The college baseball crop for the 2017 MLB draft is rich in pitching but rather thin in impact position players. As things stand in early March, the top hitting prospect in the college ranks is outfielder Jeren Kendall of Vanderbilt. Let’s take a look.
As a high school player in Wisconsin, Kendall was a favorite of Midwest territory scouts and impressed enough in national showcases to be an early pick in the 2014 MLB draft. If signable, he could have gone as high as the second round.
He was not, however, signable: strongly committed to Vanderbilt, he fell to the 30th round where he was selected by the Boston Red Sox. Kendall played in 61 games as a freshman, hitting .281/.394/.530 with eight homers, 19 steals, 21 walks, and 60 strikeouts in 185 at-bats. He improved as a sophomore, hitting .332/.396/.568 with nine homers, 28 steals, 25 walks, and 62 strikeouts in 250 at-bats.
Kendall has continued to show power and speed in the early part of the 2017 season, hitting .275/.362/.627 through 51 at-bats with the Commodores, with four homers, three steals, seven walks, and 15 strikeouts.
Kendall is listed at 6-1, 190, a left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower, born February 4th, 1996.
Speed and simple athleticism are the key parts of Kendall’s game: he’s a 70-grade runner with excellent instincts; it isn’t hard to imagine him stealing 30-40 bases per year in the majors, assuming he gets on base enough (more on that in a moment). His throwing arm earns 55 or 60 grades depending on the source, and his ability to read the ball makes him perhaps the top defensive outfielder in college baseball. There’s no question about his ability to handle center field at higher levels.
Kendall has power, too, with plenty of wiry strength giving him 50 or 55 raw power. He hasn’t had trouble getting to that power in college ball, although his track record with wooden bats in the Cape Cod League is less robust. He does show ability to turn on left-handed pitching in this Fangraphs clip:
His makeup and work ethic give him a good chance to make necessary adjustments and it is difficult not to get excited by the skills demonstrated in this admittedly well-edited highlight clip.
For all the tools and the power/speed combination, there are some doubts about the bat.
In 102 at-bats with wooden bats over two summers in the Cape Cod League, he’s hit just .216/.286/.333 with 10 walks and 35 strikeouts. It’s a small sample of course but it fits into the narrative established by his college BB/K/PA ratios; the slash lines for Vanderbilt look nice, but he’s an aggressive hitter with a high strikeout rate. That could cut into his batting average and OBP at higher levels.
Part of this is simply an aggressive hitting philosophy and part of it is mechanical. In his scouting report Ethan Novak at Lookout Landing points to this video by Baseball Rebellion breaking down Kendall’s swing.
I am far from an expert on hitting mechanics but there are some caution markers in the numbers that back up the mechanical concerns. Will this be a real issue at higher levels, and if so, can he make the necessary adjustments?
All commentary about Kendall seems to mention Jacoby Ellsbury as a comp. Although there are some similarities with the speed and defense, I don’t think it is a particularly good comparison offensively. Ellsbury showed much superior strike zone judgment in college, with more walks than strikeouts, while Jacoby did not show the same kind of raw power in college than Kendall has.
Johnny Damon might be a better comparison as far as power/speed combos go, although Kendall’s arm is a lot better than Damon’s. Kendall also has a lot of work to do to match Damon and Ellsbury’s on-base abilities.
Although the bat is not a sure thing, Kendall is an excellent prospect overall and few college players can offer his broad combination of tools and skills. He’s thrived for a top program and there’s no question he will go in the first round, very likely in the top five. I think the bat is a bit too raw for him to go first-overall, but it would not be a surprise to see him go second.