Wake Forest hitting machine and No. 4 pick Kurtz draws huge comps

July 15th, 2024

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Near the end of Wake Forest's batting practice session on a sunny spring off day at David F. Crouch Ballpark, Nick Kurtz strode into the cage to take his first hacks.

To this point, BP had been pretty routine: the ping of line drives, balls sailing over the outfield wall, and infielders taking grounders off a fungo bat to a soundtrack of upbeat music blaring throughout the empty stadium.

Then, Kurtz took a swing. The contact was loud. The ball rocketed into the outfield. Then he did it again. And again. And again. Right field. Left field. Center field. Though other hitters had hit some impressive BP shots, this was different.

Nick Kurtz is different.

Even on one of the top college baseball teams in the country, one stacked with potential Major League talent, Kurtz stands out. It's not just because he's the tallest of Wake Forest's position players, at 6-foot-5, and it's not just because he's a team captain and the Demon Deacons' emotional leader.

No, the main reason Kurtz commands unique attention is a purely baseball reason: The lefty consistently hits the ball like nobody else on the team -- and like few others in college baseball. And that makes him a presence just as much felt as he is seen -- and heard.

A good eye.
Easy pop.

Power to all fields.
The ball just sounds different off his bat.

The usual hitting cliches are all just observable truths with No. 8. Combine the bat skills with what his coach and teammates say are a big league work ethic and pro-level clubhouse leadership, and it's easy to understand why the A's selected him No. 4 overall in the 2024 MLB Draft.

"Sometimes I just sit back in awe and watch some of the things he does," Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. "He's like no hitter I've ever seen before. He's the best hitter I've ever coached."

Kurtz can hit a laser single that's 111 mph off the bat, and he can crush a majestic homer that travels 465 feet. But even when he doesn't get a hit, he's an uncomfortable at-bat for opponents. That's because Kurtz's hitting skill is not just about the pop -- it's about the patience, too.

Kurtz boasts one of the best hitting eyes in college baseball, evidenced by his Division 1-leading walk total. That’s partly about his plate discipline. But pitchers don't want to give him anything good to hit, either.

He’s hit at least 15 homers in each of his three college seasons, and topped 20 in the last two. He’s posted OBPs higher than .500 and slugging percentages closer to .800 than .700 in 2023 and '24. He had a stretch of 14 homers in 10 games from March 31 through April 16 -- including seven straight games with at least one long ball -- highlighted by three dingers against Virginia Tech on April 7.

"He's got no weaknesses," Walter said. "He hits velocity. He hits soft [pitches]. He hits in counts. He's just one of those guys. And he's one of the toughest competitors I've ever met."

Maturity to stay the course

If not for an early-season slump and a shoulder injury that cost him six games in March, Kurtz's overall power numbers might rival those of Georgia's Charlie Condon (No. 3 overall), Oregon State's Travis Bazzana (No. 1 overall) and Florida's Jac Caglianone (No. 6 overall), college baseball's most heralded sluggers this season.

That slump was the first time Kurtz had struggled for any significant time as a college player. Over an 11-game span from March 2 to 29, he went 5-for-33 (.152), a drought punctuated by an 0-for-5 performance in his first full game back from the shoulder injury. It dropped his average to .217, unfamiliar territory for him. But Kurtz wasn't about to change an offensive approach that had worked so well the previous two seasons.

"It's really easy just to abandon ship when things are going bad," he said. "That's one of the hardest things, just staying consistent with what you do every single day, staying consistent with your work and staying consistent with your plan because it'll all come back around. It always does."

That combination of confidence, mental maturity and patience has been a huge key to Kurtz's success, his coach and teammates say, and yet another thing that sets him apart from most other college hitters.

"Seeing him struggle at the beginning of the year, nobody really knew how to see it," said Wake super-utility man Seaver King, another likely first-round pick. "But he went about his business the right way every single day and now you see him being successful. And you kind of knew it was coming. He's one of the best hitters I've ever been around."

This mix of mental and physical qualities will allow Kurtz to do more than just make it to the big leagues, his coach said. Walter is so confident in Kurtz's abilities that he offered some bold predictions.

"He's gonna have a 15-year big league career and be a Major League All-Star. And he's got a chance to be a Hall of Famer. I don't say that lightly. I know how hard that is," Walter said. "But you look at the guys who have come through college baseball and their hit tool ... he's the complete package."

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Hitting smarts

At the plate, Kurtz is a focused thinker, seemingly ahead of his years. His mental approach is simple, yet not easy. But it's something that, when executed, has always separated the great hitters.

"Being able to see pitches and swing at the right ones is one of the most important things as a hitter -- to get the pitch you're looking for and not miss it, and kind of take those close balls that are just off the edge," he said. "Because those are the pitcher's pitches that they want you to swing at, and that's when soft contact happens."

Kurtz's successful execution of that philosophy is one of the big reasons why he believes he'll find success in the Majors. It's also helped make him such a coveted bat in the Draft.

"He's a big league hitter right now. ... He's got a big league eye and he really takes control of a box," said Wake's flame-throwing pitcher Chase Burns, another top Draft prospect. "It's a lot of good presence at the plate."

A leader in multiple ways

Kurtz earns praise for his contributions off the field as much as on it. While his bat has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Jim Thome, his clubhouse presence has been likened to another Cooperstown legend.

"He reminds me of that kind of 10-year Major League veteran, the guy like Cal Ripken, where everybody in the clubhouse just has unbelievable respect for him," Walter said. "They know they can go to him if they need something. He's just there."

His teammates appreciate both aspects of Kurtz's leadership.

"Kurtz is one of the most complete players and people I've ever had the pleasure of being around," said lefty pitcher Josh Hartle, who's known Kurtz since his freshman year of high school. "I knew he was a special player from the beginning. ... His whole life is consistent."

Consistency is a theme that recurs in discussions about Kurtz, whether discussing his play or the way he treats teammates.

"He kind of jokes around with everybody," King said. "He tries to include everybody, too. So freshmen up to fifth years, we're always together and we're always cracking jokes."

In other words, Kurtz likes to keep things loose -- an important trait of any winning team.

"When he's going, we're going," Walter said. "Our team definitely kind of rallies around Nick Kurtz."

Bigger goals, and the 'it' factor

Kurtz knew he'd be excited when he heard his name called on Draft night. He knew his family would be ecstatic. It was everything one would expect when a player reaches such a major life goal. But it's not the final destination. Not even close.

"It's just one more check on the list. ... I've got greater things that I want to do," he said. "That's going to be fun, and I'll celebrate it for a night, but after that it's time to get back to work and complete my bigger goals."

Naturally, the bigger goals include a Major League career -- and a successful one. If everything about Nick Kurtz is to be believed, those goals are well within reach.

"He has things that you can't teach: He has the power, he has the hit tool. He has the glove," Hartle said. "And he just has kind of that 'it' factor that, whatever happens, if Nick Kurtz is on your team, you're probably going to win."