Major League Baseball is scheduled to launch its 2020 draft this week, on Wednesday June 10. This year's edition will look different than years past. The spread of the novel coronavirus means the event will be held remotely. The owners' desire to slash costs, meanwhile, means the draft will last just five rounds instead of 40.
Here at CBS Sports, we recently kicked off this year's draft coverage recently by ranking, , and . We've also covered , and .
Over the last week-plus, we've been running Q&As with the pitching or hitting coach for each of the top five players in this year's class, according to our evaluation. That continues today with Vanderbilt hitting coach Mike Baxter, who has worked closely with Austin Martin.
Baxter explained what impressed him the most about Martin this year; why he thinks Martin is a great fit for this era of baseball; and more. Before we get to the Q&A, here's what we wrote about Martin when we ranked him as the best prospect in the draft:
Martin, a top-of-the-order hitter and versatile defender, might be the most intriguing player in the class. He has an impressive feel for contact and for the strike zone, finishing his Commodores career with a .368 batting average and more walks than strikeouts. (He was the toughest batter to strike out in the power conferences.) Though he homered just 14 times, his exit velocities suggest there's plus power potential under the surface, something he could achieve thanks to his offensive aptitude and a swing that already features loft. In short, Martin fits the profile of others who have added power to their games in recent years. He's also a skilled baserunner with good speed and smarts. Generally, having an undefined position is a negative. In Martin's case, it could turn out to be a positive. He was primarily a third baseman before this season, when he slid to center field to better leverage his wheels. A creative team could maximize his value by having him split time between the infield and the outfield, a la Whit Merrifield and Scott Kingery, among others.
Now, onto Baxter's answers.
(Note: the interview has been edited for clarity and length purposes.)
What kind of human being is he?
He's a competitive athlete. He's probably just a competitive person. I think it shows on the field, it's just part of his DNA. He's very deep. There's a lot of layers to Austin. I think he's got a lot of interests outside of baseball that are unique. He does a really good job of connecting with people around him.
From a personality standpoint, I think he's very social. He does a great job of making connections, and more so than just making them, maintaining relationships. He's got great friendships with players he only played with for one year here that are pitchers -- maybe not the most natural friendships, but he's done a great job of maintaining them.
How has he grown?
The way he approaches his day. It's become more routine-based. He has a greater understanding of who he is as a player, and what it takes for him to get the best version of himself out on the field. I think he's really done a good job of that from a maturity standpoint. I think that's a big part of a player's development, identifying what he needs to think about or what he needs to focus on to be the best version of himself on the field.
Off the field ... just the emotional maturity and discipline of guiding his own ship and knowing how to approach his days and to maximize them. And [to take a] leadership role inside the program, he really made a conscious effort to do that this year with a much younger team, many guys we had lost to the draft or to graduation last year. He really tackled that goal, and I thought he did a very good job.
What's your scouting report on him?
Elite bat; 70-grade barrel; future power potential, I think he's going to grow into it; middle-of-the-field player, we call them "triangle players" at Vanderbilt, but he's a triangle player; plus runner; and the type of guy who, I think if you're looking at a spectrum of development, he's right where you want him to be. There's a lot of room still in his frame for additional strength, and I think that's going to come with his natural physical development. As that comes, I think you're going to see an extremely well-rounded major-league player who can really do a lot of things for you as a team.
His exit velocity suggests he will grow into that power.
To have above-average power that isn't raw, you know, that translates into a game, you need to be able to square the ball up. From when I referenced that spectrum of development, I think his ability to barrel balls consistently is really what is going to take him to that next level of potential power in the big leagues because that's the precursor for it to translate there. It's one thing to watch batting practice and see guys hit balls out of stadium but not be able to really control their quality of contact in-game, and I think Austin is way ahead of the curve there. The actual impact that he creates on the baseball, from an average standpoint, it's higher than most because of the consistency; from a peak exit velo, there are plenty of players out there who might have a higher peak exit velo than him, but his average exit velo is going to be higher than almost everyone because of his consistent barrel.
How does his approach enable his bat-to-ball skills?
I think when he's at his best version of his game, he is focused on that idea of just hitting a line drive. I think that's really where, from a developmental standpoint in his time here, he saw the value in that, and ultimately how that approach for him led to more power, which is a bridge a lot of players have to cross at some point and it takes a while for guys to recognize that. But for him, specifically, if you come out and watch him train, he takes more reps focusing on squaring balls up than he does on driving them out of the park. I think what he's realized is that having that same approach in the game is his route to slugging as well as hitting for average, but it's something that separates him. He's very disciplined, not only from a strike zone perspective, but from a mindset perspective, where he doesn't really give up at-bats trying to do things that don't help him perform in game. His mental discipline toward understanding where he gets his success from is very consistent.
What did you work with him the most this season?
We talked a lot about his role inside the club, and how to approach that from a leadership standpoint. He's a little bit of a throwback player in how he approaches the physical side of the game. With him a lot of it is rhythm, a lot of it is timing and feel-based. We never got very technical. That's the kind of language he speaks, so a lot of times we'd talk about how to approach the at-bat, what thoughts are going to give him the highest chance for success. I think that was kind of the sophomore year talk, [that] and maybe getting away from feeling that urge to slug and to focus on increasing the quality of at-bat over a long season.
This year, I think it was handling the outside forces that were going to be on him. You come in as this highly touted player in a really strong conference, you know you're going to be heavily scouted -- for him, I think he has such a good feel for the physical side of his game and his swing, specifically -- we spent some time talking about that, and how to approach it, and where he could put his mind to give him an outlet to not necessarily get bogged down by it but to pour himself into a leadership role inside the team.
Where do you think he ends up defensively?
I don't know. I think that the value of him is that he can fill in spots. I think you see the trend of Major League Baseball right now ... you're really seeing it firsthand, especially in L.A., their strategy of 'you've got a first baseman who can play center field,' 'you've got a catcher who can play second base,' you've got [Enrique Hernandez] who can bounce around the middle of the field, right?
I can tell you he played Gold Glove-caliber, or All-SEC defense third base last year, he's proven he can do that. His instincts in center field are natural. He jumps out there for us, we threw him out there really without a ton of reps and training throughout the year because he was taking groundballs, and we threw him out there on a Tuesday and then he's diving around, making plays, and getting great jumps, and Wednesday he's starting in center field. So, I think that's the beauty of him, that he can really play at a high level at multiple positions, but if you had to nail it down, I'm not sure.
I believe he could play a high-level center field, and I only say that because nobody's really seen him do that as much. People probably feel more comfortable with him in the infield because he has more innings that way, but I believe that center field is a real tool for him, too.
He's perfect for this era of positionless baseball.
Yeah, and no true bench players, right? They're willing to give young guys 200 at-bats instead of keeping that for a true pinch-hitter or an older player. I think the versatility, whether it's like Chris Taylor ... there's just so many examples in L.A. specifically of that type of player and I do think the game is moving in that direction.
What goes into his prep?
He doesn't want to be bogged down in numbers. He wants to understand what the pitcher features, and he wants to know how he might get attacked and where in the zone. What he does a really good job of understanding is ... he pays attention in-game, so he's going to pick up on tendencies, he's going to pick up on how he's being attacked, and he also knows what part of the zone he's really good at handling and he hunts that.
I think that was the big step I saw him take this year, especially with a less experienced lineup. Last year, it's easier when [J.J. Bleday] is behind you and you have a bunch of old players, you're going to get more to hit. This year, he's popped in the three-hole, he's popped in leadoff, and there are some pieces around him that maybe weren't as established yet, so he was pitched more delicately than he's ever been, and I think he may have chased five pitches all year out of the strike zone, in 17 or 18 games I think he only had three punches or something.
To me that showed the next level of development and, again, back to this idea of emotional discipline in an at-bat. That's a very, very big indicator to me about professional success, because I think to be able to have it and to be able to control your mind, your heartbeat, and not desire to hit so much that you're going to go out there flailing and get yourself out. His ability to control that this year was really, really impressive. In a pregame setting, he wants to know what does this guy feature; what is the shape of the breaking ball, is it a slider or is it a curveball, which way is it going to go; and from there he's going to run with it.
He's what Joe Maddon might call a low heartbeat player.
Yeah, exactly. It's not from lack of desire to win or to compete, it's actually quite the opposite, I think. He's one of the most competitive kids I've seen. I say kid as a coach ... even reflecting on my time as a player, he has the natural desire to win and to beat you. It's easy to have that, but then to be able to be a bit of a train wreck emotionally and just run into a wall and go crazy, but he does a really good job of knowing how to harness that, especially from an offensive standpoint, as I think it's a big challenge for hitters, but he's shown a really good ability to do that.
I think this year ... I wish we got to play it out, because I know the rest of the guys were coming around ... he had shown such an ownership of that in the first three or four weeks of the season, and I would say from the developmental standpoint I was so impressed by his ability to do that, because that's not an easy feat when you know you're being evaluated every second.