It was difficult to predict Jonathan India's rapid rise from non-roster invitee to National League Rookie of the Year. But his ascent mirrored how he quickly transformed from a good college player to the No. 5 overall pick in 2018.
After an unremarkable pro debut, a similar first full pro season in which he reached Double-A but hit for little power and a rough stint in the Arizona Fall League, India didn't play in an official game in 2020. But he parlayed his performance at the Reds' alternate site into an invitation to Spring Training and won the club's second-base job despite playing just 17 games there in the Minors and one in college. He wound up batting .269/.376/.459 with 20 homers while leading all MLB rookies in on-base percentage, games (150), runs (98), doubles (34), walks (71) and extra-base hits.
At the outset of 2018, India was coming off a College World Series championship but had batted just .289 with 10 homers in his first two seasons at Florida. Then he broke through in a big way, hitting .350/.497/.717 and ranking in the NCAA Division I top 10 in slugging, homers (21 in 68 games), walks (60) and total bases (162) while winning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.
India went fifth overall in the 2018 Draft -- following fellow college stars Casey Mize (Tigers), Joey Bart (Giants), Alec Bohm (Phillies) and Nick Madrigal (White Sox) -- and signed for $5,297,500. That was a far cry from where he projected at the beginning of the year, when he didn't make MLB Pipeline's initial Draft Top 50 Prospects rankings. He ended up eighth overall when all was said and done for 2018.
In his second year as an area scout for Cincinnati, Sean Buckley thought he liked India more than most evaluators. But heading into the third baseman's junior season, Buckley thought he'd go early on the second day of the Draft rather than near the very top.
"I did see him in '16 and '17, freshman and sophomore," said Buckley, who played parts of five seasons in the Reds system before injuries led him to transition to scouting in the spring of 2016. "It's Florida, with the recruiting and the national championship teams and everything and all the prospects they have, you're always watching them. And so you had been watching the prospects the previous years leading up to that, keeping an eye on him, keeping tabs, but not really bearing down.
"I think honestly, going into that year, I liked him. I was probably the high guy just through the familiarity with them and seeing how he played and stuff. But I would have said in the back of my head probably going in he's kind of like a fourth-round-type player. And then obviously, that quickly changed throughout the spring for us."
India homered eight times in the first month of the season and quickly established himself as a first-rounder. Given his performance and level of competition -- the SEC is the premier league in college baseball and features seven of the last 12 national champions -- he made a case for being the best all-around offensive player in the college ranks. His stock kept rising, and he helped his cause by homering off Mize in front of a bevy of scouts watching a late April pitching matchup between the eventual No. 1 overall pick and Royals first-rounder Brady Singer.
India didn't look radically different than he had in his first two seasons with the Gators. He didn't make any drastic changes to his right-handed swing and he always had exhibited a mature approach. He had continued to physically mature and put in time in the weight room, and he was healthier after battling some nagging injuries as a sophomore.
"It just continually starts moving up," Buckley said. "And then it starts getting to, 'Man, this guy's really playing himself into the first round.' And then you're thinking, 'Hey, could we work a deal here to potentially move him up to five?' And then by the end of it, you were wondering if he'll even be available at five. It was a great year for him. He really made the final push all the way through and he earned every bit of it.
"He's always training and trying to improve every aspect of this game. So he definitely came in a little bit improved. But it was just the consistency of performance and just a higher level of performance. And I think with that, as he got rolling, he got more confident. And he just kept going."
Buckley remembers giving India 60s on the 20-80 scouting scale for his hitting ability and power, 55s for his third-base defense and arm and a 50 for his speed. Beyond the physical tools and his defensive versatility, he loved India's competitiveness and mental toughness.
Buckley comes from a scouting family. His father, Chris, currently serves as Cincinnati's vice president of player personnel, while his younger brother, Kevin, is a video analyst for the club.
While Chris Buckley has scouted for more than three decades, he never personally signed a Rookie of the Year, which Sean made sure to remind him when they watched the award announcement together. But he did have to give his dad some props.
"I will say he does get the credit as well, because he was the scouting director at the time who did pick the player, but my name goes as the signing scout," Buckley said. "He did have to trust in me to go off my opinion as well as his and make that selection. I do all the groundwork and everything, but it's really not my final say."