Prior to his junior season at Texas Christian University in 2012, Josh Elander was seen by many in the public arena as a borderline first-round talent. He spent the summer of 2011 playing on the USA Collegiate National team, impressing scouts with his advanced bat and developing glove behind the plate. There were still plenty of questions about the utility of the glove at the professional level, however, and his perceived high draft status was quite dependent on the development of his catching skills during his spring campaign at TCU.
I spoke with Baseball Prospectus author Nick Faleris about Elander's collegiate career. Faleris, formerly of DiamondScape Scouting, has plenty of history with the player, dating back to Elander's freshman year at TCU.*
"I liked the leverage in Elander's swing and potential for him to develop into an average catcher with above-average pop. He was a good athlete who shifted to the outfield early on because [Bryan] Holaday was entrenched behind the dish. He handled the outfield well and showed it was a legit fallback option."
"Flash forward to the end of his sophomore year and he showed well with Team USA. Handled a very good pitching staff with limited struggles, but was a little rough around the edges receiving. His junior year was solid with the big question being whether too much of his power was coming from created leverage, and not enough for force produced through bat speed."
Indeed, Elander did not disappoint in his junior season, slashing .314/.436/.525, showcasing power, an approach, and decent athleticism to couple with a 48 percent caught stealing rate from behind the plate. Despite this, Elander fell to the sixth round in the draft, reflecting that the concerns about the long-term utility of his receiving ability were widespread and legitimate.
Coming into last season, Braves prospect junkies (including myself) were quite bullish on Elander. The Texan made his professional debut in the Appalachian League after the draft and made a positive impression on prognosticators and general fans alike, posting an .805 OPS while continuing to show a good approach at the plate with power potential. Perhaps most importantly, Elander spent a majority of his playing time behind the dish, a sign that maybe—just maybe—the Braves were going to allow him to develop behind the plate. He was the second-best positional prospect on Rome's roster at the beginning of this season, behind only Jose Peraza.
The first dart thrown at his metaphorical prospect balloon came in the form of a position change to left field prior to the season. Braves officials, after evaluating Elander throughout his debut in the Appalachian League and his time in fall instructs in 2012, felt that a change in position was necessary, an outcome that was expected yet still damning to his prospect status. Moving six spots to the left on the defensive spectrum obviously places a ton of weight on the development of the bat. While there is potential in the stick, his progression this season proved that there are flaws in his offensive game that may be hard to hide in a corner outfield position.
Elander was Rome's most potent offensive force in the first half of the season, batting .318/.381/.536 with a 29:61 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 310 plate appearances. The right-handed hitter showcased his budding power potential, stroking 11 home runs and rapping out doubles at a Terdoslavichian rate, all while gaining experience playing in an outfield corner. The main caveat to his production in Rome was his age: Elander turned 22 years old prior to the season, so the Low-A dominance, while good to see, was not unprecedented in terms of age versus level of competition. Due to this, most were anxious to see Elander promoted to Lynchburg sooner rather than later in order to determine if the bat was, in fact, legitimate. Our wish was granted at the end of June, just over halfway through the season.
Through his first month in Lynchburg, Elander struggled. He posted a .239/.370/.318 triple slash, once again showing a great approach but struggling in the bigger picture. He saved face in August by posting an .823 OPS, but the early struggles were enough to depress his overall numbers in Lynchburg. He ended the season with a .262/.345/.371 triple slash in the Carolina League, posting an OPS that was less than one percent better than league average. The Carolina League is a tough place in which to hit, but more was expected of the player due to his torrid first half and his seemingly advanced bat. Was this just an offensive slump associated with a promotion to a higher league, or was the problem something larger?
Elander's bat, while garnering a ton of praise as one of his most advanced tools, does have a few drawbacks. On the positive side, the stroke is short and compact, taking a quick, direct path to the ball. The bat speed is above-average, and he loads his hands in a very efficient, controlled manner, allowing him to turn on inside velocity with ease. For as calm as the upper-half mechanics are, the lower half has plenty of issues. Elander begins in a crouched stance to increase his leverage and has tinkered with the placement of his lead foot. He loads his back hip by utilizing a big leg raise trigger, readying for the eventual rear hip thrust. Some would describe his lower-half actions as noisy (and to a certain extent, they are), but the leg raise, if performed properly, can do wonders in giving one's lower half a running start in the race to barrel premium velocity.
Elander's problem, however, is twofold and is related to consistency. When he raises his front leg to load his rear hip, he will occasionally straighten out what was a crouched back leg, limiting the leverage he accumulated pre-swing due to his setup and causing unnecessary up-and-down head movement as he launches the barrel. In addition, as the front leg reaches its landing point, Elander has already opened his front hip by a wide margin, leaking and directing his energy down the third base line. This is great when facing grooved fastballs in the inner half of the zone, but flying open in this manner causes a huge hole on the outer half that leaves him very susceptible to breaking balls down and away, a trait that will be exploited as he continues to climb the ladder and pitchers are able to locate their off-speed stuff more effectively. In order to fix this, Elander could add more inward coil to his leg lift, which would double in maintaining his center of balance longer while keeping his weight back and rear hip loaded. This would maximize the amount of energy he is able to translate from his lower half to the baseball and would streamline the process to ensure that no energy is wasted.
Earlier this month, John Sickels noted that Elander is the "most potent current bat in the farm system." While I do not disagree with this and find merit in the statement given the dearth of top-flight offensive prospects in the system, Elander's position change and offensive inefficiencies bring into question his ultimate role at the higher levels. Does he have enough pop to survive in a corner outfield position at the major league level? At best, his future power grade is above-average (55), assuming he smooths out the rough parts of his swing. If he continues on his current path, Elander's futures are not so enticing: below-average hitter with fringe-average power potential. This offensive profile will not play in left field at the highest level due to the high offensive demands associated with the position, and dead-red fastball hitters are very easy to manipulate the closer one gets to the majors.
Faleris added one more intriguing note at the end of our discussion.
"He's probably only a fringe prospect at this point until he shows he can handle advanced stuff. So goes the risks associated with drafting and developing catchers!"
It was easy to dream on Elander when he was a raw catching prospect with a developing bat, but the reality of his developmental path has put a damper on future expectations. Right-right corner outfield profiles have to hit and hit at a very high level to have success in the majors. Whether Elander makes the necessary adjustments to maximize his potential at the plate is to be determined.
*Big ups to Faleris with his help on this piece. Be sure to follow Nick, one of the foremost scouting minds in the public arena, on Twitter and read his work at Baseball Prospectus. He's awesome and you'll be smarter for it.