When James Madison utility man Trevon Dabney saw freshman Chase DeLauter take batting practice with the Dukes for the first time, he knew the player he watched would be special.
And over the roughly two years since, DeLauter has grown from special to one of the best in the nation.
The skinny true freshman that Dabney observed grew into a formidable 6-foot-5, 235-pound force for JMU. And DeLauter stacked a breakout redshirt freshman season last spring with a big-time performance as a member of the Orleans Firebirds in the respected Cape Cod League last summer.
The summer play in particular sent DeLauter’s draft stock rocketing.
Now the Martinsburg, W.Va., native, who plays center field and pitches, is about to enter his redshirt sophomore season in Harrisonburg as one of the most highly regarded collegiate baseball talents around.
Baseball scouting organization Perfect Game ranked DeLauter No. 1 on its list of the top 150 college prospects and No. 3 on its top 300 draft board. Brian Sakowski, national crosschecker for Perfect Game, expects DeLauter to go in the top 10 of this summer’s draft, with a chance to go No. 1 overall to the Baltimore Orioles.
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For now, the 20-year-old is just taking it all in stride and simply focusing his attention on what’s immediately ahead of him — one more season in Harrisonburg. JMU begins at Florida State next Friday.
“It’s always been a dream come true to play professional baseball,” DeLauter said this week. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, all I’ve ever dreamed of. But … at this point now, it’s all about winning, playing with these guys. That’s all I’m really focused on.”
DeLauter also has been tabbed No. 6 on MLB Pipeline’s list of top college prospects and No. 8 on its list of top 100 draft prospects overall.
He was selected as a preseason first-team All-American by Perfect Game and Baseball America, among other outlets. He was a preseason Colonial Athletic Association all-conference pick, too.
DeLauter landed at JMU out of Hedgesville (W.Va.) High, where his play earned him Gatorade state player of the year honors. It was a school where he could both pitch and play the field.
And the lefty made an almost immediate impact — in the 2020 season that was abbreviated to 16 games due to the pandemic, DeLauter began his career with a nine-game hitting streak and batted .382 in 68 at-bats. On the mound, though he posted a 7.98 ERA, he struck out 14 in 14ª innings in four starts.
Then, as a redshirt freshman last year, DeLauter in 26 games batted a CAA-best .368, with an on-base percentage of .508, which also led the league. His six home runs and 12 doubles led JMU.
On the mound, DeLauter moved to a relief role. He threw 7⅓ innings in five appearances, with a 1.23 ERA.
He was selected to the all-CAA first team and all-rookie team.
“He’s probably the best baseball player I’ve ever played with, or against,” said JMU catcher Travis Reifsnider, a former standout at Collegiate High in Richmond.
Where DeLauter feels he’s grown the most since he arrived at JMU is in the mental side of the game. And he already has paired his power with plate discipline. Those two qualities are what Sakowski considers two of the biggest check marks in DeLauter’s favor from a prospect standout.
DeLatuer had 25 walks in his 26 games in 2021.
“He doesn’t swing and miss a lot,” JMU coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “He always seems to find the barrel when he makes contact. And one of the things that’s really good about Chase, as a mature hitter, he takes his walks.”
He was on the radar of Perfect Game last year, as part of the outlet’s second-year player draft list, before he was draft eligible. But then he boosted his standing with his play in Orleans during the summer.
DeLauter hit .298 with a league-high nine home runs in 34 games. He won the league’s Robert A. McNeese Outstanding Pro Prospect Award, the first JMU player to do so.
“That’s where the prospect stock took off, to like, this dude should be at the top of the draft type of thing,” Sakowski said. “It’s rare to have that kind of power with the ability to play center field.”
Ikenberry attributes DeLauter’s big summer to his ability to make adjustments. DeLauters’ big numbers came after he fought through a stretch during which he went 1 of 18 at the plate in six games early in the season.
Seeing 90 mile-per-hour pitches every day was one step for him after his arrival at JMU, then seeing 95 mph every day in the Cape Cod League was another. But DeLauter continued his mental progression at the plate during the summer, improving his approach — including his ability to pick up the spin of pitches and to get his bat to the ball faster.
Now, back at JMU, one of the things teams will be looking for from Sakowski this spring is his athleticism as it relates to the outfield — Sawkoski believes DeLauter has the tools to play center field at the next level.
At the plate, Ikenberry said that DeLauter will slot in second or third in the Dukes’ batting order. He had been in the leadoff spot.
And with DeLauter’s burgeoning draft attention, Ikenberry told DeLauter that there would be no more meetings with MLB teams after Feb. 1, to allow him to shift his focus to the season.
“He’s already met with all the teams he needs to meet with,” Ikenberry said. “And I think the thing with him is just not putting too much pressure on himself.”
DeLauter, leading up to the draft, is simply worrying about what he can control. The dream of pro baseball is ahead soon and he’s positioned himself among the cream of the crop.
But that, for now, can wait, he said.
“We got a 56-game season ahead of us,” DeLauter said. “So, yeah, the attention and stuff is great and all. But at the same time there’s a big season in front of that first.”