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.
Singing Different Tunes in Nashville
To say Jack Leiter has begun to pull away from the rest of the pack would be a gross understatement. The Vanderbilt righthander followed his 16-strikeout no-hitter on March 20th with seven more hitless innings on Saturday. Though command of his breaking stuff has been spotty at times, Leiter has demonstrated why his fastball is considered the best pitch in college. He’s commanded the 94-97 MPH rocket to all quadrants of the strike zone, where the movement induced by the high spin rate has simply been too much for college hitters to handle.
Barring an injury, Leiter is currently the odds-on favorite to be the first overall selection by the Pirates this July. No other pitcher—college or high school—has come close to exhibiting the combination of high-end stuff and polish as Leiter. Even his frame—6-00/190—once thought of as too small to handle the rigors of a 162-game season may work in his favor. While 200 inning workloads are considered a thing of the past (in 2019 only 15 pitchers tossed 200 innings; 36 hurlers reached this threshold in 2009 and 44 in 1999), shorter pitchers have been getting plus marks when it comes to the idea of vertical approach angle. When a shorter pitcher such as Leiter locates his heater up in the zone it comes in on a flatter plane. This creates the optical illusion commonly known as the “rising” fastball, and hitters often swing under it.
As swimmingly as things have gone for Leiter, this weekend may have negatively affected the draft fortunes of his rotation mate Kumar Rocker. Although Rocker’s stat line from Thursday’s start against Missouri appeared solid—6 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 Ks—his average fastball velocity has gradually dropped from 95.4 MPH during his start on March 6th to just 91.4 MPH on Thursday. As ESPN analyst Kiley McDaniel has pointed out on Twitter, Rocker has begun working with a higher arm slot to improve his spin efficiency and address questions surrounding the swing-and-miss qualities on his fastball. However, rest assured that scouts will continue to closely monitor the radar gun readings on Rocker’s heater and any inability to eventually regain the lost oomph on the pitch will adversely impact where he’s selected this July.
Tough Times in Gainesville
Going into this year, CBN ranked Florida CF Jud Fabian as the top college position player and a likely top-five pick in the 2021 draft. Six weeks into the season, Fabian’s contact issues have become so acute that he’s played himself out of the top 10. And his stock continues to drop, with this weekend serving as the nadir of Fabian’s challenging spring. Against South Carolina, the right-handed slugger went 0-13 with 11 strikeouts. Despite 8 HR, Fabian now has 40 Ks in just 111 PAs, for a K-rate of 36 percent. In the tiny sample size of 30 PAs in SEC play, Fabian has struck out 50 percent of the time.
“Just a perplexing guy,” said one professional scout. “He’s got talent, he hit well on the Cape, he plays a good center field, and he’s young for the (draft) class. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to show something, and he hasn’t done that this year. I mean, how can you justify going to your owner and asking for $4 or $5 million to sign a guy who’s K’d in over a third of his at bats?”
It’s important to note that since 2012, the player taken in the 1st round with the highest K-rate in his draft year was Vanderbilt’s Jeren Kendall. Kendall struck out in 25.1 percent of his PAs in 2017 (Kendell’s career has stalled in High A, where he’s slashed .216/.309/.406 and posted a 33.7 percent strikeout rate in over 900 PAs). At his current pace, Fabian’s K-rate would obliterate the mark set by Kendall. That said, we believe Fabian’s immense potential will prompt a team picking in the back half of the 1st round to roll the dice. His upside is just too enticing to ignore.
Lefty Sluggers Rounding into Form
As Fabian’s draft-year woes have worsened, highly touted sluggers Alex Binelas (Louisville), Ethan Wilson (South Alabama), and Colton Cowser (Sam Houston State) have finally awoken from their slumber.
Binelas, #4 on CBN’s preseason list, is the most interesting case of the three. Prior to March 21st, his slash line read a miserable .155/.253/.268 with a 25.3 percent K-rate. And to make matters worse, he had started to see less action at 3B, which was putting increased pressure on his bat. There was even some talk among scouts that Binelas would fall out of the 1st round completely.
In the four games since, Binelas is 9 for 14 with three dingers and two triples and just two strikeouts. While his current slash line of .235/.317/.482 indicates he still is far away from respectability, he’s headed in the right direction.
“The kid has an explosive swing,” began our scout friend. “I think it was just a combination of him taking a while to get going after the (hamate) injury and putting too much pressure on himself.” I don’t love the fact he’s not at third anymore, but he moves well enough to give the corner outfield a try in pro ball. Still it’s the bat that’s his ticket. With so many of those guys (college hitters) scuffling, if he continues to roll, he’ll still wind up getting popped in the 1st (round). Just a little later than we all thought.”
The bat will also be the ticket for Wilson, who has stepped it up after missing some early action with a sprained ankle. Wilson, CBN’s 5th ranked collegiate entering the season, also got off to a slow start, yet, unlike Binelas, never had any problems making contact. In his last five games, Wilson’s hits have started to fall—as well as fly out of the ballpark. He’s gone 8 for 18 with five extra base hits and six walks to bring his season line up to .320/.427/.627 with 5 HR and an outstanding 13/11 BB/K ratio in 89 PAs.
Like his two contemporaries, Cowser scuffled out of the gate in 2021, but he too has turned it up a notch as of late. Prior to a 1 for 5 performance on Sunday, Cowser had been a scalding 10 for 14 with 4 HR over a four-game span, raising his batting line to .342/.462/.645. What separates Cowser from Binelas and Wilson is his ability to play in the middle of the diamond. He’s currently Sam Houston State’s center fielder, and the general consensus is that he should be able to stay in the middle through most of his 20’s. However, Cowser, like Wilson, will have to continue to post big numbers to offset the small conference stigma that will dog him throughout the spring.
Comeback in Oxford
As Leiter has separated himself from the rest of the pack, other starters continue to jostle to see who will make up the second tier of college pitching in the run up to the draft. Miami (OH) RHP Sam Bachman is one of those under consideration.
Bachman looked like a sure bet to firmly entrench himself in that second tier until he missed three weeks with a sore shoulder following a sterling six-inning, 10-K shutout performance against Florida International on February 26th. Bachman responded with a vengeance on Saturday in his second start back, striking out all nine batters he faced with a fastball that touched 101 MPH and a slider that baffled opposing hitters.
There’s no question that Bachman’s stuff is elite—once again we’ll point our readers in the direction of Lookout Landing’s Joe Doyle’s excellent analysis of Bachman’s repertoire from last November. However, big league clubs will be most interested to see whether Bachman’s arm will be able to hold up for the remainder of the season. If it does, we’re talking about a top-10 pick and potential front-of-the-rotation stalwart.
In the last edition of Touching the Bases, we mentioned that California prep SS Marcelo Mayer had started his club team’s season on fire, going 8 for 13 with four home runs. Because of COVID, Mayer’s high school team didn’t begin its season until a week ago, and Mayer hadn’t missed a beat, going 3 for 9 with a homer, two doubles, four walks and no strikeouts as of the start of this week. The left-handed hitter has four games this week against some of the best pitching in the San Diego high school ranks. In the eyes of many scouts, Mayer has overtaken Vanderbilt commit Jordan Lawlar as the top prep bat available.
Speaking of Lawlar, while he’s had a solid spring, his 19 strikeouts in just 85 plate appearances are a concern for scouts. As one evaluator mentioned, “The kid is tooled up and should still go very early (in the draft), but what he’s done so far this spring hasn’t yet matched what he did last summer on the (showcase) circuit.”
One high schooler who has so far this spring exceeded what he did during last summer’s showcase season is Winder-Barrow (GA) SS and Tennessee commit Brady House. As of last week, through 15 games House was hitting .644 with 9 2B, 7 HR, and just 3 Ks. He was also playing a strong SS, though many foresee a move to 3B in pro ball. It is important to note that scouts view the pitching that House has faced as inferior in quality to that seen by Mayer and Lawlar. Still, House is a name expected to jump off the board within the first 10 picks.