What UNC outfielder Vance Honeycutt's strikeout rate means for his MLB draft hopes

His name is befitting of a soap opera star — Vance Honeycutt — and upon his arrival into this world, his father exclaimed, “He’s here.”

Son of a former University of North Carolina baseball player and a UNC middle-distance runner, Honeycutt quarterbacked his high school football team in Salisbury, North Carolina. He punted too but didn’t have to do that much. In the playoff semifinals his senior year, Honeycutt was inserted at safety on the last defensive stand of the game. He broke up the final pass attempt. Just before Salisbury’s state championship, an assistant coach asked the head coach if he was nervous. Of course he wasn’t. Honeycutt scored five touchdowns and was named MVP.

Honeycutt chose baseball, and the legend grew. He performed so many late-game heroics at North Carolina that Tar Heels fans called him “Honeyclutch.” He carried North Carolina to the Men’s College World Series last month, walked off Virginia in the opener and was responsible for 38% of his team’s runs during the NCAA tournament.

The 21-year-old right-handed outfielder is arguably the most talented player on the board in the 2024 MLB draft, which runs Sunday through Tuesday in Fort Worth, Texas. Honeycutt can run from home plate to first base in 3.63 seconds and is a potential Gold Glover. He crushed 28 home runs this season and set a Tar Heels career record with 65 homers.

Yet he is possibly the biggest wild card of the first round. Before the age of analytics, maybe Honeycutt wouldn’t be such an enigma and the 6-foot-3, 205-pound center fielder who oozes athleticism would be a no-brainer early pick. After a season of superlatives, the plus-runner with a plus arm and plus power is potentially weighed down by one big negative: his strikeout rate.

While Honeycutt’s production soared this past season — he hit .318 with 70 RBIs and a 1.124 OPS to go with 28 stolen bases — he struck out 83 times in 62 games, with his strikeout rate ticking up to 27.5%. (He struck out 20.4% of the time in 2023.)

“He’s one of those guys who if everything hits, you’re going to wonder how he wasn’t a top-10 pick,” said one National League scout. “But I just don’t know if he’s going to hit. There’s too much swing-and-miss right now, and when he cut down on that last year, he was bad.

“The tools are really good. He’s fast. He catches everything. He’s got power. I could see him being like [Tampa Bay Rays outfielder] Jose Siri with more walks.”

Those who have seen Honeycutt deliver in so many clutch situations, with nary an ounce of outward distress, don’t seem too concerned about analytics or where he might land this weekend.

How could he miss?

“Honestly, they don’t make ’em like Vance Honeycutt often enough,” said Carson Herndon, who coached Honeycutt in baseball and football at Salisbury.

“He’s just a special kid.”

Honeycutt’s parents met, of all places, on a baseball field. They played Little League together as children.

Leah Ann went on to run on an ACC championship track and field team in the late 1980s, and Bobby played on a Tar Heels team that made it to the MCWS. They produced two athletic daughters — Kayla was a North Carolina state championship tennis player, and Julia played soccer at UNC Charlotte — and Vance just quietly followed them around.

He said he gets his even-keeled nature from his dad, but Bobby Honeycutt is certain the athleticism came from somewhere else.

“Mama,” he said.

Vance Honeycutt was a late bloomer, measuring in at roughly 5-foot-7 and 115 pounds when he entered high school. By the time his body finally filled out, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

Herndon called Honeycutt a “one-rep guy,” sharp enough that if he went over something on the chalkboard, Honeycutt understood it right away. He said Honeycutt could air it out at quarterback, easily slinging it 50 yards, and might have been a better punter than a thrower.

During his senior year of high school, the state of North Carolina played its football season in the spring of 2021, and Honeycutt went from the gridiron to a shortened baseball season. Herndon’s father, Mike, who served as Salisbury’s head baseball coach before Carson took over in 2022, said the coaches felt as if they were cheated out of a year of watching Honeycutt.

But their abbreviated time together did have its share of moments.

“Shoot, we’d be practicing,” Carson Herndon said of Honeycutt, “and I’d be throwing BP with 20 scouts back there. I mean, I’d be more nervous than he was. There was definitely a time when there were a lot of teams filming him and showing interest in him.”

UNC baseball coach Scott Forbes said Honeycutt’s recruitment was by no means high-profile. He saw Honeycutt play once for his travel team, the South Charlotte Panthers, and said that UNC assistant Jesse Wierzbicki and former head coach Mike Fox were impressed with Honeycutt’s speed and athleticism when he attended a Tar Heels camp.

So, they offered him a scholarship. Honeycutt was drafted in the 20th round by the San Francisco Giants but opted for Chapel Hill instead.

“I remember thinking, ‘Hey, he’s probably a year away from getting on the field,'” Forbes said. “And then he starts every game as a freshman.”

Forbes said he coaches in a “loving style” that might seem corny but is the backbone of his program. If his players, especially the new ones, make a mistake, they’re not going to get hammered for it unless there’s a lack of effort.

Freshmen who come in the summer are asked to read Jon Gordon’s “Training Camp” to give the perspective that baseball is not life or death. The book is about an undrafted and overmatched rookie trying to make it in the NFL.

When Honeycutt arrived at UNC, he had no problem with freshman jitters. He set the single-season school record for home runs (25) and hit .296 with 57 RBIs and 29 stolen bases. He also struck out 90 times.

Forbes moved the freshman from shortstop to center field, and his defense didn’t skip a beat. The most impressive thing Forbes saw from him that season was when he scored from second on a wild pitch.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, what just happened?” Forbes said. “I mean, I didn’t send him. I was watching the ball, and he was by me. Before I looked up, he was gone on his own.”

Honeycutt’s sophomore season no doubt complicated his draft picture. He cut his strikeout rate down from 29.7% to 20.4% but also saw a decrease in power, hitting just 12 home runs in 50 games. He was batting .257 when a back injury ended his campaign.

“After his freshman year, the scouting report gets out,” Carson Herndon said, “so that sophomore struggle is not unexpected in some cases.

“I mean, he kind of came out of nowhere.”

ESPN MLB insider Kiley McDaniel, who ranked Honeycutt 25th in his latest mock draft, called the center fielder the most polarizing player for Day 1 of the draft. McDaniel has a friend who is a UNC fan and is dumbfounded that Honeycutt isn’t at the top of the draft because of everything he does.

But McDaniel said it’s not that simple.

“[The in-strike-zone miss percentage] is the big number that a lot of teams are becoming obsessed with,” McDaniel said. “The idea would basically be, ‘If we don’t know how you’re going to progress in the minors and what you’re going to look like five years from now’ … in-zone miss percentage is sort of that key that unlocks in a lot of teams’ opinions what you’ll look like because they think that’s a proxy for a bunch of other things. And his is sort of below average, maybe the worst of the top-two round guys this year and maybe even the last couple of years.

“So the thing that a lot of teams think is the most important is the thing that he’s worst at. But he’s elite at almost everything else. So, I think it’s interesting to look at him through that prism. He’s maybe the best defender in the entire draft. … He has these tools that makes you think that there’s a lot of untapped potential.”

On a windy late afternoon in June, Honeycutt had just finished the last practice of his career, only he didn’t know it. The Tar Heels faced elimination from the Men’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, the next day in a game against Florida State, but Honeycutt, as always, was confident.

He’d had two walk-off hits in the span of about a week, the latter leading to his team ripping off his shirt in celebration. Honeycutt’s demeanor never changes. Twenty-thousand heartbeats might be racing in the stadium, but Honeycutt’s slows. He can’t articulate why that happens. He just says that being clutch means not being fazed by the moment.

“There are definitely times when it honestly feels like pressure a little bit,” he said. “But I feel like that’s a good thing. It means you care. So, I think being able to recognize that and slow it down is the biggest thing.”

His parents concede that he has never been much of a talker, and it’s not really a problem when everyone around him is verbose enough about his skills.

Casey Cook, who is Honeycutt’s roommate and bats behind him, said his favorite Honeyclutch hit happened during the super regionals against West Virginia. The score was 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs, Honeycutt’s bat crushed a 94 mph pitch. Honeycutt knew it was gone before it cleared the left-field fence and flipped his bat, raised a finger to the air and motioned to the Tar Heels’ dugout.

“[His clutch hits] happen a lot,” Cook said, “so it’s hard to keep track of them.

“But that home run was pretty cool.”

The strikeout numbers stalk Honeycutt. According to Baseball America, in the bonus pool era that started in 2012, only 13 players from four-year universities who have been drafted in the first round had a career strikeout rate higher than 20%.

Honeycutt’s is 26.3%.

In mock drafts, Honeycutt has been shuffling around for months. How it all plays Sunday will answer in part whether analytics win out over athleticism.

“He can do anything, you know?” Forbes said. “You step back and you’re just kind of like, ‘What’s he getting ready to do? Is it going to be an unbelievable catch? Is he going to steal a base and then, all of a sudden, the ball gets away and he’s going to score from second? Is he going to hit a home run backside, poolside?’ I mean, he can do whatever. He’s the total package, that’s for sure.

“I step back now and my mind says, ‘I’m looking forward to watching this.’ Because he’s that generational, electric player.'”

ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan contributed to this report.

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