What do you see in Colin Moran?
With the MLB draft here, teams must decide on North Carolina's third baseman
A game of low-speed chicken will end Thursday night in suburban New Jersey.
There, at some point early on in the MLB draft, commissioner Bud Selig will read Colin Moran's name from a card, and the North Carolina third baseman will ditch the past four months of draft evaluations and inquiries and buildup. It's possible Moran goes No. 1 overall to Houston; it's nearly impossible he gets past Cleveland at No. 5.
Between those picks, though, is a chasm of conflict. Pro teams that read from baseball's Old Testament want Moran to fit a breed, a particular profile for his position, and Moran has consciously chosen to be something a bit different.
"Early this spring, scouts would ask if Colin could stay at third and if he'll hit for power," UNC hitting coach Scott Jackson says. "Those were the two big elephants in the room. Colin will hit every ball out in BP if you want him to. He'd be happy to do it. That's just not who he is."
The conflict can be described by a simple question: What do you see in Colin Moran?
If you want to know, nobody saw this. A day after becoming a top pick, Moran will be the marked man in North Carolina's lineup against South Carolina in the NCAA super regionals, and all of this may seem like it was part of the plan. It was not.
Moran arrived at UNC three years ago, shy and introverted. Mentally, he was alert. Physically, he was sort of awkward. He saw the game a few steps quicker than his feet allowed him to play it. He was lean and sloppy with his limbs, lots of arms and legs and not much else. He jogged with a leftward lean, like he was perpetually stalled on a racetrack turn.
"All you knew for sure was he had those good hands and a strong arm," Jackson says. "I didn't know he was going to be an everyday guy."
Moran didn't hit well that first fall. He figured some mix of tweaks and time would fix things. He couldn't see spin on pitches, but that never registered, not until he went home to Rye, N.Y., for the winter and his brother Brian, a former UNC pitcher and current Mariners prospect, asked him about fall practice.
"I'm just not seeing the ball that well," Colin said.
"Are you wearing your contacts?"
"Well, what are you doing?"
"I never struggled in high school, and I didn't think it was because of my eyesight," Moran says now. "But it made a big difference. It was like going from regular TV to HD."
Moran returned to school a different hitter. For Jackson, it was a day in late January in Carolina's indoor hitting cages, a few weeks from Opening Day 2011, that still resonates.
"I don't know why I remember this, but it's very vivid," Jackson says. "Whether I was throwing to him or it was soft-toss, I thought, 'For weeks now, every ball he's hit has been on the barrel.' Something seemed different about him.
"I told Coach [Scott] Forbes, 'I don't know how to explain this, but Colin's reminding me of Dusty.' That's a bold statement to make, but after that, the rest is just good night."
In Dusty, Jackson was referring to Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick by Seattle in the 2009 draft. Moran had a hit and a walk in his first collegiate game, and he hit .335 with nine homers and 71 RBIs that season, earning first-team All-America honors.
Not to oversimplify two full seasons, but this is the best way to explain what's happened since: Moran just never stopped.
Professional teams are finalizing what they see in Moran, and here's the mystifying thing: He's not the thoroughbred athlete you'd typically get with the first pick, and he's not the pro third baseman prototype.
He doesn't have the raw power of Kris Bryant, the San Diego third baseman who hit 31 homers this season and is also a likely top-five pick. He doesn't have the most speed. He doesn't have the best agility. He's not some combine champion who walked from the womb to the SPARQ lab. Set him up at a cone drill, and maybe the cones snicker a bit.
What Moran does have is a little bit of a lot. He has size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds). He has improving lateral agility, enough that you can project at least an average defender. He has arm strength and accuracy. He has supple hands and a beautiful left-handed swing. He has uncanny plate discipline. And he's brilliant for 20 years old, working through at-bats like a Google engineer works through clusters of code.
"His strongest attribute I do think is his patience -- his ability to make the pitcher really work," UNC coach Mike Fox says.
UNC senior pitcher Chris Munnelly has faced Moran in scrimmages for three seasons now, and he's felt the desperation on that end of the negotiation.
"He's so disciplined, and it feels like he's always one step ahead," Munnelly says. "The goal as a pitcher is always to be one step ahead, so you throw your setup pitch to get to your out pitch. It's almost like Colin reverses the roles. He knows when your setup pitch is coming and then sits on your out pitch.
"And you throw your best pitch, and he has the ability to put the barrel on it. That's the most frustrating thing."
Moran is hitting .348/.478/.557 with 13 homers. That's not why teams at the top of the draft are enamored with him, though. It's that, plus the 60 walks to only 22 strikeouts.
"We talk a lot about the walk-to-strikeout ratio," Jackson says. "That's so important. Colin has the unique ability to watch warmup pitches and then have a plan. If he sits on a pitch and doesn't get it, fine, he'll go to two strikes and grind it out. A lot of that comes from having a swing you can trust."
Moran learns by observing and has been fortunate, with his brother and his uncle, former big leaguer B.J. Surhoff, to grow up around older, quality hitters. He came to understand a sharp line divides a good hitter from the hack who puts up a good year with an aluminum bat.
"You learn the best hitters aren't always the ones hitting it the furthest in batting practice," Moran says. "The best hitters are the ones with the best approaches. When you try to muscle up, your average or on-base percentage will dip. I just use the middle of the field and try to find a way on base."
Ah, yes, MLB teams still would have preferred more power from Moran this spring. It's a matter of comfort. Kris Bryant, the slugger, is familiar. Colin Moran, the refined hitter, is something to be figured out.
Moran knows this. He's heard it, and ignored it, all spring. That decision won't hurt Moran at all, it turns out, but it was a risk. That was the game of chicken he played.
He could have been more pull-conscious this season. He probably could have hit 20 homers if he wanted. Should he have given evaluators what they wanted to see? Maybe the answer is yes. But the cost of that transaction is a piece of what he sees in himself.
"I was always taught that power comes from getting stronger and comes naturally," Moran says. "It's not something you force. I've just never been interested in being someone who hits .250 with 30 homers."
What will Colin Moran become? Who really knows? Prospects come with different degrees of certainty, but the truth is, nobody undoubtedly knows anything. It's a projection business, and in work of that kind, everyone sits in the fool's chair.
Moran believed in the hitter he sees in himself. Maybe in baseball, in anything, what and who you see in your reflection is all that matters.
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