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Chase Burns vs. Hagen Smith: Which Top Pitching Prospect Will Be Drafted First?


Image credit: Chase Burns (left) and Hagen Smith (Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

Amid the chaos of the draft, there is one constant: College pitchers are always in demand at the top of the board.

A total of 127 of them have been drafted with top 10 overall picks since 1981, the year Baseball America launched and also the first year in which more collegians than high schoolers were drafted in the first round.

Compare that to players selected from other draft demographics with top 10 overall picks:

  • 116 college hitters
  • 110 high school hitters
  • 68 high school pitchers
  • 9 junior college or other

So it’s not a matter of if a college pitcher will be drafted early this year. It’s only a matter of when.

The two names mentioned consistently as potential top five overall picks are Arkansas lefthander Hagen Smith and Wake Forest righthander Chase Burns. Both have had fantastic college careers capped off by dominant junior seasons. Both have tantalizingly high ceilings, but how are teams drafting in the top 10 going to assess and separate the two?

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Track Record

Smith arrived in Fayetteville in 2022 as one of the most highly-touted freshman arms in the country, and in his first season he arguably exceeded those expectations.

He took the reins of the Saturday starter role—a rare occurrence for a freshman in the Southeastern Conference—and pitched his way to a respectable 4.66 ERA with 90 strikeouts to 46 walks in 77.1 innings. That set him up for a more prominent role in 2023.

Smith’s sophomore year was an interesting one. He split time between the rotation and bullpen but took a step forward in almost every statistical category. His ERA fell by over a run to 3.64, while he struck out 109 in 71.2 innings. That performance earned him a first-team all-SEC selection, third-team All-America honors and a roster spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

Heading into 2024, Smith was widely regarded as one of the premier college pitchers and a potential first-round pick. Still, many in the industry were not completely sold on his ability to start. He threw strikes at a below-average rate and had yet to spend a full season in the Arkansas rotation.

Those concerns were erased by a stellar junior season in which Smith was the most dominant pitcher in college baseball. He went 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA while striking out an SEC-best 161 batters in 84 innings. That made him an easy pick as SEC pitcher of the year.

The best performance of his career came on the second weekend of the season, when he made mincemeat out of a stacked Oregon State lineup by striking out 17 across six shutout innings. Though it came back in February, it held up as perhaps the best single-game pitching performance of 2024.

Scouting Report

Smith has a workhorse frame at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds with strength and physicality throughout. He stands on the mound with his body turned towards the first base dugout and has a low-maintenance delivery with minimal moving parts.

It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing operation, but the natural funkiness and deception he creates helps his impressive arsenal play up. Smith has a somewhat abbreviated arm stroke and attacks from a low three-quarters slot. He finishes his delivery standing almost completely upright on his right leg, but he does a great job of driving off his back leg.  

Smith features a thunderous fastball that sits in the mid-to-upper 90s and routinely touches triple digits. The pitch boasts plenty of run and ride through the strike zone. It is most effective when elevated to his arm side. He has generated a whopping 44% miss rate with the offering, and his feel for it this season has taken a step forward.

The showstopper in Smith’s arsenal is his hellacious mid-80s slider. It routinely flashes long, sharp lateral movement with a bit of depth against lefthanded hitters. Smith’s advanced feel for the pitch enables him to manipulate its shape. Against righthanded hitters, he uses more of a gyro slider look with sharp, downward bite.

Smith’s slider is just as effective against opposite-hand hitters (.100 average, 62% miss rate) as it is lefthanded ones (.091, 49%). While Smith’s fastball is comfortably a plus pitch and closer to a 70 than it is a 60, his slider is a slam-dunk 70 pitch.

To round out his arsenal, Smith throws a high-80s changeup that he used less than 10% of the time this year. He lacks feel for the pitch, and it doesn’t get great separation off his heater. But Smith’s changeup shows promise as a potentially average third pitch and will flash natural fade to his arm side with a bit of late tumbling life.


Track Record

Burns went to high school in Tennessee and pitched his first two collegiate seasons for the Volunteers. He arrived in Knoxville with plenty of buzz and was expected to make an impact right away.

Burns earned a spot in Tennessee’s weekend rotation in 2022. By the end of the year he was the Volunteers’ Friday starter. It’s easy to see why. He posted a 2.91 ERA with 103 strikeouts to just 25 walks in 80.1 innings.

Burns’ sophomore season was a tumultuous one. After struggling for the first month and a half of 2023, he shifted to the bullpen. He thrived in the role. At the end of the season, Burns had a 4.25 ERA with 114 strikeouts to 22 walks in 72 innings. While his ERA inflated by almost two runs, that was due in large part to a quartet of bad starts isolated between March and April.

After the season, Burns entered the transfer portal. Every program in the nation wanted him. He chose Wake Forest.

Burns bounced back in a huge way in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. He went 10-1 with a 2.70 ERA and a Division I-best 191 strikeouts in 100 innings. Burns’ control remained an asset. He walked just 30 batters in 16 starts and was an easy choice as ACC pitcher of the year.

Scouting Report

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burns has a high-waisted build with thickness in his lower half. He has a high-octane, high-effort delivery in which he attacks from a high three-quarters slot with blistering arm speed. Burns generates a ton of power from his base. He sits well on his back hip, but his ability to block with his lead leg is impressive.

Burns’ calling card has always been his fastball. It sits in the upper 90s and frequently touches 100 mph. The shape of the pitch is also excellent. It averages more than 20 inches of riding life and more than 2,600 rpm.

To put that in perspective, Burns’ average fastball spin rate is nearly 300 rpm higher than the major league average. It explodes out of his hand and consistently gets over the barrel of opposing hitters. This season, it had a 37% miss rate and is a borderline 70-grade pitch.

Burns also features two distinct power breaking pitches in a high-80s slider and low-to-mid-80s curveball. He can vary the shape of his demonic, high-spin slider. At times it will take a hard left turn when approaching the plate, but at other times it will have more depth than sweep. This season Burns’ slider had an otherworldly miss rate of 66%.

One key development for Burns this season was the massive step forward he took with his curveball. He upped its usage to a career high 13% and it now grades as a bona fide plus pitch. Burns throws it with conviction and, on top of the depth it flashes, it also shows tons of sharp, downward teeth.

Burns rounds out his arsenal with a low-90s changeup. He throws it sparingly—just six percent of the time—but it is a more than serviceable fourth pitch. At times it flashes ample armside fade.

One key separator for most evaluators is that Burns has more reliever risk than Smith. The effort level in Burns’ delivery is the key reason. He goes all-out seemingly every pitch, and there are questions surrounding how that mentality will hold up over time.

But purely from the standpoint of stuff and mound presence, Burns is unmatched.

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