I am throwing a wrench in Kate’s commitment earlier this week to cover more collegiate prospects because I want to drag my hobbyhorse out for a piece. If you are seeking to build a core of talent via prospects, the trustiest way is going heavy on high-level position player talents. The injury risk is dramatically lower than for pitchers, and particularly given the ability prep players continue to display, with consistent and appropriate training in a savvy organizational structure, the opportunity of producing star-level players that take the field every day is as good as it can ever be in prospect development. I liked many of the players taken in the 2019 draft, and the farm system’s lack of pitching depth received a sorely needed boost. But sustained success is easier to build around the health and production of hitters than the health and production of pitchers.
In Jerry Dipoto’s eight years of being the GM during the draft (2012-2015 with Anaheim and 2016-2019 in Seattle), Dipoto has just once gone for a high school player with his first pick (LHP Hunter Green, 2nd round, 59th overall in 2013). While that is clearly a tendency, it’s not an absolute. Seattle saw Jarred Kelenic as their top pick in 2018’s crop, but he didn’t make it to the 14th spot. Now, with a guaranteed top-10 (likely 6th-8th) selection for the first time in Dipoto’s tenure anywhere, the options for a refined, high-ceiling prep may be more appealing. Few players offer more cathedral-esque ceilings than West Allegheny HS (PA) OF Austin Hendrick.
The first time I watched Hendrick swing I was repulsed. It’s a strong term, but there were pieces moving in about a dozen directions, a lengthy bat path, and an inconsistent, drifting weight transfer.
That was this spring, and while watching film of Hendrick’s 2018 swings, I saw shades of Travis Swaggerty - 2018’s 10th overall pick to the Pirates. I was quite low on Swaggerty at the time despite his tools because of a herky-jerky swing that often left him off-balance. Swaggerty remains talented, and has CF range and defense that Hendrick does not, but he remains a project in High-A. With the Mariners’ first pick in a well-regarded draft, I wanted something more than another toolsy outfielder who appeared to be a serious project himself.
An impressive spring and summer later, and Hendrick is in the middle of my radar. The swing has developed over the course of the year, with refinement coming in stages. The back heel remains angled inward to unlock as much power as possible from his hips, but the toe tap has been ditched for a simplified leg kick. His weight transfer is far less dramatic as well, driving through the ball without collapsing onto his front leg. While his hands still waggle a good deal at times, they’re already wicked quick. As the changes become more comfortable, his bat speed should only continue to improve.
At this point Hendrick is listed at 6’1, 200, but his frame is a well-suited to add muscle, and he may still be growing. He’s been recorded with among the top exit velocities in the class at 105+ mph, and took home the gold in the UnderArmour All-America Home Run Derby, clubbing a ball over the Budweiser sign in Wrigley Field:
When Austin Hendrick hits one over the scoreboard in RF with a wood bat. Is that good? pic.twitter.com/Xp9PqpX9rg— Scott (@FieldofDreams81) July 23, 2019
Hendrick has gotten some Cody Bellinger comparisons thanks to his lefty loop swing and immense power. Reports on his foot speed and range peg him as an athletic corner outfielder more than a CF, but the L/L 18 year old has been clocked in the low-90s on throws from the outfield and draws strong reviews on his accuracy and carry in addition to the strength. It’s extremely encouraging that Hendrick has recognized - likely with advice from coaches and/or trainers - the limitations of his mechanics and been proactive about improving them. Even with some swing-and-miss potential that comes with a swing geared for power, the hands-based bat speed and coachability suggest a player with the tools to grow into an impressive big league hitter.
Despite coming from a colder-weather region in western Pennsylvania, he performed excellently at the 2019 East Coast Pro showcase against other top talents with his new leg kick. He also stood out at the MLB-sponsored Prospect Development Pipeline League earlier in the summer, getting good contact on high-velo offerings. He struggled at times, however, with the 18U National Team in late August and early September, showing the challenges of adopting a wholesale change against top talent at such a rapid pace. Still, you can now see how his much more simplified approach helps him get around on firmer pitching here:
Don’t try and beat 2020 OF Austin Hendrick (PA) in with velocity; violently fast hands & barrel turning around 92 w/ sink down & in for no-doubter over RF fence. Have tweeted about the hit tool, here’s a look at the plus power. #HailState commit. pic.twitter.com/HBzRdmO2wA— Jheremy Brown (@JBrownPG) August 14, 2019
Because Hendrick has merely average speed, the pressure on his bat will be significant in a way that is not quite as significant for prospects like Kelenic, 2019 draftee Corbin Carroll, or potential top 2020 pick Pete Crow-Armstrong. But the type of hitter that Hendrick has shown the potential to be is an extremely exciting one. The reports on his make-up are encouragingly positive, with a commitment to his family that was tested immensely by a stroke his father suffered during Hendrick’s sophomore year of high school. His mother is 90% deaf, and his younger sister also suffers from multiple health issues, pushing Hendrick to take on a significant personal responsibility beyond his years. From a 2018 profile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hendrick framed his determination to succeed in the stark reality of the moment:
“You know, something he’s said a few times has always stuck with me,” said Austin. “He used to say that he wanted to see me hit a home run in a Major League Baseball game, and then he could pass after that.”
Thankfully, Hendrick’s father has been recovering and rehabilitating successfully. The Mississippi State commit has no shortage of choices ahead of him in the next 10 months, but it seems almost certain he’ll end up foregoing college in favor of the pros. His ranking ranges among prognosticators, but he is likely to stick as a top-10 talent barring dramatic changes. Hendrick has spoken already about having his life mapped out, which could line up nicely with a career in the Pacific Northwest. With a shot at the most impressive bat in the draft, the Mariners will want to be ready if Hendrick’s name is on the board when their name is called. The Hit It Here Café may want to reinforce their windows.