If you have followed baseball prospect coverage for even a short while, odds are you have heard the phrase “Don’t scout the stat line” repeated more than once. In most cases, it makes sense; without seeing games live, knowing what aspects of his game a player may be working on, or any other context to the situation, stats alone can be misleading. Even watching games on TV doesn’t always give you the big picture.
But sometimes, the stat line can tell you just enough. That is certainly the case for Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday, whose strong performance for the Commodores in 2019 has vaulted him up draft boards this spring. With an NCAA-leading 23 home runs through 48 games (already a school record), Bleday has silence critics about his once-lacking power, putting him in a position to be selected in the top 10 of this year’s MLB draft.
How high will he go, though? Baseball America projected that the Tigers would take Bleday at No. 5 overall in their most recent mock draft, and it seems that his corner outfield profile, well-rounded as it may be, won’t push him much higher than that. We also don’t know the club’s level of interest; they appear head over heels for prep outfielder Riley Greene, but Baseball America’s latest mock draft posed the million dollar question: what if Greene is not available?
Let’s look at why Bleday could be that option.
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline draft prospect rank: 5
Previously drafted: 2016, 39th round
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: OF J.J. Bleday
As the grades above indicate, Bleday is a well-rounded player that does a lot of different things well. But, as MLB Pipeline hinted in their brief evaluation, this is a bat-first profile. Pipeline said that Bleday “is a better bet to produce at the plate” than any Vanderbilt outfielder drafted in the past four years, which is high praise considering how much talent that program turns out on a yearly basis. Pipeline continued:
One of the best pure hitters in the college ranks, he has a quick left-handed swing, controls the strike zone well and hammers line drives to all fields. He has started to translate the bat speed, strength and leverage in his 6-foot-3 frame into at least solid power, beginning with slamming more homers with wood bats on the Cape (five) than he did with metal for the Commodores (four) in 2018.
Baseball America echoed these sentiments in their evaluation of Bleday, who is ranked No. 10 on their prospect list (up from 21st in a previous update). They, and other outlets, have praised Bleday’s plate discipline, which is also evident in his numbers; he has more walks than strikeouts in his career at Vanderbilt. Baseball America noted that Bleday has good balance and bat speed, which have helped him translate his raw power into more in-game thump over the past year.
The experts at FanGraphs said that Bleday was “in the mix to be the third-best college bat” in the draft earlier this spring, an evaluation that probably has not changed much since March given Bleday’s success. He is the No. 5 prospect on their draft board, described as a “College corner OF with high-end peripherals.” Most outlets expect him to cruise through the minors thanks to his advanced approach at the plate and ability to spray balls to all fields.
Also helping Bleday’s case is a strong throwing arm. He threw in the upper 80s as a pitcher in high school, and should comfortably slot in as a right fielder at the pro level. ESPN’s Keith Law and others have praised Bleday’s athleticism, which may help him make up for a relative lack of speed, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He has good instincts, both in the field and on the basepaths.
Bleday’s biggest weakness is his lack of top-end speed. While he makes up for that with above-average instincts and athleticism, he is too slow to play center field at the professional level. He is also a below-average runner on the basepaths, and won’t steal too many bases going forward. There is plenty of value in a corner outfield profile, of course, but it puts more pressure on Bleday’s bat to develop as promised. While center fielders, shortstops, and the like are expected to hit far more these days than in previous eras, they still have a lot more wiggle room than your typical right fielder or first baseman.
While most seem confident that Bleday will continue to hit at the pro level, no prospect is unimpeachable. Our friends at The Good Phight went in-depth on Bleday’s swing back in March, and found a few kinks. In particular, they were worried about his head movement, which was more exaggerated as recently as in the Cape Cod League last summer.
However, my biggest issue in his swing is that his head rises and drops quite a bit. The rise, bothers me less at it is very slight and happens while the pitcher is winding up. The drop though is sometimes quite large (maybe 3-4 inches) and happens roughly at release. I’ll give some leeway since he’s maintained good plate discipline he still sees the ball pretty well and there are pros who succeed doing some weird stuff, but that much movement makes me worry he’ll lose track of pitches as the command improves up the ladder.
Bleday seems to have cleaned that up since last summer, however, but there are still some doubts about how much he will hit. ESPN’s Keith Law got a good look at Bleday last weekend, and hinted that his hit tool might not be as strong as others have projected.
Bleday certainly has power, and it’s not just from his overall size...but from exceptionally strong hands, which are apparent by how easily he controls the barrel of the bat. That’s a good thing given his hitch, a quick but defined downward move before he really starts to get the bat head moving toward the zone. When he does the latter, though, his path is direct and his swing is surprisingly compact as a result. If the hitch is a problem in the long run, I think it’ll be about timing, that the additional noise will make him late as he faces better pitching.
Hitch or not, Bleday has never had trouble tracking the ball at any point in his college career. He has even added a bit of loft to his swing, which would explain the significant jump in power. However, if it leads to any contact issues as he faces better pitching at the pro level, it would put a bit of a damper on Bleday’s overall ceiling.
Draft position: Top 10
As mentioned previously, there were concerns about Bleday’s power heading into the 2019 college season. He has answered those rather emphatically, to say the least. While some may want to see him prove it for longer than just a couple months, Bleday’s spot in the top 10 seems rather secure at this point. He does everything else well, and is now hitting home runs by the bushel for one of the top programs in the country. The Tigers were linked to the well-rounded outfielder in Baseball America’s latest mock draft, and others — like MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs — don’t have him falling much farther than that. Nearly everyone seems convinced he won’t make it past the Cincinnati Reds at No. 7 overall (if he even makes it that far).