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2017 Draft Preview No. 1: Bats Ahoy!

Previewing a trio of bat-first college players in the upcoming 2017 amateur draft.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

You know, I’ve really been struggling a bit with the whole draft preview thing this year. When the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler this offseason, thus forfeiting their first round pick in the upcoming draft, I resolved to soldier on as I usually do with this series, even with the caveat much of what I would be writing would apply to the Cardinals somewhat less meaningfully than in most years. Rather than writing up draft reports for players we could potentially be considering for the Cards toward the end of the first round, this year I’ll be writing up players we could be crossing our fingers are available in the middle of the second round.

Admittedly, though, since that time I’ve found myself with far less enthusiasm for the draft this year than in the past. I sit down to do some research on players I’ve put on my follow list already, and then just sort of....don’t. I do something else. Doesn’t matter what, exactly; I just find things to do other than draft research. The knowledge that much of the work I’ll be doing on the draft this particular spring is going to be so much less applicable to our team has sapped a lot of the pleasure from the process for me.

So I’ve had to do a little soul searching. Or, well, maybe not soul searching; that’s much too dramatic for the situation. But I did have to think a bit about why I do these posts, and if they are as worthwhile to write when they are less relevant to the Cardinals. Ultimately, I’ve decided to do them as usual; I think there is value in writing about the wider baseball landscape, even if the Redbirds will be less a part of this specific bit of the landscape in 2017. I won’t promise to cover as many players as I have the past couple years; it’s possible I won’t go quite as in depth this year given the somewhat less pressing nature of Cardinal-related draft concerns. But I’m going to do my best to keep the coverage up to something approaching my past standards, and hopefully next year we’ll have another extra pick or two to make the speculation lively again.

But anyway, here we go with the 2017 draft coverage. Today we have a trio of players known primarily for their offensive acumen; two are the sorts of players you associate with the bat-first (or bat-only), designation, while the third is a little less limited in his value profile. All the same, these are hitters, and will be valued as such.

Pavin Smith, 1B, University of Virginia

6’2”, 210 lbs

Bats: Left

Throws: Left

DOB: 6 February 1996

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Well, for starters, the bat. But then, you probably already figured out the bat was the thing that’s so great about Smith, given that this post is about players known for their bats. So I suppose now you want me to tell you why the bat is so appealing, huh?

Pavin Smith comes from that school of first basemen that could loosely be described as the Mark Grace School. Think of first basemen in general, and how they contribute offensively. You have your classic sluggers, of course; big power-hitting beasts who play caveman baseball and club their opponents into submission if they can. Then you have the other sort of offensive contributor at first base, who focuses on getting on base at a high rate, piling up the extra-base hits (if not so much the home runs), and just generally doing that Mark Grace kind of thing. Of course, the ideal is a player capable of doing both those things, a la Albert Pujols in his prime, but those players don’t come along so often.

Pavin Smith is very much cut from that cloth of the high on-base, middling power bat-first player. The upside is that these sorts of players can develop a bit more power down the road, perhaps, because the contact skills are present already, and even if not a guy getting on base at a .375+ clip is almost always going to have plenty of value. The downside to the Mark Grace model is a player like James Loney, whose lack of power has curtailed his offensive value both in terms of extra-base production, but also allowed pitchers to attack him aggressively enough that his on-base skills have fallen apart. Given first basemen are always struggling to add value defensively because of the way positional adjustments work, ‘tweener profiles just don’t last at the position very well.

As for Smith himself, though, he boasts tremendous balance in his swing, and some of the best bat control in the 2017 draft. His freshman season at Virginia, he showed an ability to make consistent contact and avoid strikeouts, whiffing in just 13% of his trips to the plate, and his sophomore year he doubled down on that approach. Last season, he struck out just 23 times in 274 plate appearances, which translates to an 8.4% K rate. The .184 isolated slugging he brought with that contact rate isn’t going to set the world on fire, at least not as a college hitter, but it’s enough pop at 20 to be intriguing when the contact profile is so good.

Adding on to that high-contact, high-batting-average approach, Smith showed an improving ability to control the strike zone in 2016, pushing his walk rate up to just over 13%. Even in college, a hitter who walks 1.5 times for every strikeout is going to grab some attention.

The bad news, in so far as there is much bad news about a hitter as accomplished as Pavin Smith, is that the swing plane isn’t really geared for power, and even with plenty of size to think there’s more pop in the tank I think the approach largely is what it’s going to be, barring a significant change to the swing. And if the approach now is working, it’s hard to really ask for much change.

The rest of Smith’s game is, by and large, fine. He’s a solid defender at first base, with very good hands. He isn’t much of a runner, either on the bases or in terms of defensive range. I don’t see him as much of an option to move to the outfield, given that lack of foot speed, but stranger things have happened. His arm is probably average, though I admit to having seen very little of him throwing. Just kind of the way it is with first basemen.

The upside for Smith is something like Mark Grace, with that excellent combination of discipline and contact leading to K:BB ratios close to 1:1 and on-base percentages north of .370 annually. The downside is a player whose overall offensive contributions simply aren’t loud enough to justify his spot at a position that doesn’t have much defensive value, and who is challenged in the zone too much for his willingness to take a walk to really matter due to the lack of power. Matt Thaiss, the catching prospect drafted out of Virginia last year by the Angels, is a similar hitter to Smith; the possibility Thaiss could stick behind the plate gives him an advantage, but they’re not dissimilar players at all.

via prospectjunkies’s channel:

Jake Burger, 3B, Missouri State University

6’2”, 220 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

DOB: 10 April 1996

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Is it funny that the guy named after a less-than-healthy food item also happens to look like the kind of guy who really, really enjoys said less-than-healthy food item? Yes. Yes it is.

But if Kyle Schwarber just looks like a guy who’s really into flapjacks, and he can hit as he does, then it’s okay that Jake Burger looks like a guy who’s really into burgers, because the man can hit.

Holy god, can the man ever hit.

Burger does not have quite the technical excellence of Pavin Smith; the plate discipline is solid, but not in that elite range you can look at as a carrying tool. If Smith and Burger were to form a tag team, they would be the Hart Foundation, and Burger would be Jim The Anvil Neidhart. Excellence of execution on the one hand, irresistable force on the other.

That being said, Burger also does not swing and miss an inordinate amount. He’s an aggressive hitter, but one who attacks the right pitches more often than not, rarely misses the pitch he’s attacking, and has more than enough power to force pitchers to approach him carefully.

I made the Kyle Schwarber comparison a moment ago, but that was mostly to make use of the comedic stylings of our own As You Van Slyke It. In reality, Burger isn’t nearly as patient a hitter as Flapjacks; he’s closer in practical approach terms to a hitter like Nolan Arenado, with a lower-walk, low-strikeout, high-power shape to his offensive game. It’s just a shame Burger doesn’t play third base like Arenado.

To be fair, there’s a decent chance Burger stays at third long term. Unlike a guy like Will Craig, the bat-first corner infield prospect drafted in the first round out of Wake Forest by the Pirates last year, Burger isn’t only a third baseman now because his college team needs him there. He doesn’t necessarily look the part at the hot corner, but he moves around better than you might think from looking at him, and runs at something approaching an average clip. He’s never going to win a gold glove or steal 20 bases, I don’t believe, but he’s also not going to kill you at third to the point you have to move him. And even a 45 glove at an infield position with the offensive potential Burger brings to the table is a tremendous asset.

It’s really a shame the Cardinals won’t have a chance to draft Burger — unless things go very badly for him his junior season for the Bears — because he’s not only a Missouri native, he is specifically a St. Louis native. Specifically, he graduated from CBC right here in the ‘Lou before heading off to Missouri State, essentially mirroring the Ryan Howard career path. The last time the Cardinals had a third baseman from fancypants West County they won the World Series. It is what it is, and all that.

As things stand now, I would probably slot Burger in toward the back of the first round. The body is a bit of a concern, and while the Missouri Valley Conference is a very strong mid-major, teams looking for surefire college success will weight SEC, ACC, and Pac-12 (or whatever number it is now), competition more highly. If Burger comes out this spring and makes the kind of jump that many top hitters often make in their junior seasons, though, he could have some serious helium come June. Hitters tend to do well when the rubber hits the road on draft day, as teams look for a player with a tool they feel confident will play, and it’s hard to beat a guy with a big bat.

Actually, that’s not true; funny story, but it’s really pretty easy to beat a guy with a big bat, especially if you sneak up on him when he’s not looking, and—

Um, never mind. We’ll leave that story for another day, when I’m more certain about the statute of limitations on various things.

via rkyosh007:

Keston Hiura, 2B/OF, University of California-Irvine

5’11”, 185 lbs

Bats: Right

Throws: Right

DOB: 2 August 1996

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Keston Hiura is the odd duck of this group today; where Pavin Smith and the Burgermeister are both corner infield guys, with Smith hoping to play a 55 first base and Burger looking for a 45 third base, Hiura’s best fit is up the middle, where his bat should play remarkably well.

It should be noted that when I say ‘up the middle’ in the case of Hiura, I specifically mean second base. He lacks the functional range to play shortstop, partially due to just average foot speed and partially due to a fringey throwing arm, but he seems to fit just fine at the keystone. If he can’t stick there, it’s likely off to a corner outfield spot, and suddenly his value takes a serious hit, but I don’t see anything that makes me think he’ll have to move out of the dirt anytime soon. He’s not an exceptional defender at second base, but makes all the routine plays pretty routinely, and that’s more than enough.

What I mean by more than enough is this: when you have the offensive upside Hiura possesses at second base, if you can make just the routine plays you’re well ahead of the curve. Admittedly, we are currently living in an age of offensively gifted second basemen, so perhaps Hiura’s bat won’t stand out quite as much as it would have, say, ten years ago, but we are still talking about a very potent hitter who plays a premium position well enough.

Hiura’s calling card is an ability to square up baseballs and hit them hard, to all fields. His swing is a little flat to project huge home runs totals, but it’s not hard to imagine him rolling up huge doubles totals. It’s interesting to note he’s actually struck out more his first two seasons of college ball than either of the other two hitters featured here today, while walking more often than Jake Burger but less often than Smith. I find that surprising because if pressed I would put an above-average grade on Hiura’s contact ability, but when it comes down to it, it’s more notable what he does in terms of damage on contact, rather than having an extremely high contact rate.

The best version of Hiura is something like an average defender at second base who strikes out 15-20% of the time and puts up an ISO in the .150-.175 range. Lots of doubles, a few triples, maybe a dozen home runs annually. Enough speed to swipe ten bases a year, particularly considering he’s one of those players who seems to show good feel and instincts for the game in general. Something like Howie Kendrick, if I had to put a name out there for a comp.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

Finally today, I would like to bring to everyone’s attention that The Baseball Cube is currently going through a process of trying to find a better way to fund operations, as a one-man venture that needs to provide a bit more of a financial incentive to keep going. Personally, I use the Cube constantly for college stats, which can be a real pain to find elsewhere, and so am planning on supporting the site in whatever form Gary, the individual responsible for the rather amazing resource, chooses as the best. I know a lot of people here are fangraphs subscribers, or sponsor a Baseball-Reference page, or give to the Effectively Wild Patreon campaign (I’m in that latter group), and while there are certainly myriad resources out there for baseball stats and analysis, The Baseball Cube fulfills a special role at least for me. I’m not trying to sell you on supporting the Cube just because I use it for college player writeups a lot, but I feel like I should at least help get the word out. If you’re interested in getting more specific information, there’s a banner at the top of all Baseball Cube pages right now that redirects to an explanation.