This year’s draft class is seen as the best in over a decade, and has consequently been tough for mock drafters to pin down. The Astros’ selection was no exception- nearly a dozen different players were penciled into this spot over the last few weeks, and Nebraska’s Brice Matthews was not among leading outlets’ projections. A breakout story this year, Matthews’ production took a massive leap in his age-21 season, taking him out of the tools-based upside stab bucket and firmly into data darling territory. Here’s a look back at his career so far and how he projects going forward:
A native of Houston, Matthews was a multi-sport star at Atascocita, where he was both the offensive engine for the baseball team and the school’s starting quarterback. While his athleticism drew plenty of attention from baseball evaluators out of high school, he wasn’t ranked in the upper tiers of his prep class, and the abbreviated 2020 draft prevented pro clubs from making serious efforts to sign him early. He would make it to Nebraska as a top recruit, and immediately played a big role. He started 39 games as a freshman, primarily at second base, showing serious promise with a .273/.381/.462 slash, 5 home runs, 7 stolen bases and a 23/44 BB/K ratio in 156 PAs.
Matthews stayed active during the following offseason, playing in 30 games for St. Cloud of the Northwoods League, generally considered to be the second-strongest offseason league for college players after Cape Cod. Playing against older competition, he performed admirably, slashing .308/.449/.439 with a 25/36 BB/K in 137 PAs. There was pretty significant swing and miss in his profile to this point, but his contact was impactful enough for him to be an offensive contributor anyway, and he was also able to impact games with speed a bit. Given that he had only been fully focused on baseball for a short time, there was a lot of optimism for a proper breakout in 2022.
Unfortunately, his development hit a bit of a snag in his sophomore year- his offensive production was stagnant, perhaps being somewhat impacted by a move to primary shortstop duties. In 45 games and 194 PAs, Matthews would slash .261/.379/.446 with 7 home runs and a shaky 25/56 K/BB. He did improve his stolen base rate with 12 in 13 attempts while showing defensive potential, but the lack of improvements in the box slowed his rise up draft boards for the time being.
Matthews would return to the Northwoods in the 2022 offseason, and started to show some alterations to his approach that in retrospect may have portended the breakout season that would follow in 2023. While his batting average remained in line with what we had seen previously, the plate discipline numbers shifted palpably, as he walked 48 times against 54 strikeouts in 242 PAs. As a player with big raw power and so-so contact rates, a very patient approach made sense for Matthews, and it paid off with a .448 OBP in offseason play. While evaluators still wanted to see the raw power translate into game power more readily, he showed a more stable base of skills from which to do so, giving him a bit of momentum entering his draft year.
Those hoping to see Matthews show more in-game juice got everything they could’ve asked for this past season. After entering the year with 12 career jacks in a Nebraska uniform, Matthews launched 20 as a junior, doing so while striking out 53 times in 265 PAs, comfortably a career-low rate, against a career high walk rate with 47 total. He matched that total in the stolen base column as well, with 20 in 27 attempts, making him the first 20/20 player in school history. The one standout blemish on an otherwise outstanding campaign was a big number in the errors department with 21, but evaluators have been in agreement that this was mostly a product of a consistency issue as opposed to a lack of fluidity or athletic traits.
From a prospect evaluation standpoint, Matthews stands out to both data nerds and pure scouts. They are united on an appreciation for his approach- while he has a bit more swing and miss in the zone for a top draft name, he compensates by chasing infrequently which should allow him to maintain a reasonable strikeout rate at the pro level. Now that he has translated his long-appreciated raw power into game settings, it’s clear that as long as he’s a grade below average with contact, he’ll be impactful offensively. There’s work to do on the defensive side, but the range of outcomes includes him becoming a solid shortstop, and even if he falls short of that, there’s experience at second and third base, so he shouldn’t fall below the mid-range of the defensive spectrum. He can also impact games with speed, and may see that part of his game grow under the new MLB rules.
The Astros have had success recently with college bats who weren’t the best hitters for contact as amateurs, and if Matthews can follow players like Zach Dezenzo and Joey Loperfido in improving as professionals, the ceiling is incredibly high. There’s a wider range of outcomes here than there is with the typical first round college bat, but it’s rare to find an amateur player whose ceiling can legitimately be put in 30/30 territory, especially at the end of the first round, and you can say that about Matthews without getting weird looks. Evaluators will likely continue to exercise some caution with Matthews until he establishes himself in pro ball, but he has the potential to rank near the top of the Astros’ organizational rankings sooner than later.