SEE ALSO: Top 100 Draft Prospects
The two top college outfielders in the 2017 MLB draft class both bat lefthanded; Haseley also throws left while Kendall throws righthanded. They are similarly sized; Kendall is listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds while Haseley checks in at a slightly larger 6-foot-1, 195. Both currently play center field, and they’ve hit 11 home runs apiece this spring.
While Haseley also pitches for the Cavaliers, he wants to hit and will be drafted as a hitter. And with the steps forward he has taken this season, he’s challenging Kendall to be the top college outfielder drafted.
That never would have happened in a pre-analytics draft environment, but Haseley’s hitting ability—specifically his ability to make consistent, hard contact and avoid strikeouts—stands in stark relief to Kendall.
Kendall has better raw tools than Haseley in an athletic package, but as one scout put it in the preseason, “The industry will zero in on the bat.” That means Kendall will be nitpicked, and he hasn’t changed his track record of swinging and missing, which was evident last summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, when he struck out 24 times in 69 at-bats.
This year, Kendall is hitting .309/.380/.586 through 38 games with those 11 homers, including six in 15 SEC games. However, he also has 49 strikeouts in 162 at-bats and 185 plate appearances. He’s struck out in 30 percent of his at-bats and 26 percent of plate appearances; in 15 Southeastern Conference games, it’s a similar story, with strikeouts in 30.5 percent of plate appearances and in 22 of his 67 at-bats (32.8 percent).
A heavily scouted game against Florida and righthander Alex Faedo was, in the words of two scouts who saw the game, a microcosm of the season for both players. “Faedo struck him out twice with high fastballs the first two at-bats,” one of the scouts said, “then tried to trick him the third time through with the slider. Well, he hung one and Kendall hit it to the moon.”
Kendall’s other tools grade out well. He’s a 70-grade runner with the potential to be a plus defender if not better in center field, though several scouts have questioned why he deferred last year to Bryan Reynolds, a lesser runner, in center. Like Reynolds, Kendall is getting dinged by some clubs for his strikeout rate. For his career, he has 171 strikeouts in 597 at-bats (28.6 percent), meaning his strikeout rate has actually climbed as a junior rather than improving.
That’s in keeping with Vanderbilt’s high K rate as a program. The Commodores and Cavaliers matched up in back-to-back College World Series finals, with Vandy winning in 2014 while UVA won it all in 2015, beating Vanderbilt. The Commodores’ aggressive, let-it-fly offensive approach, adopted when the raised-seam ball was adopted prior to the 2015 season, means more strikeouts by a wide margin.
This year, Vanderbilt has 303 strikeouts in 1,316 at-bats, a 23 percent rate as a team. That’s in line with the last two seasons.
Virginia assistant coach Kevin MacMullen said prior to a game this year in March that the Cavaliers approach hasn’t changed much with new analytical approaches to hitting that value fly balls over ground balls, or with the changes in baseballs The Cavs focus on line-drive contact, and when players such as Haseley do that while adding strength and coming into their power as hitters, the results can be startling.
Haseley has just 13 strikeouts in 146 at-bats while batting .411/.514/.699, with 11 home runs and 31 walks; it’s a strikeout rate of 8.9 percent. Teammate Pavin Smith is an even more stark example of power and contact; he’s batting .366/.433/.621 with 10 homers, 21 walks and just five strikeouts (a Willians Astudillo-esque 3.2 percent). Smith ranks third in the country in the category the NCAA terms “Toughest to Strike Out.” (Haseley, with a strikeout every 11.2 at-bats, ranks 83rd in the country.) Smith’s combination of power and contact has him rivaling Louisville’s Brendan McKay for being the best pure hitter in the class.
Both Haseley and Smith are poised to be drafted in the first 10-15 overall picks due to their combination of power and contact. Kendall still is trending in that direction, too, but if he slips—and goes out behind Haseley, a distinct possibility—it will be because of the strikeouts.
Haseley’s improved power, feel for hitting and center field defense elicit comparisons to Brad Wilkerson, and one scout likened his move up draft boards to that of Andrew Benintendi in 2015. “I think they’re different players, and Benintendi’s tools are better,” the scout cautioned, “but the power and contact ability, the analytics will love Haseley the same way they loved Benintendi.”