One week into the college baseball season, Louisville head coach Dan McConnell’s decision to bat Corey Ray atop the order this year looks like it’s going to pay dividends for the next four months.
If you’re unfamiliar with what the star outfielder has done over the four games since he moved up to the leadoff spot from the three-hole last season, consider this cartoonish statline: .733 AVG (11-for-15); .750 OBP; 1.533 SLG; 1 double; 1 triple; 3 HR; 6 SB.
For sure, Louisville’s two opponents for those four games – Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Eastern Kentucky – aren’t teams that we could have expected to offer much resistance. But no matter: it’s an exceptional beginning that deserves mention as the five-tool prospect looks to establish himself as the best position player in the 2016 draft class.
An evaluation of Ray and the rest of the talent-laden Cardinals will come later this spring. For now, we’ll use this hot start as an entry point to recognize Ray’s offensive development. To do that, we’ll refer to the stats from his page on The Baseball Cube, a neat resource if you like your spring and summer stats for college ballplayers on one page.
2014 Louisville: 77 AB, .325/.416/.481, 8 XBH, 1 HR, 12 BB, 23 SO, 4 SB
2014 Cape Cod League: 92 AB, .250/.293/.326, 4 XBH, 1 HR, 6 BB, 23 SO, 2 SB
2015 Louisville: 265 AB, .325/.389/.543, 31 XBH, 11 HR, 24 BB, 60 SO, 34 SB
Ray, we see, made a nice impact as a freshman before a challenging summer in the Cape against stiffer competition. Then things started to click as a sophomore, when he made the most of increased playing time while converting his above-average raw power to games. Missing from Baseball Cube, though, is his line from the 17 games he played for Team USA last summer, which looked like this: .355/.423/.548, 9 XBH, 7 BB, 11 K, 10 SB. That was the first time in his college career that he began hitting primarily leadoff, which begat yet another advancement in plate discipline. Here are his strikeout rates from the last four seasons:
2014 Louisville: 25.8%
2014 Cape: 34.7%
2015 Louisville: 20.4%
2015 Team USA: 16.0%
In a draft class that features no obvious first choice among the available position players, this track record of performance and adjustment-making is an advantage Ray holds over his peers. Consider, for example, his closest rival and Florida center fielder Buddy Reed, another five-tool talent with a similar ceiling who has likewise improved, but whose production lags by comparison. When parsing players who grade equally on tools, rounding up on the guy who’s proving, empirically, that he adjusts to higher competition is a difference-maker. Ray keeps learning and adapting, quickly and significantly.
If he can muster something like an 18 HR-40 SB season in the ACC, which is not a far-fetched idea given his sophomore numbers, while refining his approach even more, it would require a strong case either from Reed or Mercer’s Kyle Lewis – or one of the elite high school prospects such as Blake Rutherford, Delvin Perez, Will Benson or Mickey Moniak – for a team to bypass Ray in favor of another position player on its draft board. You’ll remember that, before the 2015 season, the jury was out on eventual No. 1 overall pick, then-Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson, until his production took a major step forward and the performance began validating the tools. Ray started down that path last summer.
Improvements aside, he was still vulnerable to breaking stuff and left-handed pitching with Team USA, and those are the weaknesses I’ll be looking to see if he’s shored up this spring. He also needs to hone his defense, which will come indubitably since he plays the game easily, athletically and intelligently. But even if he makes fewer strides in those areas than evaluators were hoping to see, a season like what Ray looks poised to achieve will buoy his stock come draft time.