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2023 MLB Draft Stock Watch: Plotting Power & Contact Of College Hitters

Image credit: Wyatt Langford (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome back to the 2023 MLB draft stock watch!

It’s week two of the college season and before we get too deep into the 2023 calendar, I wanted to take a look at how the top college hitters compared and contrasted in terms of power and contact ability. 

In previous eras, the best way to do that for a group of batters would have been to look at either batting average or strikeout rate and plot that against home run totals. That might prove useful but it could also be sneakily deceptive. 

As data becomes omnipresent throughout baseball, we’re getting more and more interesting pieces of information to use with amateur players—particularly at the college level where it’s also easier to control for quality of competition compared to high school players.

So today, I used data we had available to plot 90th percentile exit velocity against contact rates for college hitters ranked among our top 200 list. For this exercise, we had data available for every ranked college hitter outside of Southern Mississippi outfielder Matthew Etzel, who played in junior college in 2022. This plot uses 2022 exit velocity data and contact data from Synergy for all college games available prior to the 2023 season. For most players this means 2021 and 2022 contact data, but for a few players it’s just the 2022 season. 

The 90th percentile exit velocity data was chosen because there’s some evidence that it correlates more year-over-year compared to average exit velocity, and it could also be more predictive. However, most of the research done on this topic has come from looking at big league hitters, who have less physical development remaining than the college players we are focusing on today. It’s entirely possible—and I would guess likely—that this data is less sticky the younger you go. 

Later in the year when we have 2023 data to work with, this would be a fun exercise to return to and see how much players moved. 

Below is a chart of 50 players we have in this sample plotted by contact rate and 90th percentile exit velocity. If you mouse over individual dots, you can see specifics for each player:

Wyatt Langford, OF, Florida (No. 4)

One of the immediate names that jumps out is Langford, who is the only player to surpass 110 mph in 90th percentile exit velocity. That alone is impressive, but that power has also come with a 79% contact rate, which is roughly middle of the pack on this list, but when paired with the damage he’s doing on contact, is excellent. He’s managed these numbers while also facing an average fastball velocity of 90.5 mph which, as you’ll see soon, becomes a separator in terms of quality of pitching faced. 

Drew Bowser, 3B, Stanford (No. 119)

Bowser checks in at No. 2 in terms of 90th percentile exit velocity, but he also has the worst contact rate of the player group, tied with Arizona outfielder Chase Davis—who has similar numbers overall. Bowser was lauded for his power going back to high school, when scouts said he had plus-plus raw juice, and he has hit 27 home runs over his first two seasons with Stanford, but he also misses at a high rate (32%) and chases outside of the zone at a high rate (33%). Sliders have been particularly tough for him and between 2021 and 2022 he missed at a 44% rate against the pitch. Improving swing decisions or finding more contact in 2023 could be key for him.

Nolan Schanuel, 1B, Florida Atlantic (No. 44)

In contrast with Bowser, Schanuel had a reputation as a pure hitter in high school and that is born out in his numbers. He is one of just seven players with a contact rate greater than 85% and he pairs that with impressive power, as he’s one of just 10 players with a 90th percentile exit velocity greater than 106 mph. That’s a nice combination to have for a player at the bad end of the defensive spectrum, but he’ll certainly be critiqued for his Conference USA competition and the fact that his power numbers with FAU are significantly better than his power numbers in wood bat summer leagues. In 2021 and 2022 with FAU, Schanuel’s average fastball seen was 89.1 mph. 

Mike Boeve, 3B, Omaha-Nebraska (No. 108)

At the extreme end of the contact spectrum in the “wait, you are allowed to whiff?” area, we find an unsurprising name in Grand Canyon shortstop Jacob Wilson and a player who maybe you haven’t heard of as much: Mike Boeve. The two have identical contact rates of 91%, which is an elite number, and Boeve has the advantage of being lefthanded with 10 more pounds of weight at the same 6-foot-3 height and a more evenly distributed home run spray chart, despite fewer homers overall compared to Wilson in their first two seasons. One number worth noting is the 88.4 mph average fastball velocity he faced in that time, which is one of the lower velocities of the group.

Enrique Bradfield, OF, Vanderbilt (No. 11)

And now we’ve reached arguably the most interesting player available: Enrique Bradfield. 

Bradfield is perhaps more interesting because of the player he shows up right next to in this plot: Texas Christian third baseman Brayden Taylor. Bradfield has a 90th percentile exit velocity of 101.2 mph, while Taylor has a 90th percentile exit velocity of 100.9. Bradfield has a contact rate of 85% while Taylor has a contact rate of 84%. Bradfield is seen as an unconventional offensive profile with elite speed but questionable power and impact, while Taylor is generally regarded as a safe and conventional hitting prospect with a sound approach, contact and solid power. 

So what explains the difference here? It all comes down to the swing differences, which lead to completely different batted ball profiles. Taylor has natural leverage in his swing, with an uppercut path that has led to a 39% flyball rate and a 29% groundball rate in 2021 and 2022. Bradfield, on the other hand, has a uniquely flat swing and in that same period of time had a 20% flyball rate and a 48% groundball rate. 

If you drill down even further and look at situations where players should be firing off their best swings, you get more of the same. On middle-middle fastballs and counts with the hitter ahead, Taylor produced a 58% flyball rate and a 25% groundball rate, while Bradfield produced a 36% flyball rate and a 55% groundball rate. 

This is reinforced when looking at 2022 launch angle information for both players. Taylor had an average launch angle right around 17 degrees in 2022, while Bradfield had a launch angle in the 6-7 degree range. Taylor hit balls between 10 and 30 degrees just under 50% of the time, while Bradfield hit balls between the 10- and 30-degree range only around 25% of the time.

Perhaps this indicates that Bradfield could become a more prototypical hitter with swing changes at the next level? His underlying power numbers are actually solid thanks to his bat speed, and while he might always have a super-lean body type, he managed similar power numbers to Taylor while also checking in 15 pounds lighter at the same 6-foot-1 height. Perhaps he’ll add more strength in the future as well?

Even if those are possibilities, I’m not entirely sure that Bradfield is someone who needs to change his swing. Yes, it’s unorthodox, but Bradfield also has an unorthodox tool set. Hitting balls on the ground more frequently is probably OK for a player with 80-grade speed who regularly turns ground balls and bunts into hits. Maybe that profile of hitter becomes more palatable at the big league level in a post-shift world. Who knows! 

I’m not entirely sure how teams will view Bradfield’s swing at the next level and what changes, if any, they’ll want to make. But I am incredibly interested in how he’s handled and this data only reinforces that curiosity.

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