Matt McLain was a sought-after prep prospect in the 2018 MLB draft class. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted the then-Arnold O. Beckman High School shortstop with the 25th pick in the draft and offered him a $2.6 million signing bonus.
Most prep players would have accepted that offer and embarked on a professional career straight out of high school. But McLain didn’t follow that path. Instead, he honored his commitment to UCLA.
He dreamed of playing for the Bruins since he was young. He grew up a UCLA fan while his father is a UCLA football alum.
“It’s where I knew where I wanted to be,” McLain said. “When I committed to UCLA as a sophomore, and even before that, I knew I wanted to go to UCLA and play at Jackie Robinson Stadium and have a chance to win a national championship. It has been a dream of mine since I was a young kid, and I just saw my baseball career going through UCLA. I never look back on it. It is something that I always wanted to do, and I am happy that I get to live that out.”
McLain’s decision to attend UCLA has paid off. Besides living out his childhood dream, he has matured and refined his baseball skills in his first two years at the collegiate level.
His success at UCLA has positioned him to be one of the first players selected in the 2021 draft. Pro scouts project McLain as a potential top-five pick in July’s draft. Going through the draft process in high school has helped prepare McLain for what the spring will entail as the draft attention ramps up.
“Going through the draft process a second time makes me more aware of the things that are going on and how to handle certain things,” McLain said. “It makes me more intelligent and more prepared for the draft this time.”
It took time for McLain to transition to the college game. He hit .203 with nine doubles, six triples, four home runs, and 30 RBIs in 217 at-bats in 61 games his freshman year. He made 49 starts in center field and 11 starts at third base.
McLain showed improvement in the Cape Cod League following his freshman year in the summer of 2019. He hit .274 with seven doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 23 RBIs in 113 at-bats in 34 games.
Last spring, McLain was off to an impressive start until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the college season to end prematurely. He hit .397 with two doubles, three home runs, and 19 RBIs in 58 at-bats in 13 games.
McLain is a 5-foot-11, 170-pound right-handed hitter with a smooth and compact swing that allows him to consistently drive the ball to all parts of the field. He’s more of a gap-to-gap hitter, as he shows at-best average in-game power. He also has improved his plate discipline throughout his time at UCLA.
“I think my ability to hit is my biggest strength,” McLain said. “It is my favorite thing to do as well, but I also think it is the thing I do that best.”
McLain is athletic and moves extremely well on the bases and in the field. He also has solid arm strength and is accurate with his throws. His transfers and overall movement at shortstop are impressive, as he is reliable and makes all the necessary plays.
McLain believes he can stick at shortstop long-term, he said. If he doesn’t play shortstop, a team could use him as a second baseman or center fielder.
McLain hopes to improve all of his skills in anticipation of the 2021 season, he said. He is a captain at UCLA for the second straight year. He embraces that role but wants to evolve as a leader.
“I love the leadership role,” McLain said. “It was always something I had in high school. It is just something I like to do. I like leading by example and helping others improve. I like doing that because it helps make the team better. I think I do a good job at it, but I also need to get a lot better at doing it.”
The Bruins will be one of the top teams in college baseball this spring. They return a plethora of talent, headlined by McLain, despite being hit hard by the 2020 draft.
The Bruins were the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament but lost to Michigan in the NCAA Super Regional. They started the 2020 season 13-2 before college baseball canceled the season due to the pandemic.
This spring, the Bruins are hoping to capture the program’s first national championship since 2013.
“Everyone talks about winning a national championship and the Pac-12,” McLain said. “We definitely want to do both of those things, but I think it is more important right now that we go day-to-day, especially in this time. We have the talent. It is just the matter of putting things together.”
McLain comes from an athletic family. He has two younger brothers, Sean and Nick, who also are well-regarded baseball players. Sean is a redshirt freshman at Arizona State, while Nick is a senior Arnold O. Beckman High School. Nick is a 2021 draft prospect and a UCLA commit.
McLain believes the competitiveness and camaraderie between his brothers have helped each one of them develop throughout their baseball careers.
“It’s awesome to have,” McLain said. “Everything is competitive no matter what it is. We are always joking around, having fun and competing. We play other sports, like basketball and football, at home. That’s a lot of fun.”
Read more in-depth stories on top 2021 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for six years. He’s interviewed 253 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com 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.