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I’m down on this year’s college hitting class on the whole, but you really wouldn’t know it based on the first two positions previewed. We took care of the catchers a few weeks back; that group is admittedly more of a list of personal favorites rather than guys I genuinely believe will crash the top one hundred pick party. First base, however, looks pretty damn loaded to me. A strong emphasis on up-the-middle defenders has caused fans and front office types alike to reevaluate the relative importance of big bats confined to first base. This is a pretty easy concept to grasp, but since I knew it felt familiar writing about it — pretty sure I do this every year — and took the time to look it up, here’s a true blast from the past on the topic from almost six (!) whole years ago…
What I think I’ve always been fascinated about with respect to first base prospects is the high stakes gamble that comes with taking a first baseman early on draft day. If your athletic five-tool up-the-middle draft prospect doesn’t hit as expected, you’ve still got — wait, let me get my calculator — four tools, including defense and the ancillary positional value boost, remaining. If your first base prospect doesn’t hit (and hit a ton), then you’re left with nothing but regret.
Snappy writing! Here’s a guy on the internet talking to himself again, this time from May 2013…
Taking shots on bat-first guys in those rounds [5-10] has always been a favorite draft practice of mine. All things being equal you’d rather have a toolsy, athletic prospect perched atop the defensive chain (C/SS/CF), but those guys aren’t always hanging around in the middle rounds waiting to be signed easily. Bringing in a handful of guys you know can hit in every draft seems like a smart idea as well. Drafting is such an inexact science/art that you can’t point to any one player as the model prospect for a given strategy, but I’m going to do it anyway. The Diamondbacks drafted the tenth college first baseman off the board in 2008 with pick 246 in the eighth round. Paul Goldschmidt could never hit another ball hard for the rest of his career — spoiler: that won’t happen — and they would still have gotten tremendous value for the pick. Heck, move up a few rounds and you’ll find Brandon Belt to the Giants in the fifth. There are equal and opposite examples that knock down the argument a bit — still waiting on AJ Kirby-Jones to hit — but too often college first basemen are knocked unfairly as throwaway picks outside of the first few rounds. There will always be a need for guys who can hit. These guys can hit.
Good call on Goldschmidt not immediately retiring after finishing that post. Was holding my breath on that one. Once more from March 2014…
College first basemen are some of the most difficult players to rank this early in the draft process because, of any amateur position, first base is the spot I utilize data almost as much as scouting reports. There are many things to look for in young batters when it comes to projecting the hit and power tool; for starters, you’re looking for swing mechanics (balance, rotation, gather, load, fluidity, repeatability, etc.), vision (tracking pitches), bat to ball contact (cliché or not, there is a unique sound you’re hoping to hear), bat speed, and, one of my biggest things for power, how well the hitter’s upper and lower body work together. Seeing and hearing about these things is vitally important, but, more so than any other tools (and to paraphrase national treasure Rasheed Wallace), bat don’t lie. If you can hit, your production will reflect it.
I stand by this today. Too many like to bust on people who “scout the box scores,” but, you know what, you can learn a whole heck of a lot based on information found in box scores. Those box scores reflect real world events that actually happened on a baseball field. You can’t learn everything from them, of course, but I’m not sure anybody is arguing that. I’d still bet if you found a list of most productive college hitters and adjusted for park/schedule/age, those players would stack up really well with either draft position, professional success, or both. This gets trickier the more you begin to factor in the aspects of scouting that aren’t reflected in a basic box score (i.e., this would work a lot better for one-dimensional sluggers than five-tool athletes at premium defensive spots), but I think using on-field performance indicators as a starting point (if nothing else) makes sense. ANYWAY, last one from December 2015 back when I had my act together and was posting real draft thoughts six months ahead of the big day rather than two…
(This may totally undercut the previous point, but it’s crazy enough to me that I don’t mind. You want the list of first day college first basemen taken since I started the site back in 2009? We’ve got Chris Shaw, Casey Gillaspie, CJ Cron, and…that’s it. Three guys in seven drafts. That probably shouldn’t amaze me, but it does. As we’ve repeated already, many first basemen are made and not born. College first day guys who can also handle and may eventually play 1B full-time include Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Stephen Piscotty. I think all can be corner outfielders at worst, but reasonable minds may disagree. If you’re feeling kind you could also add Bryce Brentz, Kyle Parker, and Michael Choice to that list. I’m not sure I see a future big league first baseman of worth out of that trio, but you never know, right? I suppose the point here is that recent historical trends point towards college first basemen lasting longer than one might think. Or maybe it’s a coincidence based on the fact that we’ve had an unusually underwhelming group of college sluggers in this time frame. Or maybe it’s an arbitrary endpoints thing. Who knows!)
Embarrassing confession time: I don’t know how many picks constitute the “first day” of the draft. Does it change year to year? It must. Do the rounds they televise change? Or is it always the first two? Does that include the supplemental second round? After an exhausting thirty seconds of trying my best to remember, I still wasn’t 100% sure. Thankfully, it’s 2017 and Google exists, so SB Nation to the rescue. I am glad I double-checked rather than just relying on memory — probably would have gone first round and comp picks only — because we can now add 2016 second rounder Pete Alonso to the list. That’s four guys in eight drafts. Will Craig could be the fifth guy, but Baseball Reference has him listed as a 3B on their draft page so that’s that. If I expand my list to Top 100 picks, then we can add AJ Reed, Sam Travis, Daniel Palka, Alex Dickerson, Rich Poythress, Tyler Townsend, and Ben Paulsen to the list. Those last three, all taken in the top 100 — top 90 if you want to be precise — in 2009, my first year doing this for the site, are probably the reason why I didn’t use Top 100 as a cutoff in the first place. So that’s eleven college first basemen in eight drafts taken within the first 100 picks. Wording it that way doesn’t give it quite the same punch as four guys in eight drafts, but it’s still not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.
If you’ve read this far, thank you and sorry for losing the plot. The point of everything above, if there is one at all, is fairly open-ended. I think there’s something to these recent draft trends; real big league teams would be wise to take note and set their own big boards accordingly. Ultimately, my personal hypothesis is that college first basemen remain undervalued draft day assets. Nobody following the modern game will tell you the recent movement towards athleticism and defense is anything but brilliant, lest they get made fun of Twitter for having an opinion that breaks from consensus. I like athletes and premium defenders as much as they next guy. BUT…you need players who can hit, too. And if we’re trying to apply a lesson to any of the rambling mess that preceded this, then maybe all it takes to “win” on draft day is a general awareness of the larger trends going on across baseball. Pick a bat or two you like and wait it out. If you believe there’s any predictive power in yesterday’s post, then at least one or two of the players listed in this top ten will fall outside of the draft’s top ten rounds. That’s wild to me. These are good players! If all of baseball is zigging towards one type of player, then maybe consider zagging towards the big bats. Just a thought.
Hey, 2017 college first basemen! Almost forget about them. Here’s a list…
- Virginia JR 1B/OF Pavin Smith
- Louisville JR 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
- Kentucky JR 1B/OF Evan White
- Wake Forest JR 1B Gavin Sheets
- Michigan State rSO 1B/LHP Alex Troop
- Oregon State JR 1B/C KJ Harrison
- Binghamton rSO 1B/3B Justin Yurchak
- BYU JR 1B/C Colton Shaver
- Florida JR 1B/C JJ Schwarz
- UCLA JR 1B/3B Sean Bouchard
And here are some 2016 lines to kick things off…
.329/.410/.513 with 36 BB/23 K in 228 AB
.333/.414/.513 with 24 BB/33 K in 228 AB
That’s freaky, right? Nearly identical triple-slash lines, same number of at bats, and almost perfectly inverted BB/K ratios. Top is Pavin Smith, bottom is Brendan McKay. There’s been some divergence in their numbers so far in 2017…
.328/.394/.597 – 16 BB/5 K – 134 AB
.388/.508/.633 – 24 BB/16 K – 98 AB
…but not so significantly that any pre-season beliefs should be tossed out. McKay is a really great prospect. When you factor in his ability as a pitcher — and likelihood that he remains a pitcher rendering everything written below little more than a potential backup plan — I’d give him an edge over Smith as an overall prospect. As a hitter and hitter only, I lean Smith. Before we get to him, the skinny on McKay as a hitter…
As for McKay specifically, well, I think he’s just a more appealing hitting prospect than a pitcher. As you’ll read below, this isn’t an opinion that I can justify objectively as much as a weird hunch I’ve had while watching him over the years. McKay’s hit tool (above-average to plus), power (above-average to plus), and approach (SHOCKER – above-average to plus) all fit the bill for a middle of the order big league first baseman. The excellent Sam Monroy dropped Logan Morrison’s name when discussing McKay; I’ll go a little richer and say he reminds me of Eric Hosmer. Keeping in mind both guys are still active and at different points in their respective careers, it should be noted that my “rich” comparison (106 career wRC+) has only outhit Morrison (105 wRC+) by a whole point to date. Anyway, the good version of Hosmer (.300/.360/.460) is a really damn good hitter and exactly the type of prospect I’d deem worth using a first round pick on. The not so good version, unfortunately, is just a guy. That’s a bummer, but there’s still hope. If you’re seeing “bad Hosmer” after a predetermined increment of time passes (two full seasons?), then the plan to get McKay back on the mound and pitching again should be rolled out posthaste. I don’t think this is what will happen — I’d bet tonight’s pizza money that he gets drafted and signed as a pitcher — and I’m not yet entirely convinced it’s what should happen, but, as I’ve said, it’s my current lean as of April 5, 2017.
As for Smith, I’m still not really sure what he doesn’t do well. It’s a true plus hit tool with a picture perfect swing, outstanding plate coverage, and standout pitch recognition. His raw power is above-average to plus and already showing up in games. He’s a well above-average glove at first with enough athleticism and arm strength (88-93 FB pre-TJ surgery) to at least give some teams pause when considering his long-term defensive position. Seriously, what’s not to like about him as an offensive player?
If we wanted to nitpick — and we DO — then it’s worth pointing out that there have been some whispers about less than ideal bat speed. Fine, I guess. I struggle with identifying bat speed outside of the extremes, so I’m happy to tip my cap to anybody who can tag a guy with an above- or below-average swing of the bat using only the naked eye. I can’t, so I try not to judge. Can’t say I’ve noticed anything all that remarkable — good or bad — about Smith’s bat speed, and at some point his outstanding three years of hitting high-level amateur pitching should win out anyway. It’s the current Rowdy Tellez argument manifesting itself in college ball. I like Tellez. I like Smith.
I’ve also heard some BASEBALL MEN chatter about Virginia hitters struggling to adjust to pro ball. Can’t say I really buy that one, though I suppose the murderer’s row of Phil Gosselin, Jarrett Parker, John Hicks, and Chris Taylor haven’t exactly lit the world on fire in the pros. Brandon Guyer, Ryan Zimmerman, and Mark Reynolds give the Cavaliers a little more clout, but that’s going way back. I remember liking guys like Tyler Cannon, Dan Grovatt, Steve Proscia, Stephen Bruno, and Reed Gragnani with little to nothing to show for it in terms of pro success. Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, and Daniel Pinero seem primed to turn the reputation around…if you think the reputation needed turning around in the first place. And then there’s this guy…
.338/.427/.518 with 74 BB/55 K and 4/5 SB in 554 AB
.323/.394/.515 with 78 BB/68 K and 5/12 SB in 637 AB
Top is Matt Thaiss’s career numbers at Virginia. Those were good enough to get him selected sixteenth overall last year. Bottom is what Smith has done so far. Feels like there’s a comparison to be made between the two hitters in there somewhere. Like Thaiss last year, mid-first round feels like a fair landing spot for Smith as of now.
Pumping Evan White up as a potential regular at first base takes a little more of a leap of faith considering his underwhelming plate discipline (29 BB/75 K) through two seasons at Kentucky. Despite the ugly numbers, however, scouts who have seen a lot of White up close have maintained that his approach isn’t that of a hacker who will never get it but a far more mature hitter who shows the kinds of flashes of pitch recognition and patience that give them confidence he’ll wind up with a manageable or better BB/K ratio in the long run. Those two sentences were written before the season, believe it or not. This is absolutely not a comp, but the feedback I got on White over the offseason reminded me a bit about what I was consistently told about Kyle Lewis last winter. The approach looks bad on the stat sheet for now, but all scouting signs point to better days ahead. They were right on Lewis and they seem to be right on White so far.
Smith and McKay are both clearly great prospects, but White, while not the best (yet) of this group, is my favorite. He has such a funky profile that is unlike almost anybody I’ve ever covered. How into White am I? I was at a bachelor party this past weekend boring my brother and the father of the groom-to-be about “this freaky athletic first baseman at Kentucky who could seamlessly make the move to center field.” White is a fantastic athlete who is an easy plus defender at first. He’s got the above-average to plus arm and above-average foot speed to handle the outfield, a move that would make perfect sense if the prospect of him playing transcendent defense at first didn’t exist. George Horton, via D1 Baseball, compared him to JT Snow. In addition to Snow, I heard a really good comp for White recently…and I have one of my own to offer. I’ll let you decide which is which: Jeff King (on the lower end) and Derrek Lee (on the upper end). A spectrum from King to Snow (if you can forgive the handedness) to Lee seems like a fair range of big league outcomes for White.
Reading up on Alex Troop this past offseason, the same thought kept occurring to me over and over: Troop is the cold weather version of Brendan McKay. Hyperbolic? Sure, but only a little. Troop is really good and not nearly discussed enough as one of the college game’s best two-way prospects. Most smart people I’ve checked in with prefer him on the mound. I get it. He’s 86-92 with his fastball with an easy plus 77-80 CU (one of my favorites of its kind in this entire class) and a usable 79-80 breaking ball. Still, I can’t shake the thought of what a 6-5, 210 pound present hit over power type (with power coming on fast) and a seasoned veteran’s approach at the plate could do once dedicated to hitting full time.
If you’re not buying the Troop/McKay parallels, let me try another prospect to prospect comparison. There’s a lot about Gavin Sheets, mainly as a hitter, that reminds me of Evan White. Both are hit over power types with lots of athleticism. Wake Forest is a great place to hit, but I’m buying Sheets’s bat in a big way right now.
It’s only natural to lump KJ Harrison, Colton Shaver, and JJ Schwarz together as prospects. All three have experience behind the plate, but, as their presence on this list suggests, are likely to move full-time to first base in the pros. I’m typically slower to move prospects down the defensive spectrum if I can help it, but sometimes the most likely outcome is exactly how things play out. “It’s always the person you least suspect” is nonsense, after all. It’s almost always the person you most suspect! So maybe it’s time to stop overthinking things here and start buying into the defensive groupthink a little more freely. We’ll see.
Harrison is the most likely of the three to remain a catcher, so he gets bonus points for that. He also gets bonus points for really knowing how to hit. Most of the feedback I had on this group of players had some combination of McKay, Smith, and Harrison as the top trio of hitters. Watching Harrison work is a joy. He takes some of the most professional amateur at bats around. He can hit it anywhere on the field, deftly taking what the pitchers give him and willing to shoot the ball the other way or up the middle when necessary. I think pro scouts and coaches are really going to love Harrison in a way that us amateur chumps don’t quite appreciate just yet.
Shaver is the least likely of the three to remain a catcher. Power bats from Shaver’s part of the country are a little scary due to park factors inflating offense, but the BYU slugger’s power is prodigious enough to play in any park in the country. That power coupled with a mature approach make him a bat to watch, slow offensive start to 2017 or not. Speaking of slow starts…
I brag a lot about not overreacting to small samples, but when those small samples cease to be all that small…well, that’s a different beast altogether. JJ Schwarz’s dip in production and increasingly tepid scouting reports are tough to ignore. “Defense and body took major step back in 2016” is a line taken directly from my notes that scares me every single time I read it. His athletic profile fascinates me. Schwarz improved a lot in both areas as a freshman, took that aforementioned step back in 2016 as a sophomore, and then took a small step ahead on the Cape this past summer. Through it all I never really considered his bat to be anything but a weapon going forward — major bat speed (I know, I know…I’m a hypocrite), serious power, and a freshman season so good you could always point to as proof that he can do it — but this spring has been undeniably underwhelming. I started the season thinking we’d be having the same debates we had last year about Zack Collins, but now think Schwarz’s closest college comparison might be Matt LaPorta. Read into that what you will.
ACC bats make up three of the top four prospects on this list. Number seven on the list comes from Binghamton by way of another ACC school (Wake Forest). Justin Yurchak hit in 2015. He’s hit in 2017. It’s not a huge sample, but sometimes spotting a hitter who can hit isn’t exactly rocket science. My only question with Yurchak right now is about his defense. It’s a happy question, too. Is Yurchak miscast with the first basemen here? Can he play a good enough third base to stick there in the pros? I don’t know the answers to those questions yet — if you do, let me know — but I’m excited to find out more about him over the next two months. I know he can hit, and that’s more than enough for now.
Sean Bouchard is still a little too aggressive for his own good, but his power, arm, and athleticism will check a lot of boxes for teams. Bouchard isn’t really my type, but finding a tenth guy for this list was a bigger challenge than anticipated. My hunch is that will change by June when I have a little more time to dig deeper and find bats more to my liking. But if Bouchard keeps up his .300/.400/.600 pace then he’ll be tough to push out ugly BB/K or not…
A few other names of note are listed below. It’s hardly an exhaustive list…we have to save something for June, right?
Chipola JC SO 1B/OF Reynaldo Rivera
Duke JR 1B Justin Bellinger
Georgia Tech JR 1B/OF Kel Johnson
Hartford SR 1B/3B David MacKinnon
Hawaii JR 1B Eric Ramirez
Michigan JR 1B/3B Drew Lugbauer
Seattle JR 1B Sean Sutton
Southern Illinois Edwardsville SR 1B Keaton Wright
UNC Wilmington JR 1B Mason Berne