Nolan Schanuel: An Angels Unicorn for the Discerning Fan

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

About two months ago, the Los Angeles Angels were trying as hard as they could to cling onto the back of the AL Wild Card chase. If they could do that, they could maintain the faint hope of convincing Shohei Ohtani, their once-in-six-lifetimes superstar free-agent-to-be, that Orange County was a place where he could win for the rest of his career.

They threw everything at the wall — traded the top tier of their farm system for short-term pitching help, revamped their outfield, and spent a lottery pick on a college first baseman, seemingly with the express purpose of rushing him to the majors in time to help with the playoff push. How’d all that go? Awful, as you might expect. Mike Trout got hurt, Taylor Ward got hurt, then Trout got hurt again. Lucas Giolito allowed 28 runs in 32 2/3 innings in his six starts with the Angels.

This week, the Halos made the unprecedented and controversial decision to put their rentals on waivers, in a last-ditch attempt to get back under the luxury tax threshold so they can receive a higher draft pick as compensation for Ohtani leaving. All that sounds absolutely horrendous, doesn’t it?

But the news is not all bad, because that college first baseman, Nolan Schanuel, has been pretty good in his first taste of big league action. Even better: He’s been interesting. Let’s take a look.

When I spoke to Schanuel earlier this week, he said that when the draft was approaching, he didn’t know where he was going to go, but he knew that the Angels had a reputation for moving their hitting prospects through the minors quickly. That made them a fit for the then-Florida Atlantic first baseman, who was viewed as one of the more polished college hitters in the draft and a candidate to reach the majors in a hurry. As a junior at FAU, Schanuel hit .447/.615/.868 with 19 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 15 attempts. That’s a masher, even if he wasn’t playing in a major conference.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t touch a draft prospect like Schanuel with a 10-foot pole. Not in the first round, and definitely not in the top 15. Amateur first basemen have a low ceiling because of their limited defensive potential, and anyone who’s playing first base at 18 or 20 years old usually isn’t going to end up stealing a lot of bases when he’s 28 or 30. Like running backs in football, MLB teams avoided such first basemen high in the draft for a while once scouting and draft analysis became more systematized.

Then Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, and Pete Alonso came along and proved that college first basemen, even right-right college first basemen, can turn into valuable big leaguers, even stars. A few years later, Spencer Torkelson, Andrew Vaughn, and Evan White came along and reinforced the risk inherent in such a prospect not coming out and raking immediately. The wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’, as the poet said.

More than that, I don’t like spending a high first-round pick on a player for the express purpose of getting help to the majors quickly. That’s where you draft (hopefully) your next All-Star, not midseason reinforcements. But the Angels were in a unique position, so they took Schanuel and put him to work.

Less than six weeks elapsed from draft night to Schanuel’s major league debut. That’s not a long time to learn.

“Everything’s a little bit faster each step of the way,” he says. “When I first got to Arizona, to when I went to Alabama, and now here, each step gets a little bit faster. You just try to slow yourself down, little adjustments like that.”

It sure didn’t seem like he needed to learn much. The man had posted Barry Bonds’ 2004 season, plus 85 points of batting average, in his draft year. In 22 minor league games across three levels, he hit a cumulative .365/.505/.487 with 21 walks and just 10 strikeouts. His two-game stop at Inland Empire of the California League was particularly fruitful: In two games, he went 5-for-6 with a walk, a sacrifice fly, and a hit-by-pitch. That’s .833/.778/.883, which I suspect is a unique slash line for a minor league stop of any length.

“I’ve seen the ball really well,” Schanuel says. “Everything’s going my way. But I did have a bad at-bat where I rolled over and it found the hole. I’d say I got pretty lucky. In baseball, it’s half luck. You could hit a ball 110 mph for four at-bats and go 0-for-4, or you could hit four balls 60 mph and go 4-for-4 with four singles.”

And since reaching the majors, Schanuel has not seen the ball any less well. He’s recorded at least one hit in each of his first 10 big league games, the longest hitting streak to start a career in Angels history.

One of the more important non-Ohtani, non-Trout questions facing the Angels in the near term is this: How good can Schanuel be?

I really have no idea, is the extremely unsatisfying answer. And that’s why I’ve come to like him, now that he’s in the majors. Schanuel has one exceptional skill, and one extremely odd quality to his game that giveth and taketh away.

That skill is the ability to get on base. Schanuel told Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register how, in college, he’d leave the batting cage if he swung at a ball or took a strike. Over time, he developed a preternatural ability to separate wheat from chaff, and so far that skill has translated to the majors. A couple times during the Angels’ visit to Philadelphia, I noticed that Schanuel got slightly but visibly miffed after taking called strikes on pitches slightly outside the zone. This from a guy who was in college so recently, any open condiments he left in his dorm fridge are probably all still good.

Whatever happens, Schanuel is going to draw a lot of walks, and he’s not going to get himself out swinging at trash.

So let’s talk about the weird thing: His batting stance.

Schanuel hits standing straight up, with his hands way over his head and his back arched. He stays back as he takes a big leg kick, and then brings his hands down and through the ball. That’s how he’s hit since his freshman year at FAU.

“I didn’t hit any home runs in high school and felt like I needed to make a change to unlock some power,” Schanuel says. “Right when I got on campus, hitting coach Greg Mamula [now the head coach at the University of Delaware] helped me unlock that. After that, it all opened up. It really lets me get into my back hip and back knee, and get my hands extended.”

Let’s come back to the power in a minute.

Schanuel’s hand position and back posture invites comparison to Craig Counsell.

But the parallels fall apart around belt-level. Counsell hit from a wide-open stance, with his legs splayed in a deep crouch. Sort of like Jeff Bagwell in a corset. Schanuel is more upright (in addition to being much taller than Counsell to start with) and stands with his feet level, right on top of the plate.

And I do mean right on top of the plate. He’s got the balls of his feet on the inside chalk of the batter’s box. It’s possible to stand closer to the plate, I suppose, but only if you wear size-eight shoes.

As you might expect, this means Schanuel gets hit with a lot of pitches. Between college, the minors, and his stint with the majors, Schanuel has worn it 21 times this year in just 91 games. Given that he wears a sizable elbow guard and holds his hands so high, he doesn’t carry any unusual risk of getting plunked in the hands or wrist and suffering anything worse than a bruise.

Speaking as the founder (and probably only member) of the Brandon Guyer fan club, this delights me. Getting hit that much has an obvious positive impact, so to speak, on Schanuel’s on-base percentage. He got hit 40 times in 172 games at the college level, where pitcher command is worse and hit batters are a bit more common. But if he can get hit just 20 times a season, that could add as much as 35 points to his OBP over the course of a year.

Now, for better or worse, it’s time to talk about Schanuel’s power.

You might have noticed a common theme about Schanuel’s numbers at the professional level, both his minor league stats and his .324/.457/.351 major league slash line through 10 games. Specifically: He’s on base constantly, but isn’t exactly putting up ideal power numbers for a first baseman.

That’s because of the swing, which for all its other virtues has Schanuel attacking down at the ball. As a result, he hits a lot of groundballs. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Dylan Crews got dinged for being too ground-and-pound before the draft as well. (This was the Paul Skenes’ fastball shape of position players in this draft class, the fault that got talked up so people wouldn’t think these hugely hyped prospects were literally perfect.) Even for a corner guy, it’s not a fatal flaw. Christian Yelich won an MVP when he was among the league leaders in groundball rate.

Unfortunately, “down” is not where the home runs are. It matters less how strong and extended Schanuel gets if he’s beating the ball into the grass. At this point in his career, it’s probably not fair to treat Schanuel’s batted ball stats as anything more than anecdotal. But with that caveat, he’s put 12 balls in play with an average launch angle of 1.9 degrees, which would tie Tim Anderson for the lowest average launch angle in the league.

Of the 31 balls Schanuel has put in play in the majors, 17 have been grounders and 13 of those were hit at a negative launch angle. He can hit the ball hard; he has 10 line drives this year as well. And while Schanuel isn’t the biggest 6-foot-4, 220-pound athlete I’ve ever seen, he’s only 21 and is lean in such a way that it wouldn’t surprise me if he put on more muscle in the next couple years. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine him as an elite all-fields line drive hitter.

But until and unless he learns to keep the ball off the deck, Schanuel’s unusual swing leaves him vulnerable in two areas. The first is that his power might not translate as well to extra-base hits as would equivalent power on a more traditional swing. Schanuel’s 12 big league hits comprise 11 singles and one double down the right field line.

The second drawback is that hitters who hit the ball hard and on the ground can hit into bucketloads of double plays, particularly hitters like Schanuel who don’t run all that well. This year at FAU, Schanuel hit into 11 double plays, which is as many as any two of his teammates put together. The Owls played 59 games this season, of which Schanuel appeared in 58. Over the course of a 162-game season, that’s a 30-GIDP pace. It’s been nine years since anyone grounded into that many double plays in a season, and there have been just 18 seasons of 30 or more double plays in all of MLB history.

On the other hand, the 16 players who have breached the 30-double play barrier (Jim Rice did it three times) include seven Hall of Famers, two non-Hall of Famers who won MVP awards (Miguel Tejada and Jackie Jensen), and Matt Holliday, who made seven All-Star teams and nearly won an MVP himself. So maybe Schanuel should just keep doing what he’s doing.

Between his skill set, unusual approach, and unique professional development path (or at least, uniquely short professional development path), there’s not a player out there quite like Schanuel. That makes him difficult to project, but absolutely fascinating to follow.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

11 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DoubleJ
8 months ago

He’s Jewish from Boca Raton, it’s a miracle he doesn’t have old-player skills. 😂

Ivan_Grushenkomember
8 months ago
Reply to  DoubleJ

He kinda does

roob
8 months ago
Reply to  DoubleJ

Not Jewish.