Making His Own Name
Red Raiders' Kieschnick carves own niche
His last name carries some serious clout in college baseball circles, so it's hardly surprising that people are always asking Roger Kieschnick if he's any relation to former Texas great Brooks Kieschnick, a member of the inaugural class of inductees into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I get that question quite a bit," Kieschnick said. "He's a distant cousin, maybe. I've never met him. My parents say we're related somehow."
Texas Tech coach Larry Hays hears that inquiry quite a bit, too.
"All the time," he said. "When Brooks entered the (college) Hall of Fame here in Lubbock, I got to visit with him. Really, they've got the same last name and the same family, but their dads went totally opposite directions—one went to one part of the state, the other went to the other one. They really don't know each other very well. The Kieschnicks turned out two pretty good ballplayers. Brooks was one of the best competitors I've ever coached against.
"It used to be, you say the word 'Kieschnick,' I was a nervous wreck. Now it's a feeling of comfort."
No wonder. Roger Kieschnick has been Texas Tech's best player since he set foot on campus. After hitting 22 home runs over his first two seasons in Lubbock, the junior right fielder earned second-team preseason All-America honors heading into 2008, and through 23 games he's on pace to shatter his career marks in most offensive categories. He has 11 home runs, and the rest of the Red Raiders combined have 12. He's batting .340/.446/.830 with 34 RBIs and an 18-14 walk-strikeout ratio through 94 at-bats.
That last statistic is indicative of the greatest challenge facing Kieschnick this year.
"He has 11 home runs, and that's with people determined not to let him hurt them," Hays said. "Over the weekend (against Texas), he did not get anything to hit the entire series. It's remarkable the numbers he's had with the approach people have against him. In one way I'm sure it's frustrating for him. But that's a big difference from last year: He's matured to the point where he's taking some more walks."
Not only was Kieschnick pitched to cautiously by the Longhorns, but Hays revealed that he was playing through a nasty flu, helping account for his 0-for-11 weekend. Of course, he bounced back with four hits—including two homers—in two midweek games against UC Riverside. Kieschnick's laid-back, level-headed mentality is evident immediately (he began the conversation with a confident "Howdy!"), and it helps him avoid prolonged slumps.
The other thing that comes across in conversations with Kieschnick is his humility. He made no mention of the flu that plagued him against Texas, instead taking responsibility for his own struggles. And he was reluctant to talk about his considerable baseball talents.
"He's not any good at tooting his own horn," Hays said. "He's everything that you want him to be. When you see a guy like him, with his ability, all the things you see on the field, you hope that off the field he's just as good a guy, and he is. He's just what we want in a student-athlete. He has respect from anyone. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?"
That's exactly what Hays thought the first time he saw Kieschnick. The Red Raiders had already signed the Rockwall (Texas) High senior, and Hays went with then-recruiting coordinator Daren Hays to see him play in the Class 5A state tournament, which Rockwall would go on to win.
"When I saw him play in the state tournament," Hays recalled, "I hadn't seen him before. I asked Daren, 'Why'd you sign this kid? We're not going to get him in.'"
But for all Kieschnick's tools, he was still unpolished, so he went undrafted and wound up at Texas Tech.
"Unfortunately for him, he's always been the go-to guy," Hays said. "He's had pressure on him from Day One."
He handled the burden with aplomb, batting .359/.418/.549 with nine homers and 55 RBIs and earning an invitation to Team USA, where he started 17 games and batted .290 with one homer. That summer was when scouts really began noticing his standout tools. His batting practice displays with wood bats were dubbed "sick" by multiple scouts, and he showed aptitude in the outfield, but he remained very raw—"almost a robot-type guy," as one scout put it.
But the Team USA experience helped him develop, Kieschnick said. His home run production spiked to 13 as a sophomore, and he played for the national team again in 2007 and hit seven home runs in 27 starts. The power boost was a reflection of his work in the weight room, where the 6-foot-3 Kieschnick has increased from 200 pounds as a freshman to 220 pounds.
But the biggest difference this year has been his approach. He drew just 49 walks while striking out 86 times over his first two seasons, but he's become much more selective.
"Just swinging at strikes is the main thing," Kieschnick said. "You come in as a freshman, no one thinks much of you. They're going to throw you that fastball. Last year and this year, not many teams are going to throw you your pitch. They're going to try to work you different in different situations. That's definitely something you've got to learn and adjust to."
Some scouts still wonder whether Kieschnick will hit for average in professional ball. One National League scout graded his arm, defense and raw power as above-average tools, his usable power as a tick above-average, and his speed as average, but he saw some issues with Kieschnick's lefthanded swing.
"His balance in the box is a little bit questionable," the scout said. "There's some collapse in the back side, some tilt to his shoulders, trying to lift. Hopefully, you're banking on the fact that he's enough of an athlete to make adjustments. And he's a hard worker."
That work ethic is just one more thing he's got in common with that other Kieschnick. It's also a reason Roger's got a chance to follow Brooks as a big leaguer, though he's got enough talent to surpass Brooks' 305 career at-bats over six major league seasons, the last in 2004.
Not that Roger is concerned with such matters.
"I think I see myself, ever since high school, just kind of getting better every year," he said. "With more at-bats, more games, I just want to continue to get better. That's kind of my goal."