In the summer of 2021 the Cincinnati Reds selected Matt McLain 17th overall in the draft out of UCLA. The scouting report at the time was that he was going to hit for a good average, provide plenty of speed on the bases, but may have below-average power. As a professional he’s hit for more power than expected, but he’s also struggled to hit a little bit – posting a .232 average at Double-A Chattanooga last season – thanks in part to 28% strikeout rate. Those concerned about his ability to hit or make contact didn’t get any relief after he hit just .190 and struck out 32% of the time in the Arizona Fall League last season in 23 games.
Things are looking quite a bit different so far in spring training. McLain, extended a non-roster invite to big league camp with the Reds this year, has been on fire. On Sunday he was back on the field in Las Vegas as Cincinnati beat up on the Oakland Athletics. McLain played a role in that. He started the game at second base, went 1-3 with a walk, and he scored two runs.
We’re talking about a limited sample size here of just six games and just 14 plate appearances. That doesn’t mean a whole lot. But so far McLain is hitting .500 with a .714 on-base percentage and a 1.000 slugging percentage. All of that is nice and good, but what’s been easily the most impressive part is that McLain has struck out just one time and he’s countered that with six walks.
In 2022 Matt McLain picked up plenty of walks while in the Lookouts lineup. He drew 70 walks in 103 games, good for a 15.5% walk rate. Finding a way to get on base beyond just the hits has long been something he’s been able to do. It’s the one strikeout so far that’s really stood out. After such a high strikeout rate in 2022 between his time in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League, one strikeout in 14 trips to the plate feels like a step in the right direction.
Entering camp the Reds were looking for a shortstop. There is plenty of competition for the spot, too. Jose Barrero and Kevin Newman seem to be the two guys with the inside track for the job for different reasons. Elly De La Cruz felt like the dark horse who could grab the job with a big spring after winning the triple crown among Reds minor league players last season. Among that group only De La Cruz has shown much of anything to this point – but we’re only talking a handful of at-bats for everyone involved. McLain, however, has done just about everything and then some this spring.
It still feels like he would be a long shot to break camp with the team. He’s not on the 40-man roster. He doesn’t have any Triple-A experience. And he’s probably down the depth chart a little bit and would have to look like a far better option than some of the guys ahead of him to convince the team to add him to the 40-man and bring him up to begin the season. But he wouldn’t be the first guy to do it in recent memory for the Reds, either. Two years ago Jonathan India wasn’t even invited to big league camp and in mid-March they invited him after he was impressing in minor league camp. Two weeks later he made the club and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award.
The odds are stacked against McLain right this second, but he’s doing all he can to change the minds of anyone with decision making power. And if nothing else, his early work is looking good and is worth keeping an eye on as spring training continues and perhaps he can carry that improved contact rate into the 2023 season. It would go a long way towards improving his offensive output that was down a bit last year in his first full season.