while I assume literal athletic and strength tools are key to throwing at a dynamic velocity, the player’s technique is also a relevant part of their power. Likewise in my system not everything in “physical impact” talent is literally physical tools, like how a player’s ballhandling will usually help him attack the basket more fiercely, a way to physically impact the game.

2. However, arguably just as important is control and ball placement. The ability to throw a strike and put the ball where it’s wanted is essential, arguably as important as the velocity of the throw, if not moreso. The comparison in my system is Feel for the Game where the control, smoothness and timing of a player’s game increases his effectiveness.

3. The final key part of a pitcher’s success, is the skill to throw multiple types of pitches – change-up, slider, curveball, splitter, cutter, etc. Mastering these skills goes beyond the ability to hit the plate. This also has a clear connection to my Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent category. Instead of the skill to throw a pitch like a curve or change-up, there’s the skill of shooting and having 3 point range, passing or playing in the post.

Relevantly, for a pitcher any of these 3 categories isolated, will not lead to a successful player. It doesn’t matter if a pitcher throws 100 miles per hour if he has no ability to hit the plate and no pitches outside of a fastball. It doesn’t matter if a player has a wide array of skill pitches like the curve, change-up, slider and variants if he has no velocity on his pitch and he isn’t hitting the plate. And even if a player has the control to hit the plate extremely well, if his pitches have no gas and have no off-speed variants, he also won’t make it. What leads to success is combining the skills. It’s having both power velocity and the ability to hit the plate, or having both both great skill with off-ball pitches and the ability to hit the plate, or having both power and a variety of pitches. If one is a star in 2 of the categories, it’s very important even if he doesn’t excel in the 3rd, that he’s passable in it instead of bad. A pitcher doesn’t need to throw the most power if his control and pitches are at an elite level, but he can’t go out and throw 80 miles per hour either and hope to have a high ceiling. Likewise a pitcher with great power and a multitude of pitches even if he doesn’t have elite control, needs to at least respectably hit the plate, instead of being all over the place.

Likewise I believe a player in the NBA having all his eggs in one of my 3 categories, will make it difficult to success. You can’t just be a physical force without skill and feel on top of it, you can’t just be skilled if an athletic and mental liability and one can’t just be smart and controlled without some physical and skill tools. But the player who is physically dominant and with elite feel/control, has strong skill and feel, or who has strong physical and skill tools, starts to get somewhere. And like the pitcher, if the player only excels in 2 of the 3, it’s key that he’s passable instead of poor in the 3rd.

The mistake I believe that is made most often in the NBA Draft, is taking a prospect with elite physical tools, who’s skill and mental game is extremely raw. For example, Nerlens Noel is ranked 1st overall this year. I’ll reveal my (lower than you can imagine) ranking of Nerlens when I get to ranking Cs in this draft, but compare him to my baseball analogy. Nerlens is a player with amazing athleticism and ability to physically impact the game, who’s subpar with a risk at being awful as a skill and feel for the game player. This is like the pitcher who throws at a league high velocity, but has one pitch and can’t hit the plate. That won’t work! Nerlens has the chance to develop more pitches so to speak to improve his chance at success (such as developing Serge Ibaka-like range) but if he doesn’t, it could be a disaster. To me it’s not a more appealing situation than a player like Brandon Davies who has an elite feel for the game but is unimpressive athletically and with a limited skill game – his analogy being like the pitcher who’s elite at finding the plate, but throwing very weak velocity and limited skill mixing up his pitches, which makes him a guy who’s serving pitches over the plate like a waiter to hitters.

Now admittedly, I do not know enough about pitchers to say whether the distribution of power, variety of pitches and ball control is equally distributed. It seems like power and ball control may be more important than the number of pitches a player has. But I am simply using this as an example to illustrate why I believe my interpretation of NBA talent is a logical approach.

Written by jr.

June 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm

One Response

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  1. I think the method potentially works well for NFL quarterbacks too. Something like:

    Physical Tools – Arm strength/height/running ability
    Skills – Throwing accuracy
    Feel for the Game – Ability to read coverage/avoid sacks, etc

    And much as with the NBA, NFL scouts seem to assume that if a QB has a big arm, he can develop the rest of his game, which rarely seems to be the case. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the real reason for so many high-profile QB busts like Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell was that they were poorly evaluated and their poor skill/feel combination made their physical tools largely moot.


    June 9, 2013 at 9:10 am

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