New swing helps Vanderbilt's Harrell avoid old problems

Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 10:09pm

Connor Harrell won’t subscribe to the notion that his hitting droughts are behind him.

“I wish that was the case,” he said on Wednesday. “But hopefully the slumps are a little bit shorter.”

They’re practically non-existent this spring.

The senior center fielder and the dreaded slump have been less familiar in his last go-around with third-ranked Vanderbilt (33-5, 14-1 Southeastern Conference), which travels to Georgia (14-24, 3-12) for a three-game series this weekend.

With a reconstructed swing and increased confidence, Harrell is enjoying his best season of his career. He is batting .319 and leads the team with a slugging percentage of .582, eight home runs and a career-high 52 RBIs – the third-most in the country.

“He’s been able to continually perform for us and that is something we don’t take for granted,” right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “Having a kid come back who could have easily signed and gone and played professional baseball and grown at that level, it is great to have him in the middle of our lineup. He has been the rock of our lineup.”

Both Yastrzemski and Harrell returned to Vanderbilt after getting drafted in the 30th and 31st rounds last June. 

For Harrell, his final season allows him to shake some demons that plagued him the last two years.

After batting .300 as a freshman, the Houston native endured two straight seasons that included lengthy slumps. In 2011, his batting average dipped 100 points after a 0-for-21 skid. He recovered late with two home runs in the College World Series and was named to the CWS All-Tournament team. Last year, an early 10-game hitting streak quickly gave way to an April slump. He never fully recovered and batted .241.

“Maybe a little bit of complacency and probably not knowing,” Harrell explained. “Letting an at-bat get to the next one and all of a sudden you’re 0-for-5, 0-for-10. The more I think you focus on one at-bat and not five at a time, the more success you can have. This year, coming in, it was all about having some fun and making some memories, playing as long as we could. I think that mindset has really paid off.”

Instead of playing summer ball, Harrell worked on rebuilding his swing, which he described as having “too many angles, too many moving parts.” The right-handed hitter went back to Texas and spent July with a hitting coach on crafting one, consistent swing.

“I broke it down and built it back up,” Harrell said. “Just tried to have something if I was struggling I knew what I was going to go back to. I think that is what I’ve built. Despite struggling a little bit at times, I think I have been able to have a foundation to go back to when I struggle. I think that is a really important thing for hitters, especially in this league.”

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound slugger has started all 38 games this year for 203 starts – out of 220 games – in his career. Thus, he believes SEC pitchers understand his tendencies and have a pitch plan when facing him. So he began to think like his opponents in order to stay one pitch ahead.

Yastrzemski also thinks Harrell is more confident and less flustered when down in counts, especially with two strikes and two outs.

“You can tell through his at-bats how he is checking off breaking balls that he may have swung at in years past,” coach Tim Corbin said. “I think that is the difference in 12 months. He is a kid who has seen a lot of pitches, had a lot of at-bats. He is growing. It is great for him to be able to come back another year and experience that type of success he is deserving of.”

As he hoped, Harrell has kept the slumps to a minimum. 

Only twice has he failed to muster a hit in three straight games. In fact, he is currently in the middle of a hot streak. Over his last 11 games, he is batting .417 and has hit safely in 10 of those games.

His power out of the cleanup spot has boosted not only his teammates but his confidence level as well.

“I feel good,” Harrell said. “I think the thing I tried to do coming into this year is stay consistent, feed off my teammates. It is a lot easier to perform when everyone else is performing as well. It is contagious. It has been nice. It has been a lot of fun so far.”