Image credit: Alex Binelas (Courtesy of Louisville)
Early this season, scouts told us at Baseball America that they were going to be patient. They’d be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to struggling pitchers and hitters, acknowledging that many of them were shaking off rust after a long layoff without actual games. They’d be slow to write off a player for some early struggles.
But now that the calendar has flipped to April, it’s not early anymore. Halfway through the college baseball season, scouting suppositions are starting to firm into beliefs.
For a pair of preseason first-team All-Americans and projected first-round picks, that means time is getting short to turn around rough starts.
Jud Fabian, OF, Florida
It’s hard to have a more poorly timed slump than the one the Florida center fielder is enduring right now.
Fabian is 1-for-24 over his past six games. He does have four walks over that stretch but he also has 17 strikeouts.
We looked at every pitch of the last six games for Fabian. And what’s clear is that while he pulls off of sliders away, it’s fastballs that are beating him right now.
Of those 17 strikeouts in the past six games, strike three came on a fastball 13 times—11 times he swung through it while twice he took a fastball for strike three. Only four of the whiffs came on breaking balls. His lone hit of the past two weeks was a home run off a Drew McDaniel slider.
Over the past couple of weeks, Fabian fouled back some fastballs, but he struggled to put them in play.
Time after time, he’s being beaten up in the zone by heaters. He’s handling fastballs in the lower half of the strike zone and he’s remained relatively discerning about swinging at pitches in the zone. Fabian does not appear to have significant pitch recognition issues. He swings at strikes and takes balls. But if he can’t handle elevated fastballs in the strike zone, the discernment doesn’t matter against a pitcher who can locate.
Fabian’s slump has dropped his overall slash line this year to .234/.333/.523. He has hit nine home runs, which explains why his slugging percentage is still over .500. But he has also struck out in 37.4% of his plate appearances.
No draft prospect wants to struggle during his draft year, but the unusual circumstances of 2020-2021 makes a slump this year more difficult to overcome. Fabian—who ranks No. 17 on the BA 300—didn’t get a full 2020 to show what he could do (and to answer questions about his hit tool) or a typical summer league season.
As a freshman, Fabian had impressed with Bourne in the Cape Cod League, which did a lot to establish him as one of the top position prospects in the 2021 draft. But at this point, how much can scouts and teams rely on what he did in 35 games in the summer of 2019? Fabian hit .290/.350/.500 for Bourne that year with a wood bat, but he’s now a .245/.358/.484 career hitter at Florida through 99 games.
Statistically, Fabian is not performing at the level that teams look for in a college position player they look to take in the first round. In the past decade, there have been no college hitters taken in the first round with a strikeout rate as high as Fabian’s or a batting average as low.
Fabian’s 37% strikeout rate is far beyond the 25% K-rate that seems to be the upper bound of what teams are willing to accept for a first-rounder.
From 2010-2019, only two college hitters were drafted in the first round with a 25% strikeout rate their draft year—Kyler Murray (25.5%) and Jeren Kendall (25.7%). Murray was a rather unusual case as a two-sport star who hadn’t played much college baseball until that year.
And Kendall now serves as a cautionary tale. His draft scouting report stated:
“Kendall has the best tools of any college position player in the class. He’s an 80 runner and has plus arm strength and accuracy. He’s a plus defender in center field. The biggest question with him is how much he’ll be able to hit at the highest level; he has plus bat speed and raw power, but Kendall had struck out in more than 25 percent of his plate appearances with a month left before the draft. Kendall doesn’t use his lower half much and doesn’t create much separation in his swing. He has electric hand speed and strength in his 6-foot frame. Kendall often whiffs at pitches thrown in and out of the strike zone, even when facing below-average college pitchers.”
As a pro, Kendall’s inability to make consistent contact has derailed his career. He’s a career .223 hitter in the minors with a 32.3% strikeout rate.
Alex Binelas, 1B/3B, Louisville
If Fabian is currently in a big slump, Binelas is trying to put a very slow start behind him.
Over the first eight games of the season before conference play began, Binelas was hitting .065/.189/.097 (2-for-31). Binelas was striking out a little more than would be ideal (24.3%), but it was more a case of him rarely doing anything with pitches when he did connect.
Binelas played in just two games in the abbreviated 2020 season because of a hand injury, so the slow start follows a year where he didn’t get to show what he could do.
SInce then, he’s shown signs that it was a slow start more than a lasting problem. Over the last three weeks, Binelas is hitting .353/.429/.735 and since conference play began in early March, he’s hitting .279/.373/.574. There’s enough time for him to put a brutal start behind him. But he’s going to have to have a furious finish to meet the statistical standards of what is expected from a first-round college bat.
Roughly halfway through the season, Binelas is hitting .212/.317/.424 overall in 99 at-bats over 26 games. There are 24 games left on the regular season schedule, plus the postseason. If he hits .350 (35-for-100) over the rest of the season, he’d still be hitting only .281 overall, which would rank among the lowest batting averages of a first-round pick in the past decade.
There were seven first-round college bats to hit under .300 in their draft year from 2010-2019: Michael Busch, Logan Davidson, Murray, Travis Swaggerty, Richie Martin, Deven Marrero and Levi Michael. Marrero’s .279 batting average was the worst of the group.
Busch and Davidson were 2019 draftees who have yet to really have a chance to show what they can do. Murray never played a pro baseball game because of his football career. But the other four—Swaggerty, Martin, Marrero and Michael—have all struggled to hit as pros. Swaggerty is still young, but he does not currently rank among the Pirates Top 10 prospects after hitting .265/.347/.381 for High-A Bradenton in 2019.
Martin was left unprotected by the A’s in his first year of Rule 5 eligibility and was picked by the Orioles after hitting .257/.340/.369 in the minors. He’s hit .208/.260/.322 in his MLB career so far. Marrero is a career .194/.246/.279 hitter in 163 MLB games. Michael is a career .258/.346/.371 minor league hitter who was left unprotected and unpicked when he became Rule 5 eligible. He reached Triple-A in his minor league career.
Also working against Binelas’ draft status is his move back to first base. He began the year as Louisville’s third baseman, but he’s played there only twice since March 6, spending most of his time at first base. Binelas hasn’t looked lost in his time at third base, but scouts aren’t getting to see him there much, and his ability to play there would add to his pro prospects.
Fabian and Binelas’ seasons aren’t over yet. And both still have time to alleviate scouts’ concerns. But halfway through the season, the pair of preseason All-Americans have a lot of work to do.