We’re cutting the ribbon on the 2017 MLB Draft Sortable Board. The board will evolve and expand as we approach the draft, and Future Value grades will be added as the cement dries on player evaluations. For info on the 20-80 scale, by which the players are evaluated and, ultimately, the board is governed, bang it here. For info on Future Value, it’s strengths and flaws as a shorthand measurement, read this.
Thoughts on the Class Quality
The 2017 class is about average on overall talent and perhaps a bit below average as far as depth is concerned. The strength atop the class, despite Florida RHP Alex Faedo’s slightly diluted stuff, remains the terrific group of college pitchers who all have a chance to go in the top half of the first round. Faedo, Oregon LHP David Peterson, Louisville LHP Brendan McKay, Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright, and North Carolina RHP J.B. Bukauskas are all fairly easy to project as starters and have a chance to make up 33% of the top 15 picks. UCLA righty Griffin Canning also has consensus starter projection but lacks the stuff of those ahead of him and has been used heavily, at times throwing 120-140 pitches in a single start.
The tier of college pitching beneath those top six is rife with question marks. For some, it’s a question of health: Tristan Beck of Stanford hasn’t pitched due to a back issue, and the two South Carolina arms (Wil Crowe and Clarke Schmidt) both have a Tommy John on their resume. For others, it’s repertoire depth and command: that includes LSU’s Alex Lange, Mizzou’s Tanner Houck, and the two JUCO arms (Nate Pearson and Brendon Little). Exiled Houston LHP Seth Romero is going to fall because of off-field issues. There are several parallels between this group and the 2014 crop of college pitching. This draft also has a glut of high-upside prep athletes, but many of them have bat-to-ball issues.
Why This Class Is Weird
All drafts have their own idiosyncrasies (last year had arguably its top three talents fall because of off-field issues or injury), but this year is especially bizarre. The landscape of college hitters is parched and dry, with many considering McKay — who has told scouts that hitting is more or less a hobby he gets to do when he isn’t pitching — the best in the class. Several of the college hitting prospects likely to be selected early project as first basemen (often a damning distinction, as few college first basemen pan out) or were draft eligible last year but not well regarded and thus returned to school.
Perhaps the most bizarre college hitting prospect and draft microcosm is Kentucky 1B Evan White, whose backward Bats/Throws profile is a rarity in the majors. (Jason Lane, Ryan Ludwick, and Cody Ross represent some contemporary examples of left-throwing, right-hitting big leaguers.) White is a plus runner and some scouts would like to see him tried in center field, but others think he’s a potentially elite defensive first baseman and won’t entertain that idea.
Drafts often have several players with two-way pedigrees because, especially at the high-school level, where the best athletes are tasked with as many impactful roles as possible. It’s also fairly common to see a few college players who hit and also pitch out of their team’s bullpen. (Will Craig, Jake Cronenworth, and Sheldon Neuse were examples of that in last year’s draft.) There are others who play first base on days they don’t start (such as A.J. Reed, Carlos Rodon, and Joe Savery in recent years).
Perhaps because of what San Diego is attempting to do with Christian Bethancourt, Madison Bumgarner’s offensive exploits, and because we’re approaching the posting of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, there’s more public discourse about the viability of a true two-way Major League player than at any time in baseball’s era of quantification. While both I and most of the industry personnel with whom I’ve spoken are skeptical of the viability of a true two-way player (teams haven’t yet harnessed the power of time dilation and nobody has seen a Time Turner since the 1990s) and there’s general agreement that the prospects I’m about to discuss will all eventually settle into a single role, there’s more disagreement this year about which side of the ball these prospects will ultimately fall.
The most prominent of these is obviously Louisville 1B/LHP Brendan McKay. Some teams atop the draft have McKay turned in as a pitcher, some as a hitter, and some have disagreement within the org about which course of action is best to take.
McKay has big raw power and gets to it with a comfortable, low-effort swing, and there are scouts who think he could be a plus hitter with plus game power if he focuses on hitting full time. That would make him the best college bat, and arguably the best hitter overall, in this entire draft class. Of course, McKay’s projection as a hitter exists at least partially in abstraction. He has little margin for error because he’s a first-base-only prospect as a bat and at least one statistical red flag has emerged for me — namely, that McKay’s power splits against conference and non-conference foes are very disparate.
As a pitcher, McKay has been 88-93 with his fastball this year and mostly in the low end of that band as the season has gone along. He has a plus curveball (though some scouts have a 50 on it), commands both of those pitches to both sides of the plate, and he has changeup projection based on his short, deceptive arm action. That’s a great pitching prospect but one who isn’t that dissimilar from Oregon lefty David Peterson, who is also mostly 88-92 (and it’s heavier than McKay’s fastball) with a chance for two above-average secondaries. While I think he deserves to be, he’s hardly been discussed as a top-10 pick.
There’s general agreement that McKay is a top-seven prospect in this draft as either a pitcher or hitter, but it’s hard for anyone to definitively say that one or the other is clearly the best course of action for his development — certainly not in the same way it’s easy to say that Hunter Greene is a far superior prospect on the mound than he is as an infielder. And while I don’t think McKay has a future as a two-way player, I do think, because his innings are likely to be limited during the summer’s dog days, the team that drafts him has an opportunity to continue to evaluate him as both a hitter and pitcher. McKay could pitch once a week or out of a bullpen while he’s assigned, aggressively, to an advanced affiliate, where his team can evaluate him as a hitter against upper-level pitching. It would allow teams more time to evaluate him on both sides of the ball without curtailing his development on either side by giving them a few more months to send in front-office types to have a look, gather Trackman data, etc.
The only two-way whom I have personally evaluated against the general consensus is Huntington Beach RHP/C Hagen Danner. Most scouts like him on the mound, as he’ll touch 96 and has an above-average curveball. I like him behind the plate, however. He has plus raw power, I’d like to see how his receiving (which is not good right now) improves if he focuses on catching full time, and I think it’s far easier to move a prospect like Danner to the mound if he flops as a hitter than the other way around.
The Trackman Factor
Data continues to creep into our precious draft, and I think it’s important to start paying attention to draft-related trends as far as batted-ball data is concerned. The Sortable Board has max spin rates recorded for high-school players during various showcase events over the last year (the data is publicly available on Trackman’s website and on our board it appears as Max Fastball rpms/Max Curveball rpms), and MLB teams have access to incomplete but growing data at the college level. Some Collegiate National Team data is available to the public and many schools (including North Carolina, UCLA, Missouri State, and Virginia who all have large-looming prospects in this year’s draft) have a Trackman set up and put their data into a bucket that MLB teams pay to access.
Some teams look at this data more than others (the Yankees, Pirates and Dodgers are three data-thirsty teams and you can probably make educated guesses as to the identities of many others), but the number is growing as the quantity and quality of the data expands.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.