2021 MLB Draft Prospects: Touching the Bases, Chapter 2

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In College Baseball Nation’s Touching the Bases, we’ll take a periodic look at college baseball through a draft-inspired lens. We’ll dissect the recent performances of the nation’s best players in the run up to the July draft and provide information on whose stock is rising or falling. And we’ll also give a rundown on what’s happening with some of the nation’s premier high school players and how they’ll impact the draft. Find previous chapters here.

Davis’ Meteoric Rise

When College Baseball Nation published its Top 50 Draft-Eligible College Player list in early December, we had Louisville catcher Henry Davis ranked 22nd. In hindsight, this was far too light. While we took into consideration Davis’ success in neutralizing the running game, ability to pilot a staff, and burgeoning offensive prowess, we underestimated the latter.


In the abbreviated 2020 season, Davis burst out of the chute to the tune of a .372/.481/.698 slash line with a sterling 8/4 BB/K ratio in 52 plate appearances. Yet, it’s important to note that at the time the 2020 season was shut down due to COVID-19, Louisville had completed only one weekend of ACC play. It also didn’t help Davis’ cause that at the time our rankings went live, he was still in the shadow of Louisville 3B Alex Binelas, who was viewed as a near-lock 1st rounder.


Once again, Davis is off to a fantastic start, but this time everyone has taken notice. Through his first 12 games, the native New Yorker has accumulated 55 PAs and slashed .381/.491/.643 with three home runs and an excellent 8/3 BB/K ratio. If we dig deeper into Davis’ offensive exploits using data provided to us by 6-4-3 Charts, we see a hitter with uncanny bat-to-ball skills. To date, Davis has swung at the first pitch 42 percent of the time versus the ACC average of 27 percent. However, his aggressiveness is offset by his ability to make contact—he’s swung and missed just 13 percent of the time compared with the ACC standard, which is exactly double that.

As impressive as he’s been at the plate, Davis has been equally as impactful behind it. He’s extinguished four of six runners trying to steal and allowed only two passed balls. The latter development is significant, because if there was a chink in the young backstop’s armor it was his difficulty in blocking errant pitches—in just 14 games last year Davis was charged with six passed balls.


Front offices have taken note of Davis’ strong play in the first part of 2021. One big league scout believes that Davis’ play so far this season has catapulted him into first half of the 1st round conversation for a myriad of reasons. “Look, you’ve got a kid back there (behind the plate) who’s taken all parts of his game to a whole new level. He’s hitting for power while making excellent contact and taking walks. And defensively he’s cleaned up his receiving in addition to completely shutting down the running game. It also helps that the other guy (Miami’s Adrian Del Castillo) may not be able to stay back there. Right now, he’s (Davis) the most complete catcher in the draft class, and I just can’t see how he’s not gone within the first dozen picks or so.”

Ty Madden: The Great Debate

Texas RHP Ty Madden’s draft stock will be one of the most interesting story lines of the spring. Not too long ago, Madden, with his durable 6-03/220 physique, power arsenal, and excellent command, would have been an obvious top-5 pick. After all, in his last two starts the Cypress, Texas native has permitted just three hits over 16 shutout innings in addition to boasting an astonishing 25/3 K/BB ratio. This includes a 14-K, 2-hit effort Friday night against a powerful Houston offense. However, his early dominance notwithstanding, Madden defies what most organizations are currently looking for in a front-of-a-rotation starter.

Madden’s calling card is a toxic sinker/slider combination that features a well-commanded, high-90’s turbo sinker that he throws from an abnormally high release point. His slider is an 86-87 MPH snapdragon, which, because of tunneling and separation, forms an excellent combo with the aforementioned low gas. And the newfound fading action on Madden’s changeup has suddenly transformed it into an effective offering, especially against lefties.


Without turning this into a physics lecture, Madden’s repertoire is in direct contrast with present day pitching convention. As the launch angle revolution has sparked a sharp rise in power numbers throughout baseball, the pitching community has attempted to negate this trend by moving away from the sinker/slider model. Instead, pitchers are encouraged to throw their heaters from as low a release point as possible and fill the upper tier of the strike zone. Now add pitchers with high spin rates who boast an optimal mix of both horizontal and vertical movement, and you’ve got the ideal antidote to combat the launch angle-driven swings so prevalent in today’s game.


Despite his velocity and superb command, Madden’s high release point, pedestrian spin rates, and lack of horizontal movement on his fastball violate the modern pitching paradigm, and it will be interesting to see if Madden’s fortunes on draft night will be impacted by this. Will Madden be penalized by employing a modus operandi that some in baseball view as obsolete or will he be rewarded for stellar performance and having one of the most electric arms in the draft?

An Up-Hill Climb in Baton Rouge

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Walk


This was not how the weekend was supposed to begin for Jaden Hill and friends. The LSU ace got touched up for five hits and eight earned runs without making it out of the first inning against Oral Roberts, a team no one will mistake for a juggernaut. While no is writing off Hill after just one disastrous start, the struggles he endured on Friday did call to attention to a major question mark scouts have cited since last year—the lack of movement on Hill’s fastball.


Although Hill can hit 97 MPH with the cheese, the pitch’s static nature necessitates the need for put-away secondary pitches—something Hill didn’t have at his disposal on Friday. Combine Hill’s subpar fastball metrics with mechanical issues and health and durability questions, and Hill’s draft stock might fall between now and July.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Not only were we too light on Davis, but we made another blunder in giving 5-09/165 Boston College CF Sal Frelick short shrift when we ranked him as the 38th best draft eligible player. Through the season’s first 11 games, the BC dynamo is off to a blazing start, as evidenced by his otherworldly .478/.537/.826 slash line. More importantly, Frelick’s batted ball metrics have improved significantly and he’s displayed pro-like plate discipline. Though some of the less progressive teams may shy away from Frelick given his underwhelming physicality, we believe he’ll find a home in the mid-teens. Frelick will also be helped by the fact that many of the other top-rated bats in the ’21 draft class, such as Louisville’s Binelas, South Alabama’s Ethan Wilson, and Sam Hoston’s Colton Cowser, are off to lackluster starts.

A Strong Breeze is Blowing in Gainesvile

Florida CF Jud Fabian continues to serve as a lightning rod for draft pundits. While his supporters cite his otherworldly batted ball data, swing path metrics, as well as his solid defense, his detractors are horrified by the swing-and-miss tendencies he has displayed during the soft underbelly of the Gators’ schedule (thru March 8, Fabian’s K-Rate was 28.8%). His high whiff rates notwithstanding, we believe Fabian is a dynamic talent worthy of a premium pick, and if last weekend was any indication (just two strikeouts in 14 plate appearances), he may be turning a corner. Simply put, we urge caution in jumping to ironclad conclusions just three weeks into the college season. Florida has yet to begin the grind that is the SEC portion of its season, and Fabian will have ample opportunity to atone for his lukewarm start.

The Next Great Debate

Although we just cautioned against burying a player because it’s still so early, there are plenty of reasons for excitement in the second week of March. One of these is the play of two switch-hitting shortstops who are making a case to be high picks next year. Vanderbilt’s Carter Young and Cal Poly’s Brooks Lee have put on clinics on both sides of the ball that have left the scouting community abuzz. “Whoa! Where did that power come from?” was all one scout had to say when asked about Young’s power surge that saw him belt four dingers thru the Commodores’ first 11 games. “Smooth,” was how another scout described Lee’s play.


Young was part of the loaded 2017 18U USA National Team that featured the likes of Jarred Kelenic, Brice Turang, and Nolan Gorman. Young played second fiddle to Turang, the team’s starting SS, but he’s proved his mettle since. Last year, he beat out Austin Martin, the 5th overall selection, for Vandy’s SS job, and this year he’s treated all of us to the aforementioned lunar launch show. His defense has always been first rate.

Lee encountered adversity right after he matriculated at Cal Poly, sustaining a leg injury that required surgery. However, he recovered in enough time to make a cameo before COVID ruined the 2020 college season then went on to star in the Northwoods League to the tune of a .345/.393/.473 performance. Not as mobile in the field as Young, Lee is a heady defender with soft hands and an above average arm and is expected to stay at the six after college. Lee’s .417/.425/.750 start this year, including three home runs, is evidence of his well-rounded offensive game.


The Young vs Lee debate is one that could captivate college baseball fans for the next 15 months and perhaps last well beyond that.