Siena Finds Rare Talent In Paolini

The only thing Dan Paolini’s storybook season lacked was a storybook ending.

Siena’s then-sophomore second baseman authored the most productive season in school history in 2010. Paolini set a Siena and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference record with 26 home runs, smashing the program’s old record of 15, in addition to school records for RBIs (64) and runs (62). Those 26 homers were tied for the second-most in the country, and he did all of that while batting .368. The conference named him its player of the year, among other postseason accolades.

“It still kind of blows me away with the 26 home runs and the slugging percentage (.816) and all that that stuff,” Paolini said. “Looking back, becoming player of the year is a high goal to set in the beginning of the year, so you usually don’t set your goals that high, and to achieve them, it makes you feel good about yourself.”

Those personal accomplishments didn’t mean much, though, when Paolini and his teammates walked off the field last May 21. Needing a win against Manhattan in their regular-season finale to qualify for the MAAC tournament, the Saints coughed up a 12-run lead with nine outs to go, losing 19-18 in 10 innings to bring their season to a crushing end.

“If you saw us on that bus ride home,” he said, “it was like the whole world came to an end.”

Some wounds take time to heal. The Manhattan loss has stuck with the Saints—Paolini said it gets brought up almost every day as a motivational spur for the new season. But the passage of time makes it easier for Paolini to look back with pride at his 2010 campaign, when his home run prowess put him on the national radar.

If college baseball fans didn’t know about Paolini before last year, they should now.

Once A Pitcher

Go back to his junior season at Bunnell High in Stratford, Conn., and college recruiters knew full well who Dan Paolini was. The catch was that they didn’t know him as Dan Paolini, the second baseman. They knew him as Dan Paolini, the righthanded pitcher.

Pitching had always been Paolini’s first love, with hitting secondary, and he attracted heavy interest as a pitching recruit, including from major conference schools like Boston College and Connecticut. Paolini had his eyes on joining his home-state Huskies.

“We tried to recruit him as a pitcher,” Siena coach Tony Rossi said. “Everybody in the Northeast was after him as a pitcher.”

But Paolini tried to pitch through a shoulder injury as a junior and wasn’t the same. He had to have labrum surgery after the season, and many of his suitors backed away.

Schools had been pursuing him strictly as a pitcher. Paolini tried to let them know he could swing the bat as well, but to no avail. That is, until Rossi saw him put on an offensive display in a summer high school tournament.

“I saw five games, and I saw him hit six home runs,” Rossi said. “He must have gotten, in those five games, at least 12-15 hits and all of them were hit with authority. So when I saw that, I immediately switched gears and talked to him about hitting.”

In the end, Siena was the only school to offer Paolini a scholarship. Even then, Paolini still wanted to come to Siena as a pitcher, but Rossi was able to persuade him to join the team as a two-way player.

Any plans to use him on the mound were put on the shelf quickly. Outside of throwing some bullpen sessions, something Paolini says he doesn’t do anymore, Paolini has not pitched for the Saints. He was installed as Siena’s starting second baseman and took over the No. 3 spot in the lineup early in his freshman season. He’s been a fixture there ever since.

Wait For The Power

While Paolini got off to a fine start as a freshman in terms of his average—and he would finish the season batting .430—he felt his power numbers were lacking. He hit just two home runs through Siena’s first 27 games.

“I just wanted to get my feet wet a little bit, I wasn’t really trying to do too much, just get hits, help the team here or there,” Paolini said. “As the year went on, my average was good and I was like ‘Man, I gotta start swinging for the fences a little more.’ “

Paolini hit for the cycle on April 5, 2009, against St. Peter’s and went on to add eight more home runs over Siena’s final 22 games, finishing the season with 11 and capturing the MAAC’s rookie of the year award.

Rossi notes that although Paolini likes to tinker with his stance and stride at the plate, he didn’t make any major adjustments leading into his record-setting sophomore season.

“When the pitching gets better, he gets better,” Rossi said. “If somebody at our level has a really good, hard breaking pitch, where other guys might struggle with it, he does not struggle with it. He’s one of those guys that I don’t care what kind of pitch you have, he reacts very well to it.”

Paolini has impressed scouts with his bat speed and physical strength, but he’ll be watched closely as the draft approaches this summer after a tough stint in the Cape Cod League last year. Playing for Chatham, he hit just .200 with one home run in 110 at-bats.

Paolini has worked on strengthening his legs and his ability to drive the ball the other way. But he hasn’t let his experience on the Cape or the upcoming draft take his focus off his goals for Siena: winning a MAAC title. And there’s at least one date he’s got circled on his calendar well before the June draft: March 26, when Siena hosts Manhattan to begin league play.

“I think Danny is, bar none, the best hitter we’ve had come out of the program,” Rossi said. “I think he’s one of those jewels that we’ve got that don’t come along too often at our level, the lower Division I level, and we’re enjoying every minute of that as well as he is. He can hit.”