Yarbrough's Swing Works Both Ways
OXFORD, Miss.—On the tennis courts of Allen, Texas, Alex Yarbrough piled up a plethora of routines, from the time he could walk, working on his two-handed backhand.
Yarbrough would often join his father, Bill Yarbrough, on the courts, and the father-son bonding time never produced an elite tennis star. But once the younger Yarbrough moved to the baseball diamond, the hours of work proved vitally important.
"He was going to be a tennis player, and that two-handed backhand equated well to the lefthanded stroke," Bill Yarbrough said.
Indeed, it did.
Now, more than a dozen years later, Yarbrough is a junior second baseman at Mississippi, and he's poised to possibly be the first Rebel to hit .400 in a season since current Athletics outfielder Seth Smith batted .402 in 2002. Yarbrough is hitting .410/.477/.615 with three homers and 25 RBIs through 78 at-bats for No. 17 Ole Miss.
He hit .350/.477/.615 as a sophomore and led Ole Miss in batting, runs (22), doubles (14), triples (3) and total bases (116) while fielding .971 in the middle infield. The stats are impressive, but other than an all-SEC second team nod in 2011, Yarbrough has gone largely unnoticed in the college baseball world.
That's partly due to a lack of a national stage, as Yarbrough's two seasons have ended with a third-place finish in the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional in 2010 and the Rebels missing the postseason completely in 2011.
Yarbrough says he doesn't think about his place in college baseball or the numbers that may put him in the conversation. After two seasons of falling short of the benchmarks set by previous Ole Miss squads under head coach Mike Bianco, he just wants to win.
"It'd be really cool to hit .400 or something, obviously, but I try not to ever look at that," Yarbrough said. "It's not about me. This team has to manufacture a lot of runs to be successful, so if I'm hitting like that, we're scoring runs."
Yarbrough has progressed each season in Oxford, and he credits his most recent jump to new Ole Miss hitting coach Cliff Godwin, who left Central Florida this past summer to replace Matt Mossberg.
Yarbrough had a tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone, especially with two strikes, and Godwin and Yarbrough worked to clean that up.
"He's gotten me to get my foot down earlier, so I can see everything," Yarbrough said. "He's really helped me keep my head back. I'm ready for the pitches when I get them. I'm not missing the drivable ones, and I have a plan."
Yarbrough has been a switch-hitter since he was 9 years old, and there's very little discernible difference between his two swings. His lefthanded swing has a little more lift, but the numbers are virtually equal from each side of the plate. There was only a one-point difference in his left-right splits last season.
After his father gently suggested switch-hitting when Yarbrough was 8 years old, his coach, Gary Bryant, recommended it a year later. It was a process, but Yarbrough became comfortable with it by his freshman year of high school.
"At first it was tough; no one ever picks it up and loves it," Yarbrough said. "As I worked my way up, I hit left and then right, left and then right, no matter who was on the mound. If I finished the game lefthanded, I'd start the next one righthanded. That can shake your confidence a little bit at 11 years old, but it made me commit to it."
Yarbrough spent this past summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League with the Cotuit Kettleers. He hit just .268 but was second on his team in home runs (three) and RBIs (21) behind Georgia Southern standout Victor Roache. His prowess from both sides impressed Cotuit coach Mike Roberts, whose coaching career stretched back to the mid-1970s and whose son Brian reached the majors as a switch-hitter.
"He's the most evenly balanced switch-hitter that I've been around at the amateur level in my coaching career," Roberts said last summer. "He's got some pop in his bat, got some juice that people don't really see in BP. He's a potential 20 home run guy because the ball jumps off his bat."
The experience was a positive one, and Yarbrough said he benefited from the constant top-tier competition.
"Every top team's Friday starter, Saturday starter and closer seem to be in that league, so you've got a wood bat and are dealing with mid-90s every day," Yarbrough said.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder is in his draft year, but as he does with most things tied to his individual success, he's trying to ignore it. Early scuttlebutt has him a possibility to come off the board between rounds five and 10, but good luck getting Yarbrough to elaborate on that process.
"There will be a time for that, but it's not now," Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough is content to live in the present and play the hand dealt. Out of high school, his only offers were Ole Miss and Marshall. Texas Christian and Louisiana State showed interest but never pulled the trigger.
And his first visit to see Ole Miss' campus only came after a poor visit to another SEC program.
"We were here on a field trip to Alabama," Bill Yarbrough said. "We'd gone to a Christmas camp at Alabama during his junior year, and we thought they had interest, but Alabama ignored him. The night leaving Alabama, we grabbed a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and a couple Dr. Peppers and on a sugar high drove to Ole Miss."
A week later, contact picked up with the Rebels, and they offered in the summer of 2008. He quickly committed.
"I wasn't worried about other options because I found the place I was supposed to be," Yarbrough said.
Current Ole Miss recruiting coordinator Carl Lafferty said the Rebels heavily recruited the Dallas area and found Yarbrough thanks to his stellar play while the coaches were watching other prospects.
"Honestly, we went there to see some other kids, but it seemed like Alex had two or three hits in every game we saw," Lafferty said. "He was known as a solid defender, but the offensive upside came through as well."
Several years later, it continues to improve. Hitting in the middle of Ole Miss' order and playing a reliable second base, Yarbrough is a major key in the Rebels' attempt to advance past a regional for the first time since 2009.
And while others will have to say it for him, the rest of the year will also serve as an audition for this June's draft.
"His coordination is incredible, and he can just roll out of bed and hit," Godwin said. "I tell the scouts that if he touches the ball, it's an out, and his intelligence is what puts him in that next level. You can see it every single day."
Chase Parham covers Ole Miss for RebelGrove.com.