Springer Dashes Into National Spotlight
George Springer needed just 90 feet to prove he was ready to make an impact.
In a fall 2008 intrasquad scrimmage, Springer took one too many steps away from third base. Connecticut catcher Doug Elliot saw Springer's aggressive lead and called for a pitch-out. Time to teach the freshman a lesson.
But Springer read Elliot's call and countered. When Elliot fired the ball to third, hoping to catch the runner napping, Springer bolted to the plate. By the time the catcher got the ball back, Springer had stolen home.
"That's just one of those situations where you have to let the reigns go and let the mustang run," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "He's such an instinctive player that he does things you've never seen out there."
Penders says that Springer, 20, is the most athletic player he has ever coached, but he hesitates before making that confession. The coach fears outsiders see Springer's vitals—a 6-foot-3, 200-pound power hitter who runs the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds—and assume he only succeeds because of his five-tool talent.
But Springer did not grow up relying on his physical gifts. Not that he had a choice. Before he was a two-time all-Big East outfielder, before he tied the UConn single-season home run record and before he received an invite to the Team USA trials this summer, Springer was a 5-foot, 100-pound high school freshman.
• o Lightweight
When he and his father, George Jr., visited Avon Old Farms School—an all-boys academy 12 miles west of Hartford with a history of producing Division 1 players —coach Rob Dowling wasn't sure where the 14-year-old would fit in.
But despite being about 100 pounds lighter and three years younger than most of his teammates, Springer earned a starting spot on the varsity team as a freshman.
"He was just so fundamentally sound," Dowling said. "He was consistent at the plate. He was fast and knew what to do on the basepaths. He knew how to track fly balls and always took the right path. He knew where to go with the ball and had an accurate arm."
Springer was going to be heavily recruited, Dowling said. He just needed to grow. And to help him, Springer's father created a workout program.
George Jr. had been a late-bloomer in high school, and he was confident his son would follow the same path. But while Springer needed to get bigger, he also wanted to stay a baseball player, not develop into a power-lifter.
There were no heavy weights, there was no working until failure, no maxing out. Instead, Springer focused on repititions and staying flexible, a strength of his since he was 18 months old and practicing gymnastics with his mother, Laura Marie.
"There are a lot of guys who have the tools to get to the next level," George Jr. said. "But the difference is there are some guys who can take those tools and translate them to the field. Those are the guys who reach their maximum potential."
And by the time he was a junior at Avon Old Farms, Springer started to turn a corner. The workouts, coupled with a growth spurt and a diet consisting of six or seven meals a day, helped him grow more than a foot and add 100 pounds in a little more than two years.
His throws seemed to reach their target faster and his swing seemed to generate more power, allowing him to hit 420-foot bombs to the opposite field and put on shows during batting practice.
"I wasn't small anymore," he said. "The guys who I thought were throwing hard became easier to hit. Everything just seemed easier, actually. The game just slowed down for me."
But Springer didn't.
He had an immediate impact with the Huskies, winning the 2009 Big East rookie of the year award after leading the team with a .358 average and tying a UConn record with 16 home runs.
Penders said that, more than anything, the key to Springer's success has been his baseball knowledge.
"People sell him short," he said. "They see him run and they see his 60 time and they assume his athleticism is all he relies on. But he knows the game so well."
Head Over Heels
As a kid, Springer compensated for his small stature by watching games on TV. If he knew exactly how to react on the field, he could maximize his potential.
And, even after growing into one of the most athletic players in the nation, Springer still takes the same approach.
"It doesn't matter who's playing," he said. "If I am at my house or my friend's house and I know a game is on, I'm watching it."
Trusting his outfielder's instincts, Penders granted Springer a permanent green light this season. You like that 3-0 pitch? Swing away, Penders told him. You want to steal third? Take off.
The aggressive approach worked. After breaking the UConn record by scoring 75 runs in 2009, Springer crossed the plate 84 times this season. He also stole 33 bases—21 more than he had the prior year.
"It's all about runs in baseball, not hits," Penders said. "Watching him run is a lot of fun. He puts so much pressure on a defense. He's like a shark out there who smells blood."
This season, on the heels of his breakout freshman campaign, teams tried to pitch around Springer. Seeing fewer good pitches, Springer became impatient. While drawing a team-high 60 walks, he also struck out 70 times—also first on the team.
If he wants to be a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, Springer likely needs to become more consistent at the plate. Through April of this year, he was hitting just .267.
But Springer has good instincts with the bat, he just needs to trust them more, Penders said. The sophomore felt more comfortable with how he was pitched toward the end of the year and developed a "cerebral" approach at the plate, hitting eight home runs with a .476 average in UConn's final 22 games.
Even during those early struggles, Springer still flashed power. Of his first 43 hits, more than half were for extra bases.
And while Penders is afraid people are blinded by Springer's athletic ability, the outfielder is not helping his coach out. Springer does a back flip before every game, paying homage to those early gymnastics days.
Ironically, Penders is fine with the routine. Perhaps that athleticism, the trait Penders is desperate to downplay, can intimidate some opponents.
And he always sticks the landing, a smile on his face.
"He's got such a dynamic personality," Penders said. "He's just so much fun. His last name is perfect for him. He has a real spring in his step."
Cape Cod League
• The Cape League has plenty of quality pitchers, but no team has started as hot as the Brewster Whitecaps. Led by Anthony Ranaudo's 172/3 scoreless innings, the Whitecaps have four starters with ERAs lower than 2.00. Ranaudo, Mike Palazzone, Austin Lubinsky and Andrew Gagnon are a combined 7-2 and have allowed just 10 earned runs in 76 innings so far this summer.
While Ranaudo has garnered the most attention, Gagnon has been just as impressive. After going 5-7, 3.28 this spring, the Long Beach State rising junior was 3-0, 1.66 in four appearances this summer. Gagnon has also been striking out batters at a rate of 11.2 per nine—almost twice as frequent as he did for the 49ers.
• When Florida International's season ended June 5, Garrett Wittels' hit streak was suspended at 56, two shy of the NCAA record held by Robin Ventura. And while the rising junior will have a chance to break that mark next February, Wittels has been reminded of what a hitless game feels like.
Playing this summer for the Peninsula Oilers, Wittels hit safely in his first two Alaska League games before going 0-for-3 against the Anchorage Bucs on June 23. But Wittels followed with a third-inning single in his next game, ending his hitless streak at one.
• Fans playing the Northwoods League fantasy game better acquire Scott Schebler, who is the hottest commodity in a league measured only by home runs. Schebler was leading the Northwoods League with six long balls.
Although this number doesn't help in fantasy, the Green Bay Bullfrogs outfielder had a .530 slugging percentage, particularly impressive considering his .274 batting average. A 26th-round pick of the Dodgers in June, Schebler is transferring from Des Moines Area CC to Wichita State for his 2011 sophomore year.
• Nashville Outlaws catcher Andrew Brouillette broke the Prospect League single-game home run record on July 3 when the rising junior went deep three times in an 11-7 win against the Danville Dans.
Brouillette only managed six homers all season with NAIA Louisiana State-Shreveport, but the rising junior has flashed power in the past, hitting 21 long balls in 2009 for the Aces.