Christopher Crawford is the founder and executive editor of Draft To The Show, an MLB draft writer for ESPN, and the author of the 2015 Draft To The Show Draftbook. You can follow him on Twitter at @crawfordchrisv.
If you’ve followed the draft closely over the past few years, one of the major underlying themes has been the lack of quality collegiate bats. Teams generally covet position players who can help quickly, but since the star-studded 2005 class that saw four college sluggers go in the first seven selections, top picks have seldom been used on collegiate hitters. In the past three editions just four college hitters have gone in the top 10 selections, and Kris Bryant and Mike Zunino are the only collegiate hitters who have gone in the top three since the start of the decade.
There are several reasons the hitting talent at the collegiate level has waned over the past decade, but after speaking with various scouts and talent-evaluators, the shift boils down to three key factors:
1. The talent
While there are certainly still talented prospects who end up going the collegiate route, we’re seeing more and more of the upper-echelon prep talents choosing to begin their professional careers after high school. Even with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement essentially putting a cap on signing bonuses, there’s still big money to be offered to 17- to 19-year-olds, and more and more we’re seeing bonus demands from players and their respective “advisors” met. These slotted figures also remove a great deal of the ambiguity, making it easier for both teams and players to have a starting—and often finishing—point in negotiations. In the past three years, only one prep hitter who landed in my top 50 ended up attending college: Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt, and he likely would have gone in the first two rounds if not for a leg injury that cost him most of his senior season.
“It’s sort of a rob Peter to pay Paul situation,” a former scouting director and current AL scout said. “Teams want to get these guys in their system and to begin their development as soon as possible. At the same time, you hear these teams complain about there being no quality college bats. The fact of the matter is that when I go pick up my roster sheets for games at college stadiums, I used to be able to recognize four or five names on the bigger teams that could have gone in the first five rounds. Now, I’m lucky if I see one or two.”
2. The equipment
The NCAA allows the use of aluminum bats for financial reasons, but in 2011 they “deadened” the bats, making them act more like their wood counterparts. That decision has decreased the amount of runs scored in college baseball games —but it’s essentially worked too well. These are still developing hitters, and because it’s become so difficult to put the ball in the gap—much less over the fence—more hitters have developed swings that are “geared for contact.” There’s a place at the major-league level for those types of swings, yet the new collegiate environment means potential power hitters need more instruction with their swings at the lower levels.
“As I understand it, they made these changes to speed up the game and to improve the quality of the game,” an AL Central scout said. “In truth, all it’s done is make power obsolete for all but the strongest of players, and it makes things like the Stanford Swing [ed. note: The Stanford Swing is essentially a swing with very little loft that emphasizes hitting the other way and negates power] more prevalent. As guys that are paid to scout projection as well as near-readiness, we don’t like seeing those kinds of swings.”
3. The development
College baseball has produced some of the best players in the game, and guys like Barry Bonds, Will Clark, John Olerud and more would likely tell you that their time at their respective schools played a large part in their development. With that being said, college coaches are paid to win baseball games, and developing 18- to 22-year-olds into future professional hitters doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with that approach. Those of you who watched the College World Series know that there’s considerably more bunting in college baseball, and even the most feared hitters will be asked to sacrifice a runner into scoring position.
“It’s very much an old-school approach,” an NL East scout said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put my hands in my head while I watch guys that could be day one selections lean into pitches, or bunt a runner over to second base. Knowing a guy can lay down a bunt isn’t a bad thing, but when you see guys you think could be a middle-of-the-order hitter giving up outs, you can’t help but be frustrated.
“It’s a lot more than just the small-ball stuff, though. There are so many bad habits we have to break in these guys when they get here; be it the swing path or the way the hands work or any number of things. When you take a college kid high you’re supposed to have less bad habits to break than with prep hitters, but often times it’s more. It sounds a little pretentious, but there’s just better instruction at the professional level.”
While there are certainly no guarantees—and never will be with any draft class—this could be the best group of collegiate hitters since the loaded 2005 draft class. Here’s a look at four players who have a chance to go early this June, and why they have a chance to break the recent stigma associated with collegiate position players.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Vanderbilt
Potential grade: 60 Hit, 40 Power, 60 Run, 60 Glove, 55 Arm
Not only does Swanson have one of the best names in the class, he also has a skill set that teams crave. His smooth, line-drive stroke allows him to hit the ball with authority to all parts of the field, and there’s “sneaky” power in his right-handed bat. He also gets rave reviews for his baseball acumen, and his plus speed makes him a threat on the bases and in the field.
Area scout’s take: “He’s the best college bat in this year’s draft, and he might be the best position player period. There are sexier profiles, but you don’t see too many guys that have a chance to have four plus tools, and I see that in [Swanson]. Assuming he can handle shortstop, I think he’s a lock for the top dozen picks.”
Ian Happ, 2B/OF, Cincinnati
Potential grades: 65 Hit, 50+ Power, 55 Run, 45+ Glove, 50 Arm
Happ has arguably the best hit tool of any hitter in this class, showing impressive feel from the left side and a swing that has great balance and little wasted movement. He won’t put up big home run tools, but the power tool should be at least average, and his above-average speed and ability to shoot the ball into the gaps should allow him to hit plenty of doubles.
Area scout’s take: “If he played at an elite program like LSU or Virginia, I think we’d be talking about [Happ] a lot more. I’m really confident he’s going to hit for average, and whether he ends up at second base or the outfield, I see a future All-Star, one that could move quickly through a system.”
Alex Bregman, IF, LSU
Potential grades: 55 Hit, 50 power, 50 Run, 50 Glove, 50 Arm
After an outstanding freshman campaign, Bregman was considered by some to be a candidate for the first pick of the 2015 draft. An unspectacular sophomore season has seen those talks fade away, though there’s still an awful lot to like about the Tiger infielder. His swing isn’t picturesque, but he controls the strike zone well and with above-average bat speed the hit tool is borderline plus. There’s more power in his right-handed bat than Swanson’s, though he doesn’t possess his speed and is almost assuredly going to move to second base as a professional.
Area scout’s take: “There are some guys who just understand how to play the game the right way, and I think that describes Bregman to a T. He’s not a great athlete, the swing is sort of ugly, and the defensive profile isn’t great. All that being said, no one in this class makes more out of what he has than he does, and he picks up the baseball so quick that I think the hit tool becomes plus. If you’re looking for a low-risk, medium-reward type of player, this is your guy.”
Chris Shaw, 1B, Boston College
Potential grades: 50 Hit, 65 Power, 20 Run, 50 Glove, 50 Arm
Shaw was considered more of a third- or fourth-round talent going into last summer, but after he led the Cape Cod League in homers his stock surged considerably. His swing has quite a bit of length to it, but his strong wrists and massive frame give him the ability to explode on baseballs and hit the ball out to any part of the field. He’s also one of the slower legitimate prospects in this draft, but he’s a good enough athlete to handle first base with solid hands and average arm strength as well.
Area scout’s take: I think [Shaw] improved his stock more than any hitter this summer. I always knew there was big-time raw power, but I think what stood out to me the most was the approach. The only thing that keeps me from calling him a first-round lock is the positional value. There’s just no chance he’s playing anything but first base at the big-league level. Still, I think the bat plays there, and it wouldn’t shock me if he was a 30-plus homer guy for a big-league team in the next three or four years.
Others to watch: Richie Martin, SS, Florida; D.J. Stewart, OF, Florida State; Joe McCarthy, 1B/OF, Virginia
Is there a Troy Tulowitzki or Evan Longoria in this group? Almost assuredly not, though anyone who follows the draft knows that there’s always a chance for a pleasant surprise. On paper, though, there’s reason to be optimistic about this year’s class, and teams who are looking for everyday players who can help relatively soon have more options than they have in quite some time.
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