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2021 Draft Preview No. 7: Big, Big Bats

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Looking around the draft for some bat-first (and occasionally bat-only), talent.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is another fine installment in a long-running series of scouting reports on guys who can hit, and guys who can hit, and guys who can hit. The catch being, these guys don’t necessarily do a whole lot else quite as well as you might hope. This is, somewhat notably, an interesting version of this yearly batch of reports; none of the players I’m talking about here are actually first basemen, at least not yet, and have a good chance not to be. In fact, I really need to do a second one of these featuring only first basemen, but I don’t know if I’m going to have enough time between now and draft day to get it it. Several college first basemen may end up rolled into a Persons of Interest post or two; we’ll just have to wait and see. Anyhow, here are some big bats, which I will attempt to scout in brief fashion. So big bats with brevity. Bro.

Alex Binelas, 3B/1B, Louisville

6’3”, 225 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 26th May 2000

So, what’s so great about this guy?

So that thing I said a moment ago, about none of these guys being first basemen? Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Alex Binelas, the first player I’m covering here, has, in fact, played mostly first base this spring, but he’s bad at it, and so maybe he isn’t one? Look, it’s kind of complicated. Let’s get into it.

If you’re looking for a bat that can bring the thunder in the 2021 draft, you’re not going to find much bigger thunder than what Binelas can bring. He hit fourteen home runs as a freshman at Louisville in 227 plate appearances, and clubbed an even more impressive nineteen dingers in 230 trips to the plate this spring. That’s a 40-45 homer pace over a full 600 PA season, so it’s worth paying attention when Binelas comes to the plate. There’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff, meanwhile, will take a little longer to cover. Binelas came out of the gate brutally slowly this spring, hitting .155 over the first month of the year and striking out way more than any top college bat really should. In his defense, he broke his hamate bone after just a couple games in 2020, so maybe the long layoff through Covid and some possible lingering stiffness/soreness in the wrist explains some of those issues, but it’s still worth noting that Binelas came into the spring a consensus first rounder and is now very much on the outside looking in. He ultimately ended up with a .256/.348/.621 line, which is still good for a very tough ACC conference, but an elevated (for college), strikeout rate and a bad (again, for college), walk rate didn’t do him any favours.

Binelas has played third in the past, but he’s bad at it. His arm doesn’t really fit at the hot corner, and he’s just one of those guys who looks completely out of his element fielding ground balls. That is, unfortunately, not any less true over at first, where he still looks supremely uneasy picking balls out of the dirt, although his arm is no longer a concern if he moves to first permanently. Somewhat oddly, he’s a good straight-line runner, putting up above-average 60 times, so maybe left field would be a good fit. He doesn’t look fast and doesn’t necessarily play fast, either, but the stopwatch says he’s fast, and the stopwatch is how you get Harrison Bader as a 70 runner instead of the mere above-average that scouts who only ever watched him play left field at Florida had on him.

In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty lukewarm on Binelas overall, but there are some points I should make in his favour. Most of the damage to his batting line was done early in the season, when he looked out of sorts and just didn’t hit the ball as hard as he has at other times, and his season BABIP was ultimately just .238, which seems remarkably low for a guy known for crushing baseballs. I didn’t see him play those games, so I can’t say that he was unlucky as opposed to just hitting poorly or anything, but it’s worth noting that his season line looks very, very different if one believes he should run average or better BABIPs in the long term.

I have a hard time deciding what to think about Binelas. I don’t love his plate approach; he’s not as patient as I want a hitter of his type to be. On the other hand, he can put balls over walls as well as any player in the draft this year, and that never really goes out of style. He’s best cast as a left field/DH time share guy, I think, who bats sixth and hopefully drives in 120 runs because he’s knocking three-run dingers every other day. He’ll go to a team that thinks his best days are ahead of him, I’m sure, and maybe they’ll be right to believe that.

It’s worth noting Binelas is young for the class, having just turned 21. He’s slightly younger than Nolan Gorman, and could get a bump in the eyes of clubs who value youth relative to demographic.

via Keanan Lamb:

Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama

6’1”, 210 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 7th November 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Ethan Wilson is a really interesting study in a hitter with an evolving approach, who has made major strides in improving his plate discipline and contact rates, while moving away from what made him such an enviable commodity early in his college career.

Wilson won Sun Belt Conference player of the year in 2019, his freshman season, when he slugged his way to an 1.1139 OPS in 265 plate appearances. He hit seventeen homers that spring, setting a new conference record, and he drew plenty of walks later in the season once word got around and teams just stopped pitching to him altogether. He struggled in 2020, but it was fewer than 80 plate appearances. Still, he struck out nearly 26% of the time last year, which is terrifying for a college player. It seems like all those whiffs got into Wilson’s head, because he came back in 2021 with a completely revamped approach at the plate.

This spring, Wilson put up a .316/.419/.531 line that was largely driven by a strikeout rate that was less than half of even what it was his freshman year, when he was clubbing pitchers left and right. His walk rate stayed right about where it was in 2019, at 13.3%, but his K rate dropped to an incredible 8.5%. Now, it’s worth pointing out that his 2021 OPS of .950 is, admittedly, much less impressive than that 1.100+ from his freshman year, but what Wilson did was hone his approach, make himself a better overall hitter, and give himself a chance at being an even more elite offensive force down the road, I believe, because he still has just as much raw power today as he did in 2019, he just has gotten better at the other parts of hitting. This spring he looked like Alec Burleson, who has been such an exciting hitter for the Cardinals this year in the minors, but Wilson also has 65 grade raw power he should be able to tap back into down the road.

As for the non-bat stuff, it’s not great. Wilson is an average runner, a fine left fielder, and not much more than that. He’s never played any infield position so far as I know, and being a left-handed thrower he’s limited in where he could potentially play. If you’re drafting Ethan Wilson, you’re drafting an impact bat and just sticking him in left field.

via James Weisser:

Aaron Zavala, OF, Oregon

6’0”, 195 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 23rd June 2000

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I love Aaron Zavala. I really do. For my money, he’s one of the best overall hitters in college this year, one of the better hitters available in the whole draft, and he’s long been a guy I liked to mentally mock to the Cardinals at pick 90. The only problem is, he had such an incredible junior season, having just been named Pac-12 Player of the Year, that it looks like 90 might be too late to get him. Which sucks, for my imaginary El Birdos world, anyway.

To be fair, the track record of Zavala being this kind of hitter isn’t really that long. He wasn’t a big-time prospect coming out of high school (I honestly don’t think I heard his name at all in 2018), even though he did apparently win awards as a top prep player in Oregon. He wasn’t very good his freshman year with the Ducks, either, posting a sub-.700 OPS with basically zero power. He was trying to hit in the Pac-12 as an eighteen year old, but still, it wasn’t an auspicious showing.

Everything really started to change for Zavala last spring. He only got into 15 games before lockdown hit the Pacific Northwest, but over the course of 67 plate appearances he hit .418, struck out just 4.5% of the time, and put up an 8:3 walk to strikeout ratio. He still hit for no power at all — one double and one home run were the extent of his extra-base output — but colour me intrigued by the kid who just stopped missing the ball.

And then came 2021, when Zavala came back to the diamond with a more filled-out and cut figure, pushed his plate discipline to previously unknown heights, and added in a power stroke that resulted in his conference essentially capitulating and giving him an award in hopes that pitchers could stop cowering in fear once 2022 rolls around.

This spring, in 255 plate appearances, Zavala hit .392/.525/.628. His strikeout rate was, admittedly, not superhuman the way it was in 2020, as he whiffed just over 12% of the time, but he also pushed his walk rate up to 19.6%, which is why he literally got on base more than half the time in 2021.

It is worth noting that Zavala doesn’t really have much history hitting with wood bats, so that has to be a concern for clubs that look hard for Cape Cod or other wood bat league performances. He probably would have played in one of those leagues last summer, but, of course, there basically was no summer baseball last summer. He’s an average runner, and doesn’t have a great throwing arm, so much like Ethan Wilson you’re probably looking at a future left fielder, and not a future left fielder in the Tyler O’Neill mold, either. Still, this is college hitter with a Matt Carpenterish hitting profile, a doubles machine with incredible plate discipline and plus contact skills, who isn’t going to embarrass himself on defense, even if he’s not saving you runs out there. I don’t know how early Zavala could ultimately hear his name called on draft day, but you can’t say he didn’t do everything he could to make it as early as possible. I would love to see the Cardinals take him at pick 70 or 90, though it’s looking less likely he would still be there by the time they go on the clock in the third round.

via The Prospect Pipeline: