Statistical Diamonds in the Rough

Every year in the draft, teams select ultra-talented baseball cyborgs who look like movie stars and project as potential future big league stars. Some of them even have sweet names — Spencer Torkelson sounds like a mid-career Arnold Schwarzenegger role, a screwup with a heart and biceps of gold. These draft picks are the way bad teams get good, the core building blocks of future juggernauts.

Every year until now in the draft, teams made many more picks. Some of them turn into legends. Some of them are major contributors right now. Most of them don’t pan out. There’s a fourth category here as well. Some of these late-round draft picks have short but non-zero major league careers.

Matt Adams, the example my mind first heads to in this category, was a 23rd round draft pick. He won’t make the Hall of Fame. He won’t make an All-Star game. He’s also accumulated 5 WAR in the big leagues already. In a league where 5 WAR on the free agent market will run you upwards of $30 million dollars, that’s a heck of a find.

I can’t tell you who the next Matt Adams is. If there was a draft-eligible player who was likely to have his career, he wouldn’t go in the 23rd round, or be signed as an undrafted free agent this year. Some team would snap him up. Instead, today I’m throwing darts. I hope to find a few position players who might be overlooked in a five round draft but who might hit enough, in some cases relative to their position, to make an impact in the major leagues at some point in their careers.

Of note, I do mean “hit enough.” I looked for these players in the statistical record, combing over college numbers looking for performers at smaller schools or ones who were overlooked for myriad other reasons. I have no doubt that there are pitchers who fit the bill here as well, but I can’t easily access velocity and spin rate data, something any team looking at these players could likely find either from old Perfect Game performances or from scouting. Given that, we’ll stick to college bats.

I’m going to highlight eight hitters. All eight might amount to nothing in the majors. Heck, that might even be the most likely answer. But they’re all doing something interesting, something that gives them a chance to stand out from the pack. They all have warts, too, of course; again, most of these players will go undrafted in this year’s abbreviated setup. And I’m not claiming to have scouting insight on these guys; I’m surveilling from a distance and guessing. These aren’t major league locks, and heck, I might be completely off. But here are a few names you might be excited to see your team sign after the draft.

Alec Burleson, RF/LHP, East Carolina University

This one is a bit of a gimme; Burleson will almost certainly be drafted this year, somewhere in the third or fourth round, if The Board is any indication. He’s a useful example of one type of player I’m looking for, however, so he gets a spot on this list.

Burleson is a left/left masher, the classic profile you can picture with your eyes closed; big hacks, big raw power, and more whiffs than you’d really love in a corner bat. That’s his profile as a hitter — he’s also a reasonable pitcher, a sometime starter with low but acceptable velocity that some teams likely think they can work with. That’s garnered him some buzz in the draft, but I submit that his hitting-only profile would be good enough to be worth a look.

Why? He has rare power for his strikeout rate. As I mentioned, he has swing-and-miss in his game; watch some video, and that’s hardly in doubt. Despite that, however, he’s struck out less than 9% of the time in his college career while walking more than 7% of the time. He’s not facing SEC competition every day, but the AAC is still Division-I, and striking out so rarely with his swing is a promising sign. Burleson might not be a two-way stud, but his bat could carry him to the major leagues even without time on the mound, particularly if he can hang in right field.

Alerick Soularie, LF, University of Tennessee

Soularie stands a decent chance of being selected this year if a team thinks they can sign him. He’s held back by a murky defensive future; we list him as a left fielder, and Tennessee has tried him at second on occasion as well. Second would be interesting, but left looks more likely, and that puts some pressure on his bat.

The bat is pretty excellent, though. He’s Alec Burleson in overdrive, more or less; he’s walked more than 15% of the time, struck out roughly the same amount, and cranked 16 homers in 311 plate appearances of total college ball. That works out to some monster numbers; he’s slashed .336/.448/.586 for his college career against SEC competition, with the contact quality that supports his high BABIP. Walk that much, keep your strikeouts low, and hit the ball hard, and you stand a good chance of hitting well enough to make defense start to matter less.

Soularie isn’t Willie Calhoun or anything; he’s neither that good a hitter nor that poor a defender. He’s listed at 6-foot and 175 pounds, which could theoretically let him grow into more power, though again, he doesn’t really need to add much power to make it work. The walks are really intriguing, though I could see them leading to some strikeout issues down the road; striking out 15% of the time is not really the profile I look for in elite college hitters unless they’re literally Spencer Torkelson. As a late-round shot, however, I’m into the profile. The Cardinals have previously drafted him, and my favorite Cardinals prospect watcher is already in on him, which makes me feel better about his name turning up in this statistics-first search.

Brooks Carlson, 1B, Samford University

Now we’re getting a little further off the radar. Carlson might be that worst prospect type, the right/right first baseman. He’s split time between first and second in his three years at Samford, and gets a lot more interesting if he can stick at second, something I honestly have no perspective on. A player who splits time at first in the Southern Conference should worry you a little on the defensive side of the ball — let’s just leave it at that.

On offense, Carlson is Soularie-lite. He strikes out and walks slightly less, though in roughly equal proportion. He’s got some pop, and a chance to add more. He’s a spray hitter with a BABIP around .400 in more than 600 plate appearances, and while BABIP is a sketchy statistic overall, great hitters can put up BABIPs like that in college — from my limited video of him, he looks the part against overall poor competition. He’s not legging out infield singles; he’s a gap-to-gap type with twice as many doubles as home runs, which leaves room for improvement on the home run front.

One red flag — Carlson played in Cape Cod last summer and was horrendous, with 34 strikeouts in 89 plate appearances. It’s a risk/reward issue here; if that form is how he looks against good college pitching, it simply won’t work. I don’t have a good model handy for translating Southern League stats to the Cape, but there’s no way that was his expected line. Signing Carlson is a bet that he was just off that summer, and that his pure hitting works regardless of pitching level. I’m certain he won’t be drafted, but there’s a ghost of a chance that the bat is somewhat real, and if he combines that with playing a Max Muncy-esque second base, why not?

Grant Mathews, 1B, Tulane University

I don’t know, folks. Maybe. Mathews is 24, and he plays first base in the AAC; that’s a rough start to anyone’s profile. Scouts have probably gotten a good look at him while evaluating teammate Hudson Haskin, an outfielder my model also turned up who projects in the late second round (hence ineligible for this writeup) — but what kind of look would you need to see from a 24-year-old first baseman to consider drafting him?

The Braves selected Mathews in the 38th round of the 2019 draft, so it’s not as though he’s completely off the radar, and he has the exact profile I’m looking for in hitters: sub-10% strikeout rate, walk totals in line with strikeouts, and good pop. Put up Mathews’ line as a 20-year-old, or as a 22-year-old in the ACC (that one C-for-A swap makes a world of difference), and he’d garner more interest. He even played outfield last year, so maybe he’s not doomed to first base. But an old hitter in a middling conference? He’s a lottery ticket — the kind of player who might be squeezed out of this year’s college player pool due to minor league contraction. It’s a long shot, but I still think he’s worth at least looking at.

Eduardo Malinowski, 2B/LF, University of Pennsylvania

The reaches continue — that’s the theme of this column. Malinowski plays at Penn, and he’s exactly the kind of player this search keeps turning up. A righty without a true defensive position, he’s oscillated between second and left in his career. I don’t think this profile really works in the minors; he’s raked over the past two years, but in limited looks and against Ivy League competition.

If Malinowski does pan out, though, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world. Collegiate Baseball named him a freshman All-American in 2018, and he was even better on a rate basis in 2019 despite missing time with injury. He posted a silly-sample 1.262 OPS in his eight games this year, and he does it in a way that looks pretty real; plenty of doubles and triples (he has plus straight line speed), a 15% strikeout rate (ehhhhhh), and enough home runs to keep people honest. It’s not a slam dunk profile — these are the long shots, after all — but I find him quite interesting.

One downside; there’s almost no chance a team will get a junior from an Ivy League school to sign for $20,000, particularly knowing that he’s unlikely to pan out. He’ll likely be back next year to see if he can build on his form from 2019 and 2020.

Caleb Webster, SS/3B, UNC Greensboro

A shortstop in the unheralded offensive performers list? Well, kind of. Webster splits time between short and third, which means he’s probably a third baseman. Until 2020, he was also doing a baseball impression of Benjamin Button — he looked excellent as a freshman before backsliding as a sophomore and junior. He absolutely mashed this year, and UNC Greensboro played some real competition at the start of their season, but there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical on the performance front.

If his recent form is even a little real, however, hoo boy. He boasts a career .363 batting average. He strikes out less than 10% of the time, maximizing his hit tool, where he’s all line drive doubles and speed-assisted singles. He’s stolen 24 bases in his career and only been caught five times.

He’s also 23. The Southern Conference isn’t the SEC. He has a .127 ISO for his career, and only 10 home runs in 814 plate appearances. This isn’t Nick Madrigal at third base or anything. Most likely, in fact, the sum just isn’t going to work. But it might!

Alsander Womack, 2B, Norfolk State University

How would you like a second baseman with plus speed who walks more than he strikes out — more than 10% of the time, to boot? What if he also cranked extra base hits in 8% of his at-bats and got on base 40% of the time? As an added bonus, what if he was only 21, instead of the 23- and 24-year-olds I’m trying to pawn off on you in this column?

What if he played at Norfolk State? What if he stood 5-foot-9 and batted righty? What if most of those extra-base hits were doubles and triples, instead of glorious dingers? That’s what you get with Alsander Womack. I love him for the low strikeout rate and good plate discipline, for the extra base hits, and for the rare chance at a positive defensive outcome in this rogue’s gallery. The competition is just always going to be a question, though, until he gets some reps in a showcase league or the minors.

Jaylyn Williams, 3B, Jackson State University

In two seasons at Jackson State, Jaylyn Williams has been nothing short of transcendent. His stats basically look fake; that .393/.492/.537 batting line is otherworldly, and the 7% strikeout rate looks excellent next to a 12% walk rate. The SWAC is pretty far down the chain as far as leagues go, however, and the abbreviated 2020 season didn’t give him a chance to add to his statistical record.

This pick is largely guesswork. I haven’t found much video, haven’t heard anything, and don’t have any real reason to believe aside from the numbers. His defensive value is also baffling — in his two years, he’s appeared at catcher, first, short, third, and right, though third appears to be his main position. Could it all be a mirage? For sure! I’d pay him $20,000 to find out, though.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Any of these guys play in wood bat leagues aside from Carlson? My general philosophy on sleepers is to find the guys who lit up Cape Cod and then start investigating from there.

The canonical example is much like Burleson–a guy who could have very well be drafted in the Top 5 rounds, but gives an example of the type: Matthew Barefoot. Backwards (R/L) outfielder from Campbell, who walked almost as much as he struck out and batted .379. Seems like the kind of guy to take a flier on.