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Matt McLain Shrugs Off Early Struggles, Cements Status Among 2021 MLB Draft Prospects

Matt Mclain Courtesyucla
(Photo courtesy UCLA)

Matt McLain didn’t have the freshman season at UCLA that he would have wanted or that most expected he would.

Expectations were high for McLain after he spurned the D-backs as a first-round pick in 2018 and chose to stick to his college commitment at UCLA. But instead of imposing his will from Day One, he struggled, hitting .204/.276/.355 in his first season.

“There were for sure struggles there, as everyone saw,” McLain said. “That was the first time that I’ve really struggled at the plate like that in my life.”

Context matters, though, and this wasn’t just a freshman struggling to make the transition up to high-level Division I baseball, though that was certainly at play as well.

He was also taking one for the team and playing out of position. Naturally a shortstop, McLain spent more time in center field in 2019, with some third base mixed in, in deference to Kevin Kendall, who is a year ahead of McLain in the program, and later Ryan Kreidler, who was enjoying an outstanding junior season.

UCLA coach John Savage thinks that his adjustments to unfamiliar positions at least played a role in his struggles offensively.

“We moved him around a lot his freshman year,” Savage said. “We put him in center, he really hadn’t played center really ever, and I think that had a lot to do with his offense. We moved him over to third when we moved Kreidler to short, and then (Garrett) Mitchell went from right to center, clearly.

“We ended up moving him around a lot, and I think you can make a case that was part of his struggles, not being as connected to the game as he was as a shortstop.”

Those struggles provided the fuel for McLain to improve and allowed him to show off one of his more notable traits: mental toughness.

Think about how easy it would have been for McLain to question his choice to go to UCLA rather than begin a pro career. On April 15, 2019, a Monday evening, he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout against Pepperdine, when in an alternate reality, he could instead have been getting his first full minor league season underway.

But he never let his mind go there, because he was confident he had made the right choice.

“I never really looked back and said, ‘What if?’ ” McLain said. “My decision was pretty clear from Day One where I wanted to play baseball and where I saw my career going, and it was directly through UCLA. And it’s the best decision I’ve made.

“And ever since I made that decision, honesty I can tell you 100%, I haven’t looked back on it.”

Furthermore, he chooses to see the struggles as a positive. Savage insists that all players need to go through that type of struggle at some point to reach their potential, and McLain certainly echoes that sentiment when it comes to his own play.

“I learned a lot from it,” McLain said. “I’m a better player now because of it, and I know what I need to do when I do hit that wall, and I know exactly what I need to do to get myself back into the way that I should be playing. I think, because of that, I’ll be a better player in the long run.”

Things took a turn in the right direction for McLain over the summer with Wareham in the Cape Cod League. Against premium competition, he made the all-star team and hit .276/.394/.425 with 11 extra-base hits.

On three separate occasions over that summer, he had three hits in a game. By comparison, he never had more than two hits in any game during the entire 2019 season at UCLA. That momentum continued into the fall on campus.

“I think a lot of the credit goes to coach (Bryant) Ward,” Savage said. “Bryant did a tremendous job with him, changing some things in his approach, changing some things with his swing, and it was paying dividends.”

Paying dividends is an understatement. Back at his natural shortstop position and with a clean slate in front of him, McLain raked during the 2020 season. When the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, McLain was hitting .397/.422/.621, and with 23 hits in 15 games, he was already more than halfway to his 44 hits from all of 2019.

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Now, McLain will enter his third year at UCLA as one of the best college players in the 2021 draft class and firmly in the mix to be a top-five overall selection.

Despite McLain’s struggles as a freshman, there were aspects of his game that were still very present. His athleticism allowed him to make the defensive transition to center field. His speed showed with six triples, which were second on the team behind Mitchell.

But in 2020, McLain showed off sides of his game that were largely unseen before. Not only was McLain’s batting average nearly twice as high as it was during his freshman season, but he was hitting the ball with authority. Against Texas A&M in the Frisco Classic, McLain, the third batter of the game, turned around a pitch from Aggies righthander Christian Roa and rode it out over the center-field fence.

His sophomore campaign also gave him a chance to shine back at shortstop, where he enjoys being intricately involved in every play and serving as an on-field leader.

The abbreviated season ended up being a small sample in the big picture, but it seemed clear that McLain was becoming one of the most dynamic players in college baseball.

“He can do a lot of different things on the field,” Savage said. “He can have an impact on the bases, he can have an impact defensively, he can have an impact in the (batter’s) box. He’s just a guy who brings it every day.”

Recent comparisons in the draft probably help McLain’s stock, which is atypical for a player listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds.

But that’s not altogether different from former Louisiana State shortstop Alex Bregman in the 2015 draft, when he was listed at 6 feet, 186 pounds. Like Bregman, McLain’s game and production jump off the screen more than his measurables do, and he’s stronger than you probably think he is.

“You look at a (Nick) Madrigal, you really look at a (Alex) Bregman, go back further, even to like an (David) Eckstein, you see those types of players, and that’s what he is,” Savage said. “That’s the body in stature, very, very strong, good runner, plenty of strength, there’s a lot to like.”

For now, McLain is headed back for likely one more year at UCLA to be a part of a Bruins team that should be among the top contenders to win the 2021 national championship.

McLain’s primary goal is to do everything he can to put the Bruins in that position.

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