February 11, 2024 

What is the 20-80 scouting scale?

Translating the language of professional scouts into standard English

If you have ever read one of our draft boards or tuned into the Saturday edition of Locked On Women’s Basketball, then you have seen or heard about the 20-80 scouting scale. It is the standard by which baseball scouts grade players at every level.

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At its most basic level, the scale allows us to compare players across different positions and to compare different skills with an easily understood system of measurement. It also allows us to project a range of outcomes for players.

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The basis of the 20-80 scale is the idea that the talent level of major-league players is roughly distributed along a bell curve of “future value,” or FV. The mean is 50 and grades extend by 10 points in either direction, representing one standard deviation away from that mean.

The scale does not extend to zero and 100 because in a normal distribution, 99.7% of the sample falls between the 20th and 80th percentiles. And since most players theoretically exist within one standard deviation of the mean, half-grades also exist at 45 and 55. Individual skills such as hitting or fielding are often described on the same scale.

Here’s what that looks like at each point along the spectrum, from Baseball Prospectus’ Jarrett Seidler:

  • 80: Perennial MVP/Cy Young candidate
  • 70: Perennial All-Star
  • 60: Plus regular/occasional All-Star
  • 55: First division regular
  • 50: Average regular
  • 45: Second division regular/good bench player
  • 40: MLB reserve
  • 30: Up and down between majors and minors
  • 20: Organizational player

The first caveat here is that players are clearly not distributed along a bell curve. Among every player who sees the floor in any given WNBA season, the number of people who are far worse than any regular rotation player significantly outpaces the number of players who will vie for an All-WNBA selection. The 20-80 scale does not help understand how talent level is distributed throughout the league. In this sense, it’s simply helpful for establishing a quick language to compare players.

The second caveat is that there are significant differences between how valuable individual baseball and basketball players are. A baseball player can be one of the few greatest of all time, but he’ll still need a solid group of teammates to make the playoffs; a basketball player who’s good enough to make an All-WNBA/NBA team rarely misses the playoffs. Because of the greater importance of star individuals in basketball, an average pro basketball player should be closer to a 45 than a 50.

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With that in mind, here is what the 20-80 scale looks like for basketball:

  • 80: Perennial MVP candidate
  • 70: Perennial All-WNBA candidate
  • 60: Perennial All-Star
  • 55: Above-average first division starter/worst starter on a title team1
  • 50: Average first division starter/above-average rotation player
  • 45: Second division starter/average rotation player
  • 40: Mid-rotation player
  • 30: Reserve
  • 20: Training camp player

Where the 20-80 scale is at its best is in projecting a range of outcomes for players. Jarrett Seidler, Baseball Prospectus senior prospect writer, wrote an excellent breakdown of this. The most important point is that the grade given to a prospect is not a single prediction but the median of a range of outcomes. An FV of 45 does not mean that the scout believes that the player is clearly going to be an average rotation player. Rather, that player is as likely to be an average first division starter as they are a back-of-the-rotation staple.

At The Next, we aim to have our FV projections mean that a prospect’s 10th percentile outcome is two grades lower than her given FV, her 25th percentile outcome is one grade lower, her median outcome is her given FV, her 75th percentile outcome is one grade higher, and her 90th percentile outcome is two grades higher.

These ranges are about half as wide as Seidler’s, which makes intuitive sense. Basketball is a much more consistent game than baseball, so players should be more consistent as well. A current WNBA player who is a “role 6” (equivalent to FV 60, but for established players) should be a regular All-Star who has one or two All-WNBA-caliber seasons and one or two sub-All-Star-level seasons.

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Here are some examples of WNBA players who fit within each tier:

I’m sure these labels are all perfectly reasonable and will inspire no arguments whatsoever.

  1. Other than the Aces ↩︎

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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