OMAHA—Like Dustin Ackley before him, Colin Moran was under the radar and undrafted out of high school. Like Ackley, Moran is a gifted lefthanded hitter who went to North Carolina and earned a starting job immediately as a corner infielder. And like Ackley, Moran became Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year.
That’s not to say Ackley and Moran are really similar players. They are built much differently—Ackley is a lithe, rather slight, quick-twitch athlete, while Moran is bigger, slower and stronger at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. But, boy, can Moran hit—just like his UNC predecessor, who won Freshman of the Year honors in 2007 and is now playing in the big leagues with the Mariners.
Moran earned first-team All-America honors by hitting .335/.442/.540 with nine homers and 71 RBIs in 248 at-bats. He led the surprising Tar Heels in all of those categories plus doubles (20).
“I wouldn’t put him quite in Dustin Ackley’s category yet, because that’s the best player I’ve ever coached,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “He’s a little bit slow-twitch from his waist down, his feet and his biceps—it’s a little contrast. But he does have that ability from what I call elbows to fingers, at the last minute. He’s nice and loose, he gets in that good power position with his hands, and he lets the bat go, and he swings hard. He swings hard every time in batting practice. But not too hard—he just doesn’t take any swings off.”
That mental approach, in fact, is the first thing Moran cites when dissecting his offensive success.
“I don’t like to take an at-bat off,” he said. “Baseball’s so mental, I try to lock in on every at-bat. I know that doesn’t happen sometimes, but I try to take every pitch like it’s my last, try to grind it out, I guess.”
UNC has a lineup full of grinders, and Moran fits right in. He is patient for a freshman—or any hitter—and drew 47 walks while striking out just 33 times this spring.
“Every good hitter I’ve seen as a freshman, right when they come into our program, they have great ball-strike recognition,” Fox said. “I don’t know if you can teach it, I just think somehow along the line as he developed and came up playing, he got it.”
Moran learned his disciplined, all-fields approach at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he played in a conference that switched to wood bats starting in his sophomore year.
“I try to use all fields,” he said. “With the metal bat, it’s kind of easy to get pull-happy. At least with these new bats, it kind of helps to stay back on things and take what you get, not try to do too much with it. I used wood bats in high school for three years starting my sophomore year, so I think that taught me how to really use the other way.”
Baseball runs in Moran’s blood—which runs Carolina blue. His uncle B.J. Surhoff was an All-American at North Carolina in the 1980s before getting drafted first overall and playing 19 years in the big leagues. His older brother Brian was an All-American as North Carolina’s closer in 2009.
Moran always wanted to be a Tar Heel, but it took him some time to get offered a roster spot. He started to gain more notice from college recruiters after a solid summer prior to his senior year of high school, and that fall North Carolina offered him a roster spot, on his way back from a camp at UNC. “I told them I’d take it on the car ride home,” he said.
“He is such a talent, I just didn’t have any idea,” Fox said. “One of those wonderful coaching surprises you get. We just kept seeing him in camp, kept watching him, and we knew he had that inner drive, that toughness about him, that competitiveness about him.”
Moran was not one of the headliners in UNC’s 13th-ranked 2010 recruiting class, and he did not have a standout fall, during which he filled in at shortstop for injured junior Levi Michael. Before Moran went back to New York for winter break, the coaches told him he hadn’t won a starting job, but he had a chance to in the spring—if he improved his agility and strength.
“He really, really wanted to be good, and we told him, ‘You’ve got to get in the weight room, you’ve got to get home over Christmas and really work,’ ” Fox said. “You can tell kids that, but they’ve got to go home and do it, and he really did. He didn’t have a really good fall for us, which is kind of crazy, but he’s had a sensational spring. He has that natural, God-given hitting ability.”