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Why the MLB Draft’s Best Hitting Prospect Might Also Be Its Biggest Gamble

Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn’s eventual draft position won’t just reflect his skill: It could expose fundamental feelings about the sport’s strategic direction

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There are two versions of Andrew Vaughn, the University of California junior who projects as a top pick in next week’s MLB draft. The first Vaughn is the kind of slugger who makes front offices dream. He won the Golden Spikes award last year as the best amateur baseball player in the country, and scouts now rank him among the best college hitters they’ve ever seen. This Vaughn will hit .300 with 30 homers at his peak as he anchors the middle of a lineup.

But the second Vaughn is the kind of amateur who makes front offices wake up in fright. This Vaughn is a first baseman, and no primary first baseman has been picked in the top five since Eric Hosmer in 2008. (Two-way player Brendan McKay went fourth overall to Tampa Bay in 2017, but he’s more advanced as a pitcher than as a hitter.) This Vaughn is also right-handed, and the only right-handed first baseman in draft history to go in the top five selections was the Royals’ Dave McCarty in 1991. McCarty was worth negative wins above replacement in his career.

The two Vaughns, of course, represent two sides of the same player—and that player is therefore the most fascinating prospect in the 2019 draft. Some draftees capture attention because of their sheer talent, or a particularly resonant backstory, or a quirky mix of skills. But when Vaughn hears his name called on draft day—whether he surprises and goes first overall; whether he follows McCarty and Hosmer in the top five; whether he slides further, the baseball equivalent of young Aaron Rodgers, alone in a green room—could expose fundamental feelings about the strategic direction of the sport.

Understanding Vaughn’s appeal is as easy as glancing at his statistics, and then eyeing them again after what is sure to be a double-take due to their absurdity. Despite going undrafted out of high school, Vaughn was an excellent hitter as a college freshman (.349/.414/.555, with 12 home runs) and the best player in the country as a sophomore. He hit .402/.531/.819 for a 1.350 OPS, while walking more than twice as often as he struck out and clubbing 23 homers in 54 games.

The power numbers dipped a bit in his junior season, as opposing pitchers fed him a steady diet of out-of-zone pitches and breaking balls, vying instead to challenge the rest of a lackluster Cal lineup. But even a midseason slump didn’t stop Vaughn from producing another four-digit OPS with a .385/.539/.728 slash, as his walk rate reached 23 percent. (For reference, the only MLB players to reach that mark in a season since the strike are Mark McGwire in his 70-homer campaign and Barry Bonds each year from 2001 to 2004.)

His statistical record is so strong that it flummoxes some efforts at forward-looking projection. “I think teams are having trouble valuing him because his production has been so good that analytical models lack comparable players,” ESPN prospect analyst Keith Law says via email. And Vaughn’s future, if anything, looks even rosier than his production to date. FanGraphs gives Vaughn a 65 future value rating for his hit tool and a 60 for his game power, on the 20-80 scouting scale. The only 2019 prospect who equaled or bettered both of those marks was no. 1 overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (70/70); the others in range were Eloy Jiménez (55/70), Nick Senzel (70/55), Wander Franco (65/55), Kyle Tucker (60/60), and Keston Hiura (60/60). Every player on that list rated in the top 15 of FanGraphs’ overall prospect rankings, and every one but Franco has already debuted in the majors.

Vaughn doesn’t just make hard and consistent contact, though; much of his success stems from a preternaturally advanced approach at the plate. FanGraphs prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen calls him “the most sentient hitter that I’ve seen as an amateur” because he is “someone who identifies not just balls and strikes, but pitches that he can drive, and he just hangs out and waits until he’s either got two strikes or he gets one of those pitches.”

He swings a bat, in other words, that every team would want in its lineup. The question is whether potential employers would say the same about the rest of Vaughn’s game. Commenting on the 2017 draft for The Ringer, Michael Baumann wrote a piece in which he declared “I hate this draft class” because many of the top prospects were first basemen and, he continued, “the worst bet is the amateur first baseman.” For several reasons, first base is commonly considered the weakest entry point for young players seeking an MLB career.

The first is that first basemen rarely separate themselves via defense or baserunning, so they must clear a higher offensive bar than players at other positions. The following table shows the average OPS+ for every hitter this decade who’s reached a certain value threshold over the course of a season, with 2 WAR denoting an average season and 4 WAR an All-Star-caliber one. OPS+ is a comprehensive batting statistic that centers 100 as average, so a 130 OPS+, for instance, represents offensive performance 30 percent above the league average.

Average OPS+ by Position, 2010-18

Position 2 WAR 4 WAR
Position 2 WAR 4 WAR
DH 139 153
1B 135 150
RF 125 139
LF 124 133
3B 121 134
C 116 132
CF 113 126
2B 112 124
SS 103 116

This table demonstrates that designated hitters and first basemen must outhit their peers at other positions by a considerable amount to produce the same value. That’s the obstacle blocking Vaughn, who on hitting ability alone might rank as a top-five prospect as soon as he enters the minor leagues, but who would probably slot around 75th on a prospect list now, Longenhagen says. That’s still a fine overall result but places him well behind inferior hitters who nonetheless out-project Vaughn because of their other tools.

This disparity is further evident when comparing Vaughn with the other contenders to go at the top of this draft. Adley Rutschman, the likely no. 1 overall selection, is a college catcher, and Bobby Witt Jr. and C.J. Abrams are both high school shortstops. They occupy the opposite end of the defensive spectrum from first basemen; they don’t need to hit to be valuable, whereas hitting is the only way, really, for Vaughn to help his team beyond the typical first baseman. The difference between the best and worst fielders at first base, for instance, is much smaller than that difference at every other position.

Defensive Differences by Position, 2018

Position Best DRS Worst DRS Difference
Position Best DRS Worst DRS Difference
1B 14 -9 23
C 17 -18 35
2B 19 -18 37
RF 20 -19 39
SS 21 -19 40
LF 18 -24 42
CF 20 -28 48
3B 29 -25 54

The second reason is that the sport’s best athletes almost always play premium defensive positions growing up, so the very fact that a position player is shunted to first base from a young age is an alarm in and of itself. “The type of athlete, the type of body that plays first base from age 19 on,” Longenhagen says, “is also the type that anecdotally ages poorly and hits their decline phase sooner in most cases.”

Vaughn is not the kind of first baseman who can experiment at other positions. He projects as at least an average defender at first, according to Law, but would be stretched well beyond his means in a Rhys Hoskins–esque outfield attempt—and that try proved so disastrous for Hoskins and the Phillies that they traded Carlos Santana a year into his contract just so Hoskins could move back to first.

“It’s not really a body issue as much as it’s a foot speed and athleticism issue,” Longenhagen says of Vaughn’s defensive chops. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guy whose swing is this athletic and the rest of everything is not. The gap between what this guy looks like in the batter’s box and what he looks like running from home to first is pretty incredible.” That imbalance won’t affect his performance at the plate, but it’s yet another limitation on the overall package he offers.

And finally, because first base poses less of a defensive challenge, it serves as a comfortable landing spot for players at other positions who can’t field well enough to stick there, but wield a sufficient stick to stay in a lineup. Elite hitters like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols became first basemen after starting their MLB careers at more demanding defensive positions, and others like Joey Votto and Luke Voit have always played first base at the highest level, but were drafted elsewhere on the diamond (in both Votto’s and Voit’s cases, at catcher).

The 45 offense-dominated starting spots available across the majors—30 first basemen and 15 designated hitters—fill up quickly with players who slide down the defensive spectrum. So if Vaughn even slightly underperforms his lofty projection as a hitter—and draft picks of all kinds fail to meet such ambitious dreams all the time—his odds of landing regular MLB playing time would plummet. “He’s not just fighting the rest of the first base/DH population for one of those 45 spots,” Longenhagen says of Vaughn’s future. “He’s fighting with every elite hitter at every other position who’s aging their way toward first base.”

Vaughn himself carries more notes of caution than the typical amateur first baseman. He’s a right-handed hitter, which makes him less valuable as a potential platoon bat if he falls shy of expectations, and he’s short, too: Depending on the source, Vaughn is listed at either 5-foot-11 or 6 feet flat—he says that as a kid, he modeled his swing off Dustin Pedroia’s because of size similarities—and the list of successful right-handed hitters at that size is shorter than, well, Vaughn. This graph shows all primary first basemen in MLB history with at least 100 home runs, sorted by batter handedness and height (6-foot and below vs. 6-foot-1 and above).

But the modern game might not disfavor shorter players as much as it used to. Last season, the relationship between player height and power across the league was its weakest in the expansion era (since 1961). Vaughn’s height might be less a disadvantage than a means for a trade-off: While he might not possess as much inherent strength as a 6-foot-6 peer, he also has shorter levers and a more compact swing, which could help him combat the scourge of strikeouts and access his power, anyway. “I think that factor is way overrated,” Law writes about Vaughn’s height. “We are in an era of short hitters who rake.”

That nuanced understanding might represent a broader way to reconcile the two sides of Vaughn. Like with his height, teams that hold his position against him on draft day might rue the missed opportunity in years to come. Historically, first basemen picked in the first round of the draft haven’t fared worse—and have often fared better—than players picked at other positions. They reach the majors more frequently, and they accumulate more career value, than those at more desirable defensive positions. This chart displays the results for first-round picks from the first year of the draft, 1965, through 2009 (to allow draftees some time to progress in their careers), though tinkering with the years in either direction yields the same sort of pattern.

Draft Results by Position, 1965-2009

Position Majors %, All First Round Avg. WAR, All First Round Majors %, Top 10 Avg. WAR, Top 10
Position Majors %, All First Round Avg. WAR, All First Round Majors %, Top 10 Avg. WAR, Top 10
C 68% 6.6 76% 10.5
1B 74% 10.6 96% 22.4
2B 68% 6.1 80% 3.1
3B 71% 9.0 90% 17.8
SS 70% 8.0 79% 12.9
OF 61% 7.3 76% 12.6

There are surely issues of sample bias here because teams would likely be more willing to gamble on riskier players at premium defensive positions, while picking first basemen only if they’re believed to be safer. (That notion bears out in the numbers: 272 outfielders, 202 shortstops, and 124 catchers were first-round picks from 1965-2009, versus just 77 first basemen.) But in a draft often defined by its unpredictability—from this decade alone, three no. 1 overall picks and two no. 2s might never reach the majors—first basemen have exhibited no greater miss rate than other players. This precedent suggests that if a first baseman is a worthy enough hitter to warrant consideration early in the draft, he should go there, positional worries be darned.

Recent successes at the position offer more supporting evidence for Vaughn’s case. Paul Goldschmidt, Hoskins, and Pete Alonso all fell past the first round in their respective drafts, but those three right-handed college first basemen now swing three of the best bats in the majors. “I think that you have to look at the situation and say, ‘Have we been unnecessarily biased against this group of player?’” Longenhagen says. It’s a question worth considering, at least, with Vaughn near the top of this year’s draft and Spencer Torkelson, the Arizona State first baseman who last year led Division I with 25 homers and broke Bonds’s freshman school record in the process, likely to inspire the same sorts of questions when he becomes eligible to be picked next spring.

Teams might not be ready to change first base draft trends yet, as a variety of overlapping trends point to the continued devaluation of first basemen. Even in a rough free-agent market overall, sluggers with little defensive value have stood out for their suffering in recent offseasons. Some teams at the other extreme seem to be attempting to empty their minor league systems of first-base-only players entirely. And Longenhagen says that when he ranks prospects, sources who work for teams often provide feedback that first basemen should move down lists because they’re not valued as highly internally as the public might think.

Maybe it’s time to rethink how amateurs at low-impact defensive positions fit into a draft picture, especially at the top, and especially in a league that is already compromising defense in some spots to squeeze better bats into a lineup. But maybe teams aren’t ready to contemplate a new approach; it has been a full decade since Hosmer went in the top five, after all. We should get a clue Monday when we see how low Vaughn falls—or how high he climbs.