Aaron Sabato wanted to play baseball at the University of North Carolina since he was 6 years old. It was him and his older brother’s dream to play alongside one another at North Carolina.
Sabato’s brother Teddy joined the Tar Heels in 2017. But the brothers didn’t have a chance to live out that dream, as Teddy transferred to Manhattan College in New York after his freshman season. Sabato’s first season with the Tar Heels was in 2019.
Although Sabato didn’t get to play with his brother at North Carolina, the New York native has thrived in his first two years of college baseball. His success, especially at the plate, has positioned him to potentially be a first-round pick in this year’s MLB draft.
Sabato is a draft-eligible sophomore, giving him leverage in negotiating with major league teams. Since this year’s college season ended prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic and the NCAA awarded all spring student-athletes an additional year of eligibility, Sabato will be a draft-eligible sophomore again next year if he doesn’t sign a pro contract this summer.
“I’m really not in a bad spot here,” Sabato said. “It’s one of those things where you just have to let it play out. It’s one of those decisions that if it’s best for me and my family, I’m going to do it. And if not, I’m at the University of North Carolina as a sophomore again, which is crazy, with all of my best friends.”
Sabato started his collegiate career off slow at the plate, hitting .186 in his first 14 games. A shift in mentality led Sabato to reverse his results, as he finished the season with a .343 batting average, 18 home runs and 63 RBIs in 230 at-bats.
As a sophomore this spring, Sabato hit .190 in his first six games. He was starting to heat up when the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. He posted a .292 batting average with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in 19 games.
He showed better plate discipline as a sophomore compared to his freshman year. He drew 22 walks and struck out 16 times this spring while totaling 56 strikeouts and 39 walks last year.
Sabato is a 6-foot-2, 230-pound right-handed hitting first baseman who’s known for his above-average power. He also has improved his plate discipline over his two years at North Carolina to develop a strong feel for the strike zone.
His ability at the plate, especially as a middle-of-the-order hitter, is his biggest strength.
“I don’t want people to just think I am a power hitter,” Sabato said. “I think my hitability is really high and my power just happens to come from that. I’ve realized I need to walk more and get on base more too and not just hit more home runs. I’ve shown I’m more disciplined than I was.”
Defensively, Sabato played shortstop for his high school team. When he joined the Tar Heels, he started his first practice at third base. But after he fielded a couple of ground balls at third base, the coaching staff moved him to first base, Sabato said.
Moving to first base was an adjustment for Sabato, he admitted. He had to learn how to scoop the ball on low throws while also developing the proper footwork required for first base.
One knock on Sabato’s defensive ability is his lack of athleticism, according to professional scouts. But Sabato believes he has the necessary athleticism, despite his size, to thrive in all facets of the game.
Sabato plans on working on his defensive skills over the next couple of months to develop more confidence at first base in preparation for either the pro ranks or next season at North Carolina, he said.
“I play first base, so it’s going to come with the territory of the position,” Sabato said. “I’m a big guy, but the way I move, I don’t feel sluggish or heavy or that I clog the bases. I can move well at first base and have good range.”
Sabato credits Michael Busch, who he played with as a freshman at North Carolina last year, for helping him transition to the collegiate game.
Sabato and Busch have similar paths. Busch joined the Tar Heels as a high school shortstop but was moved to first base as a freshman. He also played outfield and second base throughout his collegiate career.
Sabato also learned about hitting and how to have an approach at the plate from Busch last year. Busch’s advice paid off, as Sabato posted a higher batting average, hit more home runs and drove in more runs than Busch last season.
Busch was a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year’s draft.
“I was fortunate to get moved to first base in the first practice, so I got really close with him,” Sabato said. “The biggest thing he taught me was as a hitter that if I want to hit .300 in the ACC that I have to learn to take my walks.
“If you just watch Michael Busch at practice daily, you’re automatically going to get better. He’s an unbelievable baseball player and person. He just made it look like the game was so slow and easy. That’s something I tried to take from him.”
Read more stories on top 2020 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for five years. He’s interviewed 191 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.