Niko Kavadas recalls attending Notre Dame baseball games and watching former pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Pat Connaughton when he was a kid.
Kavadas attended high school about 20 minutes from the University of Notre Dame’s campus. When the Fighting Irish expressed interest in him during the recruiting process, the Penn High (Ind.) baseball star knew where he wanted to attend college.
The decision to attend Notre Dame has paid off for Kavadas over the last four years. The first baseman has improved his skills and developed into a top MLB draft prospect. In 2020, Kavadas drew draft attention as a junior but went undrafted.
Now a senior, Kavadas is a well-regarded draft prospect who scouts believe is a potential top-five-round pick in July’s draft. Despite the draft attention, Kavadas is not worried about his future. Instead, he has a team-first mindset and hopes to guide Notre Dame to a highly successful season.
“It can be super stressful, but at the end of the day, I am a Notre Dame baseball player,” Kavadas said. “The biggest goal I have is to win a national championship here. If we can go out and compete every day and compete for a national championship, that’s going to help me personally, too. But priority No. 1 is to win baseball games. That’s the most fun part of this game.”
Kavadas hit .299 with five home runs and 20 RBIs in 137 at-bats in 47 games as a freshman in 2018. He made mechanical adjustments and tapped into more power his sophomore year. He recorded a .274 batting average with 13 doubles, 12 home runs and 43 RBIs in 201 at-bats in 54 games in 2019.
In 2020, Kavadas was off to an impressive start until the college season ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kavadas batted .255 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 55 at-bats in 13 games.
As a senior, Kavadas has displayed an improved approach and a better overall ability at the plate. He is hitting .313 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in 32 at-bats in nine games this season.
Kavadas is a 6-foot-1, 235-pound left-handed hitter with simple hitting mechanics, notable bat speed and significant raw power. He produces impressive exit velocities and has power to all fields. He is an offensive-minded first baseman.
“I think it would just be my power to all fields,” said Kavadas on his biggest strength. “I think the fact that I don’t have to barrel a baseball for it to leave the yard necessarily is one of my biggest strengths.”
Defensively, Kavadas profiles as a first baseman in the pro ranks. He primarily played third base as an underclassman at Notre Dame. He also gained experience in the outfield in the summer after his freshman year in the Northwoods League in 2018. While Kavadas has arm strength, he doesn’t necessarily have the range to play third base in the future.
Offensively, Kavadas hopes to quiet the swing-and-miss concerns scouts have had during his career at Notre Dame. He recorded 90 strikeouts and drew 59 walks in his first three years.
Most of the strikeouts came in his first two seasons, however. He showed better plate discipline in his junior year, posting 11 strikeouts compared to eight walks in 2020. This season, Kavadas has continued to refine his approach, as he has tallied 12 strikeouts and nine walks in his first nine games.
“I think one of my goals is I want a one-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio,” Kavadas said. “If I can make that happen, I think everything else will fall into line. That will mean I am barreling balls at a consistent rate and putting the ball in play.”
Most believe Notre Dame has the talent to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 this season. The Irish have higher expectations than that, however.
After thriving in 13 games before the season ended early due to the pandemic last year, the Irish’s goal is to advance to the College World Series for just the third time in the program’s history this season. The Irish appeared in the College World Series in 1957 and 2002.
The Irish are off to a 7-2 start this season, including series victories over Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia.
“We are kind of shocked that we are surprising people,” Kavadas said. “I thought we had our coming-out party last year with going 11-2 and sweeping North Carolina.
“We expected there to be a buzz around us from the start and not just since we have taken road series against really good opponents. We know what we are capable of and are confident that we can win the series every single weekend.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for six years. He has 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 has appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.