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Matt McLain: Champ or Chump for Fantasy Baseball?

fantasy baseball prospects MLB prospects rookies call-ups

Fantasy managers love guys who hit home runs. We also love guys who steal bases. Our favorite players can do both, and guys who project to run and hit for power rarely stay on waivers very long. If you want them, you have to act quickly.

Matt McLain made his big league debut last night, and the 23-year-old projects as a guy who will both steal bases and hit long balls. Rostered in just 23% of Yahoo! leagues at the time of writing, the two-time first-round pick and 95th prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline could be just what you're looking for if you need middle infield help.

Projection systems are down on him though, so you might be wondering whether he's ready to succeed at the big-league level. This author says he is, and here's why:

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Matt McLain on the Farm

The Reds selected McLain 17th overall in the 2021 draft and pushed him aggressively, giving him a taste of High-A (Dayton) that same year. He hit .273/.387/.424 with three homers and 10 SB in 119 PAs, immediately flashing fantasy upside. With only two CS, McLain was a high-efficiency base thief likely to have the green light at the MLB level. With a 14.3 BB% and 20.2 K%, he demonstrated advanced plate skills beyond his years.

The Reds decided the performance was worthy of aggressive promotion, letting him start the 2022 season at Double-A (Chattanooga). The result was again fantasy gold as McLain produced 17 HR and 27 SB in just 452 PAs with a .232/.363/.453 line. The batting average was a little low thanks to a 28.1 K%, but his 15.5 BB% suggests that he still had the strike zone awareness he demonstrated the previous year.

Furthermore, McLain was great on the bases with just 3 CS and dramatically increased his HR/FB from 9.4% at High-A in 2021 to 15.9% at Double-A. McLain elevates the ball with aplomb (42.1% at High-A, 44.6% at Double-A), so hitting flies benefits him more than most MiLB speedsters.

The Reds promoted McLain aggressively again this season, starting him at Triple-A (Louisville). It's tough to quibble with the decision as McLain obliterated Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .348/.474/.710 line with 12 HR and 10 SB in just 173 PAs. His FB% spiked to 49% and his HR/FB followed suit at 23.5%, his plate discipline was outstanding (16.8 BB%, 19.7 K%), and he was aggressive on the bases with five CS.

McLain has never recorded 500 PAs in a professional season, but prorating his HR and SB totals at any MiLB stop gets you at least 10 HR and 30 SB with the upside for more. The heavy fly ball profile means that he'll probably run low BABIPs at the MLB level, but that's a worthy tradeoff for the counting stats McLain could provide. This is a MiLB resume demanding fantasy attention.


The Scouting Report on Matt McLain

McLain was selected in the first round of the 2018 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks but opted not to sign in favor of enrolling at UCLA. The Reds made him a first-rounder again after college, so it's fair to assume that McLain has been on the radar for some time. However, the Reds have a deep organization and McLain sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Scouts don't see a standout tool to salivate over either, leading to less buzz than some other names on top prospect lists.

MLB Pipeline gives McLain a 50-hit tool with 50-grade power and 60-grade legs on the 20-80 scouting scale. He cracks their top 100 at 95th overall but only ranks fifth in the Reds organization. His FanGraphs scouting report is a little harsher, with a 35/40 hit grade, 45/50 game power and raw power grades, and 60/60 legs. They rank McLain ninth in the Reds organization and outside the top 100.

Both scouting reports agree on plus-but-not-elite footspeed, and his MiLB SB success rates should translate to MLB right away. They also agree that McLain has average pop in his bat, but McLain hits enough flies to punch above his weight in that aspect. Guys can hit 20-25 HR per season without high exit velocities or awe-inspiring moonshots if they hit enough flies. For example, a guy with a 10% HR/FB who hits 200 flies will hit 20 homers.


Why Don't Projection Systems Like Matt McLain?

Projection systems don't always have access to the granular data fantasy analysts like to point to, and none of them are enamored with McLain. Steamer projects a .234/.328/422 line with 13 HR and nine steals over 349 PAs with an 11.2 BB% and 27.7 K%. ATC projects .247/.320/.406 with 11 HR and seven steals over 369 PAs with an 8.8 BB% and 22.7 K%. ZiPS forecasts .232/.329/.412 with 13 HR, 12 SB, 11.3 BB%, and an ugly 31.9 K% over 417 PAs.

The issue is obvious: McLain's Double-A sample last year represents more than half of his MiLB career and his 28.1 K% was worrying. Projection systems weigh that heavily and project strikeout issues at the MLB level. However, swing-and-miss generally wasn't an issue at Double-A:

McLain's elevated strikeouts at Double-A weren't caused by alarming whiff rates or a terrible eye, suggesting that they were more of a statistical anomaly than a trend. He has always been known as a contact guy and didn't have a K problem at other stops, so the projection systems may be wrong in this case.


The Verdict on Matt McLain

As a guy who relies on volume rather than oomph to hit home runs, McLain will get more than most from favorable ballparks. Playing for the Reds, he'll have an ideal environment for his game in Great American Ballpark. The Reds have also received nothing from their shortstop tandem of Jose Barrero and Kevin Newman, so playing time shouldn't be an issue.

While there will always be a risk in rostering an untested rookie, McLain's blend of speed and power should be worth waiver priority or an aggressive FAAB bid. He's a Champ in all formats.

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