It’s not often you come across a former first round pick whom you, another team, also get to draft as a first round pick. That’s the headliner on UCLA IF/CF Matt McLain — the Diamondbacks first round selection of 2018. The 25th overall pick that year, McLain elected Westwood rather than big league ball, a decision that, by all means, appears to be a healthy gamble for his checking account.
At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, McLain comes in a diminutive package but packs a punch you might not expect from a stature like his.
The impact wasn't immediate, but it has since arrived. The Bruins expected McLain to anchor the top of their lineup his freshman year, though he sputtered out of the gates and never really found his stride. Instead of living on the base paths, he got stuck in the mud, hitting .204/.276/.355 in 2019.
Maybe the biggest question on McLain heading into his second draft-eligible campaign will be where his eventual home is on the diamond. Some of the scuffling his freshman year presumably came from learning several defensive positions. A natural shortstop, McLain had to take a backseat to incumbent junior Kevin Kendall, instead being forced reps at third base and centerfield. Over 80 percent of his starts in 2019 came in the outfield, a spot entirely foreign to him.
McLain obviously impressed as he forced future first round pick and 80-runner Garrett Mitchell into right field in 2019. If nothing else, the versatility will help his draft stock if evaluators deem him unfit for shortstop long term. We’ll get into that...
His natural talents for the infield certainly didn’t go unnoticed as he’d start 34 games at shortstop for Wareham Gateman in the wood bat Cape Cod Baseball League. The bat would heat up on the Cape, where McLain slashed .274/.394/.425 with 11 extra base hits, two of which were dingers.
2020 was a bit more fortuitous to McLain as the aforementioned Kendall, now a senior, missed the entire abbreviated campaign due to injury. McLain would start all 13 games at the “6”. It was the beginning of a breakout campaign for the Orange, CA native. His .397 batting average and .621 slug both ranked inside the top ten in the Pac-12. Furthermore, he’d poke three home runs in his 58 at-bats, an encouraging sign for his burgeoning power.
Alas, the season was cut short and we’re all left asking what could have been.
With Cape Cod cancelled this summer, Matt McLain is playing in another wooden bat league this summer, albiet an independent league in California. He’s playing for the Santa Barbara Foresters, the premier west coast independent club, and while it’s not against the best competition in the country, he’s slashing .519/.614/.831 with four home runs through 22 games. Even if that were a beer league slash... probably something you want to write home about.
As it stands, McLain is projected the first collegiate infielder off the board next June. Let’s have a peek in the toolshed.
TOOLS (Future Value)
McLain’s bread and butter from the time he set foot at Beckman High School has been his pure hit tool. McLain for the most part is very short to the ball. Similar to the Astros’ Alex Bregman, McLain does a good job of keeping his hands inside the ball and dragging the knob of the bat through the zone, tight to the body. The result is the ability to cover the entire plate whilst driving the ball to all fields. It’s a quiet, compact approach at the plate with a narrowed stance he’s wrangled in since arriving to UCLA. He employs a long-stride with a mild leg kick that doesn’t appear to inhibit his timing mechanism, utilizing his forward momentum to help produce good barrel velocities for a guy his size. His stride doesn’t seem to hinder his ability to stay balanced in the box and make good, consistent contact at the plate. The mechanics of it all are similar to that of Dustin Pedroia’s operation, though it lacks some important characteristics the latter’s possesses (possessed?). More on that shortly. McLain’s plate discipline and vision aren’t as hallowed as Bregman’s at LSU, but it’s nothing terribly alarming at this point. His 22% K-rate in 2020 was much-improved from 2019, and the walk rate has floated around 8% throughout his collegiate career.
Maybe the biggest knock on McLain’s profile is the projection for impactful pop at the plate. His smaller stature aside, there’s qualities in his swing that concern evaluators like myself how much juice he’ll be able to pump into a baseball. While barrel velocity isn’t a primary concern, his vertical bat angle (VBA) often leaves much to be desired. The barrel angle is too often a flat path through the zone, though it has admittedly shown improvement since arriving to campus. His batting practice sessions show a much more aggressive attack angle, though he’s yet to fully employ that into game-action. McLain’s reported average launch angle flutters near 9.1 degrees. For perspective, that’s just a shade better than Mallex Smith. His 88 mph average exit velocity (105 max) is good, not great, similar to that of Jean Segura or Dylan Moore’s batted-ball event (BBE) profile. The issue here is these numbers are generated with a metal bat, something he won’t have the luxury of in pro ball. Given the swing changes he’s working to engage, there’s still reason to believe he can become an average power hitter. By bumping his launch angle up by 10 degrees, admittedly no small task, his profile immediately mirrors Matt Carpenter or Jorge Polanco, two guys who have topped the 20 home runs echelon with similar BBE characteristics.
McLain is a super-athletic kid. He’s quick-twitch on the diamond and moves extremely well around the bases. Despite hitting just .203 as a freshman, he still managed to leg out SIX triples in 61 games, adding six stolen bases for good measure. His athleticism was plain and clear in centerfield throughout the year as well. It’s speed that should age well considering his size and lean nature. For a more definitive measurement, McLain clocked a 6.71 60-yard dash in high school, which is considered a plus runner. His speed, from this eye, has only improved as he’d continued to get stronger. I’ve personally clocked him 4.19 home to first twice, which checks out on the evaluation. McLain hasn’t tested his wheels too much yet in-game as stolen bases haven’t become a part of his brand just yet, but there’s reason to believe it’s a weapon that could be deployed in the future. This is what another gear looks like ↓
McLain’s arm is another hot topic in scouting circles, more specifically as it applies to him sticking at shortstop at the next level. After all, if McLain is deemed a second baseman by organizations for pro ball, his draft stock consequently drops. There’s simply more value in shortstops.
Personally, I think an argument can be made he has a solid-average (55) arm. It’s a quick, whippy arm action that was shown off in outfield opportunities in 2019. On the dirt, it’s definitely accurate, and moving to the left and coming in aren’t a problem whatsoever as the arm plays just fine. Going to his right into the hole is the question for me. McLain hasn’t shown a natural ability to plant and throw across the diamond, nor has he been able to elevate and throw across the dirt. I think it’s an arm that can play at shortstop longterm, but I don’t believe it will be an asset. For this reason, as it stands, I do think his long-term home may be second base, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of him next spring and certainly don’t think it’s out of the question his arm strength improves.
One thing we’ve yet to hit on here is McLain’s hands, and they are very, very good. His transfers are extremely quick and his actions at shortstop are impressive as he’s quick and fluid to the ball. Everything looks natural for McLain on the dirt. The body control is especially strong as it’s clear he doesn’t let the game speed up on him, and that’s a huge part of being a reliable middle infielder. There’s no lost steps in charging a ball or cross-stepping to his left. As a provider and receiver of the ball, his double plays are calm and collected. It’s a refined package. I don’t think his profile plays quite as well in centerfield, but for the purpose of this exercise, I’ll still make the argument he’d be a solid average centerfielder, especially considering the position doesn’t demand as much from the throwing arm. Much of McLain’s defensive value correlates to his throwing arm. I still believe he can make just about every throw on the diamond, I just worry about plays to his right. He reminds me a bit of Erick Aybar at the position. Whether or not that docks him from a 55 to a 50 defender is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, I’m bullish on the projection at the shortstop. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. There’s almost no doubt he’d be an asset and above average defender at second base.
There’s an awful lot to like in everything McLain brings to the field. Whenever you’re talking about a guy who stood out enough in high school to be selected in the first round, parlaying that into a solid collegiate career and potentially into the top ten consideration again, there’s enough track record to feel some peace of mind. McLain is the type of guy that gets drafted and plays 16 years in the league, consistently getting more out of his tools that anyone expects, a la Adam Kennedy.
There’s more than enough tools here to project a very good big leaguer, although it’s generally a futile exercise placing any sort of comparison on this type of profile. He’s not Alex Bregman. He’s not Dustin Pedroia. He’s not Nick Madrigal. He’s not Adam Kennedy or Erick Aybar either. Matt McLain is Matt McLain. I’d be willing to bet he’s going to make a name for himself in pro ball one way or another.