Besides what takes place on the field or “between the lines,” baseball is a great game of sayings, stories, and slang. You’ve heard of Yogisms – my favorite being “when you come to a fork in the road…take it” – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Some of it is strictly for fun, but other uses are actually used describe the game, its players, and strategy—especially in today’s analytics.
One piece of jargon being 5-tool player, where at the mere mention of it, conjures up images of some of the most athletically-gifted players to ever take the field.
What are the 5 tools in baseball?
The 5 tools of baseball are power, hitting (average), fielding, arm strength, and speed. Scouts use these skill categories when evaluating players, with the first two – power and hitting average – being an offensive metric, fielding and arm strength being a defensive metric, and speed applying to both offense and defense, but mostly measured by stolen bases.
Power: We are talking about home runs, really. Power is a key tool given that the player who possesses it can put runs on the board with a single swing of the bat. There are plenty of players who have power, but it’s often at the expense of their batting average, which makes someone who possesses both tools a sought after commodity.
Hitting: As mentioned above, power is one component scouts watch for at the plate, and average (hitting ability in this case) is the other. A .300 average is considered the gold standard, but anything from .270-.300 is considered very good. A power hitter who also hits for average is rare enough in itself…
Fielding: So when you add fielding ability to the mix, you start to see the makings of a great overall player. Fielding here refers to a player’s overall ability to succeed in their position in the field. Commonly, you’d look at a player’s fielding percentage, which is basically how often a player successfully handles a ball that is batted or thrown to them (they’re basically not committing many errors).
Arm Strength: Just as power can be considered a subset of hitting, arm strength can be considered a subset of fielding. Meaning, you can’t be a great fielder without an above average arm. And, just as the name suggests, arm strength has to do with how well a player can get the ball across the diamond. It should also be noted though that a strong arm is nothing without accuracy.
Speed: Last but certainly not least, speed can make average hitters good hitters, and average fielders good fielders. Meaning, for hitters, speed can turn infield rollovers into singles, singles into doubles, etc. And those in the field? Speed closes gaps and creates outs where there weren’t any before. Speed also prevents batters from taking an extra base, or even reaching in the first place.
The 5 Tools Depicted Through Baseball Cards
Over time, we have witnessed amazing talents both at the plate and in the field—Ted Williams and Ernie Banks, or Albert Pujols and Ozzie Smith, and more than you could ever name. But not one of these guys would be labeled a five tool player. Pujols could hit the long ball and was a great hitter overall, and Ozzie Smith was obviously a wizard in the field, but each fall short when it comes to the other tools.
With that said, many players considered to be 5-tool players aren’t off the charts in each of the five categories, thus making the classification a little controversial, with many deserving names not added to the list because they didn’t steal more than 15 stolen bases in a year, etc.
So given that, this is not at all an inclusive list by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s a very biased list based off my own thoughts and experiences. My ultimate goal, and where this blog was born was the idea to find some cards that depict the different tools. So, as I come across more cards that fit the bill for other players, I’ll add them.
When it comes to showcasing power, there is no shortage of cards that get the job done. With someone like Vladimir Guerrero, he was known for a few things on the diamond, and taking monster hacks – depicted here with his patented follow through – was certainly one of them.
I mean, chicks dig the long ball, right? Well, we all do. The home run is what baseball is all about. And I’m not saying I love to see 9-7 ballgames night in and night out—power and the home run is just as flashy – if not even more appreciated – when it comes in a tight game, and the ball over the fence swings the decision one way or another.
And in cards, power translates.
Especially when inserts really started to ramp up in the early 90s, you couldn’t buy a pack of cards without seeing something dedicated to a Home Run Hero or Silver Slugger, or an ear catching muscle-infused alliteration like Power Players or Power Plus, or rhyming as is the case with the Bleacher Reachers, or even the cutesy play on words like Power Broker, Bomb Squad, Thunder Clap, or Boyz with the Wood!
And I’m not complaining—all of this sure beats the pants off Team Leaders or Record Numbers (yawn). But balance doesn’t hurt, I suppose.
Speaking of balance… (and I’m going to continue leading with Vlad because growing up, he was really the first five tooler that visibly checked all of the boxes. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of players to admire…but every airing of Baseball Tonight seemed to routinely showcase a Vlad bomb, a Vlad cannon, or a “Vlad being Vlad” outstretched set of arms swinging at – and hitting – a ball that literally bounced in front of the plate.)
Anyway, speaking of balance, think about how many pure sluggers there have been over the years, many of which, unless they played for your favorite team, you might have never heard of despite putting up seasons of 30+ home runs. Jack Cust is the A’s name that always pops into my head—33 HRs in 2008, but led the league in strikeouts that same year, as he did the year before and the year after.
Point being, it’s rare enough to have what would be called a true power hitter…add in the fact that they’re also able to put the ball in play and find holes and gaps when doing so, and you’ve really got something.
With cards, “hitting” as one of the five tools gets the short end of the stick. Meaning, you have a ton of photos of swings, but who knows what those swings resulted in. And in terms of special dedicated sets to hitting and average, there are a few, but seem to lack the luster that power brings.
All of that said, when I think hitting, I think Tony Gwynn, and when I think hitting in cards, I think about those cards that show guys busting it out of the box or rounding the bases, and thus, I think of this 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn RC. While Gwynn himself wasn’t a 5-tool player (he was a great basketball player, though), his hitting prowess can’t be denied. Anyone who has played baseball knows that look—Gwynn just smoked one through the left side of the infield, and is admiring his handy work.
When thinking about the 5-toolers, speed is an often over-looked characteristic. Meaning, you’re probably first going to recognize a player for his power or arm strength before you would their speed, with the exception of someone like Rickey Henderson, who burned it up on the basepaths whole lot more than he nailed someone with his arm.
The other piece of it is, speed, or stolen bases seem to be the first stats to slide as a player gets older. It could be that they get slower with age, but you’re also seeing less guys attempt to steal in general, for fear of getting hurt, or quite simply, the analytics saying it’s not worth the risk.
When it comes to cards, you just aren’t going to see a lot of them showcasing speed. There have been a few recent insert sets dedicated to Speed Demons and those who play at Warp Speed, but not a lot of photos used of guys turning left.
In cards, I love coming across a base card that depicts hustle out of the box or on the base path. These days, you have more chances to see your favorite five-tooler burning it up and sliding into second or home on a baseball card given the amount of cards – and dedicated subsets, inserts, etc. – being produced.
For someone like Willie Mays, though, one of the greatest if not the greatest five tool baseball player to ever play the game, options are few and far between…which is why my mind always goes to his 1956 Topps card, featuring a smiling face, yes, but also Willie finishing off what you know was anything but a loafing, leisurely trip around the bases.
One thing that makes baseball so great is the unexpected nature, and the many variables in play on every single pitch. Especially when your favorite player is in the field, you have no idea when and how they are going to be tested. And that’s what makes arm strength so special—base hit and then BOOM; runner tries to go first to third , only to get absolutely hosed by the laser from right field.
Honestly, when it comes to watching replays and highlights, I find myself much more captivated and “addicted” to rewatching clips of amazing throws and ridiculous arm strength versus your typical home run. Maybe it’s due to scarcity, but I think a lot of it is rolled up in the fact that, while you’re going to have multiple guys on the same team even who are going to hit 30+ bombs, you might only have one or two guys in an entire division that can really sling it from their position.
First image of a baseball player that comes to mind when you hear “fielding.” Griffey scaling a wall, right? OK, perhaps Willie Mays and the catch?
In cards, let the images do the talking.
Really, there is enough here for me to create a sub-PC of guys making amazing plays in the field; it’s fun.
While most baseball fans are drawn to the offensive side of things like the big homer mentioned above, think about how difficult it is to capture power on a card. And I’m not talking about with the help of fireworks, explosions, glitter, captions, and shininess like I went through above in the first section of this post.
I’m talking strictly about the photo, and the eyes of the collector looking at that photo to try and get a sense for what is taking place in that moment. It’s tough to do by just looking at a swing, and while we like to think those huge hacks Vlad is taking on most of his cards are 440-foot bombs, the reality is many of them probably resulted in cans of corn or third base rollovers.
But with fielding, you can be a little bit more confident in your imagination. As is the case with the 1994 Upper Deck Griffey Jr. above, the eyes, the timed jump, the ball less than a foot from the glove. You know he got it.
Baseball Cards Tell Stories
With all of this, the main takeaway that people collect baseball cards for a variety of reasons. We have our favorite players, our favorite teams; some love the look, feel, and simplicity of vintage, while others prefer the glitz, glamour, and give a new set to chase every month of modern baseball card brands.
Either way, many collect for the story behind the card, and/or the emotion a card can evoke through its photo. It’s not just cardboard, no matter how many times our significant others or non-collector friends try to remind us.