How Florida’s Jud Fabian fixed his strikeout rate before the MLB Draft

Jud Fabian fixed his hitting approach last summer in the attic above his parents’ house in Ocala, Fla.

It was the same place he had done a significant chunk of his drills since his final years of high school. The same space in which he, his dad and his younger brother spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic sharpening skills and getting calls from their neighbor when the sessions went past 9 pm The same 50-foot-long by 12-foot- wide netting structure that sheltered him from his little brother’s finest attempts to best him over the last five years.

Fresh off a junior season at the University of Florida where his strikeout rate had climbed to an alarming level, a 20-year-old Fabian was hellbent on correcting course. He was done using an ill-advised leg kick that had unbalanced his swing. Over trying to do anything more than stay up the middle of the field. He didn’t need to overhaul his mechanics, but he did need to take the swing-and-miss out of his game. If it took months, he’d take the time.

“I adjusted the work I did in the cages and added time,” Fabian said in a recent phone call. “I wanted to have a better year than last year and show everyone what I really was made of at the plate and on the field.”

Fabian had spent 2021 trying to pull baseballs over the left-field fence. The directive from his coaches had led him to incorporate a leg kick, something he thought could help him put more weight in his back leg and generate more pop. Though he did hit 20 homers, his ability to reach base backslid. He ended the season beating .249 with a .364 OBP.

That wasn’t the type of line Fabian had hoped to produce ahead of his first summer being eligible for the draft. And the scouting world reacted to it.

Fabian started last season projected as a first-rounder. His name tumbled down the draft boards of MLB front offices. He had been known for tremendous raw power and defensive skill in center field since his prep days at Trinity Catholic (Fla.) High. But a strikeout rate above 25 percent in his third year of college ball cast doubt on Fabian’s feel for hitting. Thump and progress in the field weren’t enough to buoy his stock. Fabian landed in the second round, drafted by the Red Sox, with whom he ultimately chose not to sign.

It was a bold move to turn down what would have been first-round money. But Fabian’s desire to play one season of SEC baseball with his little brother, Deric, a highly touted prospect in his own right, in the program they both grew up idolizing won out. So did his confidence in recapturing his old hitting form and accessing his raw power without cheating pitches to pull.

“Humbly, I tell you this,” said Fabian’s father, Eric. “He creates enough pop on his own.”

Fabian’s father is biased, but he might be a reputable judge. He has watched his sons compete at high levels for the better part of two decades. He remembers very clearly watching his oldest son launch coach-pitched balls over 150-foot fences as a 6-year-old. He sees, now, the damage Fabian can inflict on the walls of his attic if a ball escapes the net.

“He’s got a lot of God-given ability in that swing,” Eric Fabian said.

How much faith teams put in Jud Fabian’s raw talents will become known next month, when the 2022 draft starts July 17.

Fabian’s road to the pros has been long. He enrolled at Florida early, foregoing his senior high school season and the 2019 draft to enter the fray with the Gators as a true freshman. He played in 56 games, his strong defense keeping him in the lineup. Then he performed well in the Cape Cod League as an 18-year-old, becoming the youngest player named to the league’s All-Star game. He seemed on the verge of a breakout sophomore season in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. His line was frozen after 17 games at .294/.407/.603 with six triples, five homers, 13 walks and 18 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances.

Fabian came back as a 20-year-old junior last season and struggled with his strikeout rate out of the gate. In part because of his new approach, fastballs up and sliders became obvious weaknesses. Through the first three weeks of conference play, 37 percent of Fabian’s trips to the plate that season ended in a strikeout.

“College baseball is no secret,” Fabian’s father said. “Everybody’s going to live on the outer half of the plate. So when they’re going away, and you’re trying to pull the ball, that’s not a very good recipe.”

The results were bleak. Fabian went from hitting .270 through his first 21 games to batting .228 on the season after a 5-for-38 skid. The eventual removal of the leg kick sparked something of a turnaround. But the damage to his overall line was done. Fabian accomplished his mission of hitting more home runs, becoming the fifth player in Florida program history to hit 20, but he ended the season with 79 strikeouts in 269 plate appearances.

The Red Sox saw past Fabian’s inconsistency to select him in the second round, 40th overall. They even offered him an above-slot bonus of more than $2 million, according to The Athletic’s Keith Law. But negotiations stalled. Boston reportedly declined to offer Fabian $3 million to sign. Fabian, still not 21 at the time, returned to Florida to re-establish his draft stock.

After a quick glance at some raw 2022 numbers, one might surmise that Fabian’s strides came up short. He batted .239 and struck out (69) more than all but five players in the SEC.

Yet Fabian also drew the second-most walks in the conference, six behind Sonny Dichiara (68) of the College World Series-qualifying Auburn Tigers, and ranked second with 24 home runs. The line is an improvement over Fabian’s 79 K:40 BB ratio last year.

“If you look at the totality of his year, I think he’s really made huge strides in what he’s trying to do at the plate,” Florida assistant coach Chuck Jerolomon said. “He has a better understanding of what he needs to do to have success every day. It’s not always easy walking up to the plate. Hitting is not the easiest thing in the world. But I think he’s done a really good job refining his approach.”

Fabian’s power didn’t disappear with his recalibration. Even balls that didn’t make it over the fence were struck with the same kind of force that had evaluators positioning Fabian as a first-rounder in last year’s draft, before the strikeouts became a problem. Jerolomon pointed to a hard line drive Fabian hit during the penultimate day of the SEC Tournament—a fourth-inning rocket into the glove of Alabama’s right fielder on an 88-mph sinker. The line-out produced an exit velocity of 105.7 mph.

Fabian made plenty of hard contact throughout the season; according to a sample of just 58 batted ball events spanning the season’s four months, Fabian’s average exit velocity was 90.8 mph. The limited dataset viewed by The Athletic didn’t even account for the score-opening laser Fabian hit into the left-field berm in an NCAA tournament elimination game against Oklahoma, or the leadoff shot he belted to nearly the same spot four innings later.

“I took that very seriously,” Fabian said of his focus on improving his swing-and-miss rate. “I made really huge strides in that this year and I still kept the same amount of power numbers, stolen bases, and it didn’t take away anything from my defense.”

The gamble to return to Florida seems likely to pay off, though perhaps just modestly. In his first mock draft, Law wrote that Fabian could sneak into the first round this summer as the 28th overall selection. The value of the pick, which is held by the Astros, is $2.62 million, some $760,000 more than Fabian’s slot last year. Even if he falls among the top three selections of the second round (Nos. 40-42), the slot value would be slightly more than that of his draft position in 2021.

Whether Fabian has enough leverage to earn close to what he demanded last year remains a question. Because the draft will be held a week later than usual, the pool of age-eligible players is a little wider. Fabian’s not young for his class, like he was last summer. He will turn 22 at the end of September and thus might be a little older than the average competition in the lowest levels of the minor leagues next year.

Still, defense can be Fabian’s carrying skill. And there is even evidence that his offensive profile—if sustained in pro ball—would be enough to earn him a steady job in the major leagues. Fabian won’t turn into Mike Trout, the three-time MVP who combines power and strong defense with a superior ability to bat around .300 and reach base at above-average rates most seasons despite a pedestrian strikeout percentage. Aim Fabian is a human highlight real in center and he has enough raw power to project as a 20-plus home run hitter. Jackie Bradley Jr. has had a lucrative career flaunting a similar skillset. Major-league teams that value advanced metrics would take Fabian’s combination of skills in their starting lineups more often than not.

“He’s as good as anybody when he’s going right,” Jerolomon said.

(Photo: Gary McCullough/Associated Press)

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